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Paulo Freire's Oppressive Pedagogy

David Corey

Winter 2023

Intellectual influence is difficult to quantify. But by any measure, Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed has exercised enormous influence on the evolution of American education.

In a 2016 study of the most cited texts in the social sciences according to Google Scholar, Pedagogy of the Oppressed was ranked third, behind Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Everett Rogers's Diffusion of Innovations. A 2003 study of elite schools of education in America conducted by David Steiner and Susan Rozen found that Pedagogy of the Oppressed was one of the most frequently assigned texts in courses on the philosophy of education. According to educational theorist Sol Stern, the book has "achieved near-iconic status in America's teacher-training programs." It has exercised a powerful influence not only on higher education, but also on K-12 teaching.

Freire composed the book in the late 1960s while in political exile in Chile. A revolutionary Marxist and native of Brazil, he had successfully taught Brazilian peasants how to read and write, qualifying them to vote and preparing them to mobilize politically. He was forced out of Brazil after the 1964 military coup that led to the ouster of the country's president, João Goulart. His book was first published in Portuguese in 1968, then quickly translated into Spanish and English.

The book's reception in the United States was exceptionally enthusiastic. Freire's work captured the imagination of the American educational elite just as they began to replace the concept of "teacher-directed" education (the "sage on the stage") with "child-centered" education (the "guide on the side"). In 1968, the Harvard Graduate School of Education offered, and Freire accepted, a one-year position as a guest lecturer. Freire subsequently launched a career as an international education advisor.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed applies a Marxist class framework of "oppressors" and "oppressed" to teaching. The book's central question is how to teach oppressed peasants about their oppression without resorting to a paternalistic, top-down approach. Such a method, Freire worried, would recreate the hierarchy of oppressor and oppressed in the relationship between teacher and student. It would thus frustrate the ultimate goal of liberating students as human beings — as people capable of thinking for themselves.

To avoid this, Freire took a page out of Plato: "The correct method lies in dialogue," or what he calls "problem-posing." "The students — no longer docile listeners — are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher." The teacher, meanwhile, is "to create; together with the students, the conditions under which knowledge at the level of the doxa [appearances, unstable opinions] is superseded by true knowledge, at the level of the logos [reason, with overtones of Christian truth]."

Had Freire's book been limited to recovering a more Socratic method of teaching, it would have been welcome but unremarkable. What made the book a sensation was its strident rejection of social hierarchies, along with its defense of the poor, uneducated masses as dignified beings with a unique role to play in history: that of eliminating oppression worldwide. It arrived just as student protestors and anti-war activists were beginning to pursue doctorates, living out the Port Huron Statement's charge to infiltrate the universities and use them "as a base for their assault upon the loci of power." Freire seemed just the right source to vindicate the young radicals' view that education could and should be a stage for activism.

And it is just for this reason that the book's influence in America is deeply troubling. Whatever else Pedagogy of the Oppressed may be, it is an unremittingly revolutionary text. This is the case not only in a political sense, but an ontological one as well. It instructs readers to "denounce" the world as it is — to strive ceaselessly, and even violently, for "transformation." It teaches that there is nothing more real than the struggle itself, which will never end. If the book's advice for students were boiled down to a single phrase, it would be "transgress all limits" — or, in Freire's own language, "transcend [all] limit-situations."

Pedagogy of the Oppressed promises to liberate students from their oppressors. Fifty years on, it's worth asking whether the book makes good on that promise.


Dissatisfaction and profound yearning are the beginnings of liberation education, though yearning is not always felt without prompting. According to Freire, pupils may suffer oppression without knowing it. Thus a process of conscientização must be initiated, encouraging pupils to acquire a "critical consciousness." Until they "concretely 'discover' their oppressor and in turn their own consciousness," Freire writes, pupils will "nearly always express fatalistic attitudes toward their situation," attributing their oppression to "the power of destiny or fate or fortune," or even to God. They will not perceive their oppression as caused and unjust.

Freire devotes an entire chapter of Pedagogy to explaining how to awaken pupils' critical consciousness through carefully designed workshops where "revolutionary leaders" act as "co-investigators" with pupils in order to detect what they regard as "given," or unchangeable. The goal is to help pupils see that in reality, nothing is given: "[T]hey must perceive their state not as fated and unalterable, but merely as limiting — and therefore challenging." They must "apprehend" that reality is "susceptible of transformation," and that they are "in control."

Freire refers to this process of awakening consciousness as one of "emergence," sometimes as "childbirth." But a major obstacle stands in the way. While oppression is external to the pupil, it can also be internalized as a state of "false consciousness," which is hard to eliminate. The oppressed, he argues, tend to "house" the oppressors in themselves, creating a dual consciousness of "authentic" and "unauthentic" selves. The unauthentic self is everything the oppressor wants the oppressed to be: docile, passive, self-deprecating, afraid of freedom. For Freire, these qualities derive from the "internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them." "So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing and are incapable of learning anything — that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive — that in the end [the oppressed] become convinced of their own unfitness."

The authentic self, by contrast, understands his true purpose in life: the "ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human." This endeavor involves both thinking and acting. Thinking must happen in order to see reality "critically," to see that "limit-situations imply the existence of persons who are directly or indirectly served by the situations, and of those who are negated and curbed by them." Action must happen both to transform reality and, simultaneously, to school the self in what is possible: "Once the [oppressed] come to perceive these [limit-]situations as the frontier," he contends, "they begin to direct their increasingly critical actions towards achieving the untested feasibility implicit in that perception." For Freire, critical thinking and acting combine to form what he calls the "praxis" — the one true mark of human beings: "Only men are praxis," he writes, "the praxis which, as the reflection and action which truly transform reality, is the source of knowledge and creation."

On the surface, Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed is about teaching and learning, which partially explains its venerable status within schools of education. But in truth, it is about much more. Freire's insights into education depend on a controversial philosophical anthropology (an account of what human beings fundamentally are), as well as a philosophy of history and a Marxian ontology. He does not set forward these aspects of his thought as objects of inquiry to be examined dialectically; rather, he asserts them dogmatically as truths.


"Only human beings are praxis" stands as the hallmark of Freire's anthropology. What does this mean? According to Freire, animals lack a critical consciousness — they do not perceive limits as frustrating, nor do they exercise "limit-acts," i.e., transcend limits. But human beings are different: "[B]ecause they are aware of themselves and thus of the world — because they are conscious beings — [humans] exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom." Freire continues:

As they separate themselves from the world, which they objectify, as they separate themselves from their own activity, as they locate the seat of their decision in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, men overcome the situations that limit them.

To say that "only men are praxis" is to assert that only human beings are capable of critical consciousness and overcoming. For Freire, this just is what humans are. "[T]ransforming action by men," he writes, "results in their humanization." This means that human beings are not really "beings" at all in any static sense, but processes, for as beings, we "could no longer be if [we] were not in the process of being in the world." Again, "[m]en are because they are in a situation. And they will be more the more they not only critically reflect upon their existence but critically act upon it."

If man is fundamentally a process, the engine driving that process is his attitude toward the world, which is one of critical "denunciation." The world must be "objectifie[d]" and "denounced" before real transformation can occur. For Freire, this denunciation is perfectly compatible with what he calls a "profound love for the world and for people." But this love is not of the world as it is, but as it might be after it has been transformed by men — after the "conquest of the world for the liberation of men." Freire writes repeatedly that to "accommoda[te]" oneself to the world or in any way "adjust" to its limits is the height of inauthenticity. To do so signals obedience to the oppressor internalized in one's divided consciousness.

Given Freire's emphasis on oppression, one might imagine that oppression would be fundamental to his philosophical anthropology. But this is not the case. Rather, Freire sees oppression as a historical contingency — a characteristic of our present epoch, not a permanent feature of the human condition. Liberation from limits in general, on the other hand, is fundamental to Freire's philosophical anthropology. All men at all times have a "vocation" of becoming more fully human, which means transcending limits. Freeing oneself from things that appear as "given" is who we are. The "givens" will look different in different epochs, but there always will be limits, and we will always find a revolutionary vocation in the attempt to overcome them.


Freire's philosophy of history is a philosophy of flux. There is no necessary telos of history, no final goal or transcendent purpose; nor is there any assurance of progress. "Within history," he writes, "both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities." Man can either advance in his vocation of overcoming limits, or he can be arrested in doing so by the "dehumanizing" obstacle of oppression.

In one sense, Freire's philosophy of history supplies grounds for hope, especially for oppressed peoples. "[D]ehumanization," he counsels, "although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order." On the other hand, this perspective may lead to despondency and anguish when oppression seems to have the upper hand. What if man's historical vocation were not liberation, but enslavement? A terrible thought. "[T]o admit of dehumanization as an historical vocation," writes Freire, "would lead either to cynicism or total despair." In that case, "the struggle for humanization...would be meaningless." Freire thus places a great burden on his readers as agents of history. The task is one of painful struggle. The results are uncertain.

Here Freire issues a stern warning that, unfortunately, many of his readers have ignored. "In order for this struggle to have meaning," he writes, "the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity...become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both." The warning is essential. Were the oppressed, in combating oppression, to become oppressors themselves, it might appear that the meaning of history is oppression all the way down. Instead, the oppressed must strive to overcome the oppressor-oppressed duality in order to demonstrate to themselves and to others that oppression is but a distortion of man's fundamental nature of becoming more fully human — that it is a historical contingency, not a historical given.

Strictly speaking, only humans have a history, according to Freire. That is because we alone among living beings are able to "tri-dimensionalize time into the past, the present, and the future." Animals, says Freire, cannot do this. Thus, they cannot perceive "the world" dynamically as changeable — they have no sense of history; they simply are.

Humans, by contrast, not only perceive history, they make it: "Through their continuing praxis, men simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings." Freire describes history as unfolding in "epochs" (a term he likely borrows from Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Different epochs have different themes and different preoccupations, but again, all of this is determined by man. Freire's most obvious influence here is Karl Marx, whom he mentions by name: "There is no historical reality which is not human. There is no history without men, and no history for men; there is only history of men, made by men and (as Marx pointed out) in turn making them."

There can be no doubt that for Freire, authentic education rests on a philosophy of history as flux. "Education is thus constantly remade in the praxis," he writes. "In order to be, it must become." Again, "problem-posing education affirms men as beings in the process of becoming — as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality....The unfinished character of men and the transformational character of reality necessitate that education be an ongoing activity." History, then, is permanent "continuity" — it never rests.

Sometimes Freire writes as if history will have an end, a final victory in which human beings triumph over all limits, as when he speaks of education as a "process of permanent liberation" (emphasis added). But the key word in such passages is never "permanent," but "process." Even if a time could come when oppression were finally eliminated from the world, the process of encountering and overcoming limits would remain. The only imaginable end to such a process would be if human beings could at last transcend all limits — that is, if we could become infinite, like God. But if that were the case, we would no longer be human beings, creatures whose very essence is change. For Freire, history is man's ongoing, never-ending process of struggling to overcome limits.


The philosophy of being that undergirds Freire's Pedagogy is "humanist" in the sense of being anthropocentric. It is also a philosophy of flux, due to humans' power to name and rename — to make and remake — being itself. Freire speaks of the "world" or "reality" not as a static thing, but as something "in process, in transformation." And human beings are the transformers. This is why Freire repeatedly says that man's "vocation" is "ontological." In attempting to transform himself, to liberate himself, man must transform being as well, because being is hostile to his goals. Again, the goal of human praxis is the "conquest of the world for the liberation of mankind."

Freire describes a "naïve" way of thinking according to which reality is perceived as "dense, impenetrable, and enveloping." On this view, human beings are supposed to be "well-behaved" in relation to reality, or to "adjust to it." This perspective, in Freire's telling, fails to see the extent to which being is changeable. It denies ontological temporality and the "transformational character of reality." The non-naïve or "critical" view of reality, by contrast, recognizes that being is not impenetrable, but rather an unfinished project of man. Freire describes reality — man's reality, which is all reality — as a "situation" in which man finds himself and that is "susceptible of transformation."

Freire's ontological outlook is not original. In antiquity, the sophist Protagoras similarly argued that "man is the measure of all things — of things that are, that they are; and of things that are not, that they are not." There exists no perspective on being besides man's perspective, no realm of being besides what we see and think and make. In modernity, the most prominent champion of this view was the young Karl Marx — the Marx of the "Paris Manuscripts" and the "Theses on Feuerbach." According to commentator Leszek Kołakowski, the essence of Marx's view is that "perception is itself a component of man's practical relationship to the world, so that its object [being] is not simply a 'given' by indifferent nature but is a humanized object conditioned by human needs and efforts."

Freire's pedagogy is thus much more than a method of teaching. It is, at its root, a philosophical system — largely, if not entirely derivative — in which man is understood as the center of the universe, a being in the making who will never truly be, because he is always becoming, the protagonist in a grand historical narrative that he himself composes but that he can never bring to a close.

What will become of this protagonist as he ventures forth toward liberation? Let us now turn back to an expository mode to see how Freire expects the rest of the story to go.


Freire's liberation education aims at a goal: the deliverance of all human beings from "situations" perceived as limiting. Yet in the present epoch, which Freire describes as uniquely characterized by domination and oppression, it makes more sense to think of the goals of education in two stages:

In the first [stage], the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation. In the second stage, in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all men in the process of permanent liberation....In the first stage this confrontation occurs through the change in the way the oppressed perceive the world of oppression; in the second stage, through the expulsion of the myths created and developed in the old order, which like specters haunt the new structure emerging from the revolutionary transformation.

The first stage of education thus begins with an awakening awareness that oppression is in fact man-made, unjust, and transformable. It ends with the success of the revolution. The second stage might be described as the "post-revolution," except that Freire takes a rather dynamic view of revolution according to which "there is no absolute 'before' or 'after,' with the taking of power as the dividing line." However that may be, once power has been taken, the goal of education ceases to be liberation from oppression, since the oppressor-oppressed contradiction will have then been transcended. The goal, rather, is communal struggle against persistent ideas that limit human freedom.

Freire does not say much about "the revolution," but he says enough to suggest that it will not be pretty. For one thing, the oppressors will not simply give up; they will violently resist, and will deploy all available means to crush their opponents. "The oppressor knows full well that this intervention would not be to his interest. What is to his interest is for the people to continue in a state of submersion [another term for oppression], impotent in the face of oppressive reality." Freire goes so far as to call the oppressors "sadistic," and says that they will use "science and technology as unquestionably powerful instruments for their purpose: the maintenance of the oppressive order through manipulation and repression."

Because the oppressors will be bent on maintaining their status, they can never take part in the changes that must occur; only the oppressed can bring about change. The situation of oppression is "a dehumanized and dehumanizing totality affecting both the oppressors and those whom they oppress," but it is only "the latter who must, from their stifled humanity, wage for both the struggle for a fuller humanity." "Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed," he adds, "will be sufficiently strong to free both" the oppressed and their oppressors.

The revolution, says Freire, will be brutally violent, "as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors." But Freire emphatically asserts that this violence cannot be compared, morally speaking, to the violence of the oppressors: "An act is oppressive," he asserts, "only when it prevents men from being more fully human." But the revolution seeks to liberate everyone — the oppressors as well as the oppressed — from the entire framework of oppression. Yes, it will require force against the oppressors. But such force "cannot be compared with [that] by which a few men deny the majority their right to be human." Freire thus establishes a moral asymmetry regarding violence. The oppressed can be as violent as necessary, and their violence is always morally justifiable. The oppressors, on the other hand, can never employ force without incurring moral guilt.

This moral asymmetry proves essential in evaluating the likely consequences of Freire's pedagogy. He continues:

Violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as persons — not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized....It is not the helpless, subject to terror, who initiate terror, but the violent, who with their power create the concrete situation which begets the "rejects of life." It is not the tyrannized who initiate despotism, but the tyrants....Force is used not by those who have become weak under the preponderance of the strong, but by the strong who have emasculated them.

Freire thus hesitates even to use the words "force" and "violence" to describe the revolution. Instead, he describes it as an "act of love" that opposes the "lovelessness" of the oppressors.

Freire never says anything about how to deal with oppressors who refuse the benevolent gift of freedom offered by the formerly oppressed — one assumes they will be liquidated. But he does offer suggestions about when the revolution will end. He warns readers that this matter cannot be determined by consulting the former oppressors: "[E]ven when the contradiction is resolved authentically by a new situation established by the liberated laborers, the former oppressors do not feel liberated. On the contrary, they genuinely consider themselves to be oppressed." The revolution will always feel to them like "a profound violation of their individual rights." Thus, the revolution will only end when the formerly oppressed feel liberated. It will end with "the appearance of the new man: neither oppressor nor oppressed, but man in the process of liberation." The participants will know when that time comes, Freire says, because the "concrete situation which begets oppression" will have been transformed, and this will be "objectively verifiable."

In more substantive terms, the revolution will be over when the central life-activity of the oppressors — their obsession with "having" — is annihilated. For the oppressors, "what is worthwhile is to have more — always more — even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing." For them, "to be is to have and to be the class of the 'haves.'" But the oppressors do not see that they actually "suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have." The problem, for Freire, is not having per se; it is inordinate having, or what the Greeks called pleonexia — striving to have more than others. In fact, Freire acknowledges that having is "a condition of being" and "a necessary condition for all men." The revolution, therefore, will be over when all men have enough, and when the pathology of pleonexia is cured.

After the revolution, the second stage of education commences. Freire says virtually nothing about this stage, except that old myths will need to be exorcised. To be sure, there will continue to be struggle; new limit-situations will appear that will have to be overcome. But these future struggles will not be struggles between classes; they will be taken up collectively by all men in solidarity. The future society will be classless and egalitarian, even if ghosts from its past continue to haunt it.


Freire wrote his book at a particular time with a particular set of oppressed people in mind. He knew what oppression was because he witnessed it firsthand. Freire himself suffered from poverty and hunger during the Great Depression and was imprisoned for 70 days in Brazil after the 1964 coup. But Freire's book is not read today by people who suffer from the same kinds of oppression that Brazilian agricultural laborers suffered during the mid-20th century. Rather, it is read by American college students and their teachers who, if they suffer from oppression at all, suffer from something less physical and more subtle than what Freire had in mind.

Still, the book seems to speak to its contemporary readers directly, as if it were written especially for them. How can this be?

The answer lies in the deliberate under-specification of key terms, including "oppression," "domination," and "liberation." Freire defines the terms in such a way as to allow for new forms of oppression and new demands for liberation. Consider the way he defines the concept of oppression itself:

Any situation in which "A" objectively exploits "B" or hinders his pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence...because it interferes with man's ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.

What kinds of things might Freire have in mind with the phrase "hinders his pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person"? Given his work with Brazilian peasants, he likely has in mind something quite specific: efforts to prevent peasants from learning how to read and write, for instance. But the elasticity of the phrase is such that virtually anything could count as oppression. Perhaps when a teacher criticizes a student for poor writing or for holding indefensible beliefs, he hinders the student's pursuit of self-affirmation. Perhaps the pronouns we use for people will hinder this pursuit, or the outline of male or female figures on a bathroom door. These are not made-up examples, of course — they are drawn from contemporary instances of alleged oppression.

Freire's book remains relevant precisely because he refuses to set definitions down in stone. Instead, he deliberately leaves key terms under-specified because he is aware — given his philosophy of history — that the victory over oppression is never final; oppression can appear and reappear in history, and it can always take new forms.

But there is a problem with allowing "oppression" to mean virtually anything at all. Freire is emphatic that all oppression "constitutes violence," and that it justifies violence in return. This means that if using an undesirable pronoun is oppressive, then it is also violent, and that to respond with force or coercion is perfectly appropriate. Perhaps this has informed the thinking that has led to so much mob violence on college campuses when controversial figures come to speak: "Ideas that I do not like are oppressive," the thinking goes; oppression is violence and warrants violence in return.

Moreover, the violence one employs in order to stop an oppressive act, according to Freire, is not morally equivalent to the violence of the oppressor. The latter is always unjust; the former is an "act of love." The road is short indeed from Freire's definition of oppression to the incessant demands for "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" that one encounters so often today. When words themselves are understood to be violence, every encounter becomes potentially harmful. Where college campuses were once oases of free speech, they are now hotbeds of intolerance.

A similar problem arises from Freire's philosophy of being. The "world," on Freire's view, admits of transformation in the interest of human liberation. What does this mean? Again, familiarity with his work suggests that by "world," Freire largely means the class dynamics of man's social world. But he never actually limits his meaning in this way. Sometimes he refers to the world as "reality" in general, which suggests a much broader range of meaning. Freire's basic teaching on this point is that, through dialogue between the people and their revolutionary leaders, the "causes of reality" can be discovered and reality can be transformed.

But a moment's reflection will show that this is not true. Not all of reality is socially constructed, and not all of it is "susceptible of transformation."

Here, then, is a question: What is likely to happen to students who are taught that all of reality lies within their control, and that their ontological and historical vocation is to transform it — to rid the world of injustice? One likely outcome will be, again, a growing impatience with diversity of viewpoints and an increased propensity toward intolerance. But there is more: It would not be surprising to see students increasingly attempting to alter aspects of reality previously thought fixed or sacred — toppling markers of an oppressive past, such as statues; removing books and people who are on the "wrong side of history"; even denying aspects of our biological makeup like sex and gender which, as "givens," are part of the old false consciousness that now must be overcome.

And what of the stubborn realities that cannot be transformed? What happens to the psyche of a student who believes everything can be transformed when in fact some realities are likely never to change?

Freire writes that when limit-situations are perceived as "insurmountable barriers," the result will be despair. He advises us, therefore, to adjust our consciousness so that we see all limit-situations as "challenges," but not insurmountable ones. This makes sense for the kinds of limit-situations he has in mind: Class oppression may be stubborn and take time to overcome, but it is, in the end, a human practice that admits of change. Yet the same is not true of all the various limits that humans must endure. Indeed, any sober account of human nature will recognize that we are limited by all kinds of constraints: time, health, vigor, the persistence of vices, the shadow of death, dependence on others, ignorance, and sin, among others.

In light of this fact, Freire's own analysis damns itself. Students who are taught never to accommodate themselves to reality, but to force reality to accommodate them; who are taught that all barriers are surmountable, and that all limits have their "causes" in other people's selfish "interests" — when such students encounter realities that cannot be changed, they will indeed experience feelings of despair. And why wouldn't they?

Liberation education is rapidly replacing the older educational tradition known as liberal education. This is not accidental; it is a logical necessity. Liberal education encourages students to admit their own ignorance, to view themselves as morally and intellectually incomplete, and to appreciate (even to love) aspects of reality that are, as Aristotle says of the divine, unchangeable. One might say liberal education "hinders," in some respects, our "pursuit of self-affirmation" by insisting on standards we do not create. Liberal education thus seems "oppressive" to students schooled in the ways of liberation.

But as the educational revolution continues apace, an obvious problem emerges. Liberation education offers virtually nothing by way of cultivating virtues or developing students morally and intellectually. This is because even though liberation education begins from a sense of dissatisfaction, the source of dissatisfaction resides not in the self, but outside of it. It is located in the fact of oppression, even if that oppression can creep into the innermost recesses of our consciousness. When the oppressor is "housed" inside the consciousness of the oppressed, what is housed there is not the true self, the authentic self; it is an interloper, and the goal of education is to exorcise it. This means that Freire's philosophical anthropology is remarkably similar to Rousseau's in the Second Discourse: Man is by nature pure, but culture corrupts him — "there is nothing wrong with me! What's wrong is you."

Believing that the principal causes of human dissatisfaction originate outside the human self, liberation education neglects to warn of defects that are personal: moral vices such as cowardice, ingratitude, rashness, vulgarity, impatience, and pusillanimity; as well as intellectual vices like imprudence, dogmatism, intellectual arrogance, and pride. Nor does it school students in essential virtues like moderation, fortitude, friendliness, and modesty.

Perhaps sensing this weakness, Freire bends over backward to mention several virtues — including faith, hope, charity, and humility — all of them Christian in nature. But upon close inspection, these turn out to be counterfeit. "Faith" for Freire is "faith in man, faith in his power to make and remake, to create and re-create." There is no faith in anything higher than man or beyond him. "Hope" for Freire is fighting: "As long as I fight, I am moved by hope." Not hope in the yet unseen promises of God, but in the fruits of our own labors. "Love" is, as previously mentioned, love of the world as it could be, not as it is. And "humility" is that of the instructor, not of the student: "Dialogue," says Freire, "is broken if the parties (or one of them) lack humility. How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own?" Again, there is no need for students to have humility, as they are naturally pure; all contamination comes from without.

Another problem with Freire's teaching is that, while it aims at eliminating alienation, it can only increase it. Indeed, an explicit goal of Freire's pedagogy is "the overcoming of alienation" by making the world fit for liberated human beings. But Freire's method of combating alienation is to "confront reality critically, simultaneously objectifying and acting upon that reality." To "objectify" means to distance oneself from, to take a critical attitude toward, to see the world as an object different from, or alien to, the subject that is "I." In other words, "to objectify" means "to alienate."

Freire teaches students to take this critical attitude not only toward the world, which they must "denounce," but also toward many of the people in the world, especially the oppressors. In order to combat oppression, the oppressed must regard their oppressors — indeed, the entire oppressor-oppressed relationship — as something to be transformed, as a "thing" that is inauthentic and subject to manipulation. This means that as long as the revolution remains incomplete, the oppressed are alienated not only from themselves, but from others as well.

What about their comrades, though? Don't the oppressed enjoy genuine relationships with those who stand by their side and assist them in the fight against oppression? Not really. While Freire does insist on the importance of community, he simultaneously isolates the individual in his vocational labors. On the one hand, the "pursuit of full humanity...cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity." Yet on the other hand, no one can be liberated by another, no one can receive independence "as a gift"; one must earn it for oneself. This leads Freire to his paradoxical position that "I cannot think for others or without others, nor can others think for me." This is a strangely isolating and impossible teaching. Each of us has a vocation that only we can achieve for ourselves. It cannot be accomplished by others, nor yet without others. Freire may recognize the need for solidarity and comradeship, but he describes us as fundamentally alone.

Quite different from comradeship is the relationship of friendship. The word "friendship" never appears in Pedagogy of the Oppressed — and there is a reason for that. The good of friendship is an intrinsic one — something that is not for something else (such as liberation or revolution), but valuable in itself. It is valuable because it involves genuine love — admiring people for what they are, not what they could be — and endeavoring to enter into the life of another as a second self, another "you" who is not you. There are other intrinsic goods besides friendship that Freire likewise never mentions: disinterested philosophy (the study of being in order to understand), contemplative worship, play, aesthetic delight, and love in all its forms. Freire cannot mention these intrinsic goods because they would fatally distract from the one thing needful: the struggle for liberation. That project must be all-encompassing because it is, in Freire's view, man's one and only vocation.

There exists a crucial difference between the experience of intrinsic goods like friendship and the experience of instrumental goods like comradeship. Intrinsic goods bring meaning to life — this is just what they are, intrinsically meaningful. Instrumental goods, by contrast, cannot bring meaning to life, because their goodness is not in themselves, but rather in the ends to which they contribute. Instrumental goods are just that: "instrumental" — they are good only as instruments for achieving something else. And herein lies the problem: Insofar as the "something else" of instrumental goods is a "not yet," an unrealized future, the instrumental goods themselves lack their final meaning. Their meaning, one might say, is on hold.

Unfortunately, Freire's philosophy of history ensures that the ultimate meaning of the goods he recognizes (all of which are instrumental) will never come to be. That is because history, for Freire, has no telos, no final end. It is possible, Freire tries to reassure readers, that oppression will be finally overcome and humans will enjoy liberation from that particular limit-situation. But it is also possible, he admits, that oppression will not be overcome: "Within history," he writes, "in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for man as an uncompleted being conscious of his incompletion."

This means that while human beings can make and remake history through their creative powers of transformation, history can never have a meaning; history is always an incomplete process, never finished and therefore never resolved into one meaning or another. And because history-making is man's essential praxis, human life itself becomes meaningless. We are a process without an end, a struggle without an ultimate victory or defeat. It is not without reason that Freire worries about his readers falling into hopelessness. His ultimate message, upon close examination, is nihilistic; man's vocation, Sisyphean.


Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not a book I would assign to friends. It is not even a book I would assign to enemies, as it would almost certainly make them worse. It is a book that has every likelihood of profiting the pharmaceutical industry, but not the students who will be needing its products.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed promises to liberate students from oppression, both physical and psychological. But in focusing on oppression, it fails to teach them anything constructive about themselves. Worse still, it teaches them that they are an unsolvable problem — beings tormented by limits they can never fully escape and saddled with a vocation they can never ultimately fulfill; lonely beings, friendless and alienated from the world around them, without genuine hope or love or faith, save for the vague and fragile faith they place in man himself. Given this message, students might be forgiven some of their anxieties and pharmaceutical needs, as well as their struggles with meaninglessness and thoughts of suicide.

Despite its noble intentions, Freire's is a book that would reasonably lead even the stoutest souls to despair. But there are not likely to be stout souls insofar as Pedagogy of the Oppressed is our guide, because the book's author refuses to teach virtue. Indeed, Freire cannot teach virtue, because that would imply that there are appropriate limits and standards that students themselves do not make. To teach virtue would imply that man is not the measure of all things, and in so doing, would expose the underlying philosophy of Freire's spectacularly influential book as a lie.

David Corey is a professor of political science at Baylor University.


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