Transforming the World by the True Word

This week, finding myself hungry to read something that would stimulate my mind and spirit, I pulled Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire off the shelf.

In grad school, I had this book as required reading for a comparative education class. But one seldom has time to give readings the slow, close read they deserve in grad school. Paulo Friere is a writer whose every sentence is so packed with meaning it demands reflection and meditation. We spent only one or two classes discussing him, but I felt like I could have spent an entire semester discussing nothing but Freire’s ideas.

Central to Freire’s educational theory was the role of dialogue in the educational process.  Education that transforms, Freire believed, could not be a one-sided impartation of information from the superior to the inferior. Rather the teacher must approach as a learner, and the student must also become a teacher. For this interaction to take place dialogue is essential.  This dialogue, if genuine (and only if genuine), would have a humanizing effect on both the teacher-student and the student-teacher.  He wrote:

As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus to speak a true word is to transform the world.

By contrast “an unauthentic word” is one that that neglects either reflection or action, thus is “one which is unable to transform reality.”  “Human existence,” Freire declares, “cannot be silent.”  And to attempt to silence another is, in fact, “dehumanizing aggression.”  Therefore it is only in genuine dialogue, where one both speaks and listens, hears and is heard, that transformation occurs.  These thoughts have profound implications on how we teach, not only in our schools, but in our communities of faith, in our homes, and in our charities and other social service organizations.

What is necessary for this dialogue to occur?  Freire points to five elements: profound love, humility, intense faith, mutual trust, and hope.  Without these dialogue cannot occur.  But these deserve their own full attention at another time.

Author’s note: Speaking of dialogue, my blog posts usually flow out of dialogue.  This one was inspired not only by picking up Freire this week, but also by conversations with my husband as I read him quotes, and exchanges with my fellow blogger Peter here and here.

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One response to “Transforming the World by the True Word

  • Peter

    Another connection that I forgot to make in response to your comment about this book and the block quote: I’m teaching one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues (Meno) to two of my classes presently. I’ve never taught it before. I’ve been amazed at the students’ written dialogues as they get the hang of it and join in one another’s dialogues.

    Reading your post, I’m looking forward even more to reading Freire’s book.

    And I’m with you on writing out of dialogues with others. I’m the same way. In fact, in my other classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, a book that teaches high school seniors and college freshmen academic writing. The authors describe high school academic writing as writing in a vacuum (What great ideas can you come up with on your own?) and college academic writing as joining in a longstanding conversation. I’m convinced after reading the book that high school classes needlessly ignore this powerful motivation for writing.

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