Schindler's List

Promethean Education: Liberation or Chained to the Same Old Rock?

Paulo Freire and the Contradictions of Literate Democracy

A Presentation by

	Dr. Rich Gibson 
	Coordinator of Social Studies and International Education
	Wayne State University

	NCSS Conference
	25 November 1996

I recently returned from a Fulbright research trip to Grenada where I met with the current Minister of Education, installed after the 1983 U.S. invasion, and the leaders of the former revolutionary New Jewel Movement of Grenada, now in an 18th century prison--sentenced to life. Both the Minister of Education and the New Jewel prisoners asked me about developments which might build an ethic of democracy through literacy and citizenship education. They offered to demonstrate to me how they link--in society and in jail--methods of education, especially literacy education, with democratic activist citizenship. Both were interested, for practical and historical purposes, in how the work of the most famous educator in the western world, Paulo Freire, might weave their topics together. Indeed, the jailed New Jewel leadership said they relied heavily on Freire's direction during their brief stint in power from 1979 to 1983.

The irony of their positions and the questions they asked drove home to me the notion that literacy, and education for citizenship, has potential both as a domesticating tool and as a force for liberation. Indeed, in many cases, literacy, critical citizenship, and democracy have little in common. Many slaves were taught to read simply so they would become better workers.

It is riveting yet somewhat puzzling to me that other nations might look to the United States for hints about the relationship of democracy and literacy when the US suffers from an illiteracy rate of about 25%, massive constant color-coded unemployment, the collapse of its social service safety net, an all-out assault on the conditions of work among those who still have jobs, a representative government that can only conduct elections via millionaires, and a twist of scholarship that elevates the geneticist arguments of the Bell Curve to the focal point of public discourse.

In contrast, it seems to me that the underground movements of Eastern Europe over the last decade, and the peoples' movement in Grenada, as diverse as they may have been, could be an illuminating practical ground for North Americans interested in linking literacy with democratic citizenship projects.

But, at the moment, I was the one who was there, the Fulbright fellow who wrote a dissertation on Freire, and I wanted to comment succinctly, with subtle elegance. I found that I could not. So what follows is what I figured out later.

How democratic possibilities of citizenship might be achieved depends on what invariably must become a partisan assessment of current conditions. Any appraisal of the prospects of democratic education through literacy, a literacy that reads both the word and the world, for democratic citizenship must be addressed from an articulated standpoint, on expressed terrain. Just what do you see as the current situation? What would a democratic citizen do about it?

In very brief, I believe, East and West, we function in a world depression which began about twenty years ago and has grown uninterruptedly. Beneath the momentary victory of capital is, at once, the extension of social being, people ever more closely tied with one another through the inexorable work of the economy; and an underlying cauldron of the results of a system which needs to keep people apart: hunger, epidemic, despair. Overlaying the economic and social predicament is the fact that some of the current economic powers, Germany, Japan, and the so-called Asian Tigers, are without military might; while the military powers, the US and possibly China, have a disabled industrial base and economies in deepening crisis--particularly in regard to soaring levels of inequality. This imbalance, as Arrighi and others suggest, will not long persist.

Where democracy collides with grotesque inequality, the usual result is authoritarianism of one form or another. The resurgence of tyrannical regimes (Fugimori in Peru, Brazil, Russia, for example), especially in the former colonial world, offsets claims to the advance of democratic human rights and, more significantly, meets the renewal of kind of social chaos well beyond what might be called organized decay (Ruwanda, Albania). Even reasonably humane governments with relatively honest leaders, like Jagen's Guyana, have no answer for the crisis of resources. Where are they, at bottom, to find markets?

I believe there is no place that the goal of those in power is to create a thinking, active work force or citizenry. Instead, all poor and working people, including teachers, are ever more segregated by class and race, degraded and de-skilled while they are charmed with stories of their own empowerment and the commonality of their interests with their national ruling class--a vulgar if historically triumphant way to turn people into more willing instruments of their own oppression. Concurrent with the rise of inequality and tyranny is the rebirth of irrationalism, an explosion of organized and unorganized superstition, turns to faith and mysticism of one form or another.

Though the economic and political crisis of inequality is especially acute in the Southern Hemisphere, it remains that throughout the world we witness intense calls on the part of the privileged for the national unity of government, corporations and the organizations of working people--an appeal to all-class unity which has ominous affinities to similar corporatist projects in the late twenties and thirties, that is, organized social disintegration under the banners of national interest. Nevertheless, it has been in times of historical crisis, as the one I think we are now entering, that people interested in democratic citizenship and social justice have made the greatest gains--the thirties in the US for example when people won the now evaporating eight hour day, the right to form unions and bargain, and social security laws.

The collapse of the Soviet Bloc underscored the crisis of resistance while it simultaneously revealed the frailty of the modern bureaucratic state. Although today's world democratic movements have fought back and struggled for social justice in electoral arenas, and often won, those movements have changed little or nothing of essence. We now face a situation where it is clear that an economic and political system whose bellwether (the U.S.) jails 1 in 250 of its citizens does not work especially well, yet the purportedly socialist alternative has not worked either. Nevertheless, the material base for shared abundance exists in the world. What trails behind is the consciousness of people. But reality is afoot. Even radicals in education, like michael Apple, are rediscovering the central roles of labor and social class in progressive change.

It is in this context that many educators and agents for change--as well as those who want to construct hegemony in new ways--turn to Paulo Freire, the individual who defines radicalism in education in the Western world. Freire designed the educational programs in revolutionary Grenada (as well as mirror image campaigns in Guineau-Bissau) and was, according to the New Jewel leadership, central in developing their political programs as well. It is Freire, and his Promethean promises of liberation, who I hope to problematize.

Freire invites educators to mix an intriguing 4-part formula of literacy/critical consciousness/national economic development and revolution to create a new practice of democracy, usually in the midst of social decline. Freire suggests we can see, judge, and act--and become nearly impenetrable to lies--if we follow the form and content of critical pedagogy he has conceived. People who attempt to apply this formula typically run into the fact that Freire is a paradigm shifter. He is far more complex than many of those who would appropriate his work.

Freire is also iconicized, reified. There is a little publishing cabal of irresolutely critical pedagogues who heap praise on the ever-unpretentious, but always appreciative, Freire. His few public critics, like the erudite Paul Taylor, chide him only from textual references, and this in only the most generous ways. The absence of a critique of his social practice allows his complexity and internal contradictions to be ignored, and his own counsel, to develop a fully critical outlook for social change rooted in the examination of social applications, denied. Worse, his work is easily and often stripped of its profound political base and used as an elementary training method. Freire is artful in his application of models to social analysis; yet Freire is sometimes applied as a template upon reality by those who he actually urges to be crafty.

My view is, I hope, neither so contradictory nor so idiosyncratic. I seek to ground my view of dialectical materialism in the tradition of Marx and Georg Lukacs, a spacious paradigm which Freire himself claims as his own too.

In the fourth thesis on Fuerbach, Marx begins to warn that it is not possible to be practically dialectical, to understand change, without being a thorough-going materialist. He suggests that Fuerbach detaches himself from a material understanding, and then contemplates his own singular ideas within the limits of his mentally constructed contradictions. Hence, Marx is urging a project that is rooted in the interaction of change and the material world, each recreating the other.

Lukacs sews this thread as a theme into most of his work. In "The Young Hegel", Lukacs indicates that, "contradiction is the profoundest principle of all things..." but, "This doctrine of contradiction can only be worked out adequately and consistently within a materialist dialectic in which it can be regarded as the intellectual mirroring of the dynamic contradictions of objective reality."

Lukacs identifies Hegel as an objective idealist and describes how his dialectics had to play out. "There can only be an objective idealist dialectics (a) if we may assume the existence of something that goes beyond the consciousness of individuals but is still subject-like, a kind of consciousness (b) if amidst the dialectical movement of the objects dialectics can discern a development which moves toward a consciousness of itself in this subject, and (c) so if the movement of the world of objects achieves an objective and subjective, a real and conscious union with knowledge. Thus the identical subject object is the central pillar of objective idealism, just as the reflection in human consciousness of an objective reality subsisting independently of consciousness is the crux of materialist epistemology".

Now Marx attacking the Young Hegelians: (They) "consider conceptions, thoughts, ideas, in fact all of the products of consciousness, to which they attribute an independent existence, as the real chains of is evident (they) have to fight only against those illusions of consciousness...they are fighting only against "phrases". They forget that to these phrases they themselves are only opposing other phrases, in no way combatting the real existing world when they are merely combatting the phrases of the world".

Moreover, a fundamental understanding of historical materialism is that the elements of the new world are within the materiality of the old, including the ideas necessary to forge a leap from one to the next. It follows that a deep study of particulars, coupled with transformative practice guided by this study, is the both the source and the route toward social change. Lukacs suggests the objective idealist stance subverted Hegel's project of understanding what it is that makes people continue to allow themselves to be turned into instruments of their own oppression.

For Freire, the material world is subordinate to, and plays itself out in, the world of ideas and religion. Consider the obvious parallel of reading the word, the world, critical consciousness and revolution, with reading the word and revelation, "Blessed is he that readeth the words for the time is at hand." (Revelations 1:3) In Freire's framework, like Hegel's, God would be interested in dialectical materialism. This distinguishes Freire from a subjective idealist, one who would argue that the material world is simply an enchantment of the mind. In Freire, the world and the mind exist, but only as territory in the mind of a god.

However complex and contradictory--for Hegel could hardly be considered a patron of traditional organized Christianity--Christianity and Hegelianism are at the heart of Freire's theoretical base, the sources of his idealism--which Lukacs has identified as objective idealism. Freire's comment that he never lost Jesus when he discovered Marx has biblical roots that Freire has not specifically noticed. Consider Acts 4:35, "...and distribution was made unto everyone, according as he had need." But Christianity and Hegelianism, both wellsprings of Marxism, are also the foundations for Freire's reverence for equality and the importance of leadership and ideology.

I think his objective idealism leads Freire to an apparently impossible binary, a contradiction: literacy for liberatory consciousness and literacy for national economic development. In the absence of a profound sense of materialism, Freire can only be superficially dialectical. The consciousness of mind is never as rich and complex as the objects and subjects it interacts with. In other words, Freire embodies a contradiction, a contradiction necessarily flowing from the binary created by his objective idealism: he believes ideas change the world, or that national technological/economic development changes the world. Either we become what we wish, a correct reading of the world creates a just world; or we become what the nation can develop, a form of late Bolshevik mechanical materialism. This brittle binary, again, rises from the fact that Freire is an objective idealist, one who finally privileges consciousness over being and whose interest in dialectical materialism is subordinate to his beliefs in God and abstractions about reason. While he rarely makes materialist claims (the words political economy or surplus value get no attention in his works, though he does occasionally affirm or deny class struggle, depending on what one reads), Freire is as modest dialectician as he is a pedagogue, humbly imperious about his abilities. For Freire, an understanding of the infinite complexity of the real world is, in theory and practice, reduced to a naive antimony, as opposed to the multitude of interrelating contradictions that are available to the materialist view.

Here Lukacs is especially helpful, " The theoretical cul-de-sacs of the bourgeoisie idealist philosophy , which are continually re-emerging, very often originate in an abstract and antinomic contrast between the material and the mental, the natural and the social, which inevitable leads to the destruction of all genuine dialectical connections and thus makes the specific character of social being incomprehensible".

While Freire recognizes a democratic and egalitarian utopian goal, he urges paths, liberatory consciousness and national development, idealism or mechanical materialism, which are in harsh opposition to each other. In practice, you get the jailed New Jewel leaders of the Minister of Education in country losing interest in critically democratic citizens---because national economic development was far more important to them than critical consciousness. But even with this analysis, reality is always more complex than our comprehension--more interpenetrating than the binaries we too might conjure.

Freire's idealism on the one hand and mechanical materialism on the other--a contradiction among many Freire is willing to live with--allows his admirers to uncritically appropriate only parts of him, without addressing his complexity. Some adopt Freire's humanism and ignore his politics, others adopt his politics and abuse his humanism. The Grenadian and Guinea Bissau revolutions appropriated the Freire for national economic development and abandoned his ideas about equality and democracy while the Swedes, among many, lift his humanist and constructivist approaches to literacy, and repress his revolutionary politics.

Still, in Freire is also the sense that dialectical materialism, as a subset to the objective idealist framework, and the primacy of class struggle and social practice, is a coherent way to comprehend and act on the world. His demands for a critique of praxis create a fair ground for examining his own ideas and others. Moreover, Freire's insistence on the importance of ideology and leadership to social change and education lays the basis to explore the promise of ideology linked to material equality.

Let's look at a simplified approach to how this works. Remember, Freire embodies a contradiction, a unity of opposites in struggle. What I am about to pose is but a useful photo of what should be better seen as a complex film always in motion.

Paulo Freire: Paradigm Shifter The Idealist Freire

1. All of history is a process of human events. 2. Culture and language are primary indicators of this process. 3. Hence, to grasp history, analyze culture and language... 4. ...through literacy achieved via cultural investigation and dialogue. 5. Leaders and teachers are motivated, and linked to the masses and students, by respect, dialogue, and love, which overcomes inequality. 6. Literacy classes are student-centered, texts rise from student experience. 7. Inequality is examined as dehumanization, spiritual weariness, historical anesthesia, cultural invasion. 8. Change is achieved through new consciousness gained through literacy and new approaches to language: education for freedom. 9. The state, government, is mediated terrain, a potential ally. 10. In political activity, pluralism, that is the Workers party of Brazil. National culture and economic development are privileged. 11. False consciousness is defeated by critical analysis. 12. Alienation is defeated by deconstructing hegemony. 13. In theory: this is the Post-modernist Freire; sex-gender, race, class, nation, are simultaneously pivotal. 14. Racism is analyzed primarily as an ideological system--or denied. 15. Resistance or praxis is equated to literary deconstruction. 16. Inequality defeated by heightened consciousness. i.e., Traditional Social Democracy

Paulo Freire, Paradigm Shifter The Mechanically Materialist Freire

1. All history is the history of the struggle for production, then class struggle. 2. Production and technology are the primary indicators. 3. Hence, to transform reality analyze and achieve production... 4. Through literacy won via directive and steered dialogue. 5. Teachers and leaders motivated love, party or leader worship, and national economic development. Personality cults rise: Cabral, Bishop, Castro, etc. 6. Inequality is examined via revolution and revolutionary party. 7. Change is achieved via revolution and a revolutionary party. 8. The state, government, is to be smashed, then appropriated. 9. False consciousness defeated by national commitment to revolutionary national economic/technical development. 10. Alienation defeated in praxis by revolution, then economic improvements. National development requires support for national bourgeoisie. 11. Centralism in politics, i.e. New Jewel, Cuba, etc. 12. In theory, class is pivotal; race, sex/gender, national secondary. 13. Racism analyzed as system of exploitation, always immediately overcome by the revolution. 14. Resistance is guerrilla or revolutionary war. 15. Inequality defeated by technological change which creates abundance, that is, by the restoration of capitalist relations, the party bourgeoisie, red experts, etc., which promises an egalitarian future. i.e., Vulgar Marxism

I believe social democracy and doctrinal Marxism, which I have represented as idealism and mechanical materialism, are failed systems as seen in Allende's Chile, Castro's Cuba, Bishop's Grenada, or the completely bungled not-so Soviet Union. The history of left and right Hegelianism, the elements of Freire's contradictions, both of which rely heavily on the good will of intellectuals and the postponement of equality in exchange for abundance, will not get anyone to critical democratic citizenship. Abundance alone will never lead to equality, which I consider the bedrock to democracy. Consciousness alone will never lead to democracy. You simply cannot get there from here on either route.

Where I think Freire goes wrong, for what it's worth, is to fail to recognize the importance of his own call for the critical role of ideology and critical analysis, that is the role of ideas as a material force--especially the idea of equality. Just as literacy does not necessarily have anything to do with liberation or democracy, neither does development or abundance lead to democratic equality or social justice.

Freire relies heavily on the theory of productive forces, both in the idealist Freire and the doctrinal Freire--a model within orthodox Marxism which overestimates the role of technique of production and privileges technological advance far above the social relations of production. In other words, the theory of productive forces insists that in order for democratic and egalitarian citizenship to become a reality, it is necessary to create abundance. To fashion abundance requires rapid industrialization, which in turn, demands material rewards for political and technical experts, which requires inequality which will, someday, become equality. This is not to reduce caudillo cults of personality, nationalism hidden in socialist cloth, the repeated failure to address questions of sexism and sexuality, the use of professional armies as hooligans of new elites, or any other of the rocks which shipwrecked socialism, to a single demonic theory. It is, though, a mostly uncharted rock. Remarkably, all of the purportedly socialist revolutions of the century were made with armies that were more or less egalitarian and democratic, but conquering regimes almost immediately installed a new undemocratic privileged aristocracy in the name of promoting economic development for, postponed, equality.

This really demonstrates the twin relationship of what some leftists know as sectarianism and opportunism. Both rise, if we are to estimate that the agents of change are reasonably honest, out of an insufficiently profound analysis of the material world, rooted in a similar philosophical error. Sectarianism and opportunism are two faces of opposition to real critical and democratic citizenship, based at once in deep fear of the people, elitism, and fear of mass struggle; and in support of privilege, hero iconicization, mesmerized mass action, or passivity--once the party of Freire's revolution is in power, stop wondering about equality or the division of surplus value. Sectarianism overestimates the primacy of the material world, making it appear that matter changes only at its own reified pace--the mechanically materialist Freire. Opportunism contends that matter is only changed through the force of ideas, often individual ideas, not concrete, analytical, egalitarian mass struggle--the idealist Freire. Sectarianism and opportunism combine to form the fatalistic belief that the world, matter, will surely change in wa we desire. Both finally limit or deny the significance of fully reflective human agency--grasping and transforming the world at its political and economic roots. We have seen these mis-estimations quickly turn into the opposites of their civic claims far too often. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

I suggest we could resolve the untenable contradiction of national economic development and democracy by uniting them under the rubric of the moral imperative of equality---in both the mode (decision-making) and means (equality in distribution) of production. This suggests we not only examine discourse and culture, but that we pay particular attention to the creation and distribution of surplus value--both in terms of the creation of goods and the creation and distribution of surplus time--which goes to the foundations of creating culture.

Freire's contributions around the pivotal nature of praxis as the testing ground for knowledge, the centrifugal role of leadership---and the importance of the unity of leaders and educators with the masses and students alone are worth the complex encounter that occurs when assaying the fellow who calls himself the Vagabond of the Obvious--Paulo Freire.

Nevertheless, what is clear at this historical moment, is that the people of the world have never been educated, as technologically and culturally advanced, as they are now. All of the history of oppression demonstrates that where there is oppression there is always resistance. Oppression is both ideological and material: Texaco songs and Patriot missiles, interacting with one another. What lies behind language is not technique but power. That is, discourse analysis in the tradition of the idealist Freire, will not supply the social forces necessary to make change. Moreover, what drives production is not technology but social relations--again imbued with imbalances of power--a process which the doctrinal Freire undervalues. Freire does offer a chance to underline Lukacs' position, interestingly ratified later by Maoist economics, that consciousness rising out of social relations must, at some point, strip ahead of the development of technologies in the means of production. Within Freire's contribution about the importance of ideology is the hint that equality might merge the contradiction, not by overlapping idealism with materialism, but simply with a new understanding rising from a mostly social, rather than mostly technological vision.

While educators, especially social studies educators concerned about citizenship, are being urged by elites to join them in the efforts of dominance to tamp down the democratic expectations of the mass of people; it remains that to do so is to ignore the old revolutionary adage that an injury to ne only precedes an injury to all: to join in the organization of decay is to eventually organize one's own rot. Educators who tacitly support the stratification of children by class. sex, and race, will themselves find their wages tied to the parental incomes of those they teach. Moreover, passive educators, or partisans who opt to oppose the valuable contributions of Freire's work on education for transmission or transformation, will be unable to unpack the alienation they themselves will devise in classrooms driven by standardized curricula, national examinations, and burgeoning student counts.

We who profess to stand for education for citizenship must make problematic the intersections of power and inequality that may block our best laid plans. The key area of agreement, for example, of the U.S.-installed Minister of Education in Grenada and the former revolutionary New Jewel leaders now in prison, was that education must serve national economic development. The implications of that decision are extraordinarily perplexing. As both sides of this struggle are intensely aware, ideas have consequences. The New Jewel leaders have been unjustly held as political prisoners since 1983, for crimes I believe they did not commit. The Minister of Education has no desire to take either of Freire's paths. So, what is at issue for people who look to education seriously as a passage to citizenship is to determine just where it is we want to go and how we hope to get there. That, I hope will provide a focus to some of our actions forthwith.