Friday, January 2, 2009

Politics of Indignation Book Review

Pedagogy of Indignation

reviewed by Peter Lucas — 2006

coverTitle: Pedagogy of Indignation
Author(s): Paulo Freire
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1594510512, Pages: 129, Year: 2004
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In the last years of his life, the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire was a prolific writer. He wrote books, published letters, and several of his extended conversations were transcribed into “talking books.” Although Freire will always be known for his early works such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1970, his later work also deserves attention (Freire, 1970). Many people, myself included, actually prefer his later work because Freire’s writing was more poetic, more sensitive to gender, and more expansive.

When Teachers College Record asked me to review Freire’s Pedagogy of Indignation, I was filled with both a sense of wonder and loss knowing that this was Freire’s final book. While there may still be more Freire books in the future once all of his collected papers and interviews are translated, this title will undoubtedly become an important study for the simple but profound reason that these chapters were his final thoughts before he died on May 2, 1997. Freire was without a doubt one of the most important educational philosophers since John Dewey and as was the case with other great international writers who have recently passed on, such as Edward Said, Susan Sontag, or Jacques Derrida, we’re curious as to what he was thinking about in his final days.

I also wanted to write about Freire as a means of exploring the connection between Freire and peace education/human rights. Freire’s insistence that education must lead to critical consciousness and social transformation has inspired an international movement for transformational education. Freire’s themes of critical literacy, the analysis of power and systemic oppression, desocialization of regressive social values, advocacy and research, and self-education/self mobilization have supported the most progressive forms of human rights and peace.

As a professor of peace education and human rights, I’ve always used Freire’s books to help build the theoretical scaffolding for my students. My favorite book to use is We Make the Road By Walking, Freire’s thoughtful fireside chat with Myles Horton about their respective lives as grassroots adult educators (Horton and Freire, 1995). The students are just as impressed with Horton’s literacy projects in the American South as with Freire’s international career. Two ideas from this book seem to resonate for first time readers, Freire’s conviction that all education is political and Horton’s radical call that one has to “bootleg” progressive education.

Many of my students are studying to become peace educators in the third sector, and these days, most NGOs have educational projects. In order to experience these non-official spaces where transformative education happens, I take my students to Brazil every summer to study the everyday practice of human rights in the favela communities in Rio. It’s not a surprise that workers inside the NGOs in Rio relate to Freire much more than teachers in the schools. In fact, many of the human rights educators we meet were once school teachers who eventually left the formal school system in order to practice more progressive educational ideas in the informal system.

Pedagogy of Indignation opens with the long-time champion of Freire’s theories, Donaldo Macedo, lamenting the exclusion of Freire from mainstream teacher training programs. Macedo, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, vents his own frustration about the exclusion of Freire at elite schools such as Harvard. On one hand, I find Macedo’s shaming of certain professors by name a bit distasteful, but this is not the first time Macedo has named people for their inconsistent and partial understanding of Freire’s project (Freire, 1998). On the other hand, I share Macedo’s fury as I look around at my closest colleagues in the academy, and I am shocked at the absence of ethics behind the facade of progressive education.

In his last book, Freire wanted to recover the politics of anger. Comprised of what Freire calls “pedagogical letters,” his final handwritten essays were a means of reflecting on the world in order to denounce and call attention to injustice and systematic oppression. For Freire, this critical “reading the world” should be the educator’s ontological vocation. There is nothing neutral about our presence in the world, according to Freire, and before we can begin to change the world, we have to name it, critically understand it, and develop an ethical relationship with the world. This need for testimony is the first part of Freire’s universal ethics.

In Pedagogy of Indignation, Freire’s “just ire” focuses on themes that one would expect such as poverty and the struggle for literacy, globalization and power, democracy and the ethics of the market. Freire also introduces and amplifies a few new issues such as agrarian reform in Brazil, the tension between parental control and permissiveness, Freire’s personal battle with tobacco addiction, and the five hundredth anniversary of the “discovery of America.”

In the middle of the book, there is a small letter about the shocking murder of Galdino Jesus Do Santos, a Native Pataxo Brazilian who was set on fire while sleeping in Brasilia. The fact that his body was burned by a group of teenage boys as a cruel prank perplexed Freire to no end. His response was to reflect and denounce the violence inflicted on those who are perceived to be “lesser shadows” in the world - the poor, the beggars, Blacks, women, rural workers, factory workers, and Indians (p. 46). Freire likened this “tragic transgression of ethics” to the abuse of animals and to the endless ecological violence in Brazil. Many of Freire’s generative themes are distilled in these three pages: violence, dehumanization, the holistic connection between one tragedy and a larger culture of violence, and the need for tolerance and education to change this kind of world. I read this letter several times, and I’ll most likely return to it again and again for its clarity, indignation, and the fact that these were the final words that Freire wrote just before he died.

Reading the world and denouncing violence for Freire was but only one part of the critical dialectic needed for social change. Freire’s letters stress resistance, struggle, hope, and the dream of utopia. Every Freire book revolves around the notion of praxis, the merger of critical reflection and action. “Denouncing and announcing, when part of the process of critically reading the world, give birth to the dream for which one fights” (p. 18). Before Freire talks about this dream, it’s important to recognize the importance of reflecting and giving testimony:

What I mean to say is this: To the extent that we become capable of transforming our world, of naming our own surroundings, of apprehending, of making sense of things, of deciding, of choosing, of valuing, and finally, of ethicizing the world, our mobility within it and through history necessarily comes to involve dreams toward whose realization we struggle (p. 7).

For long-time students of Freire this quote is a variation on a theme from any number of books. But everyday, people are reading Freire for the first time, young students are discovering him, and seasoned educators still re-read Freire to retool their transformative capacities. I chose this sentence because of the two italicized words - ethicizing and dreams. It’s here that we can feel Freire’s influence on the human rights and peace education movement.

Unlike the majority of teacher training programs, which still espouse that schooling is somehow neutral, peace education is necessarily value-based. For me, the main values that are needed while ethicizing the world are the normative standards of human rights. One senses that had Freire lived a few years more, he would have written more directly about the human rights movement. But his theories about critically reading and reflecting on the world, denouncing violence in all of its various manifestations, and choosing a value system in order to guide the change process, are right in line with comprehensive peace education.

In Pedagogy of Indignation, Freire writes about one of the most dynamic social movements in the world, the Landless Movement in Brazil, otherwise popularly known as the MST (Movimento Sem Terra). For Freire, the MST reflects the vitality of popular mobilization, where people who dream take political action and begin to generate real change. Having visited a couple of MST camps with my students, and having talked at length with MST educators, I found that their adult education programs and schooling for children are rooted in Freirian pedagogy of problematizing local generative themes in order to merge reflection and action into an ethical system of transformative education for life.

The themes of denouncing, reflection, and announcing woven throughout Pedagogy of Indignation directly correlate to the fundamental tenets of the international human rights movement. Someone has to denounce the widespread inequality inherent to land ownership, use the normative standards of human rights as a means of ethical reflection, and announce a response through social action in order to change oppressive conditions. That, in essence, is the same strategy as the human rights movement.

But Freire was an educator at heart. His teachings also bespoke of comprehensive peace education. In the peace education movement, strategies for peace are often conceptualized as “negative peace” and “positive peace.” Negative peace refers to the practices to stop violence in its various forms. Most human rights work is carried out in the classic tradition of negative peace. Positive peace is more pedagogical, future-oriented, and transformational. How can we create the social conditions in the future to establish a culture of peace? That is the fundamental question for peace education.

Positive peace relies on education initiatives and Freire’s vision and dreams have influenced human rights and peace educators around the world. I should clarify that peace education serves as a larger conceptual umbrella for human rights education. Basically, there are three models of human rights education, those programs that serve to raise awareness of human rights situations and values such as most school-based initiatives; human rights training for specific professions such as human rights education for police or journalists; and transformative human rights education which seeks to effect lasting social change. It is this last model that combines Freire’s themes and links human rights education to comprehensive peace education.

Positive peace education draws on the normative human rights standards as the underlying values needed to support a culture of peace. Human rights function as conceptual frameworks for peace education in the sense that the normative standards are a core set of ethicizing ideas which emphasize the process of understanding the value of these rights and the inter-relationship between all human rights standards in a holistic way. In the long run, this process perspective is more important than any specific generative themes inherent to, for example, agrarian reform in Brazil, because of the many potential human rights themes one has to negotiate in everyday life. This sense of struggle to attain one’s dreams is ingrained in Freirian pedagogy, and it is why human rights and peace workers are so passionate about Freire’s role in their praxis.

In Pedagogy of Indignation, Freire contrasts the “dark cloud” of fatalism with hope, and his anger with love. Fatalism in the human rights and peace movement (not to mention education) is a constant refrain. Dreams, envisioning change, and struggling for liberation are Freire’s strategies for refusing to submit to the pessimistic mind set which endlessly reproduces itself. Freire writes that: “Tomorrow is neither a necessary repetition of today, as the dominant would like it to be, nor something predetermined. Tomorrow is a possibility we need to work out, and, above all, one we must fight to build” (p. 75).

A constant refrain in Freire’s final thoughts was that as difficult as change is, there’s always possibility for transformation. Freire ends his book with two stunning essays on education, dreams, hope, and utopia. Denouncing for Freire announces a better world. Freire is writing in the spirit of human rights here when he reiterates that announcing is not possible without denouncing. The possibility of reinventing the world dovetails with the ultimate goals of transformative positive peace education. This matrix of hope for Freire is about being in the existential world, experiencing life with all the senses, achieving critical consciousness - not just of the problems of the world but also about the self’s presence in the world - realizing that historical

conditions always construct the self in space and time, intervening in the name of ethical standards, and striving for the utopia of a just world.

In his final book, Freire laments the tragic transgressions of ethics in the world. There is no shortage of transgressions. And as much as we denounce and respond to violence, we must also look to the future. In his lifetime, Freire played a major role in providing the theoretical scaffolding for the human rights and peace education movement. The struggle continues. Recovering an ethical relationship involves education and the resolve that one is capable of transforming the world. Freire never lost sight of that vision. At the end of his life, he reflexively wrote: “While a presence in history and in the world and filled with hope, I fight for the dream, for the utopia, for the hope itself, in a critical pedagogical perspective. And that is not a vain struggle” (p. 102).


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum Publishing Company.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Forward by Dolaldo Macedo. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Horton, M., and Freire, P. (1991). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 17-22 ID Number: 11884, Date Accessed: 1/2/2009 4:07:00 PM

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