This book was a required reading at university. I initially disliked it. Its inaccessibility felt superior and hypocritical. But with dictionary and patience, this book would anchor me through my time there. I was in an institution that felt so detached from my reality. I learnt this place would not transform the world I came from: it would only open doors to a different one. Freire taught me why.

Three takeaways

  1. People in power (the oppressor), teach the student to internalise and accept their oppression
  2. For education to liberate the oppressed, it requires an equal and critical dialogue between teacher and student.
  3. This method of problem-solving, allows the student to see their oppressor and take action: only the oppressed who can free themselves.

Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire was born to the world on September 19, 1921, and died May 2, 1997. A Brazilian educator and philosopher, Freire wrote ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ in 1968. It has sold over 1 million copies. The book is written from Freire’s experience working with rural poor residents in Latin America, who he considered to be oppressed.

What is Freire going on about? What is pedagogy, oppressor and oppressed?

Pedagogy means ‘method of teaching’. If only he could have stuck with that… For Freire, the oppressed work for the man (worker), and the oppressor is the man (capitalist).

What is the problem?

The oppressed and oppressor have different ways of understanding the world and themselves. These beliefs govern how they behave. This understanding, according to Freire, is rooted in the way we have been educated.

The oppressor has learnt that their worth comes from what they own. As a result, they act to possess and dominate. This appetite reduces all life; frogs, daffodils, sunshine and probably you, to objects that exist for their exploitation.

And the more the oppressors control the oppressed, the more they change them into apparently inanimate ‘things’.
Paulo Freire

The oppressor is aggressive but does not like direct confrontation, so they design elaborate, discreet methods to keep the oppressed under their control. The oppressors teach the oppressed their world is fixed: they must passively accept and adapt to it. This is learnt from a young age through educational institutions.

The oppressor chooses information for the oppressed to learn. This method of teaching Freire calls “banking”. Information like money in a bank, is deposited into your mind. Your brain becomes a passive vessel of distorted views of their world.

Teaching in the banking method is a one-way lecture. If you challenge, the teacher disciplines you for ‘back-chat’. Good students are those that can repeat the narratives they have been fed. Words like solidarity, resistance, organised, become labelled by the oppressor as dangerous. If acted on, these words are dangerous to the oppressors: it would give liberation to the oppressed.

Cultural invasion

Another way the oppressor seeks to control is through “cultural invasion”. Television screens, books, posters are dominated by the oppressor. They are shown as superior, beautiful, educated etc. This feeds into your unconscious a belief that you are inferior.

The oppressed live their lives through the lens that the oppressors have put on them, and take on their beliefs and behaviour. The oppressed stop thinking independently and unconsciously strengthen the oppressor’s power. The oppressors, ironically, become the models for us to live up to.

This is pretty fudged up: where is the hope, Freire?

There is hope with our pal Freire. There is a different method of teaching, that can provide a source of liberation from the oppressor. It is when education is used to awaken the critical awareness within us. This happens when the teacher views the student as an equal, allowing the student to discuss ideas with them, and learn together.

Monologues are replaced with dialogues. The student-teacher relationship works together to unveil the answers to problems that matter to the student. Questioning is encouraged. As we see things critically, we learn that we do not merely exist in the world but we act in it. This means we can change it. This ‘problem-posing’ model means ideas are not static stories, but problems to be solved. This nourishes our self- belief. We learn our value as masters of our own thinking.

This method of teaching opens space for the oppressed to see the oppressor in their rotten light, and act to change their world, for their freedom and humanity.

The power of reflection

Those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly.
Paulo Freire

A key theme throughout the book is that of ‘praxis’. Praxis means practice: the actual doing bit rather than the theory (thinking bit). The practice we must carry out is critically reflecting on the world around us, and acting to make change happen. Reflection and action come together and can not be separated. As change makers we must be continuously re-examining how we are working, why we are acting in the way we are, and be in a constant conversation with those we are working with, to be effective.

Discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection.
Paulo Freire

Leaders of change must love

Paulo Freire arms around two elderly ladies, smiling.

Paulo Freire after his return to Brazil after 16 years in exile. Photo: 1979 by Folhapress

Freire considers it essential for the teacher/leader to have a,

profound love for the world and for people…How can I dialogue if I am close to—and even offended by—the contribution of others?
Paulo Freire

This is a challenge to change makers, who view love as a weakness to suppress in exchange for building power, a distraction, or secondary to the work. It is core to all that we do in making change happen:

love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is commitment to others.  No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause – the cause of liberation… If I do not love life – if I do not love people – I cannot enter into dialogue.


Apart from the language being fluent in gobbledegook, here are a few additional bullet point critiques below,

  • The struggle is not limited to capitalists and workers. Being a person of colour, a differently abled person, a woman, LGBTI+ would tell you Freire’s way of slicing up the world is limited.
  • If you don’t agree with Freire, you have “internalised the oppressor”…so much for dialogue
  • Freire’s understanding of how power works is thin.
  • A lot of justifying academia’s relevance in the world.

The end

It is a brilliant book with some holes. The main point from Freire is that for us to be liberated, we must think critically about the world around us. Anyone in a position of educating others has a responsibility to promote this way of thinking. Thinking critically and taking positive action, is how we live our full human selves and bring a world free of oppression.

Get the book

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

by Paulo Freire

Why we become depoliticised at school and how to get our power back.

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