Freire begins by noting that Pedagogy of the Oppressed is based on observations from his education work in Brazil and from his political exile. He then expands on one of those observations, that many of his students initially fear critical consciousness (conscientização) as dangerous or “anarchic”—a viewpoint that comes from an internalized “fear of freedom” and the desire not to destabilize one’s worldview. However, some students embrace this awakening more easily. Freire cites a class where a former factory worker told his classmates that he had changed from “naïve” to “critical,” without experiencing the negative effects they were concerned about.
Freire introduces the ideas of “critical consciousness” and “fear of freedom” with a specific example from one of his classrooms, before he explicitly defines the two terms later in the book. It’s important that Freire immediately grounds these concepts in his educational programs—throughout the text, he stresses that a combination of the abstract (theory and reflection) and concrete (praxis) is needed to create lasting social change.
Freire argues that conscientização is not “destructive”—it helps people strive for self-affirmation and allows them to affect history in a meaningful way. He suggests that students often fear the risks of pushing for freedom, instead feeling more comfortable with the stability of their current lives. These students do not always acknowledge their “fear of freedom” openly, and might not even be conscious of it. Freire reiterates that his ideas are not purely theoretical, but are “rooted in concrete situations” involving the poor and middle-class people from his educational programs.
Key to Freire’s idea of oppression is that oppressed people internalize its effects. Oppressors try to convince oppressed people that the oppressive social order is not only good or right, but also permanent and unchangeable. However, Freire argues that the comfort of stability cannot bring about liberation—oppressed people must learn that the world can, and will, change.
Freire then addresses potential criticisms of his work: his focus on liberation and oppression could be seen as “idealistic” or “reactionary,” and some will not accept his critiques of oppressive systems. In light of this, he suggests that the book’s primary audience will be “radicals” who are committed to changing society. Freire contrasts radicals with “sectarianism,” an ideology that tries to treat the world as static and controllable. Sectarians can be right-wing or left-wing, but both prevent people from having freedom by distorting reality.
Freire openly connects his model of education with other radical forms of social change, especially revolution. By arguing that mainstream society is inherently oppressive, he distances himself from thinkers who focus on making positive changes within society—or who don’t believe society should change at all.
Sectarians, according to Freire, distort or misinterpret the natural logic of the world. He claims that right-wing sectarians seek to “domesticate” time, which means to control people by preventing the natural changes of history. When leftists turn to sectarianism, they can attempt to combine a dialectic logic with the unchanging perspective of sectarians; this, in turn, leads them to believe that the future cannot be changed. In both cases, sectarians bend the truth to match their own ideas of what the world should be like.
History plays a very important role in Freire’s concept of oppression. When we think of the past as static or unchanging, we implicitly think of the future in a similar way. Freire points out that this problem appears in both right-wing and left-wing ideologies, even among people who understand the “dialectic” logic that Freire promotes.
Freire breaks down the ideal characteristics of a radical: radicals are “committed to human liberation,” willing to confront oppression head-on, and they work in dialogue with other people. Radicals do not see themselves as the gatekeeper to freedom for the oppressed, but instead they fight in solidarity with the oppressed. Because of this, the “pedagogy of the oppressed” that Freire will discuss in Chapter 1 can only be effected by radicals. Freire then expresses hope that readers will point out aspects of his argument than can be refined, and acknowledges that he has never participated in a political revolution—although he reflects on revolution in detail. At minimum, Freire hopes that he conveys his trust and faith in human beings throughout the text.
Again, Freire connects education and revolution, but he does so even more explicitly here. Only radicals have the commitment to humanity and to social change that is needed for a truly liberating education program. Throughout Freire’s text, oppressed people (and the revolutionaries who organize them) occupy multiple roles: they are characters, sources, and a significant part of his audience.