At the start of Chapter 3, Freire continues his discussion of dialogue from the previous chapter. He asserts that dialogue primarily consists of “the word”—which he equates with praxis, the combination of reflection and action. When reflection is not paired with action, it becomes “verbalism,” and the word loses its power. And when action is not paired with reflection, it becomes “activism,” and people risk taking action without reflecting on what those actions fully mean. To Freire, human existence ultimately boils down to the process of naming and transforming the world around us, and everyone should be able to start this process. Freire defines dialogue in these terms and he argues that dialogue is necessary for human beings to find freedom and meaning in their lives.
Throughout the book, Freire argues that contemplating the world and taking concrete actions in the world must be linked. It isn’t enough to speak out against oppression: if people do not back up their words by actively fighting oppression, then those words are futile. Freire uses this concept of combined reflection and action in his discussions of liberation, praxis, and dialogue, because it is necessary to his vision of a free society.
According to Freire, dialogue is an act of radical love “for the world and for people,” because it is a commitment to giving people control and agency as they investigate the world. Dialogue is also an act of humility, because it discourages any one person from having authority over another. Dialogue only exists if every dialoguer acknowledges his/her own imperfections, and understands that everyone has something valuable to contribute. Thirdly, dialogue is an act of faith: faith in people’s power to transform their world and create new ways of organizing society. This faith must take into account the oppressors’ efforts to prevent oppressed people from using that power. When done correctly, dialogue should lead to mutual trust between the dialoguers; Freire argues that this trust consists of reflection and action, just like praxis.
This rundown of the nature of dialogue points back to Freire’s words in the Preface, where he stresses his trust and faith “in the people.” Educators and revolutionary leaders must have this faith, along with love and humility, to properly do their job and allow oppressed people to have freedom. If one person in a dialogue believes that he or she is less flawed or less ignorant than the other person, then the dialogue is not authentic.
Lastly, dialogue cannot exist without hope and critical thinking. To Freire, hope comes from human beings’ constant drive to complete themselves, and critical thinking comes from the drive to change reality. Within the context of his pedagogy (the “problem-posing” model), Freire says that dialogue begins when the educator decides what he/she will dialogue about in the classroom. Dialogical education should address what students (or “student-teachers”) want to know about, and engage with what they know already. The “banking” model seeks to change people, but “problem-posing” seeks to change the world with people: in Freire’s model, educators present elements of the oppressive system as “problems” that oppressed people then attempt to solve.
Problem-posing education creates hope because it pushes oppressed people to stop seeing oppression as a permanent fact, and begin to see it as a changeable problem. A primary job of educators is showing that the issues that affect people’s lives have concrete solutions, and that the people affected can use their own experiences to come up with solutions. For Freire, making oppression concrete makes it solvable: oppressors try to distance themselves from the oppression they commit.
When political leaders and educators begin the process of dialogue, they should try to understand the objective conditions of oppressed people, and how oppressed people perceive those conditions. Because the class presents these conditions as “problems,” it pushes the participants to think and act for themselves as they respond to each problem. The class must also use language that is clear and relatable to its participants. From here, Freire switches gears to discuss the subject matter of a “problem-posing” classroom: he says that it should primarily focus on the “thematic universe” of its students. Before defining the term more specifically, Freire grounds his idea of “themes” in how human beings see the world and history. Other animals exist outside of history—they are not aware of a past, present, or future, so they adapt to the world as it is—while humans understand that they can transform the world over time.
Freire grounds the concrete aspects of his pedagogy in theoretical discussions of things like history, consciousness, and the differences between human beings and animals. While the banking model simply presents facts without contextualizing them, problem-posing education allows oppressed people to connect the big ideas that shape society with their personal experiences. According to Freire, oppressors understand that this connection can threaten their power in the long run: it pushes oppressed people to find new ideas to shape a new society.
As human beings begin to understand their relationship to the world, they understand that they are limited by their concrete experiences in the world—Freire calls these “limit-situations.” Limit-situations are a product of history, which means that they are not permanent and can be overcome. Freire, in turn, sees history as the result of praxis, reflecting and acting on the world in order to change it. He divides history into a series of “epochs,” periods of time that are characterized by peoples’ ideas, values, and beliefs during that time. These ideas and beliefs exist in the world, and Freire calls their representation in the world “themes.” Every theme has an opposite theme that reflects an opposing idea or belief. The “thematic universe,” then, is the combination of themes interacting with each other during a particular epoch.
Freire argues that history is primarily driven by social change: when we talk about history, we are talking about the ways that people have changed the world, and the ideas that shape human life, over time. Instead of a linear series of facts that are distant from the present, Freire suggests that people are constantly moving through history and becoming a part of it. The social institutions and conditions that people experience are the result of historical choices that continue to affect the present—unless people make new decisions that create new conditions.
“Themes” and “limit-situations” are closely related—sometimes, oppressed people live in conditions that prevent them from understanding the ideas that created those conditions. If they overcome their limits, they could discover an “untested feasibility”—the idea that oppressed people can still exist without the circumstances that limit them. Limit-situations also imply that there are people who benefit from the situation, and others who are harmed by it. In this context, oppressors see the freedom of oppressed people as a limit to their power. According to Freire, the main themes of our historical moment are domination and liberation; the limit-situations are the structures of oppression that limit human freedom. Underdevelopment, for example, would be a limit-situation that impairs Third World countries. Themes can exist on multiple levels, and they exist even if people do not recognize them.
Untested feasibility is also related to hope: the idea that a life without oppression is not only possible, but a concrete goal that can be reached with actions. When oppressed people understand that oppression limits their freedom, they also understand that overthrowing oppression removes the limit, allowing them to become free. At the same time, the idea of “themes” allows oppressed people to see a path to overthrowing oppression: creating new social structures that are guided by liberation, rather than domination.
Education should push oppressed people and political leaders to investigate the “themes” of their time; this will help them understand reality as a whole and in terms of its parts. One way this happens is through “decoding”: Freire creates a specific process through which educators can make “themes” more visible to their students as they approach conscientização. Decoding consists of presenting a classroom with a “coded situation”—or a worldly condition that reflects a theme—and the class then responds to and analyzes the situation. But decoding is only one part of the larger “thematic investigation,” which happens in stages inside and outside of the classroom. Thematic investigation is how educators and students become critically aware of reality (and of their own beliefs), which helps them begin to take action in the world. Like other parts of Freire’s pedagogy, it requires dialogue and mutual trust between everyone involved.
In Chapter 4, Freire argues that oppressors try to make oppressed people see reality as divided. When the oppressed begin to understand what oppression is, they must also understand that their struggle for liberation is connected with other struggles throughout their country, continent, and world. Oppression is made of parts—different institutions, authority figures, and ideas—but it is the single greatest obstacle to freedom for all people.
The process of thematic investigation starts with the educators, who identify an area to work in and begin to observe it and its residents. Freire uses the example of an adult education class “in a peasant area with a high percentage of illiteracy.” The educators should observe many different aspects of the peasants’ lives, communicating with them and enlisting them as volunteers. Working as a team, the educators and peasants determine the most important conditions that are affecting the peasants, and then determine if the peasants are aware of the area’s limit-situations and themes. Next, the educators use visual, auditory, or tactile materials to represent the limit-situations and themes—Freire calls these materials “codifications.” The codifications should be simple and relatable to the peasants, but should challenge the peasants to come up with their own analysis. Freire cites a Chilean educator who experimented with “decoding” in his classroom to make his students more critical.
Freire conceives of a comprehensive process through which educators can enter a place and develop a curriculum that is relevant to that place’s population. Just as oppressed people should be active participants in the classroom, Freire stresses that oppressed people should be active participants in the development of the curriculum, to ensure that it is truly relevant to their lives. He also cites the Chilean educator to show that even his own pedagogy can change over time, or can be improved in concrete ways by different perspectives.
As the peasants and educators analyze the materials together, they reflect on each situation and their views toward it. Rather than prioritizing their view over the peasants’ view, the educators must allow the peasants to speak freely about how the situations make them feel. Freire uses the example of a “codification” about alcoholism—while the educator might see it as automatically bad, the peasant might see himself in a person who drinks to cope with an oppressive job. Throughout this process, the educators listen and document the responses, and eventually begin to study them to find the themes they discussed earlier. Eventually, the educators use these results to make new class materials, which they present to the peasants as part of a more organized curriculum. This curriculum is a product of the educators’ research, and reflects the topics that the peasants care about most. Most importantly, this curriculum allows the peasants to have authority and to think for themselves.
Here, Freire concretely shows how problem-posing education can resolve the contradictions between teacher-students and student-teachers. While the educators and peasants have conflicting perspectives on alcoholism, both perspectives are necessary to create a fuller picture of how and why people become alcoholics. If those educators had simply told the peasants that alcoholism is bad, they would have missed the economic anxiety that informs the peasants’ viewpoint. Freire would argue that a one-sided discussion can prevent those peasants from feeling comfortable sharing their authentic perspective.