The Poor Can Teach Us - Paulo Freire

My years in West Africa included pastoral work in urban and rural areas, teaching in a Pastoral Centre, involvement in a Justice and Peace Commission, leadership training, especially for the establishment of Small Christian Communities (SCC).  All of that has taught me, among other things, the truth of Paulo Freire's words "Washing one's hands of the conflict between powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful!" Not to decide is to decide - infavor of the status quo.  Our world today is characterized by this ongoing conflict/war waged by the rich and powerful against the poor and politically powerless.  It is an inheritance of colonialism, which did not disappear when countries in Africa and Asia got their independence.  The system just changed from 'plunder and raid' to 'plunder by trade'.  The enduring point was to keep the wealth and power where it was since those colonial times.  The plundering powers of Europe and the USA continue to rob the resources of their former colonies whose populations constitute the world's poor.  As Paulo F said, one cannot be neutral in the conflict - one must take sides.  And when sides are consciously taken with the poor and oppressed, a whole counter narrative emerges.

It is a counter narrative about history, economics and politics and it comes from the underclasses.  It is a story that is rarely heard and is often suppressed.  But as Paulo F points out, this narrative from the powerless is more comprehensive and in informed than the one peddled by former colonial powers and the USA.  Their version of the facts is the product of what we call 'the banking model of education'.

Let me try to explain that model.

Paulo F used that term to describe a system in which students learnt by rote and were seen as empty vessels to be filled with learning.  He called for a liberating education based on 'dialogue' between teachers and learners - a learning process that respected people as active and creative subjects.  Paulo argued that 'Learners must see the need for writing on'es life and reading one's reality'.

In the 'Banking Model' teachers make deposits of knowledge into the 'accounts' of passive, unsuspecting students.  What they learn is mostly irrelevant to their everyday lives.  But it amounts to the 'Official Story' which is unquestioned and explains the given order as normal and even good.

On the other hand, Paulo's 'Education for Critical Consciousness' challenges students to question their reality and come up with a solution to real problems and dilemmas - their own hunger and its causes, how to escape from it, and in the process to learn how the world works and come up with strategies to change their oppressed circumstances.

Paulo made distinctions about the stages that learners among the majority poor and oppressed  passed through -

They pass to a second stage - 'to be like the oppressor'. They take the rich and the powerful as their role models.  They want to be like them - wealthy and successful. If they persevere in the growth process, they arrive at the stage where they realize that 'to be is to be neither oppressor nor oppressed'.  It is then they can start taking active and proactive measures against their own poverty and oppression.  Then they can work to really change the world.

Towards that task of changing the world, the poor have experiential knowledge.  They may be formally less educated, but their perception and analysis is more comprehensive and accurate.  Put simply, the poor know more about real living.

Why?  Because those of us who are rich and comfortable can live everyday without contact and consciousness of the poor.  Today we see on our TV screens the reality of war and conflict and famine in parts of Africa and the Middle East.  But we live in communities that are pretty much siloed and insulated from those horrors.  We can switch to the many programs about food preparation or watch the advertisement for that 'big burger'.  The comfortable, unless they make a deliberate choice, have little idea of the lived experience of the world's majority.  We know very little about such people's , cultures, history or living conditions.  Yet some of them our government regards as 'enemies', and we drop bombs on them everyday!  Syria, Yemen could drop off the map tomorrow and nothing for many of us would change.  If the USA dropped off the planet today, the lives of the poor would be drasstically altered - for the better.


The poor have developed 'critical consciousness'.  Their analysis can be more comprehensive, inclusive, credible and full. But that comprehensive knowledge finds little place in mainstream and analysis which comes overwhelmingly from the rich and the powerful who operate through Wall Street, the arms manufacturers and mainstream media.  I give scant credence to their explanation of the world.  I try to understand reality from the viewpoint of the epistemologically   privileged poor and the oppressed.  Their viewpoints are more informed.

So would/could I/we take time to think about such Paulo Freirean insights, and if taken to heart, then put into action?