I recently had the chance to re-read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as part of a course on Public Engagement in Science at Cornell. We spent the semester looking at different approaches for engaging laypeople (or “non-experts”) in science, through education, media, and participatory research. My own interests are in “citizen science” and other more radical forms of public participation in science research, and I used Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a roadmap for analyzing and critiquing these kinds of projects. As Freire mapped the dialectic of the “oppressor” and the “oppressed” onto the relationship between “teacher” and “student,” I looked at the contradictions and tensions in the split between “experts” and “non-experts” engaged, together, in scientific research. The term paper that resulted was more of an open-ended exploration than a concrete statement of findings. I’m still wrestling with the ideas that emerged from my reading.
As luck would have it, I had the chance this semester to co-facilitate a book group with my friend and colleague Darlene Goetzman. In addition to her own personal consulting practice, Darlene is part of the community that makes up Global Learning Partners – a group that trains teachers and instructors of all stripes in the dialogue-based learning methods developed by Jane Vella. Darlene and I decided to revisit Pedagogy of the Oppressed because of the influence it had on Jane and the inspiration it continues to provide for practitioners of Dialogue Education. We also just wanted another chance to dig deep into a dense and rich text that reveals new insights and sparks new ideas with each re-reading. The book club meets at lunch on Fridays this winter, using Google Hangouts to bring together a small group of people from around the country to informally explore Freire’s ideas.
Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed has a meandering structure, with concepts and themes weaving in and out of the narrative and little notions nested within bigger ideas that all hang on each other. It’s as if Freire is in an open dialogue with himself as he writes, building his arguments like a bricoleur piecing together an expansive and detailed mosaic, adding little bits and big pieces here and there without a linear plan in mind. This approach is fitting, given Freire’s emphasis on dialogue as one of the core methods available to the oppressed in their struggle for liberation. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
With Chapter 1 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire makes his first comprehensive foray into analyzing the relationship between oppressed peoples and their oppressors. This chapter is a statement of first principles, and like any foundation its density is justified by the weight and complexity of the structure that will be built atop it later. I’ve chosen to focus on a small selection of themes in this chapter, informed by my own research interests. As a result, this summary is not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. In many ways, the Chapter defies synopsis and the reader is forced to let it speak for itself, in its entirety. A thinker like David Bohm (who, like Freire, was heavily influenced by Marxist dialectics) might call this sort of text “holographic” in that the whole is greater than the sum of the ideas presented on their own.
Overall, Freire is concerned with the liberation of any oppressed people and the transformation of all humans (oppressed and their oppressors alike) into self-actualized, creative, and empowered beings. As a Marxist – or, at least, as someone influenced by Marx’s analytic methods – Freire sees the relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed as a dialectic; a dynamic contradiction between two states of being that must be resolved through a disruptive struggle toward synthesis. This dialectical approach to the relationship between oppressors and the oppressed is just one example of Freire’s tendency to think in terms of dualities. Throughout his work, he emphasizes dialogue, praxis, and paradoxical states of being, all of which deal with opposites and extremes coming together or confronting each other in some way (more on this later).
Freire argues that being oppressed is a dehumanizing experience. Oppression negates the conditions Freire believes are core to being fully human. Namely, the oppressed lack agency (a term that Freire does not use in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but seems like a good fit to me in summarizing his thoughts). They are denied the ability to creatively and consciously work to shape and reshape their world. Their thoughts and behaviors are circumscribed and prescribed by those who oppress them, and in many cases they may even be unaware of their own status as an oppressed people.
To transcend their oppression, the oppressed must first become fully aware of their condition. They must come to the understanding that oppression is not a “natural” or inevitable condition, but an injustice they are are capable of struggling to overcome. That awareness comes, in fits and starts, through dialogue, with the oppressed taking their first and most critical step toward naming their condition for themselves and creatively imagining another world. Along with dialogue, Freire puts forward the idea of praxis, or the iterative melding of reflection and action, as a liberating process. When praxis comes forward as action, it becomes a means by which the oppressed can apply their latent creativity to the labor of liberation. When praxis manifests as reflection, it becomes an opportunity for the oppressed to craft a new story about themselves and their place in the world. Brought together, reflection creates action with purpose and clear intent.
These themes comprise the pedagogy that Freire lays out in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He likens this process of learning through dialogue, reflection, and action to the process of childbirth. It’s a painful struggle, it involves labor, and it brings something new into the world. It is a process of learning, and in order to bear fruit it must allow the oppressed to be subjects involved in their own learning – rather than inanimate objects acted upon by an oppressive teacher. Learning, Freire tells us, must be co-intentional; a process that dissolves the boundaries between teacher and student.
Freire warns against two pitfalls in this process. First, there is always the risk that the oppressed, in realizing their oppression, set their sights on wrestling power from their oppressors and, over time, becoming oppressors in their own right. Such an outcome would simply perpetuate the dialectic. Instead, the oppressed must struggle to bring a new world into being – a world in which they are liberated from their oppression and their oppressors are liberated from their own experience of dehumanization. For Freire, the act of oppression is just as contradictory to what it means to be an authentic human as the experience of being oppressed. The dialectic between the two must be resolved with a new synthesis that transcends the two extremes, bringing about a society in which everyone is able to exist as creative a creative person at work in the world.
The second pitfalls deals with what happens with the oppressors act to relieve, in some way, the burdens of oppression for those they oppress. For Freire, this constitutes a “false” generosity that only serves to perpetuate the oppression. Freire is clear in believing that only the oppressed, through their struggle to overcome their oppression, can liberate both themselves and their oppressors. Likewise, Freire warns against situations in which an oppressor opts to join the oppressed in solidarity and work side-by-side with them toward their liberation. These erstwhile oppressors almost always bring with them “their prejudices and deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, to know.” Though Freire doesn’t outright deny the oppressor a role in the process of liberation, he emphasizes that “those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly,” looking for those prejudices and working to transcend them whenever them come up.
Implications For My Research
As I noted above, I’m interested in applying the oppressor/oppressed dialectic to the duality of “experts” and “non-experts” or “citizens” and “scientists” that pervades most of our thinking about public participation in science research. In these scenarios, the role of the “non-expert” resonates strongly with Freire’s description of the oppressed. Within the context of scientific research, the non-expert is often denied the right to critically and creatively engage in the process of asking questions, crafting research agendas, collecting data, or undertaking analysis. They are rarely given the chance to draw their own conclusions from scientific research. All of this results from the exalted position held by science in our society (a theme for another summary).
Projects that begin to make space for public participation in science research are growing in popularity. However, I openly wonder whether most of these projects, often working under the guise of “citizen science” – or what my colleague Jennifer Shirk and others describe as a “contributory” model of public participation in research – represent the sort of false generosity Freire warns against in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. More often than not, public participation is relegated to data collection, and little space is made for non-experts to engage in posing the questions or drawing the conclusions that drive science and, ultimately, decide how research is applied in the world. There are examples of other participatory research projects that make more and more room for non-expert involvement in every stage of inquiry. However, I wonder what it would mean to apply Freire’s admonition that the oppressors (in this case, the expert scientists) “re-examine themselves constantly” to identify and resolve their prejudices against non-experts and their ability “to think, to want, to know.”