Mention the name Paolo Freire at a gathering of educated people and you’re likely to get blank stares. Unless members of that group went to ed school, where the Brazilian theorist is nothing less than a rock star, and his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Opressed is part of the canon. In the new City Journal, Sol Stern examines the curious case of Freire and asks how his “derivative, unscholarly book about oppression, class struggle, the depredations of capitalism, and the need for revolution ever gets confused with a treatise on education that might help solve the problems of twenty-first-century American inner-city schools?” For starters, Stern says Freire’s seeds were cast upon fertile soil.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed resonated with progressive educators, already committed to a “child-centered” rather than a “teacher-directed” approach to classroom instruction. Freire’s rejection of teaching content knowledge seemed to buttress what was already the ed schools’ most popular theory of learning, which argued that students should work collaboratively in constructing their own knowledge and that the teacher should be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”
Freire opposed what he described as the “banking” concept of education, in which the student is a seen as a tabula rasa to be filled by the teacher. Banking, naturally, is a tool of the oppressor in which the teacher talks and the students listen, the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply, and the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined. “Freire’s strictures reinforced another cherished myth of American progressive ed,” Stern notes, “that traditional teacher-directed lessons left students passive and disengaged, leading to higher drop-out rates for minorities and the poor.”
Stern finds no evidence that Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed has gained much traction or met with much success anywhere in the Third World. “Nor have Freire’s favorite revolutionary regimes, like China and Cuba, reformed their own ‘banking’ approaches to education, in which the brightest students are controlled, disciplined, and stuffed with content knowledge for the sake of national goals—and the production of more industrial managers, engineers, and scientists,” he notes. Why, Stern finally wonders, does American education’s love affair with Freire persist?
A broad consensus is emerging among education reformers that the best chance of lifting the academic achievement of children in the nation’s inner-city schools is to raise dramatically the effectiveness of the teachers assigned to those schools. Improving teacher quality as a means of narrowing racial achievement gaps is a major focus of President Obama’s education agenda. But if the quality of teachers is now the name of the game, it defies rationality that Pedagogy of the Oppressed still occupies an exalted place in training courses for those teachers, who will surely learn nothing about becoming better instructors from its discredited Marxist platitudes.
Stern challenged me a few months ago to find a published piece critical of Friere’s work and its impact on American education. I failed.