Plodding Through the Mire with Mayne 

Russ Mayne’s latest publication is an article in EFL Magazine about Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”.

Mayne starts by telling us

Not knowing anything about Freire or Critical Pedagogy, I decided to read the book which has, according to the cover, sold millions of copies.

After that lucid explanation of his decision to read the book, Mayne continues:

When I read education themed books there are generally four things I hope to find:

  1. Interesting and original ideas
  2. Information about research into teaching
  3. Clear, well written prose
  4. Brevity

A book doesn’t have to meet all of these criteria to be good but meeting one or two would certainly be a good sign.

Yes, well, expecting a book to meet all 4 criteria is perhaps expecting too much, especially if you write prose like Mayne’s. He goes on:

The first thing I noticed about the Pedagogy of the Oppressed was that it is entirely conjecture. As someone who places a lot of importance on research to inform my teaching practice I was somewhat alarmed to realise that the entire work is a collection of one man’s opinions about teaching with a few nods to famous political and intellectual figures. Freire does not present educational research nor talk about the research of others.

If you’re someone who places a lot of importance on research to inform your teaching practice, it would be reasonable to be “somewhat alarmed” at what you read in Freire’s book if and only if you were entirely ignorant of the genre to which the book belongs. Criticising Freire for not presenting educational research and talking about the research of others is like criticising Marx and Engels for not giving more precise information about the length, width and composition of the chains they refer to in their manifesto. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not about empirical research, it’s about politics. From Socrates on, philosophers and educationalists have written books like Freire’s, and while they could, I suppose, be clumsily described as “education themed books”, they’re not therefore obliged to enter into discussions of educational research. Books by Godwin, Kropotkin, Dewey, Russell, Illich and Goodman are a few examples of classics in the field of liberal education, where reports of studies giving empirical evidence to support this or that hypothesis are hard to find, but which nevertheless make valuable contributions to our understanding of education.

Mayne tries to apply his crude criterion of “evidence” where quite different criteria are called for. When reading Freire’s text, we have to appreciate that we’re in the field of political philosophy, where abstract constructs are used, political principles are avowed, and value judgements abound. Mayne actually gets warm when, at one point, he says (contemptuously)

Freire’s writing is more poetic than analytical

and towards the end he actually nails it – even though he seems to think he’s adroitly putting another nail in Friere’s coffin:

it is perhaps more accurate to describe the book as a political text which discusses pedagogy than a pedagogical text which discusses politics.  

Bingo! That’s a very good description of the book. We might all sympathise with the view that Freire’s prose sometimes suffers from an overdose of French and German philosophical terminology, but the terminology goes with the territory, so to speak. If you want to understand 20th century (political) philosophy, just as if you want to understand Chomsky’s theory of UG, or Darwin’s theory of evolution, you have to get to grips with the constructs and terms most commonly used. Freire leans quite a lot on the earlier, more philosophical, writings of Marx, and it’s essential to have a minimum grasp of his theory of dialectical materialism and terms like praxis if you want to appreciate Freire’s argument.

One of the quotes Mayne uses to illustrate what he sees as Freire’s “mysticism” is a good example

Education is thus constantly remade in the praxis. In order to be, it must become. 

Such a statement is not best understood as mystical, but rather the opposite. It’s an expression of the philosophical notion of praxis. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx “turns Hegel on his head” and describes praxis as understanding the world by acting in the world in order to change it. He dismisses the search for absolute truth and replaces it with action involving both thinking about and changing the world. Whether or not one accepts such an epistemological position (and I certainly don’t) is not the point here – the point is that Mayne’s criticism is based on misconstruing Freire’s argument and expecting it to conform with his own narrow view of what “education themed books” should be like.

Mayne’s review is shot through with the clumsy use of the same wholly inappropriate litmus test: evidence. At one point he says:

(As an aside Freire’s ideas about revolution are as evidence free as his ideas about education. Thus when he states “the earlier dialogue begins, the more truly revolutionary will the movement be” is nowhere supported by data.)  

What a way to read a book on the philosophy of education!

But Mayne saves the worst for last. In the final section on “Marxism”, Mayne says

Freire makes no attempt to hide his admiration for Marx …  the word ‘critical’ in Freire’s sense is not teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions. Rather it is about making ‘the oppressed’ aware of their situation so that they will act in changing it through ‘Praxis’.

Mayne continues, reliably informed by Singer (2018) Marx: A very short introduction,

Marx’s history was Hegelian rather than scientific. He saw it moving inexorably toward some noble aim. The ‘end of history’ was communism. Marx ‘scientifically’ foretold it and Freire’s pedagogy is intend as the midwife of the final revolution.

Well Marx’s history was not Hegelian, and he didn’t see it as moving inexorably toward some noble aim. The communism Marx spoke of had nothing in common with Lenin’s, and Marx did not scientifically foretell the end of history. And I can’t recall Freire claiming that his pedagogy was intended as the midwife of the final revolution, either. But still, there’s a good argument in there somewhere, if only Mayne were able to make it while respecting what Marx, Hegel and Freire actually said. It’s certainly a good idea to challenge books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and the time has obviously come when it becomes so iconic that people like JJ Wilson start referring to it at an IATEFL plenary. What’s more, Freire was wrong about a lot of things, including, as Mayne says, failing to condemn psychopaths like Lenin, Guevara and Mao Zedong who committed atrocities in the crazed belief that they were defending the revolution. Freire frequently contradicted himself and he took too deterministic a view of how the contradictions of capitalism would unfold.

Nevertheless, Mayne’s review of Pedagogy of the Oppressed makes no attempt to summarise its main points or to give any fair or balanced assessment of it. Freire himself was not doctrinaire, or the kind of bigoted zealot Mayne’s remarks imply. He was deeply religious and deeply committed to his literacy projects. His book has been an inspiration to teachers working in some of the poorest parts of the world who have taken up Freire’s call for an approach to education which engages with those who have been marginalized and dehumanized by oppressive regimes. His banking metaphor of education (and yes, Mayne, of course it’s a bloody metaphor) is powerful precisely because banking is so closely associated with capitalism, and nothing in Mayne’s confused remarks comes close to a coherent argument against Freire’s view.

To return to Mayne’s claim that

the word ‘critical’ in Freire’s sense is not teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions. Rather it is about making ‘the oppressed’ aware of their situation so that they will act in changing it through ‘Praxis’, 

Freire was indeed trying to make those who he saw as oppressed aware of their situation, and he certainly hoped that they would act to change it. We may ask: What’s Mayne trying to do? When he suggests that Freire’s text is revolutionary propaganda, an attempt at brain washing, a betrayal of the quest for truth, he shows no awareness of the ideological baggage attached to his own prose. “Teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions” sounds very like the language Thatcher used when she was Minister For Education in the UK. Too often these demands for independent thinkers to come to their own conclusions are used to support neoliberal, individualistic, everybody-for-themselves values, where Freire’s concerns for social justice are coldly ignored.

By all means let’s scrutinise Freire’s work and challenge its iconic status. But let’s do it with intellectual honesty and rigour.

References 

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. NY, MacMillan.

Godwin, W. (1793) An enquiry concerning social justice. 

Goodman, P. (1966) Compulsory Miseducation. NY, Random house.

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society. Penguin.

Kropotkin, P. (1902) Mutual Aid. London, Freedom Press.

Marx, K. (1843) Theses on Feuerbach Available here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/index.htm

Russell, B. (1924) On Education. London: Allen & Unwin.