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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 227-244
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Changing Walls into Windows
Codifications are a central category in Paulo Freire's pedagogical theory and its derivatives. What codifications are and how they function are not, however, easily understood. In this essay I interpret them as pictures in words within which lie themes that change people's perceptions of life. In Freire's literacy program the change is always directed toward an understanding of the anthropological notion of culture: that culture is transitory, made by people and thus subject to transformation by people, just as people are transformed by it. More fundamentally, this essay is about changing walls into windows. When people read or decode a codification, they create the tools of transformation. They see a wall; they want a window. They want to see worlds other than the one into which they were born and to which other people tell them they were fated to surrender.
The walls-into-windows theme runs through the story of one evening in a class I taught. One of my students, Rick, was resisting Freire's (1993b) words in Pedagogy of the Oppressed because of their impenetrability and the hope they express—as Rick understood it. 1 The rhetoric of individualism lay behind his resistance, as well as a working-class ethos predicated on individual integrity and fatalism. For Rick, Freire was a wall.
I offered this class in liberatory pedagogy because I thought that Freire's theory of teaching would be useful for English and English education majors to investigate. It may seem that I was teaching yesterday's lesson for tomorrow. Freire is old hat to most writing teachers; to some, he is a hat full [End Page 227] of holes. His critics suggest that his theory may have been useful in its time and place, but it does not fit twenty-first-century urban North America. The core criticisms are that a revolutionary pedagogy is inappropriate to a nonrevolutionary society (Gibson 1994; Miller 1998; Graff 2001); Freire essentializes oppression under the rubric of class conflict (McCarthy 1988; Aronowitz 1993; Wood 1994); he oversimplifies the subjectivity of the liberatory teacher (Elbow 1986; Ellsworth 1989; Weiler 1994); he pretends to teach students how to think for themselves when he is really only teaching them to think like him (Miller 1998); and his modernist bent leads him to some foundational beliefs that make postmodernists nervous (Berlin 1992; Bizzell 1992, 1993).
In a somewhat different vein are criticisms leveled at teachers like me who have appropriated fragments of Freire but not the revolutionary agenda as a whole. Criticisms of this sort generally take exception to teachers who have reduced a revolutionary philosophy to a method or who rest content with liberating individual students, more or less, and ignore the greater task of liberating "the system."
The first two objections to Freire's theory fold into each other. The argument is that the antagonism between the Brazilian peasants and landowners under an oppressive oligarchy arose more clearly along class lines than in modern urban culture, where the distinctions between oppressed and oppressor are blurred and class distinctions are complicated by gender, skin color, ethnic affiliation, religion, age, disability, and so on. If one insists on transporting into a nonrevolutionary situation the whole of Freire's theory as he describes it in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I can understand why his critics think that what was good there and then might not be good here and now. But if one adopts a central Freirean approach—coinvestigation of a specific educational situation with one's students—this anxiety becomes moot. Freire insists that both teacher and students can attain a critical consciousness only by carefully coinvestigating the immediate concrete reality and developing a curriculum responsive to the students' particular needs (see Freire and Shor 1987; Freire 1993b; Findlay 1994; Ronald and Roskelly 2001). In other words, it is impossible to transport Freire. One can only reinvent him.
Freire was quite willing to reinvent himself; he recognized that his early modernist, class-oriented philosophy was not adequate for the multiplicity of subject...