Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a reminder of how the past mirrors the present

By Thomas Holt Russell

This is not a book review. Instead, it is a look back on the recent past and a cautious peep into the future. This book is a reminder that human problems do not go away without a price (violence, racism, poverty, economic woes). Mostly, it allows me to look into present affairs and link them to the past with the hope that maybe innovative and creative ideas about how to solve some of these problems will sprout like a weed. Or maybe not. Paulo Freire wrote about our current situation in the late 1960s. How can something remain so relevant after more than 50 years? As an educator, it was only a matter of time before I read this book. This book is just as important for educators as the Apology of Socrates should be read by every person who aspires to be a lawyer.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed belongs in the hands of educators, social scientists, university professors, social activists, and politicians. It can be a beginning for revolutionaries to form theories on constructing a base for transformational revolution. This will be a revolution that includes improvements in the major areas that proletariats are suffering from, such as economic relief, education, health, and subsets, such as drugs and crime.

Freire’s book is not a how-to book. There is minimal reference to how to apply practical actions to the theories that this book presents. The specter of socialism hangs over the words in this book. Freire admirably speaks off Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Freire’s idea is not to assimilate and prosper in a system set up and maintained by the oppressor, but to de-construct the entire power structure and start again from a socialist seed.

Even though it is rarely mentioned in the book directly, when Paulo Freire speaks about the oppressed, we know that he refers to people of color. In this case, that would be people of African descent, almost all the descendants of slaves, and the indigenous people of South America. And though Freire never mentioned who the oppressors were, we know that these are the people in power who happen to be of European descent.

When I think about an oppressor, I do not think about hate groups and white supremacists; I think about the laws and legislation designed to keep people of color in their place. Without raising their voice or without raising their hand to strike against the people they think of as objects instead of people, oppressors smartly use the judicial system to do the dirty work for them. This is always the case, and this is the human condition.

It seems that socialism naturally becomes attractive to people that are oppressed. Capitalism seems to push the huddled masses towards this way of thinking. The oppressors condemn all things that lead to social and economic equality. Anything that leads to social and economic reform is promptly labeled as a form of socialism. Even now, socialism is vilified and married to the word “progressive.” Oppressors never stop to think that including all people in the capitalist economic windfall is the best way to combat socialism.

The result is a further widening between social class and race. As practiced by America, capitalism cannot be sustainable as long as these divisions continue to grow. The rich and the people in political positions (sometimes they are the same) will fight to the very end to keep themselves in power. Violence will ensue as long as this division continues to widen. There is no avoiding it. Reasonable thinking people will surely ask themselves who will benefit from a second civil war. But even the rich and powerful will not experience a good night’s sleep as long as they fight a population of people who have nothing to lose. Living under the constant threat of violence and surrounded by armed guards for an entire lifetime cannot be considered a new and relaxing lifestyle.

There are lessons to be learned in the pages of this book, but they are not revelatory. We already know these things, and sometimes it is comforting to hear someone else say the things you were already thinking. It justifies the thoughts of a would-be revolutionary. One of the passages in the book reads:

The peasant begins to get the courage to overcome his dependence when he realizes that he is dependent. Until then, he goes along with the boss and says, “What can I do? I am only a peasant.”

I have heard African Americans state this same sentiment when it comes to voting. Some of these people have not fallen far enough to realize that their fatalistic attitudes towards voting are the very reason that power structure stays in place. There are many things in this book that are still relevant today. We turn against each other to fight for resources. The violence we put upon each other is no less destructive than the rulings against people of color practiced by Clarence Thomas or the misguided ramblings of republican Herschel Walker.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed reminded me that nothing is new under the sun, power corrupts, and technology development is advancing at a much higher rate than the human intellect to handle the new tools responsible for breaking our society down. Pedagogy is an excellent book, but for once, the oppressed first need to figure out that they are oppressed (How can you solve a problem if you do not think there is a problem?). Only then will the oppressed close the gap between Freire’s high-minded theories and the practical use of the theories in the real world. Practical application is the missing element.