frontline 15.

Education for Liberation - The ideas of Paulo Freire

The growth of the SSP has forced it to look for new methods of socialist education that are accessible and that work. Gary Fraser , a community education worker and SSP activist looks at the lessons to be learned from Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire.

There is something innately educational about socialism. How we become socialists is in itself an interesting question. Socialism has often been self-taught, learned in struggle or passed down from one generation to the next. In my own experience it has been a mixture of all three, and each of the three consists of the fundamental human desire for education. Socialism is about we as a society becoming more than what we are, and as individuals becoming more than who we are. The road to creating a society where we collectively ‘own the means of production’ is one that requires the development of a socialist education programme. Education should not be seen as an “add on” to the party, but should be intrinsic to all the work that we do. As socialists we are political activists, and at the same time we are obliged to be educators.

The need to develop an educational strategy has been discussed at length in the SSP. Everyone seems to be in agreement on the need for education, but the question that I would like to ask in this article is what type of education. I believe that all education is not good education. The question and the answers I offer relate fundamentally to the organisational nature of the SSP. The SSP is a “bottom up” democratic party, and this is essential for socialism to function in practice. That’s why I have always considered it an anomaly or contradiction for socialist organisations to be highly centralised. The way in which we organise our movement is a pre-requisite for the way that we want to organise society. It follows logically that we should develop an educational strategy that reflects the democratic nature of our vision for society.

In this article I want to argue that there can be no better starting point than the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. I have always been surprised that very little has been said about Freire in the SSP. Therefore I intend this article to raise awareness of the work of this renowned socialist activist and educator. I believe that there is to be found in the ideas of Freire an understanding of socialism fit for the twenty first century.

Paulo Freire 1921-1997

Before we focus on his educational ideas, let’s look briefly at the life of Paulo Freire. He was born in Recife in north eastern Brazil in 1921. He was educated at the University of Recife where he studied law alongside philosophy and the psychology of language. It was at university that Freire first began to study Karl Marx, whose ideas would form the cornerstone of his revolutionary pedagogy. When Freire left university he abandoned law and became a welfare officer in the state of Pernambuco. It was there that Freire first began to undertake educational work with the urban poor. In the time that followed, Freire went to work throughout Brazil developing literacy programmes with peasants. For Freire, ‘illiteracy’ was not about the lethargy of the poor but caused by the existing social, economic and political order. The development of literacy, namely the ability to ‘read and name the world’ also had to be accompanied by a desire to transform the world and the social relations that had caused illiteracy. His educational work (known as ‘political literacy’) became closely linked with the struggle against capitalism.

Freire’s work occurred at a time of great change and turbulence in Brazil. The reforming Goulart regime of the early 1960’s had made great enemies in the Brazilian ruling class. Freire’s work, which aimed to politicise the peasantry, made him a threat to powerful landowners anxious to stave off land reform. In 1964 the Goulart regime was overthrown by a military coup and subsequently Freire was imprisoned. After a brief spell in jail he would later become a political exile.

During his exile he worked in Chile (once again developing ‘political literacy’ with peasants) and began writing about his educational philosophy. Freire travelled to America where he lectured at Harvard University and concentrated extensively on his theoretical works. In America he was heavily influenced by the protests against the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. In this period, Freire’s most famous book, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ was published. It would go on to influence educators and political activists throughout the world. Freire would write a great deal more in his lifetime and travel at length throughout the world before eventually being allowed to return to his native Brazil. He died of a heart attack aged 76 in 1997.

Education for Socialism

Paulo Freire’s work reveals the political nature of education and the educational nature of politics. If we start with the former, Freire argued that there is no such thing as neutral education. For Freire, the role of education is central in the reproduction of capitalist social relations.

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world (Freire, 1985).

To understand Freire, it is necessary to locate his work within Marx’s idea of the ‘superstructure’. The ‘superstructure’ consists of institutions such as the media, the state, religion, etc., all of which maintain, promote and defend oppressive social relations. In terms of the ‘superstructure’ education is a key site. Although there is always the space for resistance, the general aim of education is to preserve inequality and the economic and social division of labour. Division of labour requires a division of knowledge. Often there is talk of why the working class fail in education. Is the real question perhaps why education fails so many who are working class?

Education for Domestication/Education for Liberation

Freire describes education that is founded on reproducing the existing political and economic order as ‘education for domestication’. In ‘education for domestication’, the learner is conditioned into a structure based on oppressive relations of domination/subordination.

For example;

Teachers are dominant over learners, a few learners through competition, attain dominance over all the others: academic, legitimised, already existing knowledge not only dominates but excludes the possibility of creating new knowledge and theory (Allman, 1988).

Education, which ‘domesticates’ aims to deny people the right to ‘name their world’. Freire refers to this process as the ‘banking concept of education’.

He describes it as follows:

Education thus becomes the act of depositing, in which students are the depositories and the teacher the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher uses communiqués and makes deposits, which the students patiently receive, memorise and repeat. This is the ‘banking concept of education’, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits (Freire, 1993).

What ‘banking’ means in practice is ‘listening to your betters’. This is typical of a class-ridden society in which we are divided up into worker/boss, master/slave, teacher/student, etc. I believe that it is a consequence of ‘banking’ that many working class people are resistant and intrinsically opposed to an education that rests on the authority and superior knowledge of the teacher. The ‘banking concept of education’ helps to sustain already existing knowledge, which in turn manufactures consent to the capitalist system.

As mentioned earlier by Freire, ‘banking’ brings about conformity to the logic of the present state of affairs. This is why myths exist in societies that help to serve the power of the ruling class. For example, how many times have we heard that ‘capitalists are wealth creators’, that in capitalist nations ‘power is with the people’, that profit is about supply and demand and made at the point of exchange, that poverty is the fault of the individual and that the rich are rich because they have special talents which make them entrepreneurs. The truth is that in the current social order, education functions to stifle critical and creative political thought and aims to adjust minds to the conformities of a mass society.

Education for liberation starts from the premise that the purpose of education is the nurturing of what Freire calls our ‘ontological vocation’; that is to be more fully human. For Freire, our human potential is unrealised. This is largely due to the fact that capitalist societies have been structured on the basis of putting the interests of a small wealthy minority first, which creates for the rest of us an ‘alienation from our human potential’ (Allman, 1987). The starting point in ‘education for liberation’ is dialogue, as opposed to the ‘top-down’ hierarchal ‘banking education’.

Dialogue begins with the experiences of learners. Our experiences shape the way we think about the world. That is why most feminists are women! Experience is the key starting point in education for socialism. Experiential learning means investigating our thinking and asking why we think the way we do. This inevitably leads to the decoding of ideology and the beginning of understanding our relationship with wider social structures. Dialogue requires a co-equal relationship between teacher and student, in which knowledge is not a commodity to be passed down but is something to be investigated. Dialogue is not just a “trendy teaching” method. Central to dialogical education is the transformation of teacher-student relations and the way we think about knowledge. Whereas ‘banking education’ posits the learner as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge, dialogical education investigates the way in which knowledge is socially constructed.

Problem posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming-as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and within a likewise unfinished reality (Freire, 1993).

Freire’s Marxism

There is a whole range of philosophical discourses inherent in Freire’s work (humanism, radical liberation theology, existentialism) but at the heart of his pedagogy are the basic principles of Marxism. I would argue that it is only through Marx that we gain the real meaning of Freire’s pedagogy. For example, Freire’s thoughts on knowledge (the way it is commoditised and the way it is divorced from wider social relations) only make sense within Marx’s dialectical understanding of consciousness. In capitalist societies knowledge is a commodity just like any other. We relate to it as something to have, to accumulate, rather than as something to use, test, question and produce. When we examine the origins of knowledge we understand that it is socially produced and related to what Marx calls ‘base and superstructure’. It is here that we gain an understanding of reality in its totality, which requires us to conceptualise the world dialectically.

When people lack a critical understanding of their reality apprehending it in fragments, which they do not perceive as interacting constituent elements of the whole, they cannot truly know that reality (Freire, 1993).

Freire’s pedagogy restores human agency at the heart of socialist politics. Agency is the unity of subjectivity (why we are free), and objectivity (why we are not). Conceptualised as such, it provides us with the necessary tools in the transformation of our worlds.

Developing Socialist Education in the SSP

There is much we can learn in the SSP from adult education. The development of education based on Freire’s methods is pertinent to the SSP becoming a mass party. I believe that as socialists we are sometimes contradictory beings. On the one hand, we do have what Freire calls a ‘consciousness of consciousness’ and on the other we have picked up bad habits from capitalist society. For example, there is always the danger that we become esoteric in our language, thinking and the way we express our ideas. Consequently SSP activities become exclusive and discussions on key aspects of our theory (i.e. Marxism) become erudite and abstract. Inevitably we enter into a ‘banking concept of education’, which I think alienates new members. Instead we should conceptualise branch meetings and all organised activity in the party as group work. A core concern should be encouraging everyone to participate. As socialists we need to work on something that we are not always good at, namely, listening more and talking less! We cannot underestimate the educational emphasis of inclusive and participative structures in the SSP. Activities should aim to relate socialism to experience, meetings should be more informal and centred on group work and people should undertake activities in which they develop a whole range of skills. Take, for example, encouraging people to work in small groups where they tend to listen and question more. People should also have feedback discussions to the main group, which in turn develops the skill of public speaking. This is only a small, but highly significant example of how we put socialist education into practice.


Ensuring that structures in the party are participative and inclusive is essential in the SSP becoming a mass based party. A ‘bottom up’ democratic party should incorporate ‘dialogical education’ into all activities and avoid what Freire calls the ‘banking concept’ of education. New members should leave SSP activities a different type of person than they were when they arrived. Environments that are exclusive, where language is elitist and only ‘experts’ talk are ones that leave new members intimidated, scared to ask questions, and feeling intellectually inadequate. The result, to quote Freire is that we ‘domesticate’ rather than ‘liberate’.


Paula Allman, (1987), ‘Paulo Freire’s Education Approach: A Struggle for Meaning’, Open University Press

Paula Allman, (1988), ‘Gramsci, Freire and Illich: Their Contributions to Education for Socialism’, Routledge

Paulo Freire, (1985), ‘The Politics of Education’, Bergin and Garvey

Paulo Freire, (1993), ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, Penguin

Further information on Paulo Freire, his life and ideas can be found at