Critical Pedagogy from Paulo Freire to bell hooks


In the early 1990s, Paul Buhle made the following observation: “To the question: ‘Where did all the sixties radicals go?’, the most accurate answer would be: neither to religious cults nor yuppiedom, but to the classroom.”[1] In fact, many did end up in a cult or commune, but those who continued the struggle did so in the classroom. Faced with political defeat, many sixties radicals plumped for a teaching career, hoping to politicize a new generation of students. “Critical pedagogy” is the product of this conjuncture. It is best thought of as the politicization of education. Its aim is to educate people to create a more just, free, and equal society. There are few academic fields that are as unapologetically leftist as critical pedagogy. Its rhetoric is radical, if not revolutionary. In the words of a leading critical pedagogue, “the overriding goal of education [is] the creation of conditions for social transformation through the constitution of students as political subjects who recognize their historical, racial, class, and gender situatedness and the forces that shape their lives and are politically and ethically motivated to struggle in the interest of greater human freedom and emancipation.”[2]

Few leftists would object to such an education. And yet they should be wary. Critical pedagogy presumes to teach students about their “historical situatedness,” yet it fails to comprehend its own. Critical pedagogy arises as an outgrowth of the New Left long after that movement ceases to be politically viable. It imports the militancy of a bygone era into the classroom without reckoning with its practical failure. This contradiction—between classroom radicalism and political defeat—is concealed from students who look to critical pedagogues for guidance. Failing to come to terms with the New Left’s history of defeat, critical pedagogy is bound to repeat it. Far from being an agent of “radical social change,” it is an obstacle to it.

The Pseudo-Radicalism of Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) is often considered the founding text of critical pedagogy, but its relation to the field is complex and somewhat tangential. First, Freire’s text is a product of the 1960s—a moment of political opportunity with activism around civil rights, decolonization, and the mounting tensions of the Cold War—whereas critical pedagogy does not emerge as a field of study until the 1980s—politically a far less propitious time. Second, Freire’s thinking developed in a Third-World context where the main educational challenge was low literacy. Critical pedagogy, on the other hand, takes as its point of departure the administered societies of the West. The canonical status of Pedagogy of the Oppressed is therefore problematic.

In the course of his career, Freire established himself as Brazil’s leading literacy expert. After graduating with a degree in law, he worked for the Serviço Social da Indústria (SESI), an organization set up by industrialists to promote the welfare of workers. Within this paternalistic framework, Freire began to develop more radical ideas. He was influenced by liberation theology and existentialism, and, more importantly, the developmentalist nationalism promoted by Instituto Superior de Estudos Brasileiros (ISEB), a government think tank. Most Brazilian intellectuals agreed that to modernize the country, it would be necessary to mobilize the workers and rural masses. As things stood, however, they were excluded from political participation. A literacy requirement disenfranchised nearly half the population (some forty million people). It was clear, then, that Freire’s literacy programs would play a key role in bringing about social change. The question was: what kind of change?

Freire and his colleagues realized that literacy could be used as a tool to raise consciousness. The “Freire method” taught students not just to read and write but to think critically about their situation. Using verbal and pictorial representations of suggestive concepts (e.g. “favela”), students learned to “decode” the words and their associated realities.[3] The teaching materials emphasized the difference between nature and culture, attuning learners to the idea that reality was the product of their own activity, and could therefore be changed.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed develops this method into an educational philosophy. It does not explain what oppression is or who the oppressors are, except in the most cursory terms.[4] Rather, it investigates how the teaching situation can model (prefiguratively if you will) the state in which the oppressed take responsibility for their oppression and overcome it, thereby becoming historical actors. Since their task is to emancipate themselves, Freire argues that we cannot rely on a traditional pedagogical model in which the teacher tells the student what to think and do. Freire calls this the “banking” model of education because it conceives of the learner as a piggy bank in which the teacher “deposits” knowledge (72). This model reduces the student to a passive object of instruction. To use this model to teach emancipation would be to reproduce the form of the relation between oppressor and oppressed even while challenging its content. Freire’s alternative is a “problem-posing” approach to education, which he understands in dialectical terms (79). The student is no longer a passive recipient of knowledge but a subject who transforms objective reality by reflecting on it. The teacher guides this process by facilitating dialogue. A truly critical pedagogy, Freire argues, must be dialogical, in the sense that teacher and student engage in dialogue as equals, but also, more profoundly, in the sense of generating true words that are able to transform the world.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is widely understood as offering a revolutionary perspective.[5] This is partly the result of its use of Marxist terminology. But, as Triviños and Andreola observe, Freire used “Marxist categories of analysis” even as he dismissed “Marxist ideology.”[6] Freire never took part in independent working-class politics. In fact, he did the opposite. Freire’s work is characterized by a glaring contradiction between theory and practice. Pedagogy of the Oppressed takes a stand for the self-emancipation of the oppressed, but Freire himself only ever worked within top-down, state-led frameworks, often in direct competition with those who sought to organize the working class independently. Freire worked for reformist governments in Brazil and Chile, supranational organizations such as the FAO and UNESCO, and various one-party states. The only independent (i.e. civil society) organization he ever belonged to was the church. In retrospect, it is clear that Freire’s literacy work in rural Brazil was instrumentalized to smother a more radical alternative. The Cold War made adult literacy a major political issue. With high illiteracy rates in the Third World, the effort to educate the rural poor became an urgent problem, not least to counter—or encourage—the spread of communism. Rattled by the success of the Cuban Revolution, the Kennedy administration established the Alliance for Progress, an aid program that promised a “middle-class revolution” in Latin America.[7] Freire’s literacy programs were partly funded by it.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is full of revolutionary rhetoric, but the text betrays a very different kind of politics, aligning Freire with New Left radicals around the world. The ultimate goal of critical pedagogy, Freire argues, is to prepare the oppressed for revolution. This means helping them to eradicate the “oppressor consciousness” they have internalized (55). As Freire writes, “if [the oppressed] are drawn into the [revolutionary] process as ambiguous beings, partly themselves and partly the op­pressors housed within them—and if they come to power still em­bodying that ambiguity imposed on them by the situation of oppression—it is my contention that they will merely imagine they have reached power. Their existential duality may even facilitate the rise of a sectarian climate leading to the installation of bureaucracies which undermine the revolution” (127). Freire is suggesting that a cultural revolution must precede a political revolution.[8] But this is putting the cart before the horse: only political revolution can create theconditions to fulfill what Freire calls humanity’s “historical vocation to be more fully human” (55). Freire, however, is not at all convinced that the oppressed are able to lead this struggle—not until education has removed the stigmata of their oppression. When Freire calls for revolution, what he means—and what much of the New Left meant by it—is a gradual process of piecemeal reforms, a “long march through the institutions.”

The failure of the New Left manifests as its dispersal into academia in the late 1970s. Freire himself is a good example of this. As a civil servant, he sought to improve literacy among peasant communities in rural Brazil. But his political career was cut short by the 1964 coup. While exiled in Chile, he wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The book launched him on an international career, teaching at Harvard and consulting with governments around the world on how to improve their education systems. It is at this point that Freire’s work takes a critical turn—when it’s too late. While Freire’s trajectory reflects the specific political conditions of Brazil, it also illuminates the fate of the New Left everywhere. Failing to lead the “oppressed” in revolt, it entered the academy, hoping to keep the spirit of dissent alive even as political momentum waned.

The Rise of the Academic Left

The death of the New Left brought on the emergence of the academic left. This led to a “Marxist turn” in scholarship in the 1970s and beyond. In pedagogy, this critical turn was sparked by the publication of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America (1976). They argued that the emancipatory potential of education is limited by its inscription in a capitalist economy. Education was to be understood primarily as a mechanism of social reproduction. Critical pedagogy as a field arises in opposition to Bowles and Gintis’s perceived pessimism. Scholars such as Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren critiqued their “determinism” and “anti-utopianism,” seeking to replace it with a “language of possibility.”[9] Schools weren’t just mechanisms of social reproduction; they were autonomous institutions with scope for “resistance” and “contestation.”[10] Importantly, both sides claimed to be the authentic Marxists. One proceeded from an economic analysis of the base, the other from the contradictions in the superstructure. To the “orthodox” Marxism of the economists, the critical pedagogues opposed a “Western” or “critical” Marxism drawn from the Frankfurt School and Gramsci. But the split between an “economic” and a “political” Marxism actually registered its disintegration and defeat.

In trying to uphold the “spirit of ‘68,” the critical pedagogues reached for Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, retroactively establishing it as the field’s foundational text. Because Pedagogy of the Oppressed focuses on the transformation of individual consciousness, it was seen as a much-needed hopeful gesture, an antidote to the pessimism of the functionalists. Politically, however, the difference between the critical pedagogues and the functionalists was negligible. Each camp imagined social change as the gradual transformation of liberal society through a “long march through the institutions.”[11] What was at issue was the role education would play in this process. The functionalists thought education would play a minor role, whereas for the critical pedagogues it was the main lever for social change.

Critical pedagogy’s rapid development in the 1980s was fueled by the rise of new critical discourses. The academicization of dissent—which was in full swing during this period—was not taken as a sign of political crisis but rather experienced as a moment of opportunity. Postmodernism offered new theoretical frameworks and ideas, which, it was hoped, would bring new possibilities—even political possibilities. To give a sense of the giddiness and myopia reigning in the postmodern university, consider Terry Eagleton’s bestselling Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), which prophesied the theoretical innovations of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault would “awaken the lion” (i.e. the workers).[12] When the book was reissued in 1996, Eagleton added an afterword in which he was less optimistic. “Among the more glamorous commodities which postmodern society has on offer,” he wrote, “is cultural theory itself.” Eagleton now argued that postmodern theory, far from being a politicizing force, was a “substitute for political activity,” and therefore depoliticizing.[13] Just as the politics of the New Left had run aground, so postmodern theory turned out to be a cul-de-sac.

In their dogged search for a “language of possibility” the critical pedagogues had shot themselves in the foot. They had effectively exchanged one language of impossibility, functionalist Marxism, for another, the postmodern critique of “master narratives.” In a famous paper, the feminist scholar Elizabeth Ellsworth argued that critical pedagogy’s key concepts and aims—“‘empowerment,’ ‘student voice,’ ‘dialogue,’ and even the term ‘critical’—are repressive myths.”[14] Thus the identity-based discourses of postmodernism deconstructed what was left of the utopian horizon, restricting the political outlook of critical pedagogy to questions of “inclusion” and “recognition.”

The Road to bell hooks

To illustrate where critical pedagogy ends up, consider bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress (1994). hooks’s text is at once a product of postmodernism and an indictment of its politics. Why, she asks, do “white supremacy, imperialism, sexism, and racism” persist when theory provides us with the tools to deconstruct them?[15] hooks argues that critical pedagogy ought to teach students to transgress the boundaries race, class, and gender. But she does not conceive of this as a political project. Rather, she argues that critical pedagogy must speak to the “lived experience” of marginalized groups (75). hooks essentializes experience and makes it the condition of authentic knowledge. Critical pedagogy comes to be about celebrating “the value and uniqueness of each voice” (84). In short,when postmodernism gets “political” it becomes identity politics.

It is worth rehearsing hooks’s argument for identity politics. She takes as her point of departure the idea that “race, sex, and class privilege empower some students more than others, granting ‘authority’ to some voices more than others” (185). The goal of identity politics is to chip away at the authority of the dominant voice while centering voices that were hitherto ignored or suppressed. This is done by tying experience to identity, by making what one says an expression of who one is. As a result, the dominant voice is particularized as the voice of a white heterosexual male, thereby losing its supposedly universal character. By the same token, marginalized voices attain equality vis-à-vis the dominant voice. But this is a pyrrhic victory. It is not just the dominant voice but the voice of suffering that is stripped of its authority. Oppression becomes something personal, a function of one’s “lived experience.” If the dominant groups can no longer speak on behalf of others, neither can the oppressed.

This is a boon to the ruling class. hooks unwittingly reproduces the logic of neoliberalism. Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” is echoed by hooks’s emphasis on the “uniqueness of each voice.” Both Thatcher and hooks elide the actuality of society. Similarly, the politics of diversity and inclusion was co-opted from the start. When Bill Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over,” he did so by promising an end to discrimination.[16] hooks’s pedagogy is based on the very principles that animated the politics of the Democratic Party at the time. The ideal classroom resembles the ideal society, a community “where everyone’s voice can be heard, their presence recognized and valued” (185). Presumably, such a community can be achieved within existing social relations.

hooks presides over a radical lowering of horizons. If for Freire “the radical is never a subjectivist,” hooks puts her faith in identity politics.[17] If for Freire there could be no liberation without the “transformation of objective reality,” for hooks—as for Clinton and Blair—liberation means getting one’s voice heard and being accepted for who one is.[18] The aim is no longer to change society but to integrate people into it. In short, critical pedagogy now teaches the opposite of freedom: not to transform yourself but to come to terms with who you are, not to change the world but to accept it as it is.

Between the time of the New Left and the 1990s, the emancipatory horizon narrows extremely. But instead of acknowledging this, hooks maintains the revolutionary rhetoric that characterized Freire’s work. Like so many leftists before her, she naturalizes defeat and dresses it up as a victory. She claims to uphold the tradition of critical pedagogy even as she abandons it. She claims to be challenging “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” even as she reproduces the logic of neoliberalism (47). Although hooks suppresses any awareness of regression, she unintentionally brings it up in one of her anecdotes.

At one point in Teaching to Transgress, hooks looks back on her adolescence, confessing that she and her friends were not nearly as transgressive as they thought they were at the time. “Part of a small integrated clique of smart kids who considered ourselves ‘artists,’ we believed we were destined to create outlaw culture where we would live as Bohemians forever free; we were certain of our radicalness” (24). Many years later she realizes that “our gestures of defiance had been nowhere near as daring as they had seemed at the time. Mostly, they were acts of resistance that did not truly challenge the status quo” (25). But weren’t hooks’s students in for a similar experience? When they look back on their youthful acts of transgression, don’t they recognize that they too failed to challenge the status quo? And, as for today’s students, aren’t they bound to discover that the acts of institutionalized transgression they are encouraged to engage in are a form of shadow boxing?

What would it mean to recover the radical impetus of critical pedagogy today? hooks makes two suggestions that we ought to take seriously. Following Freire, she argues that education is the “practice of freedom.” This is true. But, to remain faithful to this proposition, it is necessary to conduct a pedagogy of unfreedom. It would mean teaching that freedom is not something that can be attained in the classroom by striking this or that pose, but is rather something that must be experienced negatively—not just as lack but as a yet to be fulfilled task. Second, we should recover hooks’s idea that education requires a “collective dedication to truth” (33). But truth does not spring from “lived experience,” as hooks argues. It is rather a function of history. And the truth of our historical moment is that change is unlikely if not impossible, that, at the very least, there is no shortcut to it. Any critical pedagogy worth its salt would live up to this truth, which appears in the guise of its opposite: a continued investment in the slogans of the past—”freedom,” “socialism,” and “the left,” which, as things stand, have been robbed of all meaning. Critical pedagogy ought to teach students not what they want to hear, that the world is theirs to transform, but the truth, that we’re at a historical impasse. This impasse is self-imposed and can therefore be dissolved, but only by coolly confronting the wreckage of the past. The task of critical pedagogy today is to begin to undo the naturalization of a history of defeat.

[1] Paul Buhle, Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the American Left, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 1991), 263.

[2] Peter McLaren, Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture: Oppositional Politics in a Postmodern Era (New York: Routledge, 1995), 38.

[3] John L. Elias, “The Paulo Freire Literacy Method: A Critical Evaluation,” McGill Journal of Education 10, no. 2 (1975): 209, See also Heinz-Peter Gerhardt, “Paulo Freire,” Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education (UNESCO International Bureau of Education) XXIII, no. 3/4 (1993): 439–58,

[4] Freire defines oppression as a relation characterized by “prescription.” But this would mean that all relations of authority are oppressive. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, 30th-anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2005), 46-7. Subsequent references in parentheses are to this edition.

[5] See, for instance, Isaac Gottesman, The Critical Turn in Education: From Marxist Critique to Poststructuralist Feminism to Critical Theories of Race (New York: Routledge, 2016), 25, on whose history of the field I have drawn extensively. See also Gerhardt, “Paulo Freire.”

[6] Quoted in Andrew J. Kirkendall, Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 82.

[7] Kirkendall, Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy, 25.

[8] See also Seehwa Cho, Critical Pedagogy and Social Change: Critical Analysis on the Language of Possibility (New York: Routledge, 2013), 26.

[9] Henry Giroux, Ideology, Culture, and the Process of Schooling (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981), 14–16; McLaren, Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture, 33. See also Cho, Critical Pedagogy and Social Change, chap. 1 and 2.

[10] Giroux, Ideology, Culture, and the Process of Schooling, 15.

[11] Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011 [1976]), 286–87. It is noteworthy that, while the critical pedagogues accused Bowles and Gintis of pessimism, they saw themselves as “optimists” and thought “social revolution” was imminent. Ibid., 277–81.

[12] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 189.

[13] Ibid., 206.

[14] Elizabeth Ellsworth, “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy,” Harvard Educational Review 59, no. 3 (1989): 298.

[15] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 29. Subsequent references in parentheses are to this edition.

[16] 1996 State of the Union Address.

[17] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 38.

[18] Ibid., 52.