Reflections on reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

There’s nothing better than picking up a book and feeling an instant connection to its contents, like it was just waiting for you to read it. The ideas from Paulo Freire are ones that were integrated into my education, both formally – through a liberation theology inspired professor and mentor – as well as informally, in my community, coming along side organizers that lived the pedagogy Freire promoted. Feeling familiar with his ideas, it is a gift to receive his beautiful language and thoughtful strategy. There are three shifts in thinking in particular that sparked questions in me as I seek to fulfill the vocation that Freire suggests, to humanize our world and make it easier to love.


From isolation to communion. According to Freire, communion with one another is the core of our work. As Che Guevara has said of his own work, “’communion with the people ceased to be a mere theory, to become an integral part of ourselves’” (170). Freire builds upon this that in dialogical theory, “at no stage can revolutionary action forgo communion with the people” (171). This turns into cooperation, and a fusion between leaders and people. True revolution is built upon communion. This links to Freire’s claim that the pursuit of full humanity “cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity; therefore it cannot unfold in the antagonistic relations between oppressors and oppressed. No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so” (85). Communion is the process and the goal. With this in mind, I’m left asking: What is my theology of communion? As a cradle Catholic who views communion more as a weekly sacrament and less as relational presence with one another, how can I ground this personally, and spiritually?

From banking to becoming. Freire suggests that our dominant educational system is like a banking system: knowledge is treated as a deposit that is hierarchically delivered from teacher (subject) to student (object). It is treated as rote memorization rather than true transformation. Shifting to a dialogical model of knowledge and transformation, where student and teacher join together in dialogue to uncover the truth of topics, rather than the facts, allows a horizontal structure for learning alongside one another as co-creators. This treats the individual – both teacher and student – as well as the world as constantly becoming. In his words, “Problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming–as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality” (84). This is “revolutionary futurity,” “prophetic,” and “hopeful,” according to Freire. While this view of educational projects as constantly evolving with the people, with the content, is inspiring, and I have created and sustained groups that lived this value out, but I wonder how to live into this constant change while also providing stability and certainty for people. How can we be comfortable with change while also being something consistent for people to rely on? And what does it mean to provide transformational models while living in a transactional market system?

From political to cultural change. How do we make the change we seek happen? My answer to this question has become more about cultural, changing people’s attitudes and perspectives, rather than political, changing the policy that dictates our lives. As I heard once, while Jim Crow laws no longer exist, Jim Crow hate still does. While approaching change as an either/or decision between political and cultural is not the answer, I do think that some people’s energy is better spent on the long, hard cultural shift work, whereas others can deal with harsh political realities. Freire highlights this through the difference between systematic education, which is changed by political power, and educational projects, “which should be carried out with the oppressed in the process of organizing them” (54). As he claims, in these educational projects, “it is always through action in depth that the culture of domination is culturally confronted.” This leaves me wondering where the coalition between those working for political and cultural change is possible: How can those working with political power, the reality of our systems, as well as cultural power, the hope of our societies, come together to imagine new realities together?

Freire wrote that “to speak a true word is to transform the world” (87). What power we yield as students, writers, speakers, and educators! I leave Pedagogy of the Oppressed with more words than before, with words that can promote dialogue and thus create communion. With words that continue the cycle of reflection and action in a way to deepen our vocations, individually and collectively. With words that can work toward a world “in which it will be easier to love.” It is through this love of the word, and love of the world, that I hope to keep asking these questions, and living into the answers.


Additional quotes from Pedagogy of the Oppressed

On the Word, Reflection and Action.

The essence of dialogue is the word. He goes on, “Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed­–even in part–the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world” (87).

On love.

From his preface, Freire sets the intention for the book to help “in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love.” In a footnote, he adds:

“I am more and more convinced that true revolutionaries must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love. … The distortion imposed on the word “love” by the capitalist world cannot prevent the revolution from being essentially loving in character, nor can it prevent the revolutionaries from affirming their love of life. [Che] Guevara was not afraid to affirm it: ‘Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.’” (89)

On Culturally Confronting Domination.

“The pedagogy of the oppressed, as a humanist and libertarian pedagogy, has two distinct stages. In the first, 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 people in the process of permanent liberation. In both states, it is always through action in depth that the culture of domination is culturally confronted. In the first stage this confrontation occurs through the change in the way the oppressed perceive the world of oppression; in the second state, 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.”


Spiritual Friendship of Women

Lately I’ve been sorting through some thoughts about the transformative power of friendship between women. I’m so lucky to have had empowering, grounding women at my side in all parts of my life – growing up, in college, in my community, professionally, and now in divinity school, as well as women – friends and mentors alike – encouraging, supporting, inspiring me. I can honestly say that the biggest decisions, the most important moments of my life, all have a brigade of women behind them. There’s something particularly vulnerable, transformational, and revolutionary about these friendships and mentorships, that even as a part of patriarchal societies and institutions we are able to help one another survive and thrive.
I’m still figuring out how all these ideas coalesce into my life, into a theory or praxis, but in the mean time I wanted to offer some readings, some food for thought, if you too are interested in thinking about the transformative power of friendship among women. I would love to know what you’re reading or considering as well, in hopes of a larger… theology of friendship, perhaps. None of this is all-encompassing, it’s not the only narrative, but it is – for me at least – a liberating narrative to consider myself a part of living and growing into.
A book I picked up at the beloved Dominican Center at Marywood, the home of my fellow Sisters & Seekers, that provided short meditations from a very cool feminist Nun on the narratives of women friendship in the Bible, reclaiming a history that’s been lost to patriarchal storytellers, affirming the power we have for one another in faith communities today.
How relational interdependency is a revolutionary method of freedom, freedom from capitalistic profit-driven world that re-centers us on one another and mutual support. The piece reminds us that “‘Friend’ and ‘free’ in English…come from the same Indo-European root, which conveys the idea of a shared power that grows. Being free and having ties was one and the same thing. I am free because I have ties, because I am linked to a reality greater than me.”
Big Little Lies
I’ve been rewatching this HBO series and am just really struck by how fiercely these women support and advocate for one another, even amidst a larger narrative that is trying to pit them against one another for sake of drama and entertainment. The way women communicate with each other – confide in each other – seems to show how we’ve been saving one another all along, from assault, trauma,
Finally, coincidentally, an article that I posted on Facebook six years ago today, that reading again resonates just as much if not more, ends with a beautiful line:
“Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul friends, what the Irish call anam cara… We help one another other live and sometimes, we watch—and help—one another die. It happens in movies, sure, but it also happens every day, in real life—now, tomorrow, yesterday. It is transformative and transcendent. It is real. It is love.”