Chapter 3 - Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed - Pedagogy of Hope

Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2014)

Chapter 3

There is no room, in the constitution of this needed discipline, for an identification of the act of studying, of learning, of knowing, of teaching, with pure entertainment—learning as a kind of toy or game, without rules or with lax ones. Nor again must it be identified with insipid, uninteresting, boring busywork. The act of studying, teaching, learning, knowing, is difficult, and especially, it is demanding, but it is pleasant, as Georges Snyders never omits to remind us.* It is crucial, then, that educands discover and sense the joy that steeps it, that is part of it, and that is ever ready to fill the hearts of all who surrender to it.

The testimonial role of teachers in the birthing of this discipline is enormous. But once it is at hand, their authority, of which their competence is a part, discharges an important function. Teachers who fail to take their teaching practice seriously, who therefore do not study, so that they teach poorly, or who teach something they know poorly, who do not fight to have the material conditions absolutely necessary for their teaching practice, deprive themselves of the wherewithal to cooperate in the formation of the indispensable intellectual discipline of the students. Thus, they disqualify themselves as teachers.

On the other hand, this discipline cannot emerge from a labor accomplished in the students by the teacher. While requiring the effective presence of the teacher—his or her orientation, stimulus, authority—that discipline must be built and adopted by the students.

I feel led to repeat, by way of emphasizing my position, that a democratic practice consistent with my democratic discourse, which speaks of my democratic option, does not impose on me a silence as to my dreams, nor does the necessary criticism of what Amílcar Cabral* styles “the negativities of culture” make me an “elitist invader” of the popular culture. Criticism, and the effort to overcome these “negativities,” are not only to be recommended, they are indispensable. Basically, this has to do with the passage of knowledge from the level of the “knowledge of living experience,” of common sense, to the knowledge emerging from more rigorous procedures of approach to knowable objects. And to make this shift belongs to the popular classes by right. Hence, in the name of respect for the culture of the peasants, for example, not to enable them to go beyond their beliefs regarding self-in-the-world and self-with-the-world betrays a profoundly elitist ideology. It is as if revealing the raison d’être, the why, of things, and to have a complete knowledge of things, were or ought to be the privilege of the elite. Suffice it for the popular classes to be able to say, “I think it’s . . .” about the world.

What is impermissible—I repeat myself, now—is disrespect for the knowledge of common sense. What is impermissible is the attempt to transcend it without starting with it and proceeding by way of it.

To challenge educands with regard to their certitudes is a duty of the progressive educator. What kind of educator would I be if I did not feel moved by a powerful impulse to seek, without lying, convincing arguments in defense of the dreams for which I struggle, in defense of the “why” of the hope with which I act as an educator?

What is not permissible to be doing is to conceal truths, deny information, impose principles, eviscerate the educands of their freedom, or punish them, no matter by what method, if, for various reasons, they fail to accept my discourse—reject my utopia. This would indeed mean I am falling into inconsistency, into the destructive sectarianism that I once upon a time severely criticized in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and that I criticize today, in revisiting it, in Pedagogy of Hope.

These considerations bring me to another point, one directly connected with them, in regard to which I have likewise had to listen to “corrections” that, it seems to me, themselves stand in need of correction. I refer to the insistence with which, for such a long time now, I have argued the need we progressive educators have never to underestimate or reject knowledge had from living experience, with which educands come to school or to informal centers of education. Obviously there are differences in the way one must deal with this kind of knowledge, if it is a question of one or other of the cases cited above. In each of them, however, to underestimate the wisdom that necessarily results from sociocultural experience, is at one and the same time a scientific error, and the unequivocal expression of the presence of an elitist ideology. It may even be the hidden, concealed, ideological foundation that, on the one hand, blinds a person to objective reality, and on the other, encourages the nearsightedness of those who reject popular knowledge as having led them into scientific error. In the last analysis, it is this “myopia” that, once it becomes an ideological obstacle, occasions epistemological error.

There have been various kinds of negative understanding, and therefore criticism, of this defense of popular knowledge, with which I have been engaged for so long. The mythification of popular knowledge, its superexaltation, is as open to challenge as is its rejection. As the latter is elitist, so the former is “basist.”

Still, both basism and elitism, so sectarian in themselves, when taken at and in their truth become capable of transcending themselves.

One of these ways of criticizing the defense that I have been mounting of the knowledge acquired from living experience, criticisms not infrequently repeated today, to my legitimate astonishment and dismay, is that which suggests or asserts, basically, that I propose that the educator ought to stay spinning in an orbit, along with the educands, around their commonsense knowledge, without any attempt to get beyond that knowledge. And the criticism of this tenor concludes triumphantly by emphasizing the obvious failure of this naive understanding. And it is attributed to me—this defense of a tireless circling around commonsense knowledge.

But I have never actually asserted, or so much as insinuated, “innocence” of such proportions.

What I have said and resaid, untiringly, is that we must not bypass—spurning it as “good for nothing”—that which educands, be they children coming to school for the first time, or young people and adults at centers of popular education, bring with them in the way of an understanding of the world, in the most varied dimensions of their own practice in the social practice of which they are a part. Their speech, their way of counting and calculating, their ideas about the so-called other world, their religiousness, their knowledge about health, the body, sexuality, life, death, the power of the saints, magic spells, must all be respected.

Indeed, this is a basic theme of ethnoscience1 today: how to avoid a dichotomy between the knowledges, the popular and the erudite, or how to understand and experience the dialectic between what Snyders* calls “primary culture” and “developed culture.”

A respect for both knowledges—a respect of which I speak so much—with a view to getting beyond them, must never mean, in a serious, radical, and therefore critical, never sectarian, rigorous, careful, competent reading of my texts, that the educator must stick with the knowledge of living experience.

With progressive education, respect for the knowledge of living experience is inserted into the larger horizon against which it is generated—the horizon of cultural context, which cannot be understood apart from its class particularities, and this indeed in societies so complex that the characterization of those particularities is less easy to come by.

Respect for popular knowledge, then, necessarily implies respect for cultural context. Educands’ concrete localization is the point of departure for the knowledge they create of the world. “Their” world, in the last analysis, is the primary and inescapable face of the world itself.

My concerns with the respect due the local world of the educands continue, from time to time—to my dismay, again—to generate criticisms that see me adrift, caught with no means of escape in the blind alley of the narrow horizons of localization. Once more, these criticisms are the upshot of a poor reading of me—or of the reading of texts written about my work by someone who likewise has read me poorly, incompetently, or who has not read me.

I should deserve not only these criticisms, but far more telling ones, as well, if, instead of defending educands’ local context as the point of departure for a prolongation of their understanding of the world, I were to defend a “focalistic” position: a position in which, oblivious of the dialectical nature of reality, I should fail to perceive the contradictory relations between partialities and the totality. I would thus have fallen into the error we have seen criticized at a certain moment of this text by peasants in the figure of the relationship they cited between salt, as a part, as one of the ingredients, of seasoning, and the latter as a totality.

This has never been what I have done or proposed, at any time during my practice as an educator—the practice that has furnished me the further undertaking of thinking upon my educational practice, from which latter habit of reflection, in turn, has emerged all that I have ever written, down to this very day.

For me, it becomes difficult, indeed impossible, to understand the interpretation of my respect for the local—the local or the regional—as a rejection of the universal. For example, I do not understand how, in so rightly criticizing positions that “stifle” or “suppress” the totality implicit in locality—which suppression I call “focalism”—some give as an example of that suppression the category of “universal minimal vocabulary” that I use in my general concept of literacy training.

The “universal minimal vocabulary,” of course, emerges from an investigation that has to be conducted, and it is on the basis of this vocabulary that we set up our literacy programs. Never, however, have I said that these programs to be developed on the basis of this universal vocabulary ought to remain absolutely bound up with local reality. If I had said that, I should not have the understanding of language that I have, which is manifest not only in earlier works, but in the present essay as well. In fact, I should be incapable of a dialectical manner of thinking.

Without a great deal of commentary, I refer the reader to any edition of Educação como prática da liberdade. I am thinking of the last part of the book, in which I execute an analysis of seventeen selected words among those that have created the “universal vocabulary” on the basis of research conducted in the State of Rio de Janeiro, and applied as well in Guanabara, as Rio was then called.2 A mere reading of these pages, it seems to me, explains the error of such a criticism.

I believe that it is fundamental to have made clear to educands, or to keep making clear, this obvious fact: the regional emerges from the local just as the national arises from the regional, and the continental from the national as the worldwide emerges from the continental.

Just as it is a mistake to get stuck in the local, losing our vision of the whole, so also it is a mistake to waft above the whole, renouncing any reference to the local whence the whole has emerged.

Back in Brazil on a visit in 1979, I declared in an interview that my Recifeness explained my Pernambucanity, that the latter clarified my Northeastness, which in turn shed light on my Brazilianity, my Brazilianity elucidated my Latin Americanness, and the latter made me a person of the world.

Ariano Suassuna became a universal writer from a point of departure not in the universe, but in Taperuá.3

“A critical analysis on the part of popular groups of their way of being in the world of the most immediate everyday, that of their particular customary world,” I myself say in Pedagogy in Process: The Letters to Guinea-Bissau(1977/1978), page 59, “and the perception of the why of the facts given in it, lead us to transcend the narrow horizons of the neighborhood or even the immediate geographical area, to gain that global view of reality indispensable for an understanding of the task of national reconstruction itself.”

But let us go back a way, to my first book, Educação como prática da liberdade, completed in 1965 and published in 1967. On page 114, in a comment on the process of the creation of codifications, I say:

These situations function as challenges to groups. They are codified problem situations, secreting elements that will be decoded by groups with the cooperation of the coordinator. A discussion of them, like that of those we have from the anthropological concept of culture, will lead groups to conscientização, and, concomitantly, literacy.

It is local situations [emphasis in the original], however, that open perspectives for an analysis of national (and regional) problems.

“The written word,” Plato said, “cannot be defended when misunderstood.”*

I cannot accept responsibility, I must say, for what is said or done in my name contrary to what I do and say. It is of no avail, to make the furious assertion, as someone once did: “You may not have said this, but people who say they’re your disciples did.” Without claiming, by a long shot, to compare myself to Marx (not because now, from time to time, it is said that he is a “has-been,” but on the contrary, precisely because, to me, he continues to be, needing only to be reseen), I find myself inclined to quote one of his letters—the one in which, irritated by inconsistent French “Marxists,” he said: “Well, then, all I know is that I’m no Marxist.”*

And as long as I have mentioned Marx, let me take the opportunity to comment on certain self-styled “Marxist” criticisms of me in the 1970s. Some of them—as, unfortunately, not infrequently occurs—failed to take into consideration two fundamental points: (1) that I had not died; (2) that I had not yet written Pedagogy of the Oppressed—which had years to wait—but only Educação como prática da liberdade. Hence the illegitimacy of their extension to a whole body of thought a criticism of one moment of that thought. Certain criticisms may be valid for one or another text, but without foundation if extended to the totality of my work.

One of these criticisms—apparently, at least, more formal, mechanistic, than dialectical—expressed amazement that I had made no reference to social classes—especially, that I had not asserted that “it is the class struggle that moves history.” My critics were surprised that, instead of social classes, I had worked with the “vague concept of the oppressed.”

In the first place, it is inconceivable to me that employers and workers, rural or urban, could read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and then conclude, the former, that they were laborers, and the latter, that they were employers. And this because the vagueness of the concept of the oppressed had left them so confused and indecisive that employers hesitated as to whether they should or should not continue to enjoy the usufruct of their “surplus value” and the workers as to their right to strike as a fundamental tool in the defense of their interests!

I now recall something I read in 1981, shortly after my return from exile, written by a young worker of São Paulo in which she asked—answering her own question: “Who are the people? Those who don’t ask who the people are.”

However, the first time I read one of these criticisms, I sat down for several hours and reread my book, counting the times when, throughout, I had spoken of social classes. Not infrequently, on the same page, I had spoken of social classes two or three times. Only, I had spoken of social classes not as a cliché, or in fear of a possible inspector or ideological censor who might be spying on me and would possibly even call me to account. The authors of such criticisms, generally speaking, although they do not always make this explicit, are in the main uncomfortable with certain particular points, such as: the vagueness of the concept of the oppressed, which I have already mentioned, or of the people; the assertion I make in the book that the oppressed, in gaining liberation, liberate the oppressor; not to have declared, as I have already indicated, that the class struggle is the impulse of history; the treatment I accorded the individual, refusing to reduce him or her to a pure reflex of socioeconomic structures; the treatment I accorded awareness and consciousness, the importance of subjectivity; the role of “conscientization” or consciousness-raising that, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, transcends, in terms of criticalness, that attributed to it in Educação como prática da liberdade; the assertion that the “adhesion” to reality in which the great peasant masses of Latin America find themselves dictates that the consciousness of oppressed class must pass, if not antecedently, then at least concomitantly, by way of the awareness of oppressed person.

Never were all of these points raised at the same time. Rather, one or other of them was brought up in criticisms either written, or verbal (in seminars and discussions), in Europe, the United States, Australia, Latin America.

Yesterday as today, I spoke of social classes with the same independence and consciousness of being right. It may even be, however, that many of those who demanded of me in the 1970s that I constantly explicate the concept, today require the very opposite: that I retract the two dozen times I employed it, because “there are no longer any social classes, nor therefore any class conflict.” Hence the fact that these critics now prefer, to the language of the possible, which holds fast to utopia as a possible dream, the neoliberal, “pragmatic” discourse, according to which we must “accommodate” to the facts as given—as if they could be given in no other way, as if we had no duty to fight, precisely because we are persons, to have them given differently.

I have never labored under the misapprehension that social classes and the struggle between them could explain everything, right down to the color of the sky on a Tuesday evening. And so I have never said that the class struggle, in the modern world, has been or is “the mover of history.” On the other hand, still today, and possibly for a long time to come, it is impossible to understand history without social classes, without their interests in collision.

The class struggle is not the mover of history, but is certainly one of them.

As someone dissatisfied with the world of injustice that is here—someone to whom the “pragmatic” discourse recommends I simply adapt—I must, surely, today, just as I did yesterday, be alert to the relationship between tactics and strategy. It is one thing to call on activists who keep on striving for a world less ugly, to attend to the need that, first, their tactics not contradict their strategy, their objectives, their dream; second, that their tactics, qua route to the realization of the strategic dream, be, be done, be realized, in concrete history, and therefore that they change; and it is another thing simply to say that all you have to do is dream. Dreaming is not only a necessary political act, it is an integral part of the historico-social manner of being a person. It is part of human nature, which, within history, is in permanent process of becoming.

In our making and remaking of ourselves in the process of making history—as subjects and objects, persons, becoming beings of insertion in the world and not of pure adaptation to the world—we should end by having the dream, too, a mover of history. There is no change without dream, as there is no dream without hope.

Thus, I keep insisting, ever since Pedagogy of the Oppressed: there is no authentic utopia apart from the tension between the denunciation of a present becoming more and more intolerable, and the “annunciation,” announcement, of a future to be created, built—politically, esthetically, and ethically—by us women and men. Utopia implies this denunciation and proclamation, but it does not permit the tension between the two to die away with the production of the future previously announced. Now the erstwhile future is a new present, and a new dream experience is forged. History does not become immobilized, does not die. On the contrary, it goes on.

The understanding of history as opportunity and not determinism, the conception of history operative in this book, would be unintelligible without the dream, just as the deterministic conception feels uncomfortable, in its incompatibility with this understanding and therefore denies it.

Thus it comes about that, in the former conception the historical role of subjectivity is relevant, while in the latter it is minimized or denied. Hence, in the first, education, while not regarded as able to accomplish all things, is acknowledged as important, since it can do something; while in the second it is belittled.

Indeed, whenever the future is considered as a pregiven—whether this be as the pure, mechanical repetition of the present, or simply because it “is what it has to be”—there is no room for utopia, nor therefore for the dream, the option, the decision, or expectancy in the struggle, which is the only way hope exists. There is no room for education. Only for training.

As project, as design for a different, less-ugly “world,” the dream is as necessary to political subjects, transformers of the world and not adapters to it, as—may I be permitted the repetition—it is fundamental for an artisan, who projects in her or his brain what she or he is going to execute even before the execution thereof.

This is why, from the viewpoint of dominant class interests, the less the dominated dream the dream of which I speak, in the confident way of which I speak, and the less they practice the political apprenticeship of committing themselves to a utopia, the more open they will become to “pragmatic” discourses, and the sounder the dominant classes will sleep.

The modernity of some of the sectors of the dominant classes, whose position is very far advanced over the posture of the old, retrograde leadership of the “captains of industry” of yesteryear, cannot, however, change its spots. It remains a class position.

And yet this does not mean, to my view, that the working classes ought to close themselves off, in sectarian fashion, from the broadening of democratic spaces that can result from a new kind of relationship between themselves and the dominant classes. The important thing is that the working classes continue to learn, in the very practice of their struggle, to set limits to their concessions—in other words, that they teach the dominant classes the limits within which they themselves may move.

Finally, relationships between classes are a political fact, which generates a class knowledge, and that class knowledge has the most urgent need of lucidity and discernment when choosing the best tactics to be used. Those tactics vary in concrete history, but must be in consonance with strategic objectives.

This is surely not learned in special courses. It is learned and taught precisely at the historical moment at which necessity imposes on social classes the necessary quest for a better relationship between them in dealing with their antagonistic interests. At such historical moments, such as the one in which we are living today, in our country and abroad, it is reality itself that cries out, warning social classes of the urgency of new forms of encounter for the securing of solutions that cannot wait for tomorrow. The practice of setting up these new encounters, or the history of this practice, this attempt, can be studied by labor leaders, not only in courses of the history of workers’ struggles, but also in practical theory courses, later, of training for labor leaders. This is what we are experiencing today, in the maelstrom of the fearful crisis we are fighting, in which there have been high moments in discussions between dominant and laboring classes. Hence, however, to say that we are living another history now, a new history in which social classes are disappearing and their conflicts along with them; to say that socialism lies pulverized in the rubble of the Berlin Wall, is something in which I, for my part, do not believe.

The neoliberal discourses, with all their talk of “modernity,” do not have the power to do away with social classes and decree the non-existence of antagonistic interests between them, nor do they have the power to do away with the conflicts and struggle between them. Any appearances to the contrary are to be explained by the fact that struggle is a historical category, and therefore has historicity. It changes from space–time to space–time. Struggle does not rule out the possibility of pacts and understandings, of adjustments between parties in discord. Pacts and understandings are themselves part of the struggle.

There are historical moments at which the survival of the social whole imposes on the classes a need to understand one another—which does not mean, let us repeat, experiencing a new historical time devoid of social classes and their conflicts. A new historical time, yes, but a time in which the social classes continue to exist and to fight for their respective interests.

Instead of simple “pragmatic” accommodation, labor leaders are under the necessity of creating certain qualities or virtues without which, more and more, it is becoming difficult for them to strive for their rights.

The assertion that an “ideological discourse” is a kind of natural clumsiness on the part of the Left, which insists on holding one when there are no ideologies anymore, and when, it is said, no one any longer wishes to hear an ideological discourse, is itself a cunning ideological discourse on the part of the dominant classes. What we have gotten over is not the ideological discourse, but the “fanatical,” or inconsistent, discourse, which merely repeats clichés that never should have been pronounced in the first place. What is becoming less and less viable, fortunately, is verbal incontinence—discourse that loses itself in a tiresome rhetoric bereft of so much as sonority and rhythm.

Any progressive, who, all afire, insists on this practice—at times in a tremulous voice—will be contributing little or nothing to the political advance of which we have need. But, then, to up and proclaim the era of the “neutral discourse”? Hardly.

I feel utterly at peace with the interpretation that the wane of “realistic socialism” does not mean, on one side, that socialism has shown itself to be intrinsically inviable; on the other, that capitalism has now stepped forward in its excellence once and for all.

What excellence is this, that manages to “coexist with more than a billion inhabitants of the developing world who live in poverty,”* not to say misery? Not to mention the all but indifference with which it coexists with “pockets of poverty” and misery in its own, developed body. What excellence is this, that sleeps in peace while numberless men and women make their home in the street, and says it is their own fault that they are on the street? What excellence is this, that struggles so little, if it struggles at all, with discrimination for reason of sex, class, or race, as if to reject someone different, humiliate her, offend him, hold her in contempt, exploit her, were the right of individuals, or classes, or races, or one sex, that holds a position of power over another? What excellence is this, that tepidly registers the millions of children who come into the world and do not remain, or not for long, or if they are more resistant, manage to stay a while, then take their leave of the world?

Some 30 million children under five years of age die every year of causes that would not normally be fatal in developed countries. Some 110 million children throughout the world (almost 20 percent of the age group) fail to complete their primary education. More than 90 percent of these children live in low and medium-low income countries.*

On the other hand, UNICEF states:

If current tendencies are maintained, more than 100 million children will die of disease and malnutrition in the decade of the 1990s. The causes of these deaths can be counted on one’s fingers. Nearly all will die of diseases that were rather familiar in other times in the industrialized nations. They will die parched with dehydration, suffocated by pneumonia, infected with tetanus or measles, or suffocated by whooping cough. These five very common diseases, all relatively easy and inexpensive to prevent or treat, will be responsible for more than two-thirds of infant deaths, and more than half of all infantile malnutrition, in the next decade.

The UNICEF report goes on to say:

To put the problem in a global perspective: The additional costs, including a program to avoid the great majority of the deaths and infantile undernourishment in the coming years, ought to reach approximately 2.5 billion dollars a year by the end of the 1990s—about the same amount of money as American companies spend annually for cigarette advertising.

Simply astounding.

What excellence is this, that, in the Brazilian Northeast, coexists with a degree of misery that could only have been thought a piece of fiction: little boys and girls, women and men, vying with starving pups, tragically, like animals, for the garbage of the great trash heaps outlying the cities, to eat? Nor is São Paulo itself exempt from the experience of this wretchedness.

What excellence is this, that seems blind to little children with distended bellies, eaten up by worms, toothless women looking like old crones at thirty, wasted men, skinny, stooped populations? Fifty-two percent of the population of Recife live in slums, in bad weather, an easy prey for diseases that effortlessly crush their enfeebled bodies. What excellence is this, that strikes a pact with the cold-blooded, cowardly murder of landless men and women of the countryside simply because they fight for their right to their word and their labor, while they remain bound to the land and despoiled of their fields by the dominant classes?

What excellence is this, that gazes with serene regard upon the extermination of little girls and boys in the great Brazilian urban centers—that “forbids” 8 million children of the popular classes to go to school, that “expels” from the schools a great number of those who manage to get in—and that calls all this “capitalistic modernity.”

To me, on the contrary, the element of failure in the experience of “realistic socialism,” by and large, was not its socialist dream, but its authoritarian mold—which contradicted it, and of which Marx and Lenin are also guilty, and not just Stalin—just as what is positive in the capitalist experience has never been the capitalist system, but its democratic mold.

In this sense, as well, the crumbling away of the authoritarian socialist world—which, in many aspects, is a kind of ode to freedom, and which leaves so many minds, previously calm and contained, stupefied, thunderstruck, disconcerted, lost—offers us the extraordinary, if challenging, opportunity to continue dreaming and fighting for the socialist dream, purified of its authoritarian distortions, its totalitarian repulsiveness, its sectarian blindness. This is why I personally look forward to a time when it will become even easier to wage the democratic struggle against the wickedness of capitalism. What is becoming needful, among other things, is that Marxists get over their smug certainty that they are modern, adopt an attitude of humility in dealing with the popular classes, and become postmodernly less smug and less certain—progressively postmodern.

Let us briefly turn to other points already mentioned.

Inasmuch as the violence of the oppressors makes of the oppressed persons forbidden to be, the response of the latter to the violence of the former is found infused with a yearning to seek the right to be.

Oppressors, wreaking violence upon others, and forbidding them to be, are likewise unable to be. In withdrawing from them the power to oppress and crush, the oppressed, struggling to be, restore to them the humanity lost in the use of oppression.

This is why only the oppressed, by achieving their liberation, can liberate the oppressors. The latter, as oppressing class [emphasis in the original], can neither liberate nor be liberated.*

The first observation I might make on the quotation from these pages of Pedagogy of the Oppressed is that these pages are among those in which I make it very clear of whom I am speaking when I speak of oppressor and oppressed.

Ultimately, or perhaps I might say, in the overall context, not only of the passage cited, but of the whole book (could it have been otherwise?), a particular anthropology is implicit (when not clear and explicit)—a certain understanding or view of human beings as managing their nature in their own history, of which they become necessarily both subject and object. This is precisely one of the connotations of that nature, constituted socially and historically, which not only founds the assertion made in the passage quoted, but in which are rooted, consistently, I feel confident, the positions on political pedagogy that I have argued over the course of the years.

I cannot understand human beings as simply living. I can understand them only as historically, culturally, and socially existing. I can understand them only as beings who are makers of their “way,” in the making of which they lay themselves open to or commit themselves to the “way” that they make and that therefore remakes them as well.

Unlike the other animals, which do not become able to transform life into existence, we, as existent, outfit ourselves to engage in the struggle in quest of and in defense of equality of opportunity, by the very fact that, as living beings, we are radically different from one another.

We are all different, and the manner in which living beings reproduce is programmed for what we are to be. This is why the human being eventually has need of fashioning the concept of equality. Were we all identical, like a population of bacteria, the notion of equality would be perfectly useless.*

The great leap that we learn to take has been to work not precisely on the innate, nor only on the acquired, but on the relationship between the two.

“The fashioning of an individual,” says François Jacob, in the same passage, “from the physical, intellectual, moral viewpoint, corresponds to an ongoing interaction between the innate and the acquired.”

We become capable of imaginatively, curiously, “stepping back” from ourselves—from the life we lead—and of disposing ourselves to “know about it.” The moment came when we not only lived, but began to know that we were living—hence it was possible for us to know that we know, and therefore to know that we could do more. What we cannot do, as imaginative, curious beings, is to cease to learn and to seek, to investigate the “why” of things. We cannot exist without wondering about tomorrow, about what is “going on,” and going on in favor of what, against what, for whom, against whom. We cannot exist without wondering about how to do the concrete or “untested feasible” that requires us to fight for it.

Why? Because this is the being we are “programmed,” but not determined, to be. “None of the programs, indeed, is completely rigid. Each defines the structures, which are only potentialities, probabilities, tendencies. Genes determine only the constitution of the individual,” so that “hereditary structures and the learning process are found to be strictly interconnected.”

It is because we are this being—a being of ongoing, curious search, which “steps back” from itself and from the life it leads—it is because we are this being, given to adventure and the “passion to know,” for which that freedom becomes indispensable that, constituted in the very struggle for itself, is possible only because, though we are “programmed,” we are nevertheless not determined. It is because this is “the way we are” that we live the life of a vocation, a calling, to humanization, and that in dehumanization, which is a concrete fact in history, we live the life of a distortion of the call—never another calling. Neither one, humanization or dehumanization, is sure destiny, given datum, lot, or fate. This is precisely why the one is calling, and the other, distortion of the calling.

It is important to emphasize that, in speaking of “being more,” or of humanization as ontological vocation of the human being, I am not falling into any fundamentalistic position—which, incidentally, is always conservative. Hence my equally heavy emphasis on the fact that this “vocation,” this calling, rather than being anything a priori in history, on the contrary is something constituted in history. On the other hand, the striving for it, and the means of accomplishing it—which are also historical, besides varying from space-time to space-time—require, indisputably, the adoption of a utopia. Utopia, however, would not be possible if it lacked the taste for freedom that permeates the vocation to humanization. Or if it lacked hope, without which we do not struggle.

The dream of humanization, whose concretization is always a process, and always a becoming, passes by way of breach with the real, concrete economic, political, social, ideological, and so on, order, moorings that are condemning us to dehumanization. Thus the dream is a demand or condition that becomes ongoing in the history that we make and that makes and remakes us.

Not being an a priori of history, human nature, which on the contrary is constituted in history, has one of its implications in the vocation or calling to which we have referred.

This is why the oppressor is dehumanized in dehumanizing the oppressed. No matter that the oppressor eat well, be well regarded, or sleep well. It would be impossible to dehumanize without being dehumanized—so deep are the social roots of the calling. I am not, I do not be, unless you are, unless you be. Above all, I am not if I forbid you to be.

This is why, as an individual and as a class, the oppressor can neither liberate nor be liberated. This is why, through self-liberation, in and through the needed, just struggle, the oppressed, as an individual and as a class, liberates the oppressor, by the simple fact of forbidding him or her to keep on oppressing.

However, liberation and oppression are not inextricably intermeshed in history. Just so, human nature, as it generates itself in history, does not contain, as part and parcel of itself, vocation whose contrary is distortion in history.

The political practice based on a mechanistic and deterministic conception of history will never contribute to the lessening of the risks of men and women’s dehumanization.

Throughout history, we men and women become special animals indeed, then. We invent the opportunity of setting ourselves free to the extent that we become able to perceive as unconcluded, limited, conditioned, historical beings. Especially, we invent the opportunity of setting ourselves free by perceiving, as well, that the sheer perception of inconclusion, limitation, opportunity, is not enough. To the perception must be joined the political struggle for the transformation of the world. The liberation of individuals acquires profound meaning only when the transformation of society is achieved.

The dream becomes a need, a necessity.

And, on this subject, another point that has generated criticism has been precisely the role I ascribe, and continue to ascribe, to subjectivity in the process of the transformation of reality, or to the relationship between undichotomizable subjectivity and objectivity, between awareness and the world.

Beginning with the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, not infrequent have been the times I have written or spoken of this matter, sometimes in interviews, sometimes in periodicals, sometimes in essays, in seminars. It will do no harm, however, to take up the matter again now and discuss it anew, at least briefly.

In fact, I have no doubt that this subject, which is always present in philosophical reflection, is not only still a current one, but a crucial one, as well, as the century closes. It continues to be an object of philosophical reflection, which reflection is necessarily extended to the fields of epistemology, politics, ideology, language, pedagogy, and modern physics.

We have to recognize, in a first approach to the subject, how difficult it is for us to “walk the streets of history”—regardless of whether we “step back” from practice in order to theorize it, or are engaged in it—succumbing to the temptation either to overestimate our objectivity and reduce consciousness to it, or to discern or understand consciousness as the almighty maker and arbitrary remaker of the world.

Subjectivism or mechanistic objectivism are both antidilectical, and thereby incapable of apprehending the permanent tension between consciousness and the world.

It is only in a dialectical perspective that we can grasp the role of consciousness in history, disentangled from any distortion that either exaggerates its importance or cancels, rejects it.

Thus, the dialectical view indicates to us the importance of rejecting as false, for example, a comprehension of awareness as pure reflex of material objectivity, but at the same time the importance of rejecting an understanding of awareness that would confer upon it a determining power over concrete reality.

In like fashion, the dialectical view indicates to us the incompatibility between it and an inevitable tomorrow, an idea that I have criticized before, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and that I now criticize in this essay. The dialectical view is incompatible with the notion that tomorrow is the pure repetition of today, or that tomorrow is something “predated,” or as I have called it, a given datum, a “given given.” This “tamed” or domesticated view of the future, shared by reactionaries and “revolutionaries” alike—naturally, each in their own way—posits, in the mind of the former, the future as a repetition of the present (which of course must undergo “adverbial” changes), and in the mind of the second, the future as “inexorable progress.”* Both of these views or visions imply a fatalistic “intelligence” (in the sense of an interpretative “understanding,” an “inner reading”) of history in which there is no room for authentic hope.

The idea of the inexorability of a history that will necessarily come in a predetermined manner constitutes what I call “liberation fatalism” or “fatalistic liberation”—a liberation to come as a kind of gift or donation of history: the liberation that will come because it has been said that it will come.

In the dialectical perception, the future of which we dream is not inexorable. We have to make it, produce it, else it will not come in the form that we would more or less wish it to. True, of course, we have to make it not arbitrarily, but with the materials, with the concrete reality, of which we dispose, and more as a project, a dream, for which we struggle.

While for dogmatic, mechanistic positions, the consciousness that I call critical takes shape as a kind of epiphenomenon, a “spin-off”—an automatic, mechanical result of structural changes—for dialectic, the importance of consciousness is in the fact that, not being the maker of reality, neither is it, at the opposite pole, a pure reflex of reality. It is precisely on this point that something of basic importance turns—the basic importance of education as act of cognition not only of the content, but of the “why” of economic, social, political, ideological, and historical facts, which explain the greater or lesser degree of “interdict of the body,”* our conscious body, under which we find ourselves placed.

In the 1950s, perhaps more by way of an intuition of the phenomenon than as a critical understanding of the same, at which understanding I was then arriving, I asserted, in the university dissertation to which I have referred in this book, and I repeated later in Educação como prática da liberdade, that, while the advance from what I called “semi-intransitive awareness” to “transitive-naive awareness” is automatically at hand, on the strength of infrastructural transformations, the more important passage—that from “naive transitivity” to “critical transitivity”—comes only through serious educational efforts bent to this end.*

To be sure, my experiences with SESI, with which I coupled memories of my childhood and adolescence in Jaboatão, helped me to understand, even before my theoretical readings on the subject, the relations prevailing between awareness and world as tending to be dynamic, never mechanistic. I could not avoid, of course, the risks to which I have referred—those of mechanism and of idealistic subjectivism—in discussing those relations, and I acknowledge my slips in the direction of an overemphasis on awareness.

In 1974, in Geneva, Ivan Illich and I presided at a conference under the patronage of the Department of Education of the World Council of Churches, in which we took up once more the concepts of “descholarization” (Illich) and conscientização (I). I wrote a little document for the conference, from which I am now going to quote an extended passage instead of simply referring the reader to it. (It originally appeared in the WCC periodical RISK, in 1975).

. . . Although there can be no consciousness-raising (conscientização) without the unveiling, the revelation, of objective reality as the object of the cognition of the subjects involved in process of consciousness-raising, nevertheless that revelation—even granting that a new perception flow from the fact of a reality laying itself bare—is not yet enough to render the consciousness-raising authentic. Just as the gnoseological circle does not end with the step of the acquisition of existing knowledge, but proceeds to the phase of the creation of new knowledge, so neither may consciousness-raising come to a halt at the stage of the revelation of reality. Its authenticity is at hand only when the practice of the revelation of reality constitutes a dynamic and dialectical unity with the practice of transformation of reality.

I think that certain observations can and should be made on the basis of these reflections. One of them is a criticism I make of myself, and it is that, in Educação como prática da liberadade, in considering the process of consciousness-raising, I took the moment of the revelation of social reality as if it were a kind of psychological motivator of the transformation of that reality. My mistake, obviously, was not in recognizing the basic importance of the cognition of reality in the process of its transformation; rather my mistake consisted in not having addressed these poles—knowledge of reality and transformation of reality—in their dialecticity. I had spoken as if the unveiling of reality automatically made for its transformation.*

* Georges Snyders, La joie à l’école (Paris: PUF, 1986).

* Amílcar Cabral, Obras escolhidas, vol. 1, A arma da teoria—unidade e luta (Lisbon: Seara Nova, 1976), p. 141.

* Snyders, La joie à l’école.

* Paul Shorey, What Plato Said: A Résume and Analysis of Plato’s Writings with Synopses and Critical Comment, limited ed. (Chicago: Phoenix Books/University of Chicago Press, 1965), p. 158.

* “Carta de Engels a Schmidt—Londres, 5.8.188,” in Karl Marx, Obras Escogidas (Moscow: Progresso), 2:491.

* See Relatório sobre o Desenvolvimento Mundial, 1990, published for World Bank by Fundação Getúlio Vargas.

* World Development Report, 1990, p. 76.

UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), Situação mundial da infância, 1990, p. 16.

* Paulo Freire, Pedagogia do oprimido, p. 43.

* François Jacob, “Nous sommes programmes, mais pour apprendre,” Le Courrier (UNESCO, February 1991).

Jacob, “Nous sommes programmes.”

* Erica Sherover Marcuse, Emancipation and Consciousness: Dogmatic and Dialectical Perspectives in the Early Marx (New York: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1986).

* Paulo Freire, Educação como prática da liberdade (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1969).

In Brazil, it appears in Ação cultural para a liberdade e outros escritos (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1976). In the United States, it appears under the title, The Politics of Education (Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey, 1986).

* Paulo Freire, Ação cultural para a liberdade e outros escritos (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1987).