Often, I hear discussions in academic circles on the cycle of poverty and the racial achievement gap. The discussion centers on a certain culture of despair that coalesce around impoverished or marginalized communities. Blame spouts in every direction like a loose fire hose. In this post, I would like to submit another voice to the debate on the causes of cyclical poverty: Paulo Freire’s. Reading his work for the first time this semester, I was struck by the force of his philosophy and the eloquence of his arguments.

Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire was a native of northeastern Brazil, where he became an influential proponent of critical pedagogy. Born to a middle class family, Freire lived through the Great Depression and devoted himself to poverty reduction and social liberation. After attending law school to study philosophy and linguistics, Freire became an educator. Because literacy was a requirement for voting in Brazil during the 1940s, Freire strove to spread literacy among the impoverished masses. However, Freire realized that it was not just a lack of literacy that held the poor in check, but “that their ignorance and lethargy were the direct product of the whole situation of economic, social, and political domination – and of the paternalism – of which they were victims.”[1] In fact, even the rudimentary education the poor did receive only worsened their submergence, pushing them away from critical consciousness of their own oppression. The job of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was to describe how to overcome the domination of the powerful and develop a wholly new praxis, or critical pedagogy.

Though Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was written in Portuguese to address the inequities in Brazil, it has immense practical application in the United States. As American Richard Shaull notes in his introduction, “Our advanced technological society is rapidly making objects of most of us and subtly programming us into conformity to the logic of its system. To the degree that this happens, we are also becoming submerged in a new ‘culture of silence.’”[2] Beyond technology, America’s multiethnic and multilingual society leaves some groups hopelessly oppressed and consciously empowers others to command the political order.

Freire’s pedagogy is vital to the American republic as the ranks of its impoverished burgeon; for the United States to continue to ensure its own domestic tranquility, its education system must adopt the pedagogy of the oppressed. Freire notes the particular difficulty of applying his praxis to modern society because the oppressors understand that reconstruction is never in their best interest, and they will attempt to stop it. Freire writes, “This is why the pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors.”[3] They will manipulate education so it continues to subjugate the poor, just as they mold other aspects of society to their advantage.

Freire’s critical pedagogy resists the urge to use schools as “banks” for the elite’s ideologies and reposition them as institutions of social reconstruction. Freire challenges the concept that students are simply passive objects like “banks” or a tabula rasa waiting to be filled by educators. Instead, he argues, “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world.” Disturbingly, as more deposits are made, students become increasingly unaware that the “deposits themselves contain contradictions about reality.”[4] The contradictions become justified, or worse, accepted as reality.

It is for liberation from these very contradictions that the poor must fight; they must also engage reality as a process, and as a construction. With that knowledge acquired, the oppressed can then reconstruct a new reality that destroys the “necrophilic” institution of oppression.[5] The verbs “engage” and “reconstruct” are not metaphorical or rhetorical. “Humans,” writes Freire, “exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom.”[6] For some, the “limit-situation” represents the moment of despair. Others destroy limits as readily as they are realized. How one views limits determines one’s depth of oppression.

Freire’s philosophy also details language’s role in oppression. While those in power continuously command lexicons that actively shape reality, the poor develop a dialogue of hopelessness. Freire argues, “When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating ‘blah.’ It becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action.”[7] In this way, a dichotomy is formed between useless and active words, exacerbating the relational schism of power.

For those wishing to assess the nature of cyclical poverty, Freire’s critical pedagogy is a decent philosophical starting point. Reforming the relationships fostered in schools is a critical step towards a more equitable society. As Freire writes, schools serve those in power, the elite, by treating students as though they are simply banks to be filled with biased cultural understandings. Just as power is a relation between two parties, so too must be the school. Curriculum, rather than water filling a student’s cup, should be an individual and group exploration, facilitated by an instructor who understands the nature of oppression. It is easy to develop an achievement gap when the school reinforces the culture and behavior of one class of students over another.

The current model prevalent in education today values discipline above all other forms of learning. Indeed, students are encouraged from a young age to stymie their voices and sit in oddly oppressive manners (anyone else not a fan of sitting cross-legged?). Freire argues that these children have wonderful and important potentials to fulfill; teachers must be the guardians of those dreams and aspirations. American society at large values individualism and ingenuity. Pundits are heard daily opining rugged republicanism “is what made this country great.” Freire argues for nothing more than allowing students to develop their own subjectivity without the oppressive pedagogy of the elites bearing down on their consciousness. Simply allow the oppressed to explore their potential and understand their right to manipulate their reality.

Rather than exhibiting an intrinsic laziness or lack of intelligence, the oppressed are trapped under a pedagogy of the elite. For this reason, I propose that there is no cycle of poverty. There is only a cycle of oppression. Let the marginalized student learn freely, and watch as the “achievement gap” withers away.

[1] Richard Shaull, introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: The Seabury Press, 1970), 10.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: The Seabury Press, 1970), 39.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 64. Freire argues oppression is necrophilic because it worships the suffering of death and not the value of life.

[6] Ibid., 99.

[7] Ibid., 87.


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