How a theory born in the 1930s could transform African education systems

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote extensively about education that oppresses. Nic Bothma/EPA

You may not have heard of Paulo Freire. That’s not surprising if you don’t work in the field of education theory, since it’s in this space that the Brazilian’s ideas are most famous.

In his seminal work, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, Freire calls for the transformation of education to create a more equitable society. The seeds of his philosophy were planted during his childhood after his middle-class family suddenly fell into poverty during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

He found himself falling back four grades in school and was later to say this was because he couldn’t understand anything because he was hungry. “I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education.”

The lessons he learnt nearly 90 years ago and the theories he developed from painful personal experience still resonate across Africa’s schooling systems. They hold powerful ideas for those who function within the continent’s education system in any way – teachers, parents and pupils.

An education that oppresses

Formal education in most African countries was introduced during colonial times. Formal education was a means by which the colonial machinery trained low-level clerical staff. It wasn’t really aimed at developing thinking persons. Most of the content in this system described a world alien to Africans, in languages that were also alien. Those who best conformed to the norms and expectations of this alien world were then rewarded with the title of “educated”.

Today many of the continent’s existing systems are still largely based on those early models. Since these systems are divorced from most people’s realities, they tend to produce individuals who don’t understand their own world – but don’t fit into this other alien world either.

This, to use Freire’s language, is a system that oppresses. It neither acknowledges our reality as Africans, nor presents us with any opportunity to engage with that reality. Instead, formal education proceeds by the practice of what Freire calls “banking”. In this kind of education, the best teacher is the one who is most expert at making “deposits” – to continue the banking metaphor – and the best student is the one who can best return these deposits at exam time.

Banking education presupposes that the students know nothing, and the teacher knows everything. This, Freire says, does not acknowledge students as an active part of the education process. Students are simply objects upon which action is taken rather than subjects who can participate, reflect and become.

In this way, Freire says, the education system is really a weapon of oppression and those who run it are the oppressors.

Unfortunately after enough time in this system the students come to believe the only things of value are those that someone else tells them. They believe that nothing of what they feel, think or initiate can be of any value. Rather, they come to:

[internalise] the image of oppressor and his guidelines, [and are] fearful of freedom. Freedom would require [them] to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility.

It is no wonder, then, that in Africa, even after half a century of “independence” in some countries, we tend to look outside ourselves to define our values and find guidance on what we should do to solve our problems instead of looking inward to critically analyse the nature and causes of the problems that plague us – disease, conflict, poverty – and develop the appropriate solutions. Instead, we continue to count on the very system that perpetuates our oppression to liberate us, and are afraid of engaging in the midwifery of our own liberating pedagogy.

Freire poses the central problem here as follows:

How then can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation?

His work holds some ideas about how to go about this.

An education that liberates

Freire advocates for a “problem-posing” rather than a “banking” education. In this system, teachers and students are in a dialogue that advances both parties’ understanding of how their world functions. This, in turn, gradually reveals the true nature of this world.

In an education that continuously presents students with questions relating to themselves and their world, they cannot help but feel challenged to respond in order to transform it. Liberation, as he says, is active: “The action of men and women acting upon their world in order to transform it”.

Recently a friend told me that her son’s swimming instructor had approached her with the following proposition: “For the upcoming inter-school competitions,” he said, “why not enter your son as a seven-year-old instead of an eight-year-old? In that way he can compete in the five-to-seven-year category. Otherwise, if we enter him as an eight-year-old, he will have to compete against children as old as ten, and that will be to his disadvantage.”

As one might expect, my friend was greatly perturbed by this. When she questioned him, though, the instructor assured her: “There is no problem, Madam – that is what everyone does.”

This story, for me, encapsulates the essence of oppression. Even though this swimming instructor operates in a system that he perceives as unfair, that is to say, oppressive, his response is to conform. Because oppression interferes with our ability to become (a process that requires purposeful questioning and conscious decision-making), Freire says that our only option is to become like. As was the case with this swimming instructor, the thing that we become like is whatever the status quo suggests. So we perpetuate, or even worsen, the very systems that prevent us from transforming as a society.

On the contrary, we as Africans must have the courage to stop and look critically at our own world. We need to name this world with our own words and pose our own questions about it. We must believe that we have the ability to become whatever we choose, and choose that which we should become. We need to stop always looking outside ourselves just so we can pursue becoming like.

Fortunately, there are some promising initiatives aimed at addressing the continent’s challenges appropriately. One example is the local language policy in my own country, Uganda. This specifies that the language of instruction in the first three years of primary school should be whatever local language is dominant in a given region. It makes sense: imagine a rural six-year-old entering primary school for the first time and being presented with a book written in English, full of scenes of children “running through meadows” or “riding a pony”. What is this child to make of any of it?

Why not allow this child to use the words she already knows to name things that she is familiar with. This, Freire would argue, is the place to start her education about those things she does not know yet, and gives credence to such a language policy. Unfortunately, these initiatives are sometimes poorly communicated and implemented. In Uganda, for instance, there’s been a lot of resistance to the local language policy.

What’s worse, even some Ugandan leaders do not support the policy. They believe that it is a tool to keep certain of the country’s regions underdeveloped. As the victims of oppression themselves, they believe that education is only of value if it is conducted in English.

So much potential

Africa is faced with many challenges. But it’s also a continent bursting with potential. To realise this, however, its education systems must be altered so they no longer simply produce individuals who unquestioningly conform to the status quo.

Freire’s work holds valuable ideas about how to transform Africa’s education systems and its children from oppressed to truly liberated.