Nikita Lamba | Pedagogy of the Oppressed

By Nikita Lamba*

For seminar 4/13, we turned to Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, which was published in his native Brazil in 1968, and translated from Portuguese into English in 1970.

The conversation, featuring four panelists and moderated by Professor Bernard Harcourt, orbited around two figures—Freire himself and Augusto Boal, founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed—and in a long and fruitful discussion about the continued relevance of the text, we learned that Boal’s theatrical adaptation of Freire’s teaching provides a brilliant and concrete answer to a central question of this seminar, namely, “What are we to do with these texts?

The seminar took place in one of the finest universities in the world, and one of the more expensive ones in Brazil, which made it a fitting place to discuss this revolutionary text on education and a somewhat uncomfortable forum for discussions of class and education—although this was attenuated by a live-stream and the ability to submit questions online. If, as one audience member put it, “education is not a method only, but a place,” then the university itself provided an opportunity for a dialectical reading.

Professor Maria Inês Marcondes de Souza started us off by recounting the history of the text, the significant events of Freire’s life that led to it, and the international recognition that followed. If we were struggling to understand how Freire’s work remains relevant, Professor de Souza led the way, showing how Pedagogy of the Oppressed—a text deeply rooted inthe specificities of his region—gainedinternational significance. De Souza pointed out that during a visit to New York, Freire himself noted the significant parallels between the oppressed in Brazil and discriminated groups in the United States, specifically communities of color.

Although Freire’s international success attests to his work’s wide geographic relevance, Professor Harcourt pointed out that Freire’s binary of “oppressor/oppressed” might no longer be adequate for the present, and that an intersectional approach might require Freire’s hierarchies to be reconfigured to account for nuances of race, sexuality, and gender. A student responded that perhaps the oppressor/oppressed binary could be transposed from class relations to relations between and within individuals, and that we might need to “recognize the oppressor in oneself before trying to liberate anyone else.”

Whether or not the oppressed/oppressor binary remains pertinent, other elements in Pedagogy of the Oppressed immediately resonate with the contemporary reader. In the preface, Freire asserts that conscientização (the perception of and action against oppression) must replace the patronizing sentiment that “it is better for the victims of injustice not to recognize themselves as such.”  (20) Or, in more contemporary terms, we must commit ourselves to improving the lot of the oppressed, rather than placating the disenfranchised and ourselves with the idea that things can be changed within the status quo, that America already was great and merely needs some tweaking.

Freire’s “fear of freedom” resonates in a country where some are reluctant to part with their expensive private healthcare in favor of Medicare-For-All, and others argue that forgiving student debt for the next generation would somehow harm previous generations who paid off their debts. Encouraged by the op-ed departments of the major newspapers, they “confuse freedom with the maintenance of the status quo,” as Freire put it. (21)

His observations on the oppressors’ use of science and technology for their own ends, and on their need to subjugate humanity, also seem suited to an era where the richest man on the planet, whose fortune rests upon superior logistical organization, lets his warehouse workers die for lack of an air conditioner.

Above all, Freire’s model of education—where hierarchies of all kinds are replaced by dialogical relationships, and leaders emerge not from above but from below—underlines the importance of diverse representation in our institutions. As Freire would have recognized, we demand diverse representation because oppression cannot be lifted when good-hearted members of the historically privileged (straight, white, cis, male) lead the charge, but only when marginalized communities lead for themselves, thereby fulfilling their “great humanistic and historical task of… [liberating] themselves and their oppressors as well.” (28)

When leftists claim that allies from the oppressor class must be willing to cede leadership, must be willing to sacrifice their own wealth for radical redistribution, they are not far from Freire, who wrote that “solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture.” (34)


From Thought to Action

Another central question of 13/13 is how we can be compelled to action: in a state of political despondency, how can we feel empowered to make change? As Professor Pele emphasized, what is at stake in Freire’s text is the “making of critical subjects”—a linguistic turn that changes the individual from an object being acted upon to a subject capable of “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” (36) How, then, to translate that shift from the merely linguistic to the corporeal?

Freire’s method rests upon the identification of “generative themes” that lead oppressed communities to identify and overcome “limit situations” through “limit-acts,” the success of which will lead the oppressed to discover their “untested feasibility.”  (86; 89; 92)

But rather than unpacking these terms, Professor Alessandra Vannucci focused on Augusto Boal, a contemporary of Freire’s, who transposed his method from the classroom to the stage, and illuminated a concrete way forward with the Theatre of the Oppressed.

Boal applied Freire’s teachings, using experimental theatrical modes to transform passive audience members into thoughtful and empowered “spect-actors.”  By dramatically recreating their limit-situations and allowing viewers to test out their limit-acts, Boal gave viewers a glimpse of their own untested potentialities, which they could then apply outside the theatrical context. By holding these performances outside rarefied performance spaces, the Theatre of the Oppressed reached diverse audiences and guided them to become spect-actors within the play, and then subjective actors in their own contexts and communities.

The Theatre of the Oppressed tradition continues throughout the world—Professor Vannucci is a theatre director herself, and her fellow panelist Cecilia Boal is the current director of the Theatre of the Oppressed. In considering the varied applications of Freire and Boal, wondering how their ideas about listening and receiving could inform more traditional plays, I suddenly saw Jeremy O’Harris’s commercially successful and critically acclaimed Slave Play in a new light.

As Professor Pele noted, “even silence [is] fundamental to inform free and non-oppressive behavior in the education/political process.”  The importance of silence as an act underscores much of Freire’s text, and he repeatedly stresses the importance of the educator “listening” to the communities she wishes to engage with, in order to identify their generative themes.

Listening is no less powerful today, when marginalized voices have been silenced and denied platforms for decades. And thus, although not a work in the Theatre of the Oppressed tradition, Slave Play can be seen as a contemporary application of many of Freire’s and Boal’s principles, as it forces the oppressors to listen to the oppressed, and encourages viewers to recognize the oppressed and the oppressor in each of us.

O’Harris, a black gay man, deftly forces his presumably privileged—given the upscale theatre and expensive tickets—audience to reckon with race, gender, and class.  While Boal’s theater encouraged the oppressed to recognize their situation and the power they had to affect it by turning them into spect-actors, O’Harris reinforces the audience’s important role as silent, receptive listeners, paying witness to the inner lives of black, queer, historically subjugated characters.

It not only gives voice to the historically oppressed, but also underlines that oppressors who wish to shed their mantles and stand in solidarity with the oppressed must be willing to sit down and listen.

Thus while Freire’s radical reimagining of education has not yet overthrown the systems and institutions of oppression that have taken root throughout the world, the enduring resonance of  Pedagogy of the Oppressed—the ways in which it still applies to and articulates our current situation, and the ways in which we can see Freire’s influence applied in different and wildly creative modes—gives hope that his radical text can still serve as a roadmap for action in the shadowy terrain ahead.


All pages cited from:

Freire, Paulo.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, The Seabury Press, 1970.


* J.D. Candidate, Columbia Law School; B.A. Critical Studies, USC School of Cinematic Arts