Law in Contemporary Society

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

"Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."

- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Transforming Education

Paulo Freire was a child in Northeast Brazil at the outset of the Great Depression. When the floor fell out from under his middle class family, Freire was exposed to the oppressive nature of Brazil's rigid class system and to its impact on access to education. Though his family's economic situation eventually improved and he was able to enroll in law school, Freire's experience with poverty fueled a continued interest in the relationship between socioeconomic status and education. In 1946, Freire began to work closely with members of the illiterate peasant class, mostly adults, and became interested in helping them develop the tools necessary to liberate themselves from their oppressors and, in the process, to liberate their oppressors as well.

In the second chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire describes what he believes to be a crucial first step in this process of liberation - a transformation of the education system. The "banking" approach to education, in which teachers treat their students as ignorant receptacles to be filled with their "superior" knowledge, "negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry" and reinforces the oppressor-oppressed dynamic. The more dependent students become upon their teachers, the less capable they become of critical thinking and the more inclined they are to adapt to the world rather than to actively participate in and transform it. The banking approach, Freire urges, must be abandoned in favor of "problem-posing" education, a system in which cognition takes the place of narration. Students and teachers must become "teacher-students" and "student-teachers," who both teach and are taught by each other. As "critical co-investigators," beginning to grapple with problems relating to themselves in and with the world, they feel challenged and more obliged to respond to such challenges. The comprehension they gain brings them closer to reality and farther from alienation.

Are Freire's Theories Applicable to Legal Education?

To truly understand the significance of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one cannot divorce Freire's theories from the economic and political context in which they were formed. It is necessary to acknowledge the extent to which Freire's experiences with the oppressor-oppressed dynamic in Brazil influenced his dedication to advancing a system of education that humanizes both the oppressor and the oppressed. The force of Freire's proposed education reform, however, need not be contained within the boundaries of South America and can be instrumental in effecting change in any system of education that encourages students to conform to the world rather than to engage with and transform it.

Though Columbia students come from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, not one of us is a member of the oppressed illiterate class whose liberation Freire was dedicated to facilitating. We are, rather, a "cohort of extremely privileged young adults." This privileged status diminishes the applicability of Pedagogy of the Oppressed to an extent - Columbia's adoption of problem-posing education cannot liberate us from oppression we do not suffer under - but does not eliminate it completely. The world remains in need of transformation and the banking approach to education, whether imposed on members of the dominant class or the dominated, discourages its subjects from attempting that transformation. Abandoning the banking system in favor of the problem-posing system empowers the dominated class - by enabling them to engage with the world and fight for their humanity - and the dominant class - by enabling them also to engage with the world and to acknowledge the humanity of those they have dominated. However weak a form of social control the law may be, a legal education can and should arm members of the dominant class with all available tools for change/humanization rather than encourage complacency with the status quo. To the extent that Columbia's approach to legal education encourages passivity rather than engagement with the world and cements our position of privilege, Freire's theories on education can provide some guidance.

Freire identifies the "humanist revolutionary educator" as the source of the transformation. These educators, Freire argues, cannot wait for formerly passive students to challenge the system. That argument, I think, must also flow in the opposite direction - formerly passive students cannot wait for revolutionary educators. I do not know if Columbia requires professors or career counselors to read Freire's work or to engage with any theories of education reform. If such a requirement exists, the staff and faculty I have met have either ignored that requirement or resisted its lessons in shaping their courses or formulating their advice. Though I can acknowledge the necessity of teaching "law talk" in the first semester of law school, feeling now that I learned how to do very little else, I am not satisfied that the 1L curriculum provided a chance to become co-investigators with professors in the classroom and to engage with the world. I cannot profess to know how to change law school. I know only that I can change my approach to legal education now that I am aware of what, so far, seem to be its limitations. I did little this year to offset the impact of an establishment interested primarily in providing access to Big Law jobs. I did not attempt to engage with my professors in class, as I did with my philosophy professors in college, and I failed to foster relationships with them outside of the classroom. I think this is because I am slightly introverted and slightly lazy. Despite this, I am determined now to graduate from law school with the tools necessary to define myself, not as an oppressor, but as a professional capable of engaging with the world. I think I can do this by seeking out next year what I was expecting to have handed to me this year.

-- ElizabethSullivan - 24 Apr 2012

This revision attaches a rather large amount of "Freire in his context" to a good deal less of you in yours. It does not accept the invitation to get more specific about the pedagogical situation in which you find yourself, except insofar as it embodies self-criticism that I think overly harsh and unfair. No doubt there are ways in which you could have engaged the process of learning more immediately with your teachers in the course of your first year. But I doubt you were lazier, or even much more introverted, than you had been in other pedagogical relationships in the past. (You may well have been more depressed. Depressed people often blame themselves for being depressed. This is usually a category error, and is itself, of course, a symptom of the distress.)

It's even less clear than before what Paolo Freire actually has to do with the situation, however, if you are going to blame yourself for the condition in which you find yourself with respect to the learning you are doing. It's partly an implicit recognition, it seems to me, that Freire's framing takes one only so far in discussing the professional education of university-trained young adults. He becomes just a hook to hang the idea of resisting oppression on.

Perhaps in the end this is more about Gramsci than about Freire, less about the pedagogy that initially socializes us and more about the education, in Weber's sense—distinguished from mere pedagogy—that tells us what can be contested and what "just is." The concern then is less oppression (a category of social treatment that seems poorly selected to define the position of law students here) than hegemony, which affects everyone.

But my own sense is that this is less about either Gramsci or Freire than it is about you. A better revision seems to me to be the one that drops the outsiders. It would eschew both ritual self-criticism and ritual affirmation of aspirational intent, for questions more specific and insights more local. What did you learn this past year? Which learning, in your view, added to your social effectiveness and power? How and why did the learning you accomplished, or your difficulties in accomplishing learning, affect your future intentions? From the actual material of your learning process, not from someone else's theories about someone else's learning process conducted somewhere else in another time, we might learn how to help your learn better and enjoy learning more.


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r6 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:25 - IanSullivan
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