2.3 Limitations and distortions of Freire
Elements of Freirean rhetoric are now everywhere -even in literacy programmes which have no commitment to promoting social change. In many respects the Freirean approach has ironically become the traditional approach. Although there have been many new ideas and methodologies developed since Freire, it is Freire who is still most widely quoted and referred to. But in most cases this can best be described as "pseudo Freireanism", stripped of its radical potential. Why?
Although Freire criticised primers in fact most people who profess to use his methods use primers. To a certain extent this was his own fault -having criticised past primers he ended up re-inventing them. The new primers were no longer repeating bland phrases such as "Mary likes animals" or "Eva saw the grape" but they were still primers. They were no longer developed by authors in isolation but rather were produced following local socio-economic and linguistic research. Nevertheless the re-invented primers were very prescriptive:
"The first generative word should be trisyllabic.... Having chosen seventeen generative words the next step is to codify seventeen existential situations" (Freire 1985).
Those who now claim to use Freirean methods have simply replaced "mechanical primers" with more socially-based words, phrases and pictures -whilst retaining the same essential structure and vehicle - the primer. Although supposedly based on local research, increasingly literacy planners have argued that a detailed survey in one rural community reveals a reality typical of the region or even country - so large-scale, centrally printed primers are said to be justified (ignoring the fact that Freire himself observed about generative words that "variation in meaning can occur even within the same city").
The product is the same "mechanical practice of literacy" which Freire himself condemned - but this time done in his name. In practice, despite the declarations and rhetoric of literacy planners, in 95% of cases there is no dialogue in literacy classes. Time and time again, when it comes to the classroom situation, literacy teachers sidestep dialogue (or any effective discussion) and fall back on what they see as the "meat" of teaching literacy.
The cases where this is not true tend to be highly politicised literacy programmes with a tendency to impose a new consciousness on learners rather than generating a truly critical consciousness. There are two main reasons for this:
It is difficult to develop a dialogue. To expect largely untrained teachers to do so with just a picture and a word to structure the process is unrealistic. Teachers might have a list of questions in a guidebook (eg what do you see in the picture? what does it mean?) but the learners normally shift around awkwardly, look embarrassed, remain silent or give stock responses to the questions (trying to keep the teacher happy or give the "right" answer). Even if the codifications have been skillfully developed locally and the questions are poignant, developing a dialogue is still not easy. The primer appears in the class from "outside" and feels "external" to the lives of the learners.
The result of this lack of dialogue is that literacy becomes a technical process of teaching syllables (often with rote chanting) and other mechanical aspects of reading and writing. Lacking a viable alternative, teachers re-enact their own experiences of education in primary school and treat the adult learners like children. There is no link to local issues, local development or social change. Learners get bored. Many drop out and others struggle on but fail to learn because reading and writing is not meaningfully related to their lives.
There are exceptions to this bleak scenario: occasions when a literacy programme appears in the right time at the right place with the right people. But even here there can be problems. In some places literacy programmes have raised considerable awareness of injustice and oppression but have failed to channel that awareness into effective change. Learners have ended up either disillusioned (when the government and the international capitalist system fail to collapse) or repressed (as they mobilise without a sufficient focus on achievable change built from below).
Many people have criticised Freire. For example, Street questions how well the Freirean approach "really takes account of local meanings and of cultural and ethnic variations within a nation state and how far teachers can and do give up their position and adopt an equal facilitating role with students". Reading Freire one fluctuates between a feeling that non-literate people are being respected and regarded as knowledgeable, and a feeling that they are being portrayed as powerless and ignorant, submerged in a "culture of silence" and suffering from a "fatalistic consciousness". Feminists have also condemned Freire for his persistent references to "Man" when he is referring to "people" or "humanity" (and although this is more a matter of linguistic convention than sexism, Freire certainly fails to address gender issues in his earlier work).
Despite these shortcomings the philosophy of Freire has a lot to offer. The most serious problems lie with Freire's failure to formulate an effective literacy methodology.
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