Paulo Freire

A Brazilian who became committed to the cause of educating the impoverished peasants of his nation and collaborating with them in the pursuit of their liberation from oppression, Paulo Freire (1921-97) contributes a philosophy of education that comes not only from the more classical approaches stemming from Plato, but also from modern Marxist and anti-colonialist thinkers. In fact, in many ways his Pedagogy of the Oppressed may best be read as an extension of or reply to Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, which laid strong emphasis on the need to provide native populations with an education which was simultaneously new and modern (rather than traditional) and anti-colonial (that is, that was not simply an extension of the culture of the colonizer).

Freire is best-known for his attack on what he called the banking concept of education, in which the student was viewed as an empty account to be filled by the teacher. Of course, this is not really a new move--Rousseau's conception of the child as an active learner was already a step away from the tabula rasa (which is basically the same as the "banking concept"), and thinkers like John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead were strongly critical of the transmission of mere facts as the goal of education.

More challenging, however, is Freire's strong aversion to the teacher-student dichotomy. This dichotomy is admitted in Rousseau and constrained in Dewey, but Freire comes close to insisting that it should be completely abolished. Critics have argued that this is impossible (there must be some enactment of the teacher-student relationship in the parent-child relationship), but what Freire suggests is that a deep reciprocity be inserted into our notions of teacher and student. Freire wants us to think in terms of teacher-student and student-teacher, that is, a teacher who learns and a learner who teaches, as the basic roles of classroom participation.

This is one of the few attempts anywhere to implement something like democracy as an educational method and not merely a goal of democratic education. Even Dewey, for whom democracy was a touchstone, did not integrate democratic practices fully into his methods. (Though this is in part a function of his peculiar attitudes toward individuality and his idea of democracy as a way of living rather than merely a political practice or method.) However, in its early, strong form this kind of classroom has sometimes been criticized on the grounds that it can mask rather than overcome the teacher's authority.

Freire's work is widely-read by educationalists but is less well-respected among philosophers.

Aspects of the Freirian philosophy have been highly influential in academic debates over 'participatory development' and development more generally. Freire's emphasis on emancipation through interactive participation has been used as a rationale for the participatory focus of development, as it is held that 'participation' in any form can lead to empowerment of poor or marginalizes groups. Critics argue that the inherently undemocratic, unequal nature of development projects forecloses any possibility of Freirian emancipation, but many cling to the 'empowering potential' of development.

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