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Paulo Freire and U.S. Public School Curricula: A Potential Match?


The writings of Paulo Freire, Brazilian thinker, educator, author, and, some would say, pedagogical revolutionary, have been highly influential among U.S. leftists, particularly in the world of education (Facundo, 1984). Perhaps most well known in this country for his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire introduced many critical concepts into the U.S. educational discourse of the day — and his influence continues after his death. He was one of the first to advocate a liberatory (libertarian) view of education in which teachers and students teach and learn from each other; one of the first to advocate the overturning of the so-called banking system of education (in which one views students’ heads as empty jars into which educators pour knowledge); and one of the first to advocate a discursive approach to education, one in which knowledge emerges through honest dialogue among students in the presence of the teacher, as opposed to their gaining knowledge by listening to lectures.

Public School

Freire’s (1970) overarching concern was that education be transformed from a tool used by the oppressor to a liberating force used by the oppressed. In this way, he believed, the oppressed would become “fully human” — that is, their would become conscious participants in their own emancipation from oppression (Heaney, 1995). To this end, Freire was most deeply concerned that education be seen and actively used, not as a means to maintain the status quo in which inequities existed according to race, class, and other demographic identifiers, but instead as a liberating force, one that would not only encourage members of oppressed groups to struggle against their oppression, but that would also allow them to be front and center in that struggle. For teachers to lead any such revolution in the absence of authentically equal participation of their students, Freire argued, would almost ensure that the basic paradigms of oppression would continue; for the teachers would thus continue to hold to their self-granted authority and therefore maintain the system that, in theory, they wished to overturn. Instead, teachers who genuinely wished to empower their students would simultaneously engage in dialogue with their students, help to facilitate the raising of consciousness of their students, and would ultimately struggle, shoulder to shoulder with their students, to replace destructive social systems with ones based upon egalitarian principles (Freire, 1970).

Freire’s (1970) essential teachings — that students be treated as equals in the educational process; that education be seen as a participatory, dialectical activity instead of a top-down endeavor; that educators consider themselves as agents for social change working equally with those they sought to educate; and that, to achieve these and other related goals, the entire educational system, built primarily to ensure that oppressive hierarchical systems remain in place, would have to change — are enormously attractive to those of us who identify as radical and who became teachers in large part to work toward fundamental, systemic change. However, Freire worked primarily with poor Brazilian peasants, adults who were seeking basic literacy skills. His observations and conclusions were therefore situated in a particular cultural place, one that seems rather remote from the realities of the U.S. K-12 public school system, whether urban, suburban, or rural, poor or middle-class or rich. Moreover, his most influential works were published beginning over thirty years ago, in what many people view as a completely different era.

The questions this paper will investigate, therefore, concern the essential translatability — or lack thereof — of Freire’s work. Can his concepts of liberatory education through the revoking of the teacher’s ultimate authority and an engagement in truly emancipatory dialogue be applied to teenagers in the public schools of the United States? Do his teachings have relevance to Generation Y, or were they only resonant, fleetingly, to some of the children of the 1960s? Finally, can Freire’s ideas be used by radical teachers today in the context of school systems that have moved from monoculturalism to multiculturalism to diversity as globalization? I hope to show that, with certain modifications, Freire is indeed not only applicable to today’s schools, but also essential to them. First, I will present a critique of Freire to balance the overall approval of his work which will be noted in this paper; next, I will explore several applications of his ideas to actual classroom practice; and finally, I will discuss areas of curricular application which I personally find especially critical today.

Freire: Critique and Rebuttal

Facundo (1984) is known as one of the few leftist thinkers to critique Freire. Perhaps this is why, almost twenty years after the original publication of her work, it still provides important food for thought to radical educators today. Facundo asserts some serious flaws with Freire’s work: his writings are obtuse and his definitions vague; in order to truly understand and apply his theories, it appears that educators must be Latin American, Catholic, and Marxist; he contradicts himself by saying both that his work applies in a universal fashion and that U.S. educators need to find their own conclusions and methods; he holds to a very black and white view of the world as divided into either oppressors or oppressed peoples, with little understanding of the shades of gray; and he puts forth an almost “noble savage” perspective of the poor people of the world, as opposed to viewing them as actual, complex creatures. Facundo argues that the prime danger of these and other concerns is that, were Freire’s theories to find their logical conclusion, the world might well become one in which the opposite of truly liberatory education existed.

I certainly understand Facundo’s (1984) concerns about Freire’s theories. I especially disapprove of the view of members of oppressed groups as unilaterally kind, empathic people who, given the chance, will throw off the chains of oppression, not only for themselves, but for all creatures of the world. The reality is far more complicated, and far less optimistic than that; countless examples abound of people who arethe oppressed in one category (for example, race) and the oppressor in another (for example, sex), and who therefore act in seemingly contradictory ways. To me, to see members of oppressed groups as simplistic is as offensive as the idea that all indigenous peoples of the so-called Americas were innocent children of nature.

However, the danger in simply critiquing Freire and other radical thinkers along these lines and thus discredit his overall work is to buy into current conservative thinking that we need do nothing much to change the oppressive paradigms and systems of the world. Just because, for example, certain native tribes on this continent participated in wars does not exonerate those Europeans who attempted to exterminate them. Freire’s main problem, as I see it, was his simplification of the world to classic Marxist terms: once poverty is eradicated, say party-line communists, all other -isms will disappear as well. Such a view ignores the very real interactions between all avenues of oppression along lines of race, class, gender, religion, and so forth — interactions that exist unto themselves almost as a piece of woven clothing. To undo one thread, in other words, will sadly not dismantle the entire thing. The main lesson to be learned, therefore, is that Freire’s theories, when applied, must be understood within an overall context of overlapping, systemic oppressions, complicated to uncover, complicated to unravel, and complicated to replace.

Giroux (1992) also responds to Facundo, albeit indirectly, in his article about Freire and postcolonialism. Essentially, he agrees that those who wish to truly understand Freire must become what he calls “border crossers,” (p. 15), learning about the original context of his work. However, he does not view this as a drawback, but ratheras a challenge to be met. To do so, Giroux argues, one must embrace the notion of “homelessness” (p. 16), which means, in this case, the ability to transcend one’s geographical context and thus be able to include in one’s empathic understanding the cultures, identities, and very lives of those whom one has traditionally labeled “other.” In essence, Giroux notes that those who wish to become liberatory educators in the United States must leave our zones of comfort to learn about the experiences of oppressed groups throughout the rest of the world; by so doing, we will better understand not only Freire’s work, but also the disenfranchised who live within our own borders.

Freire himself, according to Giroux (1992), was a border crosser; Freire himself was an exile, at home in no particular place and therefore anywhere in the world; and Freire himself was able to make the connections between individual and collective identities, thus allowing for the possibility of true alliances to come from sometimes radically different experiences. For Freire to accomplish these tasks was important. For educators, especially white academics from the Global North, it is imperative. Only then will we avoid simply appropriating his work as opposed to incorporating it in an authentically liberatory fashion in our own classrooms.

Classroom Applications of Freirean Ideas

Heikenen (1998) utilized Freire’s ideas in one of her first-year college composition classes. Noting that she teaches mostly white, middle-class males in the United States, en route to professional careers — surely the picture of the oppressor class — she points out that, in the context of classroom dynamics, these students are also members of an oppressed group: students. She further notes that it is as important to encourage members of certain dominant classes to think critically about what they have been taught, as they too are caught up in overall societal dynamics. The students in this particular class were nevertheless reluctant to engage in authentic dialogue as a learning tool when she assigned it for their class, mostly because they had learned very well how to “do school,” as Heikenen calls it, in the traditional, top-down way, and did not wish to change at this stage in their educational process. Moreover, it seemed to her that they did not wish to appear offensive. Therefore, she allowed them to talk to one using interactive synchronous software, in an anonymous fashion, which freed them to say what they really believed without fears of reprisal.

To begin their discussion, Heikenen (1998) used an article written by a female scientist which referred to difficulties she had had in a predominantly male field. Over the course of the semester, the students discussed not only the article itself, but also related issues such as affirmative action. Many sexist and racist comments were made; so were responses which showed the beginnings of critical thought. She concluded that this exercise allowed her students to “demonstrate that what we assume to be static and sacred may not be” (p. 13). Thus, Freirean ideas, usually aimed at disenfranchised groups, also showed revolutionary promise when used with students in privileged classes.

Bigelow (1997), in his high school Global Studies class, used a soccer ball to illustrate the connections between globalization and human rights abuses, specifically in the areas of sweatshops and/or child labor. He first asked his students to describe what they saw in the soccer ball; they reacted mostly with annoyance at the assignment. Eventually, however, he led them to investigate not only the ball itself, but also who made it, where, and for how much money. Their investigations led them to Pakistan, where child laborers, some as young as six years old, make the balls in virtual slavery, in sweatshops made possible in large part due to globalization. Because he didn’t want the lesson to be simply about child labor, but about globalization in general, he divided his students into teams to compete for the business of a fictional transnational corporation. With this game, he helped the students see how multinational corporations locate themselves in countries which offer them the lowest minimum wage laws, the most lax child labor and environmental regulations, the most attractive corporate tax rates, and the harshest conditions for worker organizing.

Bigelow’s (1997) game showed his students how, for the most part, globalization has traditionally rewarded “those who (have) lost sight of the human and environmental consequences of their actions” (p. 10). And he didn’t stop there. He next asked his students to identify items in their homes which were produced in global sweatshops, and to research those countries and their conditions for workers. He asked them to write poems, write papers, and give presentations about what they learned. In short, he asked them to think about what they learned, discuss what they learned, and incorporate their new knowledge into their overall schema for how the world works. Although a variation on the classic Freirean theme of discourse, this series of lessons clearly allows students to learn in a revolutionary capacity, with the teacher acting both as role model — in that he modeled the myth of neutrality as an ideal state in cases involving injustice and suffering — and as facilitator for the students to learn for themselves.

A teacher in a middle school classroom in Chicago, Gutstein (2001) has similar goals to Bigelow: “I want to help my students learn to read (i.e., understand) the world — through learning and using mathematics — as a way for them to begin to write (i.e., change) the world” (p. 6). He uses real-world mathematics projects which help his students — largely poor children of Mexican immigrants — not only learn mathematical concepts, but also learn about the world via explicit examinations of oppression and injustice. One of the most effective of these projects is the analysis of map projections; the students examine two different maps: one, the traditional map in use in U.S. public schools, which distorts, whether intentionally or not, the sizes of certain land masses such that the Global South seems proportionally much smaller than it really us, and two, the Peters map, which was created to fairly and accurately portray the land masses of the earth in a proportional way.

Through their examinations of the different maps, the students questioned their previous learning; they implicated racism as one possible reason why previously-learned lessons had been, in fact, inaccurate; and they began to understand how seemingly innocuous things like maps in fact have quite a lot to do with power and oppression (Gutstein, 2001). Almost as an aside, Gutstein noted that almost all his students achieved passing scores on all standardized measures of mathematical competence.

Frewing (2001), like Heikenen, teaches mostly white, mostly affluent, students, although his are high school age. Inspired by Bigelow (1998), he wanted to teach his students about the realities of conditions for migrant farmworkers in the United States. Therefore, true to his inspiration, he used an apple and a head of broccoli, passing them around and asking his students first to describe them, and then to talk about all the things that went into their production. He asked them how much apples and broccoli cost, how much they believed U.S. citizens typically spend on the food we eat, and how much money they believed citizens of other countries spend on their food. It was brought forth, eventually, that U.S. citizens spend less money than those in most other countries on their food, and he next asked them why they thought this was the case. They told him, among other things, that it was because farmers in the United States don’t have to pay their migrant workers too much money because they “aren’t legal.”

This brought the class to a discussion about suffering, and how much human suffering they believed is acceptable to inflict upon other people by virtue of their citizenship. In turn, this led to discussions about migrant farmworkers in general, Cesar Chavez, farmworker union organizing, racial and class justice, marginalization, and other relevant issues. Finally, Frewing (2001) illustrated the often-grim reality of migrant workers’ lives by comparing the yearly profits of the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry ($28 billion) with the typical salary of a migrant worker ($6,500 a year). As the students are affluent, this last figure was met with shock. Overall, Frewing believes, this unit encouraged his students to examine what they have always been taught (or not taught) about migrant farmworkers and the reality of the fruit and vegetable industry in this country.

Current Curricular Application of Freirean Ideas and Their Importance

Although Freire would have shied away from the use of the word “leader,” Heck (1999) essentially summarizes Freirean theory when she asserts that educators have a responsibility to be human rights leaders. She supports her assertion by noting that knowledge is power, and that power requires careful thought, as it is used to shape the characters of not only our children, but also of our future society. By neglecting to help our students learn to take responsibility for creating a more just society, especially in an increasingly globalized world, we neglect possibly the best opportunity we will ever have to shape the course of our planet. And at this period in time, she notes, the stakes are especially high: we either learn how to stop killing each other, or else face annihilation.

Heck (1999) gives examples of socially responsible curricula such as that created by the Southern Poverty Law Center (in their Teaching Tolerance materials). Not only need students learn about the true history of human rights struggles, especially in this country, but they also need to place them in the context of today’s world. To this end, Heck questions the usefulness of such words as “multiculturalism,” pointing out that they tend to act as a bland substitute for actual, critical thinking about social justice issues. Beyond such classroom-oriented concerns, Heck challenges teachers to think about teacher preparation and administrative issues, making sure that teachers are trained to deal effectively with issues around race, class, sex, and so forth, and that administrations are attentive to issues of discrimination as they relate to their student bodies. Finally, she notes that the entire competitive nature of most of our schools — regardless of whatever cooperative measures some teachers in some schools utilize — must change if what we are after is a truly liberated student body; one that challenges such notions as class stratification, racial hierarchies, and so forth.

Giroux (1997) reinforces the need for educators to be active human rights advocates in his accounting of the rise of what he calls the “new public intellectual” (p. 15) — right wing people from Rush Limbaugh to Pat Robertson who, posing as intellectuals, put forth to the general public a repressive cultural worldview through various popular media outlets. He notes that the effects have been devastating: a growing right-wing culture that promotes hatred and violence against various groups of people; the dismantling of the welfare state, affirmative action programs, and other civil rights legislation; the weakening of unions; and the scapegoating of (largely) poor black youth for problems ranging from drug abuse to crime rates to, ironically, their inability to think critically about important issues. It is this last area that is most relevant to a conversation about educators’ responsibilities to their students in the area of human rights.

Giroux cites many examples of cultural portrayals of youth that seem to embody only two perspectives: youth as apathetic slackers or youth as gang-bangers (1997). He ties these portrayals to both burgeoning racism and classism: slackers, who are usually portrayed as white and relatively affluent, are at least usually non-violent and non-threatening, while gang-bangers, who are usually portrayed as poor young males of color, are highly violent and scary. And these portrayals are not limited to so-called mainstream, adult America; they are aimed at young people as well, in a dizzying array of media from videos games to television shows, commercial soundbites and magazine imagery. Furthermore, Giroux notes, as both liberals and conservatives alike continue to press for the increased globalization of the world’s economy, such images will only multiply as the stock of pat generalizations about this or that group of people increases. He suggests that radical intellectuals need to assume a more public stance to counter these threats. Enter the public school teacher. To this end, Giroux asks teachers to embrace what he calls a performative pedagogy, facilitating students to simultaneously reject cynicism and to learn critical thinking; asking them to learn about struggles for justice and to place them within the contexts of their own lives; and to learn to create their own representational images for the world to view.

Conclusions and Suggestions

I stand firmly rooted in my conviction that Freire and Freirean teachers and thinkers (e.g. Giroux and Bigelow) have opened the door to what must happen in our public schools if we are to create a more equitable tomorrow. Either the children are our future, or they are not. Therefore, either we educate them to consciously view their world, judging for themselves what is just and what is oppressive, or we do not. Either we continue to shape and mold them to maintain the status quo, thinking only of themselves and what they can “get” out of an increasingly globalized economy, or we begin to shape and mold them to shatter this inequitable status quo, creating socially responsible alternatives for currently accepted societal structures. Reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic can get a student a job; but thinking can change the world.

As a very beginning start, I propose that teachers once again organize not for higher wages, not for smaller class sizes, and not for better benefits, but for curricula that incorporate true learning, true facilitation of the students’ critical thinking skills, and the true ability for teachers to abdicate enough authority so to inspire students to take some of it upon themselves (while still maintaining sufficient order in which growing children can feel safe). I call upon teachers to stop accepting textbooks in an unquestioning manner; stop believing that what they themselves were taught when they were young, whether about history or about mathematics, is actually true; and dare to investigate things for themselves. I challenge teachers to be brave enough to demand school reforms that don’t haul in yet another ridiculous standardized test, but instead that completely turn schools inside-out, redesign them, from the earliest grades onward, to teach our students in an egalitarian, culturally-divergent, and change-oriented fashion.

Will such an approach ever take root within the context of the public school system? On the one hand, I say of course not; our school system was created as an alternative to child labor, to keep kids off the streets once they weren’t allowed in the factories and mines anymore, to indoctrinate them using bells and linear hallway formations to fit themselves into the status quo. And it has done a terrific job on the current teachers of the United States. I am rather alone in my views among most of my peers. However, on the other hand, in the spirit of Freire, I believe one cannot underestimate the power of the oppressed. Furthermore, given the horrors of globalization, I believe that whether or not one actually has hope, one must ethically act as if one does — for the world, now more than ever, needs children who are educated in a liberatory fashion.


Bigelow, B. The human lives behind the labels: The global sweatshop, Nike, and the race to the bottom. Rethinking Schools, 11(4), 9-13.

Facundo, B. Freire-inspired programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: A critical evaluation. Latino Institute: Washington, DC.

Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.

Frewing, D. (2001). The Lives of Migrant Farmworkers: A teacher introduces his suburban students to the often-ignored issues of migrant farm labor. Rethinking Schools, 15(3), 14-18.

Giroux, H.A. Paulo Freire and the politics of postcolonialism. JAC, 12(1), 15-26.

Giroux, H.A. (1997). Where have all the public intellectuals gone? Racial politics, pedagogy, and disposable youth. JAC, 17(2), 15-34.

Gutstein. E. (2001). Math, maps, and misrepresentation: A middle school teacher works with maps to help students use mathematics to "read the world." Rethinking Schools, 15(3), 6-7.

Heaney, T. Issues in Freirean pedagogy. Thresholds in Education, 21(4), 1-10.

Heck, M.L. Educators as human rights leaders: A paradigm of praxis. The Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 2(2), 17-30.

Heikinen, D. From Freire to Bakhtin: The role of carnival in the composition classroom. The Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 1(2), 3-14.