Freire begins Chapter 2 by describing the characteristics of a traditional Western classroom. He focuses on its “narrative” aspects: the teacher is a “narrating Subject” with students who are passive. The teacher’s narration—or the facts that he/she is teaching—is disconnected from the students’ life experiences, and students memorize these facts without understanding their full meaning or context. Freire calls this the “banking” model of education, one in which teachers “deposit” knowledge into the minds of their students. He finds this model problematic because it stifles creativity, and does not encourage students to ask new questions through praxis.
Freire uses the term “narration” to call attention to the one-sided nature of traditional teaching. In the banking model, students rely on the teacher to tell them which ideas, facts, and perspectives are correct, useful, or relevant to their lives. Freire’s critique of these classrooms—where students memorize and regurgitate facts—can still be seen today in political debates about school curriculums and standardized testing.
Knowledge, for Freire, is the result of a constant process of questioning the world. However, the “banking” model conceives of knowledge as something that teachers have and students lack. This approach is closely tied to oppression, because it presumes that the people who don’t have power are ignorant. Freire then asserts that his pedagogy, which aims to help oppressed people become free, must change the contradictory relationship between teachers and students. In this relationship, teachers have absolute authority and control over their students.
According to Freire, oppressors often claim that some kinds of knowledge are only possessed by authority figures. From this premise, oppressors can then claim that hierarchies are the best way to organize society—not only governments, but schools and families as well. If only some people have knowledge, then only some people can be in a position to lead others.
The “banking” model molds the attitudes of students: it teaches them to adapt to the world as it is, instead of questioning it or trying to change it. This helps oppressors, who want to prevent oppressed people from understanding the true nature of oppression. Freire argues that oppressors combine “banking” education with institutions like welfare, which treats oppressed people as if they exist outside of normal, “healthy” society. To liberate themselves, oppressed people cannot become “integrated” into oppressive society; rather, they must transform society entirely. “Banking” education combats this transformation by turning people into “automatons.”
In the oppressors’ narrative, oppressed people live on the margins of good, traditional, society because of their own faults. But Freire urges oppressed people to see traditional society as inherently bad because it marginalizes them. This is why Freire often critiques people who attempt to reform oppressive institutions: to him, reform is ultimately futile because it assumes that those institutions are not oppressive by default.
Teachers who use the “banking” model—whether they are aware of it or not—do not understand that the model reinforces oppression. But Freire notes that some students may begin to understand that their education is in conflict with their natural drive for freedom. However, educators who truly want to help oppressed people cannot wait for this to happen—they should work with oppressed people, as fellow students, to achieve conscientização together. “Banking” education hinders this process through its assumptions about human beings and the world. In the “banking” model, people do not act on the world: they merely live in it and observe it. Teachers, then, control how their students observe the world and teach them to fit in.
Many people (in this instance, students and teachers) don’t realize that they are oppressed, or an oppressor. This is the result of some oppressors working overtime to disguise the true nature of oppression. However, Freire believes in people’s ability to convert—to find out that they are contributing to an oppressive system, and then commit to changing it. Freire’s pedagogy attempts to make this conversion a key goal of education.
The methods teachers use in the “banking” model create distance between them and their students. In contrast, Freire argues for authentic communication in the classroom: teachers cannot impose their ideas on students, but should instead work with students equally. Just like oppression, the “banking” model is “necrophilic” and stifles the life of human beings. But the suffering that results from oppression can spur people to restore their personal freedom and power. Freire calls out the “banking” model as oppressive so that revolutionary leaders do not use it in the struggle for liberation. He notes that revolutionary leaders often use this model already, but urges them to “reject the banking concept in its entirety” and replace it with a new model: the “problem-posing” model.
Freire argues that oppressive structures and institutions can never create real, lasting freedom for oppressed people. By uplifting the knowledge and life experiences of oppressed people, revolutionaries can push oppressed people to develop their own ideas for structures and institutions that work for everyone. And as South America was overcome with regime changes during the 1960s, Freire is wary of “revolutions” that simply replace the people in power while maintaining an oppressive hierarchy.
In stark contrast to “banking,” a “problem-posing” pedagogy is based on communication and dialogue, and it fosters human freedom. It transforms the relationship between students and teachers, merging them into teacher-students and student-teachers. Everyone in the classroom teaches each other and learns from each other. While the “banking” model consists of active teachers and passive students, the “problem-posing” model makes both groups into “co-investigators” who question reality together. Freire argues that the “problem-posing” model pushes students to gain critical awareness, because it uses topics and problems that are relevant to the students’ experiences. This, in turn, challenges students to take action and face those problems.
In the “problem-posing” model, Freire sees the relationship between students and teachers as dialectical. He resolves the differences between active teaching and passive learning by synthesizing them into a single role, where everyone teaches and learns in the same classroom. He also argues that students will naturally take a more active role in their education when it feels relevant to them; as Freire argues in Chapter 3, this active participation is necessary to make the problem-posing model succeed.
When education is designed to foster freedom, it treats human beings and the world as intimately connected. Freire supplies the example of a peasant student in a Chilean class, who argued that human beings must exist in the world to call it a “world” in the first place—and compares the peasant’s point to French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea that human consciousness and the world are interdependent. “Problem-posing” education helps people develop their understanding of the world, so that they see the world as constantly in flux. More broadly, Freire reiterates that “problem-posing” and “banking” have entirely opposite goals. While “banking” separates people from history, “problem-posing” helps its students understand their place in history.
It’s significant that Freire points out the similarities between the peasant’s point of view and Sartre’s point of view. Although Sartre was an academic and philosopher, the peasant (who would be considered “ignorant” in a traditional classroom) was able to develop a similar idea without reading Sartre’s work. For Freire, this comparison shows how oppressors create a false dichotomy between people who have knowledge and people who don’t.
In the “problem-posing” model, human beings are incomplete and are working to fully become themselves. This means that education is also an ongoing process, a big difference from the lack of change in the “banking” model. “Problem-posing” is “revolutionary futurity,” according to Freire, because it relies on the hope that oppression is changeable and can be defeated in the future. When oppressed people understand this, they can shift from feeling resolved to feeling empowered. Therefore, the movement for liberation must support oppressed people’s right to make decisions and ask questions for themselves in pursuit of humanization. It must rely on dialogue at every stage of the process.
Freire’s model directly invokes the “central problem” of the text: the natural human drive to feel complete as a person. A “pedagogy of the oppressed” should aid its students in the process of humanization, and push them to overthrow the political system that dehumanizes oppressed people. Importantly, this pedagogy must aid students rather than control them, because personal agency is a key aspect of feeling affirmed as a human being.