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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 33

Pedagogy of the Oppressor

by Dev N. Pathak

Wednesday 8 August 2007


Abdul Rashid Ghazi—killed in the precincts of Lal Masjid in Pakistan—went through a process of (un)becoming. When he graduated with a master’s degree in International Relations from Pakistan’s apex Quaid-e-Azam University, he was a defiant for his father, for he did not like to be yet another devout Muslim consecrating his life to Islam. He worked in the Ministry of Education before assuming the role of the religious preacher. By the time ‘Operation Silence’ took place, he was a stark binary opposite of a liberal Muslim youth, as Mira Sethi profiles. (The Indian Express, July 12, 2007) Seema Chishti (The Indian Express, July 11, 2007) describes the changing inclination of the new middle class with reference to the university-educated doctors involved in the failed Glasgow bombing. It also hints at the curious connection between terror and technology. Perpetrators of hate, writes Chishti, need technology to inflict violence of a scale to make an impact and the training to do so is available in modern institutes and through modern technical programmes.

The instances connecting terror and education challenge the complacent educators of our times. Given the fact that most of the accomplices of religious conflagrations in different corners of India, needless to mention Gujarat, Bombay and name it, were not uneducated people. Nor did they all have ascribed status of bigot Muslims or Hindus. In the face of this fact the challenge to the educator widens its jaws. It appears more formidable a crisis in modern education when we pay attention to the ready-to-be-incensed youth in the contemporary world. This is where an educator is impelled to feel as though s/he has been unwittingly pursuing the pedagogy of the oppressor in the institutions of learning all the while. It would be wise at the juncture of crisis to rethink the way we participate in the process of teaching and learning unless we are ready to be complacent with our routine academics and have no regard for the path we are treading, let alone the consequences.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

TO comprehend the nature and scope of the pedagogy of the oppressor it is imperative to take a glance at what Paulo Freire chalked out as ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. To quote,

The pedagogy of the oppressed, as a humanist and libertarian pedagogy, has two distinct stages. In the first, the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation. In the second stage, in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation.
(1993: 36)

Furthermore, Freire cites dialogue as the most convenient anchor to execute the pedagogy and envisages spring of differences congenially becoming the source of human existence.

The italicised part in the quote is crucial to probe into the pedagogy of the oppressor because the very act of unveiling the world of oppression is curbed by the oppressive structure of society where institutions of learning are located. The socio-cultural structure of schools and colleges do not let the unveiling take place, at least not officially. Presumably unveiling is about understanding the world of oppression thoroughly and questioning every bit of knowledge we acquire in the world of oppression through our socialisation. Unlike Freire’s, the pedagogy of the oppressor does not allow a critical examination of the world of oppression. The pedagogy in question is conducive for career and the merchandise of education does this efficiently. It is somewhat criminal to let the personal self be engaged with the gruelling truth of our times. Consequently, academic and extra-academic, cognitive-intellect and emotion, career and freewheeling exploration of humansim, practical behaviour and peace are notorious dichotomies in the world of learning.

Pedagogy of the Oppressor

WE tend to keep our pupils away from the bursting truth of the world considering them a potential threat to the normal minds. It is thought, says Russell (1995: 133), that the knowledge of things as they are will lead to cynicism, and (but) so it may do when the knowledge comes suddenly with a shock of surprise and horror. The truth of differences and conflict, however embittering, is never discussed with students, leave aside a self-propelled critical enquiry into the same. The pedagogy of the oppressor does this violence with an intention to inculcate a sense of nationalism and uniformity in learners. Russell decries this tendency saying, “Nations have been brought to ruin much more often by insistence upon a narrow minded doctrinal uniformity than by free discussions and the toleration of divergent opinions.” (Ibid.: 128) The pedagogy under question jeopardises the miraculous effect of learning as it reduces education into instrumental tool for the parochial and expedient acquisition. In pursuit of this pedagogy the teacher and the taught are both simulated replica of an intelligent machine. Fromm (1969) anxiously argued that in our education spontaneity and original responses of children are substituted by superimposed thoughts and feelings. Emotion and intellect are put in opposition to each other and the best teacher or taught is one who has crammed most of the facts. Still we congratulate ourselves for the digitalised measurement of our academic performance and the career it ensures us. The pedagogy of the oppressor has acquired legitimacy; hence we see career-counselling becoming a norm in schools. Every child is told at the inception of the learners’ mind in schools that is abnormal to learn something that is not for the career; and ironically, the torchbearers of market ‘career counsellors’ decide the career. Nothing can be learnt, in this regime, that does not offer an acquisition in return. “Indeed, it is likely that when education is viewed merely as a tool for building identities and economic development, it would serve to enhance intolerance,” argues Krishna Kumar. (2007: 140) I am least surprised that many of our students, born and brought up in metro cities, begin to abhor India after finishing their schooling and look up to the Yankees for their standards of living. The abhorrence for India (or probably the country of the poor and gnawing problems) is, allegorically, intolerance toward Indian diversity.

Place for Peace in Pedagogy

NOTWITHSTANDING all the discontents, we tend to believe that the pedagogy we pursue is not of the oppressor because it paves way for the learners’ full-bloom. It is learner-centric, has space for learning life-skills, and it offers peace-education; hence it is proved that we have nothing to do with oppression and oppressors. It reveals, however, the biggest fallacy of constructivism that it does not pay attention to the forces external to the domain of education which can foil or obscure all the promises of constructivism. So much so that the virtue of constructive approach in pedagogy becomes the vice of education. Take, for example, all those activities we do in schools in the name of skill learning. We find
these days summer camps, special classes, workshops on almost everything on earth, be it nature loving or creative writing, and more over abundance of experts, counselors and NGO-directed activities occupy their (children’s) world, train them and fill their (so-called) ‘empty minds’ with necessary life skills. (Pathak 2007)

In the jungle of information and intervention, childhood is devoid of the essential freedom for self-discovery. The new regime of learner-centric education is furthermore dichotomising between academic and extra-academic, cognitive-intellectual and emotional, learning and doing. Besides, it is not far from our experience in schools that everything students and teachers do in school in the name of peace education offers them only respite from routine academics, a picnic for tired minds, and merchandise for those who sell the idea of peace. “Peace in this commoditised form is little different from entertainment.” (Kumar 2007: 114)

In the same breath, it is necessary to question the value of ‘value-education’ in schools. Values are taught in the manner dogmas and superstitions are inculcated in a community. It seldom involves the young audience as it leaves no space for questioning. It would not be shocking to find somebody preaching on the value of Gandhian non-violence in the most violent manner in a class-room set up. Schools, thereby, become a pathetic extension of society forgetting that the schools have unique role to perform in comparison to other sources of knowledge in that it has the potential-which, of course, it may not realize- to subject all forms of knowledge to rational scrutiny and reflection. In a social order inspired by democratic ideals, the school can not be viewed as an extension of home and community, or as merely one of the several institutions educating the child. (Ibid.: 136)

The place of peace in our incumbent pedagogy is by and large illusive and the idea of peace education is a sham. For, we do not have space for slow pace, unplanned learning and freewheeling self-exploration that bridges the gap between the cognito-intellectual and emotional. Schools, with the help from experts afloat in market, only try to serve society as though the former were merely yet another shop in the chain of production and consumption. Quite persuasively, Krishna Kumar (2007) suggests:

The unpredictable outcomes of learning are far more important than the ones we can predict and plan for. This is so because the crisis caused by violence and conflict in human world is far deeper and vaster than any rational plan can resolve. Only miracles can, if we let them happen, as they do quite often, eventlessly.


THIS pessimistic picture supports the argument that the pedagogy of the oppressor is in effect; hence unveiling the world of oppression, understanding its undercurrents and seeking to transform the same is beyond sight. While such education facilitates us with career and affluence in life, we lose our faith in it when we are exposed to the religio-communal ideology and we tend to become unreflective and intolerant of those who are different from us. We, educated in this way, are always at the heap of the ideological gunpowder. No wonder, any of us becomes another Abdul Rahid Ghazi or the alleged Dr Haneef. For, we are all unquestioning Nachiketas ready to side with death and disaster without questioning them, we are mindless believers who never seek to restore the soul-searching prophet, we are helpless Arjunas skilled in pursuing only our career and groping in the darkness of moral confusions.


Avijit Pathak, 2007, “Forgotten Childhood: The chains of oppression”, in Deccan Herald, July 5, 2007.
- Bertrand Russell, 1995, Unpopular Essays, London: Routledge.
- Erich Fromm, 1969, Escape from Freedom, New York: Avon Books.
- Krishna Kumar, 2007, “Teaching Peace”, in Teacher Plus, Jan-Feb. 2007. Vol.V, No.1.
- Krishna Kumar, 2007, Battle for Peace, Delhi: Penguin Books.
- Mira Sethi, 2007, “Death of a Cleric” in The Indian Express, July 12, 2007.
- Paulo Freire, 1993, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin Books.
- Seema Chisti, 2007, “Doctor Terror: Surprised?” in The Indian Express, July 11, 2007.

The author is a Research Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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