At the start of the chapter, Freire introduces what he calls “humankind’s central problem”: the problem of “humanization” (the natural human drive to affirm ourselves as human beings) and “dehumanization,” which is a product of historical oppression. Though both humanization and dehumanization are possible for all people, people naturally strive to become more humanized, a process that is constantly undermined by “injustice, exploitation, and…violence.” Dehumanization is not our destiny as people, but rather the product of an unfair social order. Because of this, the most important task of oppressed people is to liberate themselves (and their oppressors) from an unjust system. When oppressors appear to help oppressed people, Freire argues that they often harbor a “false generosity” that relies on oppression to work. To truly help oppressed people, one must join the struggle to destroy oppression entirely.
Freire grounds his approach to Pedagogy of the Oppressed in how we understand ourselves as human beings: he directly links liberation with human identity, and oppression with a damaged sense of self. There is a constant tension between people struggling to become themselves, and an enemy who actively hinders them. Oppressors are standing in the way of what human beings naturally want out of life. It’s worth noting that this idea of oppressors having false generosity is a somewhat severe viewpoint—he assumes that most people who try to help oppressed people do so in bad faith, rather than trying to help earnestly but not knowing the best way to do it.
Any movement to defeat oppression, according to Freire, has to be led by oppressed people. Oppressed people have the most experience with oppression’s effects, and in fighting for their humanity they demonstrate how necessary liberation is. However, at the beginning of this fight, oppressed people sometimes act like oppressors themselves. Freire asserts that an oppressive system shapes the attitudes of oppressed people, and makes them believe that they should become just like oppressors. This means that oppressed people do not always see themselves as “oppressed” at first, holding onto the “fear of freedom” mentioned in the Preface. Freire boils down the oppressor/oppressed relationship to one of “prescription”: oppressed people behave in ways prescribed to them by their oppressors. Freire suggests that oppressed people fear freedom because it requires them to reject these internalized ideals and behaviors. Nevertheless, freedom is a constant goal for all people, “the indispensible condition” for feeling complete as a person.
Freire continually stresses the need for oppressed people to lead their own struggle for freedom. However, oppressed people have to first shift from their traditional ideas of how to live—ideas that are based in the hierarchical system of oppression. Since oppressed people learn that this hierarchy is the natural and moral way to organize society, they may have to relearn long-held beliefs and attitudes toward society and each other. As his discussion of sectarianism points out, Freire argues that non-oppressors can hinder their struggle for freedom when they hold on to the values and methods of the oppressors.
To overcome oppression, people must begin to recognize its causes so that they can transform their conditions and begin to create a new society. But at the same time, people also have to confront their internalized beliefs and ideas that hinder their freedom. For Freire, this becomes the role of a “pedagogy of the oppressed”: to help the oppressed critically examine the nature of oppression, and take action to change their conditions. This pedagogy should also be led, at least in part, by oppressed people, so that they play an active role in their own liberation. Beginning the struggle for liberation in this way is difficult, for both oppressed people and oppressors who become aware of their problematic role in society. But Freire argues that the concrete work of helping people become free is a vital way to overcome these challenges.
Education, to Freire, has the potential to be a tool for human transformation. But this requires us to consider what education could look like if we remodeled it to specifically address the needs of oppressed people, instead of serving the interests of oppressors. Freire’s use of the term “pedagogy of the oppressed” points to this theoretical question, which ultimately guides much of the text.
The results of liberation should be twofold (and, to Freire, dialectical): there should be an objective change in how society works, and a subjective change in how people perceive the world. Both are necessary because Freire sees the relationship between people and the world as interconnected: human action has created our society, and human action can change it for the future. These changes can only occur through “praxis,” the combination of reflection and action aimed at transforming the world. When only one occurs, true liberation is not possible. Freire points out that oppressors use a variety of techniques to dissuade oppressed people from critical reflection: if oppressed people realize that they live in an oppressive system, more will be spurred to take action against it. For this reason, a pedagogy that helps create freedom should let oppressed people take the lead in deciding what’s best for themselves.
Just as reflection and action need to occur together in the process of liberation, the end result should be changes in both how we reflect and act on the world. In Chapter 3, Freire goes into more detail about the relationship between human beings and the world, in his discussions of history and dialogue. Oppressors have a vested interest in keeping human action separate from the world of oppression, so that oppressed people cannot remove the oppressors from power.
A pedagogy of the oppressed, for Freire, is designed to help people regain their humanity. A pedagogy led by oppressors, like traditional Western education, cannot truly help oppressed people because it is a product of the oppressive system that must be overthrown. All the same, only the oppressors have the political power to implement a pedagogy on a large scale—which is why Freire recommends using smaller “educational projects” to introduce liberating ideas to the people. More broadly, Freire sees his pedagogy in two stages. In the first stage, oppressed people become aware of their status as “oppressed people,” and commit to changing their conditions. When the oppressed have succeeded in freeing themselves, the second stage expands the pedagogy’s scope to include all people—not just the oppressed.
Much of Freire’s work is based on the smaller “educational projects” he conducted in South America. Importantly, Freire emphasizes the inadequacy of traditional education in helping oppressed people achieve freedom, and he sees his theories as a necessary counterpoint to that tradition. The text primarily focuses on the first stage of Freire’s pedagogy, though—he spends much more time going into what his pedagogy should look like because we have not reached the second stage yet.
A key part of the first stage of Freire’s pedagogy involves understanding the consciousnesses of oppressors and oppressed people, and especially the inner conflicts of oppressed people. Freire defines oppression as an act of exploitation, violence, and a failure “to recognize others as persons.” Not only do oppressors commit violence against the oppressed by keeping them from being fully human, they often stereotype oppressed people as “violent” for responding to oppression. Because of this, the struggle of liberation is an act of love, an attempt to restore the humanity of all people. True liberation does not only remove oppressors from power, but also creates a society in which the role of “oppressor” does not exist—which will feel like a kind of oppression to them.
Freire points out several contradictions between oppressed people’s lived experience and how oppressors talk about them. For example, oppressed people are stereotyped as “violent,” when Freire would say they are responding to violence that comes from society. In contrast to this, he characterizes liberation (and working with oppressed people) as a loving act that directly combats violence.
Freire then examines the oppressor consciousness in greater detail. More than anything, oppressors prioritize “their right to live in peace”—but concede that they also depend on oppressed people’s existence to hold power. Oppressors have a “materialistic” view toward their lives: through oppression, they attempt to transform the world, people, and time into objects that can be owned. And because oppressors feel that they can own humanity, they see the fight for humanization and freedom as inherently dangerous. Oppressors also rely on controlling others, to the point that Freire calls them “necrophilic” or life-killing. Freire acknowledges that oppressors can join the fight for liberation with oppressed people, but he argues that the oppressors often bring oppressive beliefs and perspectives with them. These converts can also practice “false generosity,” that relies on oppression to be meaningful.
One potentially contentious part of Freire’s argument is that oppressed people have to liberate their oppressors while liberating themselves. Freire explains this by analyzing the oppressors’ values: since oppressors are opposed to freedom and humanization, they try to prevent everyone from achieving those goals. An oppressor can only affirm their humanity outside of the oppressive system that keeps them in control. Freire also argues that control, in this context, is an act of violence that stifles human life.
People who commit themselves to human liberation should constantly reflect on their preexisting beliefs and biases. To authentically achieve freedom, a convert should be able to work with oppressed people, without seeing them as ignorant or untrustworthy. He or she should also examine how oppressed people think, in order to see where the oppressive system affects their perspective. For example, Freire suggests that oppressed people sometimes take on a “fatalistic” view towards their circumstances, because they have been taught that their misfortunes are the product of things out of their control (like God, or fate). Freire continues to detail the oppressed consciousness, noting that oppressed people often feel alienated from society and undervalue themselves. An effective “pedagogy of the oppressed” should rely on the knowledge and experiences of oppressed people, even if those people are not initially confident in their abilities or value.
Freire is clearly against fatalism, and he connects it to ideas about religion and destiny. He doesn’t seem to oppose religion or spirituality, but he suggests that the fatalistic aspects of some religions help the oppressors. Oppressors, of course, also rely on fatalism to convince oppressed people that the future cannot change. Nonetheless, these beliefs can be changed with an effective educational system, even among oppressors. Freire argues that we must take these deep-seated beliefs into account as we present a new, and radical, vision of what the world is.
According to Freire, oppressed people can begin to gain confidence and conviction when they learn about the causes of oppression, and see that their oppressors can be vulnerable. A key part of liberation is this movement from passive acceptance to active participation in the struggle. Along the way, the oppressed should enter into dialogue with others to push for freedom together; when people try to liberate the oppressed without their participation, they remove their agency, treating them “as objects which must be saved from a burning building.” Leaders in the fight should trust oppressed people to come to their own conclusions. Freire argues that political leaders should approach liberation in a “pedagogical” way, since educational methods can be used to shift how oppressed people think. However, if this is not done in dialogue with the oppressed, it can resemble propaganda. Leaders and the people must take on the task of reflection and action together.
Another key concept Freire introduces in this chapter is dialogue: dialogue is the opposite of hierarchy, a shift from superiority (and, by extension, inferiority) to equality. Because the struggle for freedom can only succeed if it’s based on dialogue, education should be the same way. These connections between education and revolution become more vital as the book proceeds and Freire describes the methods needed for effective social change. People can struggle for freedom without using dialogue, which leads to a movement that is incomplete and inadequate.