Contextualizing the Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The generation of wealth based on exploitation and oppression by one class over another class (i.e. the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat) breeds resistance of the latter to overthrow the former. As destructive and as violent as it may seem, this very process is the ultimate catalyst of historical development. This was the intrinsic law of transformation that pushed primitive communal societies to develop into slave societies, further on into feudal societies, and eventually into capitalist societies.

But as Mao Zedong said, revolution or the act of fundamentally changing a social system is not a dinner party. It is a violent and rigorous process. It is violent because it entails bloodshed and sacrifice of life is inevitable. It is essentially a war waged against a minority yet oppressive classes by the oppressed majority. It is rigorous because it entails in-depth social investigation and class analysis in order to come up with an appropriate strategy and tactics. It entails correct methods of work and leadership and continuous assessment. It demands the continuous remoulding process of its members.

More importantly, this saying implies that revolution requires a theory that will serve as guide to all processes undertaken and contradictions and problems encountered. Genuine revolutionaries understand that this theory is never a dogma. It is a living guide to action enriched by daily experienced and interaction with the people.

This understanding leads to the realization that revolution is not waged overnight. It is a protracted people’s struggle. It took decades for the Bolsheviks to topple down Russia’s Czar and establish a socialist regime. It also took decades for the Chinese people to stand on their feet against the neo-colonial and feudal social order.

More than these, many struggles are continuously waged up to the present. In the Philippines, for example, there is a dominant discourse saying that the 1896 Revolution of the Katipunan is not yet finished and the present generation must continue Andres Bonifacio’s legacy. World-wide, popular uprisings and mass movements are organized to rally workers and the rest of the marginalized sectors against market failures and imperialism.

With all those things considered, how would a revolutionary organization enable the masses (peasants for example) to realize their oppressed conditions and embrace the necessity to wage a revolutionary struggle? How will such an organization maintain the people’s desire for change and commitment to be involved amidst set-backs, tactical errors and duration of the struggle? How will you make the masses realize that reforms and charity coming from the oppressors and its cohorts are not enough to end their inhumane condition? How can they awakened to an understanding that genuine freedom can only be achieved by overthrowing the existing political and economic order and establishing a new one that is not based on exploitation and oppression of one class over another?

It is in this context that Paulo Freire wrote his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. During Freire’s time, Latin America was in ferment. The extreme poverty of the feudal latifundia system and neo-colonization by the U.S., coupled by the rise of military dictatorships, pushed many to armed struggle. A military junta was in power in Freire’s Brazil in the same way that Cuba was lorded over by the dictator Batista, or Nicaragua by Somoza, and Chile by Pinochet. This was when the term desaparecido was invented to describe the people abducted, tortured, and killed by military forces.

Liberation theology emerged amidst this upheaval wherein priests re-reformulated the Roman Catholic dogma to a doctrine that actively supported the struggle of the people for justice. Liberation theology did not just remain in the sideline as a mere support group but became instrument for spurring people’s movement in many places in Latin America. Priests were themselves involved in organizing peasants and building mass bases for the armed guerrilla organizations. Many priests even took up arms.

To change the system, it is not weapons and things but the people who are always decisive. The strength of any revolutionary movement lies on the commitment of the people to change the prevailing oppressive and exploitative conditions. Thus, educating the masses is always a seen as a fundamental tasks of all liberation movements.

But, it is not just education. It is an education for the empowerment of the oppressed. Empowerment comes in the following forms: (1) realization that they, the oppressed and exploited masses (i.e. workers and peasants), are the real makers of wealth of society and thus, the real motors of development; (2) the realization that there is an existing class antagonism in the society and they cannot expect genuine benevolence from the oppressor, thus, their salvation can only be achieved through their collective action; and, most importantly, (3) their actual involvement in the liberation movement.

Despite the claims that the society in which we live in at present is different from the period that inspired Freire to write the Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the period that inspired the foundation and upsurge of radical liberation movements worldwide, Freire’s ideas remain significant for the present era. But it is not just his ideas on grassroots organizing and community education that must be taken into consideration but the totality of Freire’s project. This totality refers to an educational project that is part of the wider radical or say revolutionary movement to fundamentally change the system.

Changing the system in this sense is understood not just as a mere change of presidency and “enjoying” a nominal democracy but the establishment of a system that is not based on exploitation and oppression of one class over the other and other. It is the establishment of a society in which those who till the land and who do the real labor are the ones given the largest share of the fruits of production and given importance in the political and cultural life. It is the establishment of a society that produces based on the needs and welfare of the people and not base on profit of a few.

With this, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in its totality remains significant at present because the visions for an alternative society that the radical movements of the 20th century advocated has not yet materialized. The issue of land reform remains a battle cry among the peasant sector. The situation of the workers in the Philippines and the rest of the Third World is even worse than what Engels described in his The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845. The Philippine educational system remains colonial, commercialized, elitist and repressive. Scientists and artists cannot perform their craft without considering if their inventions and creations are marketable or not. We are still living in a profit driven world wherein non-propertied classes (especially the workers) are treated by those big business and big land owners as mere appendage of capital.



  1. Freire’s pedagogy of literacy education involves not only reading the word, but also reading the world. This involves the development of critical consciousness (a process known in Portuguese as conscientização). The formation of critical consciousness allows people to question the nature of their historical and social situation—to read their world—with the goal of acting as subjects in the creation of a democratic society (which was new for Brazil at that time). For education, Freire implies a dialogic exchange between teachers and students, where both learn, both question, both reflect and both participate in meaning-making. Concretely, this pedagogy begins with the teacher mingling among the community, asking questions of the people and gathering a list of words used in their daily lives. The teacher was to begin to understand the social reality of the people, and develop a list of generative words and themes which could lead to discussion in classes, or “cultural circles” (Gadotti 20). By making words (literacy) relevant to the lives of people, the process of conscientization could begin, in which the social construction of reality might be critically examined. Bentley, Leslie, ” A Brief Biography of Paulo Freire .” Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed. Website. Retrieved on July 15, 2009.

  2. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Freire, reprising the oppressors–oppressed distinction , differentiates between the two positions in an unjust society, the oppressor and the oppressed. Freire makes no direct reference to his most direct influence for the distinction, which stems back at least as far as Hegel in 1802, and has since been reprised by many authors including Engels , Marx , Lenin , Gramsci , Simone Weil and others.

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