Resurgence of Freirean Pedagogy in the New Media Age
In this contribution Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is replaced, into a contemporary context. The contribution starts with a short description of the background that led Freire to see the need to develop a pedagogy. A retelling of Freire’s meeting with poor farmers in Brazil in the 1950’s will be outlined in brief terms. These farmers were oppressed primarily because they were illiterate; hence Freire saw the need to develop a pedagogy that was able to solve this problem. Secondly, this entry highlights the trend that current Western curricula and schools largely focus on developing students’ reading skills. The problem Freire faced in the 1950’s in Brazil is no longer an issue. However, other problems have occurred, i.e., problems which may be comparable to the illiteracy among Brazilian farmers in the 1950’s. For example, images have become an important part of the everyday life. People express themselves through images, are socialized through images, etc. Images affect modern people, and they help to understand the world. But can the young generation read images adequately? The claim in this contribution is that the absence of images in many Western curricula increases the risk that children and young people become visual illiterates. This leads to the third point of the entry, namely, that there is a certain need to return to Freire’s pedagogy, as a kind of repetition.
Repetition will function as a kind of method in this entry. But what is a repetition? The Danish writer Søren Aabye Kierkegaard distinguished between two kinds of repetition. Firstly, there is a mechanical kind of repetition, where the copy is identical to the original. Kierkegaard talks about “the same sameness” (Kierkegaard 1983, p. 170). A direct transcription of a text can be an example of this kind of repetition. Secondly, Kierkegaard’s authorship contains a repetition that can be described as “the unlike sameness” (ibid., p. 175). An example here might be a book which is translated into another language. Even though the two books are very alike, they are also different and unlike each other. This latter kind of repetition will be used for the following analysis, i.e., a kind of repetition that cannot avoid to add something new, even though it shows deep respect for that which is repeated.
Thus, the structure and design of the contribution look like this: It starts with a brief description of Freire’s experiences and how they led him to develop a new kind of pedagogy. This history is then repeated, by replacing it into a contemporary context, i.e., a problem in today’s media age that is both similar to and different from the problems that was highlighted by Freire. In the third section, there will be a brief description of some basic features in Freire’s pedagogical perspectives, before these perspectives are repeated in the fourth and final section. As such, the basic features of Freire’s pedagogy are preserved, while some new features are added to that pedagogy, making it possible to deal with one of the problems that the new media age is facing. Through the repetition of this specific history and pedagogy, there may be a need for the resurgence of Freirean pedagogy in the new media age.
History Repeated: From Linguistic Illiteracy to Visual Illiteracy
Brazil in the 1940s and 1950s: Illiteracy
From 1946 to 1954 Freire was Director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in the Brazilian State of Pernambuco (Torres 2014). In this service, he began to develop methods to teach adult peasants to read and write. The reason for doing this was that these farmers were, according to Freire, oppressed as they could not read nor write. According to Freire, this illiteracy was not only the root of oppression but also the root of the strict authoritarian mentality and absence of democratic principles in Brazil. The authority was on the side of the landowners and governors, who could easily oppress the peasants because they could neither read nor write.
At this time, Brazil was considered to be a closed society, in which illiterates, but also others, were silenced (Freire 2005). The illiterates did not have the right to vote and they did not have a chance to express their views on matters affecting their own lives. Consequently, they were deprived of feelings of responsibility and solidarity towards their own country. At the same time they were oppressed, neglected, and silenced; almost forced to be like the ones who were kin charge. As for Freire, this was typical features of a dehumanizing society.
However, from the 1960s, things started to happen in Brazil, i.e., the closed society was beginning to look like an open society (Torres 2014). This occurred primarily in the period when the leftist politician João Belchior Marques Goulart (1918–1976) was president, for the period 1961–1964. Although much remained in order to say that Brazil was an open society, Freire found several hallmarks of an open society where participation in decision-making and opportunities for critical attitudes were present. Not the least, there was room for radicalism, and from Freire’s perspective, the radicals were the subjects of history, as opposed to the oppressed who were regarded as objects of history, as their lives were governed by others (McLaren 1999). Where the authoritarians construct their own “truth,” which is then forced upon others, the radicals seek to solve problems together with others and not for others.
Freire wished to do something about this and he saw possible solutions through pedagogy. He therefore developed educational programs to teach peasants to read and, as a result of he being appointed director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University in 1961, these programs were spread throughout Brazil (Roberts 2000). Although these programs were developed in order to learn to read, the underlying goal was to create an open society, free from oppression. Thus, Freire had to side with the weak and oppressed, so as to create space for critical awareness, which in turn would lead to a more humanized society (Freire 2013).
The New Media Age: Visual Illiteracy
There is of course a great deal of differences between Brazil in Freire’s time and the new media age. Where the former society was characterized by closedness and totalitarianism, the latter is characterized by openness and democracy. Even though one can ask if there are any similarities between the two societies and eras whatsoever, such a claim might be supported.
To begin with, images influence the lives of children and young people to a great extent; they look at images, take photos, share photos, and give comments to images much of the day. With smartphones they shoot an enormous number of images, which are shared on social media, almost in the same instant as they are taken. Many young people share thousands of images over a year. The figures are almost scarily high, and there is almost no limit when it comes to sharing photos. This openness is virtually the opposite of what Freire witnessed in Brazil in the 1950’s, as this society was characterized by closedness, rather than openness.
Still, there are some similarities between the two societies. That has to do with a typical behavior of many young people of today, i.e., they seem to think less and less about how their images look. Moreover, many young people are not aware of the power that is exercised through digital media and that such an exercise of power may have a profound influence on their lives (Maar and Burda 2004). Take Facebook as an example. People on Facebook often have many “friends,” often several hundred. With so many “friends,” one will easily lose track of who all these people are. Besides, others outside the “circle of friends” may easily get access to what is published on Facebook. The point being that users of Facebook are vulnerable. Moreover, the age limit in social media is set for 13 years, but it is not illegal for children under 13 to be on Facebook or Instagram. These young users are particularly vulnerable. For example, imagine that a 13-year-old girl posts a picture of herself on Facebook. It is a so-called selfie. Her face is clearly visible in the picture and she makes a kiss mouth. Her intentions are innocent, but the 13-year-old girl has probably not thought about the recipients, or, rather, she has just thought that her selfie will be received by friends and acquaintances. What she probably has not thought of is that such an image may easily lead associations to something more than an innocent kiss. An imprudence may lead to an inadvertent invitation.
Another example is retouched photos depicting people as “perfect,” for example, a picture of a slim and pretty girl, without any defects. Documentary photos in the media may serve as yet another example, where important events are clipped off. In both examples, the image is lying, and those who do not see through this lie can easily be fooled into thinking that reality equals that which is described in the picture. In other words, this receiver is deceived and therefore oppressed by the image.
To learn to understand images to a greater extent is clearly an advantage, in order to being able to use them in a good way. Not least, curricula need to focus on training in visual understanding. Today’s children and young people need to acquire basic skills in the language they use every day, all the time. The challenge is that aesthetic skills have low status in today’s society. Several Western curricula overlook not only images but also dance, theater, music, handcrafts, etc. As long as the curricula primarily focus on numbers and text, they help to oppress the language of image which young people use on a daily basis. Instead, the society entrusts the education and understanding of such a big part of being a social being to the children themselves. It may turn out well, but in many cases it does not. Thus, there is good reason to ask whether the curricula increase the risk of visual illiteracy among many young people.
What, then, does visual illiteracy signify? In short, a visual illiterate is one who cannot read images (Boehm 2007). Certainly, almost all people understand, at least to a certain extent, images, just as most people can perceive the spoken language and understand that a dog is an animal or a rose is a flower. But although most people can talk and listen and understand, the Western schools usually emphasize that children must go to school to learn to read, write, and interpret texts, while developing knowledge about the history of literature. This is not the case when it comes to images, at least not to a large extent. Rather, skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic is considered to be of importance. The problem is that schools largely relate to an abstract world and little to the everyday lives of the pupils. For example, many curricula put emphasis on different ways to master poetry and equations, but this is not part of the daily lives of most pupils. As previously stated, the communication of most children and young people involve images, yet they do not learn to either create or interpret images at school. Neither do the pupils receive sufficient knowledge of the history of image at school. Accordingly, children and young people do not learn to read images the way they can read texts. That is basically the reason why children and young people of the new media age run the risk of being visual illiterates, a phenomenon that to some extent is comparable to the illiteracy that characterized the Brazilian farmers in Freire’s time. The point is that the consequence of being illiterate, whether it is visual or linguistic, is oppression.
The Pedagogy of Freire Repeated
A good step in the right direction, when it comes to solving the problem of visual illiteracy, is to emphasize images in the curriculum. However, that is not enough. There is also need for a good pedagogy, and it is here that Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed is relevant. Henceforth, this contribution shall therefore begin by making a brief account of his main pedagogical perspectives, before relocating his pedagogy in the new media age where image plays a huge role.
One of the reasons why Freire saw the need to develop a new kind of pedagogy was that the traditional pedagogy posed many problems (Roberts 2000). The biggest problem was that pedagogy maintained the unequal balance of power in the Brazilian society. Through pedagogy, some decided and controlled, while some were governed and oppressed. For example, the relationship between teacher and pupil were asymmetrical (Freire 2005). While the teacher emerged as an authority, the pupils appeared as passive and manipulable objects. In other words, the traditional pedagogy consisted mostly in mechanical instruction, where control rather than freedom was prominent. As the pupils are controlled and converted into objects, while being manipulated in the direction that the teachers have pointed out, this pedagogy reminds us of the landowners who oppressed peasants for the sake of being wealthy. We are left with a dehumanizing pedagogy, where pupils adapt that which already exists (Freire 2014). Instead of being critical, the pupils are socialized into certain patterns and ways of living, without regard to their own world. Such kind of pedagogy does not lead to change for a better and more humane society.
Yet Freire saw opportunities for freedom through pedagogy. In working for a more humane society, pedagogy should, amongst others, create space for a dialogue between the pupils and their own world (Freire 2005). The teaching ought to start with problems that affect the pupils directly. The objective of this pedagogy is to open for critical awareness, including criticism of dogmas and accepted truths. At the same time, the pupils must be allowed to be involved in decisions about their own lives. As such, it will be possible for those who have been oppressed to enter the political life, which may be a way to change the world (Freire 2014). Instead of relying on an authoritarian relationship between teacher and pupil, Freire imagined that this relationship should be governed by a dialectical and dialogical relationship. To break out of an authoritarian relationship is possible when both parties are helping to solve a common problem.
Not least, pedagogy should allow for both reflection and action (Freire 2005). Through reflection the pupils can reflect on their situation in the world, and through action they can intervene in the world, and possibly change it and making it more humane. For Freire, it is also important that the relationship between reflection and action, which constitute praxis, is dialectical (ibid.). A pedagogy without action will for him be considered as weak and powerless. At best it will maintain the status quo. Nor will it be of great help if actions take place without reflection, according to Freire (2005). In such cases actions happen on impulse, without any goal or intention. Thus, one may easily end in activism that is based on strong ideology and irrationalism. So, when the actions are not based on reflections, they may be characterized by power and authority rather than freedom. For Freire, this is a form of illegitimate praxis. Legitimate praxis, on the other hand, involves a dialectical relationship between reflection and action. In such cases, change without oppression may happen.
Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed aims at awareness, where the pupils initially realize that they are oppressed. The pedagogy is thus creating a movement that goes from a naive and unreflecting consciousness to a critical and creative consciousness (Freire 2013). For Freire this is legitimate praxis, in which the participants appear as subjects. However, this will not occur by itself. Above all, teachers should take responsibility for this to happen, which means that they must make room for active participants who will fight against oppression, as opposed to socially adapted individuals.
Overall, Freire developed a problem-oriented pedagogy, where the pupils were considered as subjects of their own world. Besides, and this is important, Freire did not perceive his own pedagogy to be final. For him, pedagogy had to be created over and over again, by way of a dialectical relationship between teacher and pupil (Freire 2005). Thus, Freire’s pedagogy is always moving and changing.
Freire’s Pedagogy in the New Media Age: Image Is Praxis
This openness makes it possible to place Freire’s pedagogy in the frame of today’s new media age. In this way Freire’s pedagogy is repeated. While sticking closely to his pedagogy, trying to preserve the same, something new and different do emerge, through the repetition.
As a first step of such a repetition, one should notice that Freire was preoccupied with the word. For him, the word meant praxis (Freire 2005). That is to say that the word must be supported by reflection, which in turn leads to action. While words without action will lead to nothing other than pure verbalism, i.e., a form of illegitimate thinking, words without reflection restrict the actions, leading up to pure activism, which is considered by Freire to be a form of illegitimate action. The consequence of both of these limitations is that the word loses its power. When the word corresponds to praxis, where reflection and action are key elements, it can change and transform the world.
One way of repeating Freire’s pedagogy is to suggest that image means praxis. A slightly repetition of Freire thus states that image without action will leave us with nothing other than the language of image, while image without reflection will limit the actions, as, for example, the image runs the risk of losing its power in making the actions more humane.
But how can pedagogy make use of reflection when it comes to image? In many ways. One way may consist in the teacher having a dialogue with the pupils about images. As stated above, Freire suggested that the problems should be related to the pupils own experiences, and a good pedagogical method can therefore be to start the dialogue and reflection with images that have a special meaning for the pupils. Actually, there is empirical evidence that such a pedagogical approach can awaken something existential in pupils, something which has not been fully promote to consciousness (Saeverot 2015, p. 105). Thus, pupils can, by way of image and teacher as interlocutor, reach something that is important in their lives. The indirect way through the image initiates a reflection of the pupil, while the dialogue puts words on something that has been “there,” but without being totally clear. Since the pupils have a central role in the whole thing, the free will may feel less directed from the outside. This corresponds well to Freire’s idea that pedagogy must not be authoritarian in any manner.
But how is it possible to connect actions to image, first and foremost humane actions? One answer to this question is that certain images can have an awakening effect. Through image the recipients can imagine, and almost feel, the pain of others, whereupon the conscience becomes involved. A good example of this is found in another research project (Saeverot, in progress), where one of the pupils chose to reflect upon the now famous documentary picture of the three-year-old Syrian boy who shortly before his death said: “I will tell God everything.” The boy is painfully aware that he will soon die, and listening to the trace of his words may be the closest one can come to feel his pain. The pain must be felt, as reason already knows that the boy is suffering. The reason also knows that innocent people die in Syria daily. Therefore, it will probably not be as powerful just informing the pupils about this, without image. It may be compared to informing someone of something which he or she already knows. What Freire’s pedagogy aims at is to eradicate indifference. And image has the power to do just that, as it goes directly to the recipients’ feelings and reaches out to the conscience (Boehm 2007), which may pull the recipients out of paralysis and at the same time awaken the state of passion. Thus, image is praxis, which in turn can realize Freire’s dream of an increasingly more humane society.
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