Paulo Freire: Pedagogy between oppression and liberation

Gertrud Wolf

Paulo FreirePaulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher during the last century. He becomes famous all over Europe because of his influential work about critical pedagogy. His publication „Pedagogy of the Oppressed“ is considered one of the foundational texts of the critical pedagogy movement. But in present time terms like „Oppressed“ and „Oppressors“ seem a little bit anachronistic. The question arises, if this way of thinking is still going necessary for a modern pedagogy. So what does he means with „Opresseds“ and „Oppressors“? Can we discover this people in modern pedagogical settings? Can we transfer the ideas of Paulo Freire into modern pedagogical concepts? Or is he at least only interesting for historical reason?

To give life a meaning

Let’s start our discussion with an original quotation from his opus: „No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption“ (Freire, 1970, p. 54) We can suppose, that his interpretation of struggle for redemption was wider than only a political call. Probably Freire would understand this struggle also in the meaning of a struggle for a human life, fulfilling by the possibility to give life a meaning.

In order that this meaning of life must be an individual one, emancipation is not only liberation from political and economic heteronomy, its especially liberation from a heteronym determined meaning of life. Therefore Freire believed that “education makes sense because women and men learn that through learning they can make and remake themselves, because women and men are able to take responsibility for themselves as beings capable of knowing – of knowing that they know and knowing that they don’t” (Freire, 2004, p. 15)

Responsibility and it’s meaning for individuality

On my opinion it is very notable, that there is a coherence of self-responsibility and the necessity to create an own meaning of life by self-experience. This is also in agreement with new philosophic views on ethics and morality into the modern society. If Zygmunt Bauman proposes that „ … the essence of all morality is the responsibility which people take for the humanity of others“ humans must at first be in charge for her own responsibility (Bauman, 2001, p. 79). In fact this complies also with basic ideas of Aufklärung. Modern society which is formed of individuals needs a high level of responsibility between the participants, not only for each other but even – or first – for themselves. Only a human who is able to take responsibility for his- or herself can be able to take responsibility for others. Therefore Zygmunt Bauman (1991) argues, duties make human conform, but responsibility make them individual, so that „… responsibility is also measure for a society’s ethical standard“ (Bauman, 2001, p. 79).

The pedagogical paradox

If we agree with this high significance Bauman ascribes responsibility to well function of modern society, education must be targeted on this. In this discussion now, Paulo Freire becomes new prominence. He brings mainly forward the argument that, learning responsibility needs to put someone in charge, to give responsibility and to give the rights that comes with responsibility like to accept one’s own authority. The crucial factor is presented in the question how pedagogical and educational activities do really empower their target group. Freire figures out, in which way a restrictive pedagogy brings naturally out oppressed people. That’s the fundamental question in general pedagogical philosophy, how pedagogy must be structured, to bring out unoppressed people. It’s a special and basic problem, that pedagogy (and education) is an instrument for oppression and for liberation. The way of a so called anti-authoritarian education as an effect of student-movement and „flower-power“-movement was obviously not very successful. So, let’s have a look at the thoughts of Paulo Freire to handle this pedagogical paradox. To bring people in dialog is the central point of his idea. This seems at first very easy, but isn’t. Pedagogical structures based on dialogical principles needs a new relationship between teacher, student, and society. Here is the teacher not more in charge to fulfil society-needs – called socialisation – but overall to support the individual needs of the participants. So he became more or less an advocate for them: “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.” (Freire, 1970, p. 178).

Democratic principles as guidelines for pedagogical work

That communication has a value to bring social justice to bear is also a main aspect of democracy. Hannah Arendt is a protagonist on explaining how dialogs forces democracy, when everybody is able to participate at the common dialog. Therefore Arendt connects action most centrally to speech. It is through action as speech that individuals come to disclose their distinctive identity: “Action is the public disclosure of the agent in the speech deed.” Action in this way requires a public space in which it can be realized, a context in which individuals can encounter one another as members of a community by communication. According to this train of thoughts pedagogy has a democratic impact when it helps people to participate at this public space, and when it helps people to communicate. Freire pointed out, language is never neutral, so the educator has also the duty of not being neutral. This requires at least a self-reflexive handling from pedagogues, trainers and educators.

The making of participants

For successful communication is needed that the participants have an own position, with other words: that they participate as individuals. So, oppressed people could never be full participants in a democratic dialog. Following Paulo Freire a main task of educators and trainers is to make it possible for the students to become themselves. But to become themselves uses free choices, in a very radical sense. It means that everybody is free to create his own individuality. That’s the meaning of the citation at the beginning: “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption (Freire, 1970, p. 54).”


To become what we are or what we like to be, it is necessary to have a space where self-experience is permitted. Paulo Freire says, that no one is born fully-formed: „it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.” Self-experience can never be defined from another person, without risk of manipulation. Helping people to become themselves is always vulnerable to manipulate them. To tackle this very basic problem of every pedagogical intervention the primary challenge for today’s pedagogy and even adult education is to be very self-critical. Therefore it is suggested to discuss, the risk of manipulation by „helping“. On my opinion the advancing of third-party funds from government includes naturally the danger to manipulate people in this way. Even if the operations seem very democratic, modern and social-accepted, like our programs for alphabetisation, integration of migrants and people with low level of education.

Whenever pedagogy has the ongoing possibility to be an instrument of oppression and at the same time to be an instrument of liberation, so educators and trainers have always to be aware on which side they stand. The competence to be self-critical and more: self-reflexive is a main aspect of professionalism in adult education. Let’s work it out now! I think Paulo Freire’s thoughts can help us.


Arendt, Hannah. (2002): Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben. München: Piper

Arendt, Hannah. (2003): Was ist Politik? München: Piper

Freire, Paulo (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, Paulo (2004). Pedagogy of Indignation. Boulder: Colorado, Paradigm.

Bauman, Zygmunt (1991): Modernity and Ambivalence. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press

Bauman, Zygmunt (2001): The Individualized Society. Cambridge: Polity.

European InfoNet Adult Education, 07.03.2014