Education as a Tool for Critical Consciousness: Situating Paulo Freire in Contemporary Times By Ananya Pathak

Education as a Tool for Critical Consciousness: Situating Paulo Freire in Contemporary Times

It is difficult not to be touched by Paulo Freire. His remarkably penetrating insights into the ‘culture of silence’ that the ‘banking form of education’ imposes on the learner, his passionate plea for ‘dialogic education’, and his urge to create the ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’— Freire was indeed a gifted thinker-activist. In this article the author—a young researcher filled with innovative ideas—has sought to engage with him.

By Ananya Pathak

Paulo Freire would look at education as much beyond merely a process whereby one learns how to read and write; he would rather give education the credit of awakening us in a way that we can examine our own social situation and then take an initiative in acting to transform the society that has denied us the opportunity of participation. In evolving an educational pedagogy Freire’s creativity and sensitivity came to the forefront as he was very much pained by the condition of the oppressed around him. He was born in the 1920s (a period of the most extreme situations of poverty and underdevelopment in the third world); and the economic crisis in the United States in 1929 began to affect Brazil (the place where he lived), and his own middle class family suffered tremendously.  In fact, he shared the plight of the ‘wretched of the earth’. So intense was the impact of poverty that he, like many others, experienced the gnawing pangs of hunger. This made him determined to dedicate his life to the struggle against poverty and hunger, so that others would not have to go through the difficult times that he himself had experienced.

As he matured intellectually he came to realize that the poor and the marginalized sections of society lived in a ‘culture of silence’. He understood that their lethargic ignorance and their inability to protest were all embedded in the socio-economic deprivation they faced as individuals. Rather than being encouraged and equipped to understand and act upon the improvement of their condition, they were kept preoccupied in a situation where the struggle to attain basic items for survival left them with no time or energy for any kind of awakening or critical consciousness. An important insight that he came forward with was that education was indeed a major instrument that maintained the ‘culture of silence’. The unique and fresh perspectives of Paulo Freire help us break free from an educational domain that tends to be elitist, pro status quo and alienating to the marginalized communities. Paulo Freire holds the strong conviction that every individual— no matter how submerged in the ‘culture of silence’—  is capable of looking at his own world in a dialogic encounter with others. He also argues that when such an oppressed individual is equipped with the adequate tools for such an encounter he can gradually perceive his personal and social reality as well as the contradictions in it and become conscious of his own perceptions of that reality and deal critically with it. Being able to do so gives him a new sense of dignity and hope. As this would radically transform the consciousness of the marginalized, they would no longer agree to be oppressed. Instead, they would struggle to transform the world. However, despite Freire’s revealing insights, many would argue that education as a process can never be neutral. It either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the ways of the present system and brings about conformity, or it can become the ‘practice of freedom’—the means by which people critically and creatively participate in the transformation of their world. It is true that the second way of looking at education would generate tremendous conflict in society; but it is likely to bring about hope for a new social order based on equality.

Paulo Freire’s brilliance lies not only is visualizing the potential of education as a tool of social awakening, but more in seeing it as an inclusive, participatory and dialogic arena where knowledge was not the monopoly of a few who would exploit the masses and utilize their ignorance, but a dialogic discourse evolved through mutual consent. It was revolutionary in the sense that it looked at knowledge building as a participatory process rather than one that was hierarchically ordained. In other words, he was trying to give voice to those whom an elitist monopoly over knowledge had so far denied discretion and whose ignorance had been so far strategically reproduced to maintain the unequal status quo.  Freire questioned this monopoly and gave voice to the oppressed in whom he saw the creative potential to liberate both themselves and their oppressors from the very logic of oppression. He gave prime importance to dialogue,  and saw it as the most important way of communication—a medium through which the hierarchical gap between the teacher and the student could be bridged. It would also challenge the ‘banking concept’ that encourages passivity rather than critical questioning.

Paulo Freire makes us think. Back in our own classrooms, are dialogues really practiced between the teacher and the student, or is it that the hierarchical monologue continues to prevail?  Are students conceived of only as passive, agency less receivers of knowledge on whom the  ‘superior’ adult transcribes information? Does the child participate in any way in the construction of knowledge, or does he remain a mere spectator?

We confront these and many more such questions every day. The child’s eyes carry great innocence, he is full of wonder. The adult world with its various institutions and bureaucratic mechanisms tries to socialize the child. He is assumed to be a passive recipient of knowledge and is bombarded with information which is much beyond what he can retain; moreover, the competitive nature of society coupled with the scarcity of opportunities kills the soul of the child; the innocence and wonder that he possessed as a child is replaced by an impeccable sense of practicality founded on the ground of narrow selfishness. In the rat race of society, in our hurry to become ‘successful’, are we not compromising on our humanistic, tender/sensitive self?

The child is  molded by society into what it desires from its citizens; but is the child in any way a part of the construction of knowledge? Does he have a voice in his own learning? Can a process of learning be helpful if the learner is voiceless?

Freire’s articulations remind us that whether we think of the ‘oppressed’ as those who are socially-culturally marginalized, or those who are economically disadvantaged or whether we think of the ‘oppressed’ as the children who attend sites of knowledge and are considered agency less recipients of knowledge, what we can understand is that unless he who learns participates in the construction of what he learns, the process of learning can never become a process for inner awakening. The teacher-student dialogue not only helps in making learning easier for the student but also promotes a culture of democratic, open exchange where both learn by sharing. This democratic dialogic process alone can produce a critical consciousness. And this critical consciousness alone can help us to build up a society that produces sensitive humans who live life in a way that they utilize their inner potential and bring light to the darkest corners of human civilization.

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