You might expect the required readings of U.S. teacher-training programs to contain good practical tips on classroom management or sensible advice on teaching, say, reading to disadvantaged students.
Instead, the one book that dominates reading lists in many education courses is “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. The odd thing is that Mr. Freire’s magnum opus isn’t really about education - certainly not the education of children.
Mr. Freire’s main idea is that the central contradiction of every society is between the “oppressors” and the “oppressed” and that revolution should resolve their conflict. The “oppressed” are, moreover, destined to develop a “pedagogy” that leads them to their own liberation. Mr. Freire never intends “pedagogy” to refer to any method of classroom instruction based on analysis and research, nor to any means of producing higher academic achievement for students. His theory of schooling refers only to the growing self-awareness of exploited workers and peasants.
One of Mr. Freire’s few truly pedagogical points is his opposition to taxing students with any actual academic content, which he derides as “official knowledge” that serves to rationalize inequality within capitalist society.
He dismisses teacher-directed instruction as a misguided “banking concept” in which “the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits.”
Mr. Freire proposes instead that teachers partner with their coequals, the students, in a “dialogic” and “problem-solving” process until the roles of teacher and student merge into “teacher-students” and “student-teachers.”
“Pedagogy of the Oppressed” resonated with progressive educators, already committed to a “child-centered” rather than a “teacher-directed” approach to classroom instruction.
Mr. Freire’s rejection of teaching content knowledge seemed to buttress what was already the ed schools’ most popular theory of learning, which argued that students should work collaboratively in constructing their own knowledge and that the teacher should be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” Mr. Freire reinforced another cherished myth of American progressive education: that traditional teacher-directed lessons left students passive and disengaged, leading to higher dropout rates for minorities and the poor.
During the last two decades, E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge schools have proved repeatedly not only that content-rich teaching raises the academic achievement of poor children on standardized tests, but also that those students remain curious, intellectually stimulated and engaged - although the education schools continue to ignore these successes.
Of course, the popularity of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” wasn’t due to its educational theory alone. During the 1970s, veterans of the student-protest and antiwar movements put down their placards and began their “long march through the institutions.” Once in the academy, the leftists couldn’t resist incorporating their radical politics into their teaching. Through a cadre of radical ed-school professors, the Freirean agenda came to K-12 classrooms as well, in the form of an expanding movement for “teaching for social justice.”
To understand social-justice teaching, consider the career of Robert Peterson, who started out in the 1980s as a young elementary school teacher in inner-city Milwaukee. He applied the Freirean approach to his own fourth- and fifth-grade bilingual classrooms, “challenging the students to reflect on the social nature of knowledge and the curriculum.”
He used the Freirean rationale to become his students’ “self-appointed political conscience,” even dragging them to political rallies. These days, Mr. Peterson is the editor of Rethinking Schools, the nation’s leading publication for social-justice educators. The social-justice movement in math, as in other academic subjects, now has a foothold in just about every major education school in the country. Its dozens of pseudo-scholarly books, journals and conferences extol the supposed benefits of Freirean pedagogy for disadvantaged kids.
There’s no evidence such pedagogy has had much success anywhere in the Third World. Moreover, China and Cuba - whose regimes Mr. Freire praised - never reformed their own “banking” approaches to education, in which the brightest students are controlled, disciplined and stuffed with content knowledge for the sake of national goals - and producing more industrial managers, engineers and scientists. Only in America’s inner cities have Freirean educators been empowered to “liberate” poor children from an entirely imagined “oppression” and recruit them for a revolution that will never come.
Mr. Freire’s ideas are harmful not just to students, but also to the teachers entrusted with their education. A broad consensus is emerging among education reformers that the best chance of lifting the academic achievement of children in the nation’s inner-city schools is to raise dramatically the effectiveness of the teachers assigned to those schools.
However, if the quality of teachers is now the name of the game, it defies rationality that “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” still occupies an exalted place in training courses for those teachers, who will surely learn nothing about becoming better instructors from its discredited Marxist platitudes. Teachers who adopt its pernicious ideas risk harming their students - and ironically, their most disadvantaged students will suffer the most.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of “Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.” Adapted from City Journal.