CATE Professional Writing Contest for Teachers and Educators August 2007
Eric M. Eisner, M.Ed
University Senior High School
Los Angeles Unified School District
Seeking A Vocabulary for Transformation,
and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed
“Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.”
-Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Lines drawn under phrases like humanization, dialogue, the oppressed, conscientização, seem to expand each time I pull the covers apart and flitter through the pages. It is a book I am still opening, whose lead streaks highlight the endlessly significant nature of the words contained therein.
Paulo Freire must have known he was writing a manuscript which would literally open people’s mouths and give them tongues when he set his pen to write Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He must have known that he was creating a vocabulary which would allow individuals to manifest thoughts muted intentionally by those who owned the language and its ability to seize, conquer, exploit, silence. Freire must have known that by providing such a text he would be infecting reader after reader, listener after listener, human after human, with the capacity to manifest the once unspoken and stultifying into the articulate and liberating.
Written as a pedagogical tool articulating the oppression of the Brazilian peasant underclass encountered in his early childhood hometown of Recife, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed confronts thematically significant concerns which today’s urban educator witnesses in classrooms across the country –attaining radically distanced strictures from other established “classics” of Education: Pedagogy of the Oppressed unveils the oppressor-oppressed dialectic, the dehumanized classes’ push for humanization and ultimately, the realization of freedom. In so doing, Freire reinvisions the teacher-student dialectic and the relation of each party to a world mystifying yet understandable. Such a metaphorical dialectic detailed in the text supercedes the academic and touches the human spirit.
I came across a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed at a local neighborhood bookstore a little less than 5 years ago. I recall hearing mentioned the title during a seminar in graduate school at UCLA, a class focused specifically on issues of social justice education. I was a novice nearing the end of my first year -a seeker destined to discover ideas vibrant enough to satiate my thirst for a vision of Education. During the course of that year, I felt the frustrating limitations of the classroom teacher –the chaotic workload, the isolation, the indifference- the resulting tiring of the spirit.
During a two-year stint from September 2001 through June 2003 (a period leading from substitute teacher to fully credentialed Master’s candidate) -purchasing a host of educational literature- I sought an ideology to guide my vision. Hen-pecking bits of sagacity in countless texts from bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the Tao Te Ching to The Tao of Pooh, The Essential Rumi and the Dharma Sutra, this search for pedagogical illumination and professional demystification was very much an inward search for personal truth, contentment, enlightenment -in teaching and in life.
Excerpts, like the following from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, remain with me indefinitely:
When a leader establishes a goal with the troops, he is like one who climbs up to a high place and then tosses away the ladder. When a leader enters deeply into enemy territory with the troops, he brings out their potential. He has them burn the boats and destroy the pots, drives them like sheep, none knowing where they are going
-while other fragments of wisdom have disappeared into the nether of my subconscious, stored for evocation at future moments of ideological distress.
Even though words from the most esoteric texts assisted me in making sense of my classroom practice, it was not until my fingers touched the crisp pages of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that the spiritual qualities of teaching emerged with vast realism:
Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.
The power of Freire’s words was both striking and immediate. I sensed that by continued reading, eventual breakthroughs of mystifying ideas would take place:
…And they will be more the more they not only critically reflect upon their existence but critically act upon it.
As an educator working in Los Angeles alongside students of highly variable socio-economic and cultural backgrounds –impoverished, affluent, white, black, immigrant aliens, minority groupings –I have witnessed a pervasive apatheticism which haunts high schools -students common to our experience: acceptance of failure, stoic cynicism, unafraid of consequence. Synchronistic in envy and utter confusion, what to make of the student so muted, blended, lost? Does he hold capacity for transformation? Can an ideological shift on behalf of the teacher assist in the liberation of such a student from the shroud of silence? To discredit such a capacity would only lead to further oppression and dehumanization; to embrace it, to challenge conventional wisdom.
Freire’s words have placed in motion a pedagogical, philosophical change within me and therefore in my classroom. It is a change which helps to confront apathy and indifference, an approach to vast meta-philosophical inquiries from a human, more hopeful perspective:
There is no historical reality which is not human. There is no history without humankind, and no history for human beings; there is only history of humanity, made by people and…in turn making them.
In humanizing the oppressed’s struggle for liberation, Freire’s work, amongst his many other writings, is immediately important and relevant to teachers seeking educational transformation in the classroom as well as personal change within their hearts. Pedagogy of the Oppressed articulates the importance of gaining a developed sense of an educator-identity –the implications of the entering into of the classroom jointly by teachers and students alike and the continued process of dialogue to achieve determined ends. Freire thus offers a renewed hope and vision to educators in his writings -an uplifting sense of the significance of that which transpires daily within our classrooms and professional lives.
…the pedagogy of the oppressed [is] a pedagogy which must be forged with, not for, the oppressed…in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity. This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for liberation. And in the struggle this pedagogy will be made and remade.
Mr. Eric M. Eisner, M.Ed is a graduate of UCLA School of Education and sixth-year English teacher at University High School in West Los Angeles, California.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Books, 2002.
Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Boston: Shambala Dragon Editions, 1988.