August 25, 2008
Populist Manifestations

It’s encouraging how readers can extract value from writing that’s truly inept. I’ve recently returned to school as a student after three decades, and my first reading assignment was the initial two chapters of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. You kinda know it’s gonna be ugly when the first sentence is this:

While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern.

Apparently I lack the perspicacity necessary to distill any meaning from that sentence, axiological or otherwise.

Freire mixed his Christianity with his Marxism, and was thus a liberation theologist. Along with a great heart went a definitional approach to writing that obscures as often as it clarifies. An impressive guy, who lived his ideals even when they brought him jail time and exile. But an editor wouldn’t have helped him much; he needed a ghostwriter.

Still, he had some valuable ideas, and could sometimes communicate them.

In the following excerpt, one of the less obscure portions of the reading, ellipses, bracketed words, and punctuation are (in some cases unfortunately) exactly as in the original, except that I’ve removed the superscripts for the footnotes. The first two quotes are taken from Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man, the last from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society.

When their efforts to act responsibly are frustrated, when they find themselves unable to use their faculties, people suffer. “This suffering due to impotence is rooted in the very fact that the human equilibrium has been disturbed.” But the inability to act which causes people’s anguish also causes them to reject their impotence, by attempting
…to restore [their] capacity to act. But can [they], and how? One way is to submit to and identify with a person or group having power. By this symbolic participation in another person’s life, [men have] the illusion of acting, when in reality [they] only submit to and become a part of those who act.

Populist manifestations perhaps best exemplify this type of behavior by the oppressed, who, by identifying with charismatic leaders, come to feel that they themselves are active and effective. The rebellion they express as they emerge in the historical process is motivated by that desire to act effectively. The dominant elites consider the remedy to be more domination and repression, carried out in the name of freedom, order, and social peace (that is, the peace of the elites). Thus they can condemn — logically, from their point of view — “the violence of a strike by workers and [can] call upon the state in the same breath to use violence in putting down the strike.”


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Posted by Chuck Dupree at August 25, 2008 01:53 AM
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Oh, stay with it, he has a few good ideas. But I could never square what he said about thinking being an inherently social activity. If anything it's the reverse.

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on August 26, 2008 12:23 AM

Or his theory that the bank-account style of education is somehow inherently different from what he did. Where did the peasants get the idea that things could be different? He himself said they had no such idea on their own, because they'd been oppressed for so long.

He brought the idea, and deposited it in their "accounts".

He seems to have been a really fine person, but a muddy thinker, which no doubt accounts for his crappy writing.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on August 26, 2008 2:06 AM

The idea that real communication only takes place between equals has a lot to say for it. We can indoctrinate children without giving them anything like a decent education, and this has been the more common run of history. I'm sympathetic to alternative paradigms up to and including unschooling. Teach children how to learn for themselves, how to ask the right questions and where to find answers, and let them find what they are interested in.

Posted by: Mahakal on August 26, 2008 2:52 AM
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