What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than to pick up a banned book. People ban books for various reasons. Sometimes an author encourages racism or racial harmony. People in power who oppose either idea might ban those books. Likewise, people ban books for blasphemy toward a religious ideology, encouraging violence, promoting a political ideology, or sexual nonconformity. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was banned in various places—South Africa, different Latin American countries, and, quite strangely, in Tucson, AZ. Why?
In South Africa, proponents of Apartheid feared the book as ideological weaponry. How could a book evoke enough fear for people to ban it? Freire challenges the way people learn. He questions the assumption that students are empty vessels and teachers deposit wisdom. He sees students as active participants in the learning process. Much of his presentation is framed by an oppressor/oppressed worldview. I will begin with the latter point.
If we view the world in binary terms, we must identify with one. Thus, if there are oppressors and oppressed, then we must be either oppressors or oppressed. Oppressed people know they are oppressed. They read Pedagogy of the Oppressed and find a new way to learn. They become participants and have value. Few oppressors see themselves as oppressors, and this is where the problem begins. Whether Freire is accurate or not, calling someone an oppressor is not a compliment.
Who wants to be an oppressor? Freire writes, “For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more—always more—even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing” (p. 58). No one wants to be an oppressor. But, once someone has something, it is hard to give it up. Overconsumption in many developed countries functions as evidence of being an oppressor. Even if we say, “I don’t oppress anyone,” we neglect to view the conditions of the vast majority of people in the world.
Freire makes a compelling argument for social change. In the early 1970s, the Allende government of Chile used Freire’s methods to combat illiteracy. Then, the coup under Pinochet ended those programs. In his native Brazil, the thought of having 40 million people suddenly learn to read was a threat to the ruling elites. The elites (oppressors in Freire’s language) viewed his methods as a subversive political act. No one wants people to label them as oppressors. Likewise, no one wants to lose what they have—if they have something to lose.
The book is about reform. It is about changing the current system to include the people who have been excluded. Freire identifies with poor and oppressed people. He pulls no punches in questioning the people behind the social systems that maintain oppression. Liberation, he argues, must include oppression within an individual. He also addresses the generosity of the oppressor. If the oppressor views another person as oppressed or less than equal, there was no liberation. He writes, “A pedagogy must be forged with, not for the oppressed” (p. 48). In my work, I would translate his idea: ministry-with, not ministry-to.
Banned books are not all created equal. Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a classic. Freire presents interesting ideas about how to liberate people. It makes me look at my consumption of material goods. How much would my mobile phone cost if the people who made it had access to the same education and health care I do? The same question applies to my food, clothing, and everything else in my house. In my work, this book challenges my elitist tendencies. For that, I appreciate Freire and effort.