COD125 Paulo Freire’s ideas are not relevant to community work in ‘western’ settings!’ Discuss.

Paulo Freire as a Brazilian philosopher drew inspiration heavily from the social structures and influences that surrounded him, but this does limit the relevance and usefulness of his ideas to education and community work in Brazil. To assert that “Paulo Freire’s ideas are not relevant to community work in ‘western settings’” is to assume a great many things about ‘western settings’ and the relevance that the cultural origins of a theory have on its global relevance. The four key conditions that could make this critique accurate are that:

  1. That the concept of western settings or western society does not overlap and intertwine with eastern influences, society and settings
  2. That the Brazilian culture Freire’s ideas were borne out of has nothing in common with the culture and social structures of ‘Western settings’
  3. That students from different backgrounds in western settings are not linguistically disadvantaged
  4. That there is no oppression in western society

In this essay I will attempt to explain why all four assertions are incorrect and demonstrate the extent to which Freire’s ideas have influenced education and community development in ‘western settings’.

Firstly it is important to define what is meant by the term ‘western settings’. As this assertion is made from a community development perspective and Freire was primarily concerned with pedagogy of education and how knowledge relates to liberation and freedom, so it is fair to assume that the ‘settings’ referred to in this statement are of an educational, social and community development nature;

“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.” (Freire 2000)

These settings can encompass a wide range of programs; from formal school systems and curriculums to support work and community interactions at a grass roots, or every day, informal, level. The emphasis on praxis in Freire’s work supports this assertion by reinforcing the notion that learning is not merely achieve through scholarly or academic theorizing;

“Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.”(Freire 2000)

The word ‘western’ as part of this statement can be taken in its cultural context as defined by the Oxford Press 2014; “Relating to or characteristic of the West or its inhabitants”, inhabitant of the West being defined as “Living in or originating from the West, in particular Europe or the United States”. (Oxford University Press, 2014). But are such terms as ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ helpful when discussing Freire? I would argue that the practice of dividing an increasingly globalised society into western and eastern social spheres is to create a false dichotomy, with the two spheres of society intertwining inextricably due to migration and globalized means of communication such as the internet. With this integration of eastern cultures into traditionally western societies (and vice versa) the notion of educational and community development settings having a singularly western orientation is becoming increasingly irrelevant. This increased irrelevance is best summarized by Martin Buber;

“The real struggle is not between East and West, or capitalism and communism, but between education and propaganda.” (Hodes 1972)

Whether the eastern influences in this setting are contributed by the ‘teacher’ or by the ‘pupil’, or even in the greater community, the importance and influence of these differing perspectives and cultural backgrounds when opening an educational and developmental dialogue should not be underestimated.

“One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding.” (Freire 2000)

Paulo Freire’s Brazilian heritage could be considered to be vastly different from the typical heritage of a western educator or student, the reliance on dialogue rather than the educator broadcasting their knowledge to students in a one way stream of ideas and information theoretically renders these cultural and historical differences irrelevant when considering the value of Freire’s ideas. The key assumption that Freire makes about any given community is that each community will have their own priorities, valued knowledge and cultural backgrounds. It is from these community priorities that an educator can make knowledge relevant to the communities they work within. The first step in Freire’s educational strategy is listen to the community,  taking the lead from the community negates the notion of Freire’s theory being solely useful in an eastern setting as the educator is required to adapt their approach  to fit the ‘setting’ and community. Active listening is critical to Freire’s arguments and his theory of education takes its cues from the students, the notion of co-learning;

“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” (Freire 1990)

To assert that Freire’s ideas are not applicable to a Western setting is to greatly underestimate the language barriers that exist in Western society. Most modern globalised societies are comprised of a vast variety of cultures and languages, in fact in London, U.K. alone 1.7 million inhabitants do not class English as their first language and 300,000 people do not claim to speak English at all (The Office Of National Statistics, 2013). In this time of multiculturalism and multiethnic societies to claim that students in western settings do not face the similar language barriers to their eastern counterparts is to take a very narrow view of what western society is, and to deny the struggles of a significant portion of the western population who do not have the “official language”, or commonly spoken dialect as their first language. This struggle it particularly poignant when the first language of a student indigenous to the land they inhabit has been supplanted by the process of colonisation, some examples from both western and eastern societies include;

  1. Indigenous Australian dialect speakers and the Australian English Language
  2. Gaelic Irish speakers and the U.K. English language
  3. Amerindian dialect speakers and the Brazilian Portuguese language

It is also important to take into account the differing language elements of class, for example someone from a lower socioeconomic background may not be familiar with the same terms as someone from a high socioeconomic groups, and vice versa. These differing dialects and linguistic nuances can occur within a single language causing a division in access to knowledge. Whether the language barriers exist through officially recognised language differences or through cultural or subcultural division it is the assertion of Freire that without the educator being able to overcome these barriers in communication with their students they will be unable to help students to learn, and without education, learning and knowledge the students will be unable to achieve awareness and liberation. Simply put Freire links language to the relevance of learning, and relevance to the desire to act. In this way it is easy to see how the theories of Freire and those who draw inspiration from his teachings can have a profound impact on the operation and effectiveness of learning environments.

The final factor that negates the assertion that Freire has no relevance to western community development is the parallel between the roles of oppressor and oppressed in both western and eastern cultures. Freire poses this power structure of the oppressor; the people who have, possess and are privileged in society, and the oppressed; who have very little and are essentially there to work to maintain the comfortable position of the oppressors. This theory of social inequality has its roots in Marxist conflict theory, which advocates the struggle of the working class to achieve fulfilment and freedom. While the Marxist perspective of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat omit such notions as love and the complexity of modern capitalist structures, Freire is able to offer a more tempered and current approach to conflict theory, but the idea of class struggle is still very familiar. These themes of oppression are often represented in western settings in the form of;

  • Socioeconomic Divisions – The poor or uneducated being oppressed by the rich. Those from lower socioeconomic groups being put under so much pressure to survive that they are unable to focus on the possibility of bettering their situation, or the situation of their community, “…the oppressed, as objects, as “things”, have no purposes except those their oppressors prescribe for them.” (Freire 2000)
  • Racism and Cultural Divisions – The marginalisation of people based on ethnicity, culture, religion or nationality that is done through both overt discrimination and inequality but sometimes take the more subtle form of biased folklore, education and social constructs that only takes into account one, or a few limited perspectives, denying other cultures legitimacy, “Dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed” (Freire 2000)
  • Young people as socially deviant – The orientation of social structures to benefit the established older generations and elite, dismissing youth and youth culture as illegitimate, “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.” (Freire 2000)

One of the key western theorists who draw inspiration from the works of Freire is Henry Giroux and his ideas surrounding education and the ‘war on youth’. “He [Giroux] and Freire coedited a very influential series on education and cultural politics for Bergin and Garvey. Giroux has made ground-breaking contributions to numerous fields, including education, critical theory, youth studies, cultural studies, media studies, higher education and public pedagogy.”(Peters 2012). This close academic relationship with Freire has afforded Giroux a deeper understanding of how to address the inequalities and inadequacies within the education and political systems in his Canadian homeland.

“Pedagogy for me was central to proclaiming the power and necessity of ideas, knowledge and culture as central to any viable definition of politics, and the goal of living in a just world with others.” (Giroux, Peters 2012)

At the heart of the teachings of Freire is are such global and intrinsically human experiences such as oppression, communication breakdowns and the need to continuously learn from others. These collective human experiences are apparent in most modern societies, especially those that exist in a postcolonial or globalised state, both in western and eastern communities throughout the world. In this way Freire and those who have built upon his ideas such as Giroux have the potential to empower, educate and liberate both the marginalised and privileged aspects of society regardless of their traditional orientation as eastern or western.


  • Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000.
  • Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
  • Freire, Paulo, and Ana Maria Araújo Freire. EPZ pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004.
  • Giroux, Henry A., Youth and the Politics of Disposability in Dark Times, lecture given at McMaster University, Canada, YouTube, McMaster Humanities, 2013.
  • Giroux, Henry A. “Paulo Freire and the politics of post colonialism.” Journal of Advanced Composition (1992): 15-26.
  • Horton, Miles and Freire, Paulo, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, Temple University Press, 1990.
  • Hodes, Aubrey, Encounter with Martin Buber, Allen Lane, p. 135, 1972.
  • Leonard, Peter, and Peter McLaren, eds. Paulo Freire: A critical encounter. Routledge, 2002.
  • McLaren, Peter. Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the pedagogy of revolution. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.
  • Morrow, Raymond Allen, and Carlos Alberto Torres. Reading Freire and Habermas: Critical pedagogy and transformative social change. Teachers College Press, 2002.
  • The Office for National Statistics, Language in England and Wales, 2011, the National Archives, United Kingdom, 2013.
  • Oxford English Dictionaries Online,, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Peters, Michael A. 2012. “HENRY GIROUX ON DEMOCRACY UNSETTLED: FROM CRITICAL PEDAGOGY TO THE WAR ON YOUTH.” Geopolitics, History and International Relations 4 (1): 156-174.

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