My Conversion to Critical Pedagogy: The Bergerian Freire

In a similar way that Berger has deeply influenced my reading of Freire, Freire has influenced my reading of Berger.

Introduction

The best way that can explain how Bergerian interpretive sociology set me up for radicalization a la Freire is by making a somewhat academic argument—that Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000 [1968]) is complemented and illuminated by Peter Berger’s Social Construction of Reality—and introducing you to who I’m calling the Bergerian Freire.

Since I read Berger before reading Freire, the former served as a kind of frame for interpreting the latter, accentuating the colors and textures of conscientization through the complementary concepts of social construction. Such was my initial experience of reading Freire about six months ago. As I have been revisiting both Berger and Freire this month, I am increasingly convinced that the Bergerian Freire I have come to embrace is not a mere idiosyncrasy born from the circumstances of my initial reading; instead, I’m beginning to realize that there are very real resonances between the thought lives of both of these theorists, and it is precisely these resonances that I seek to explore in this blog post.

Also, I decided to break up this post into subsections. You’re welcome.

A Shared Theological Anthropology and Commitment to an Open World

For starters, both Berger and Freire seem to have very similar intellectual wall paper. Both are self-identified Christian intellectuals (Berger, Lutheran; Freire, Roman Catholic), and thus both operate within a theological anthropology that upholds humanity as ontologically superior to the rest of the non-human world. Their theologically-inflected anthropocentrism posits mankind as an existentially unique being that is required to create their own habitat (read: social reality) since there is no natural or species-instinctual habitat for them to occupy. Freire (2000), distinguishing humans from animals, which he considers “beings in themselves” (p. 97), writes that “humans exist in a world which they are constantly re-creating and transforming” (pp. 98-99). Berger (1967), in a similar tenor, writes that because “man’s instinctual structure at birth is both underspecialized and undirected toward a species-specific environment,” man exists in “a world that must be fashioned by [his] own activity” (p. 5). It’s all very Edenic and labor-centric, as if both theorists had the “Creation Mandate” of Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 in the back of their minds as they wrote.

I am drawing attention to Berger and Freire’s shared theological anthropology because it illuminates how we understand their insistence that mankind is and should always already be in the process of becoming through their work of creating and maintaining (Berger) and transforming (Freire) reality. Whereas Berger (1967) stays relatively descriptive in his insistence on “the fundamental socio-cultural dialectic” (p. 93) of externalization-objectification-internalization, Freire (2000) goes so far as to align a critical dialectical posture towards reality with humanity’s “ontological vocation to be more fully human” (p. 74). In the Foreword of Pedagogy, Presbyterian theologian Richard Shaull further elaborates what Freire means by “ontological vocation”:

“[Freire] operates on one basic assumption: that man’s ontological vocation (as he calls it) is to be a Subject who acts upon and transforms his world, and in so doing moves toward ever new possibilities of fuller and richer life individually and collectively. This world to which he relates is not a static and closed order, a given reality which man must accept and to which he must adjust; rather, it is a problem to be worked on and solved. It is the material used by man to create history, a task which he performs as he overcomes that which is dehumanizing at any particular time and place and dares to create the qualitatively new.” (Freire 2000, p. 32)

Freire’s insistence on the openness of the world to transformation, in contradistinction to ‘a static and closed order’, parallels Berger’s indictment of alienation and false consciousness with which I ended my previous post. For both Freire and Berger, a fatalistic relationship to the world that forecloses the possibility of ongoing transformation is an egregious affront to humanity’s inherent and authentic existential mode, which entails working upon the world and making both world and self in the process.

I hope that these similarities between Berger and Freire have convinced you that the notion of a Bergerian Freire is at the very least far from outlandish. What I’d like to do now (and this will take considerably longer and be much more technically involved) is introduce you to this Bergerian Freire by conceptually articulating Berger’s theory of the social construction of reality with Friere’s analysis of oppression and vision for critical pedagogy. Worded differently, I have come to see Berger as providing a theoretical framework for further elucidating the mechanisms of oppression and conscientization within Freire’s otherwise primarily onto-axiological argument for the liberation of persons.  In what follows, I will explore this argument through three moments in the process of liberation: oppression, conscientization, and dialogue.

Oppression as Default Socialization into the Oppressor Reality

Freire describes the dynamics of oppression as the oppressor prescribing the reality of the oppressed. He writes:

“One of the basic elements of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed is prescription. Every prescription represents the imposition of one individual’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness. Thus, the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor.” (Freire 2000, pp. 46-47)

In other words, the oppressor dictates beforehand the conditions of existence of the oppressed and thus prevents the oppressed from realizing themselves as human beings responsible for their own becoming. The oppressed have already arrived, so to speak, as props within the oppressor’s reality. If we pass this description of oppression through Berger’s socio-cultural dialectic, we see that the oppressor externalizes his reality, which becomes objectivated as social facticity and internalized by the oppressed. Another way of wording Freire’s description of oppression as prescription is to say that the oppressed are socialized into the social reality of their oppressor, or what I will henceforth dub the “oppressor reality.” Furthermore, since the oppressor often occupies a status of hegemonic privilege, his reality is usually the default reality into which every member of society is first socialized.

The situation of oppression vis a vis default socialization into the oppressor reality is especially pernicious when the oppressed exist in the mode of false consciousness. In their submerged state, the oppressed project “a fictitious inexorability upon the humanly constructed world” (Berger 1967, p. 95) of their oppressor and engage in self-deprecatory thought patterns, “which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them” (Freire 2000, p. 63). But why, beyond false consciousness, does a situation of oppression persist?

The Anomophobic Perpetuation of the Oppressor Reality 

Berger’s theorizations around anomy and irreality are helpful here. Berger’s entire framework of social construction is perched at the edge of a deep anxiety concerning the inability of the human psyche to exist in a state of irreality, which he argues is an ever present possibility because social realities are entropic by nature. Berger (1967) writes that “to live in the social world is to live an ordered and meaningful life,” and that “[i]t is for this reason that radical separation from the social world, or anomy, constitutes such a powerful threat to the individual” (p. 21). When an individual is separated from the hermeneutical comforts afforded by a social reality, he “loses emotionally satisfying ties,” “loses his orientation in experience,” and “loses his sense of reality and identity”; in other words, “[h]e becomes anomic in the sense of becoming worldless” (ibid.). Homo socius, Berger contends, cannot cope with anomy and thus compulsively attempts to maintain their sense of reality.

Berger’s idea that people are always fighting against the chaotic disorientations of wordlessness helps to explain what Freire means by “fear of freedom” and “housing the oppressor within.” The oppressed fear freedom not only because they are so submerged in the oppressor reality to the point of false consciousness that they cannot imagine themselves apart from it, but also because the nature of human existence is phobic to anomic dissolution. In other words, the oppressed can conceive of only two options: the oppressor reality or irreality, and the latter is automatically unacceptable. Hence, the oppressed are invested in the maintenance of the oppressor reality because it provides a sense of self and world, albeit an inferior self and an oppressive world.

It is through this maintenance of the oppressor reality that the oppressed “house the oppressor within,” allowing the figural oppressor to reside within their consciousness as the dictator of reality as such. Therefore, the oppressed are implicated in the co-production of the world that denies them. When Freire speaks of the “oppressor within,” this is the voice of the oppressor—uttering the oppressor’s reality—inside of the consciousness of the oppressed. The routine maintenance of the oppressor reality primarily comprises of the oppressor’s voice within the oppressed: “You are a boy, stop acting like a girl,” “God prohibits same-sex love,” “I am inferior as a colored/female/queer/trans/disabled/etc. body.”

The Necessity of Conscientization 

Freire (2000) talks about the inevitability of resistance in any situation of oppression, but does so in strictly axiological terms, stating that because oppression is “a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so” (p. 44). Berger offers a much needed supplement to Freire’s Hegelian insistence that the thesis of oppression engenders the antithesis of resistance and results in the synthesis of humanization for both oppressor and oppressed. How might we analyze the inevitability of resistance in social phenomenological terms?

When Berger talks about reality maintenance, he is referring to the maintenance of an adequate degree of symmetry between the external objective facticity of a social reality and its internal subjective plausibility to an individual consciousness. The higher the degree of symmetry, the higher the degree of reality adhesion. The oppressed, Berger would say (that is, if he was at all concerned about oppression—and yes, that was a total jab at one of my favorite theorists), are “unsuccessfully socialized” because their existence is characterized by an inordinate degree of asymmetry between their subjective consciousness and the objective reality in which they have been thrown. Berger writes that “[s]uch an individual will be unsuccessfully socialized, that is, there will be a high degree of asymmetry between the socially defined reality in which he is de facto caught, as in an alien world, and his own subjective reality, which reflects that world only very poorly” (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p. 165).

Due to the asymmetry of the oppressed’s lived experience with the oppressor reality, this reality is more tenuous to the oppressed than to the oppressor. For instance, a person of color who experiences job rejections due to racialized notions of employability is thrown into a more precarious relationship with the ideology of meritocracy than someone closer to the white employable ideal; a gay churchgoer who notices the contradictions of a supposedly all-loving God and the homophobic rhetoric circulating within their community, and thus feels an inclination to ‘fall out’ of their church and religiosity; and so on. This asymmetry brings the oppressed closer to the brink of irreality, which we have already established is a no go. Hence, an anomophobic vector pushes (at least in theory, and at least to a certain extent) the oppressed into a state of resistance. One could say, then, that the oppressed are always already approaching conscientization due to their experiences of slippage with the oppressor reality.

Conscientization and Liberation as Reality Work

In Bergerian terms, conscientization is the process through which one recognizes the dialectical nature of social reality and thus deconstructs the inevitability of the oppressor reality that was assumed immovable in the state of submersion and false consciousness. Conscientization also entails the reconstruction of a new reality that is more miscible with the oppressed consciousness. Hence, conscientization can be analyzed in two moments: emerging from, as opposed to submersion in, the oppressor reality, and intervening in the world so as to create a new reality. In Freire’s (2000) own words, conscientization is the process through which the oppressed “emerge from their submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality as it is unveiled” (p. 109).

If we conceive of conscientization as reality deconstruction (emersion) and reconstruction (intervention), then we could say that the process liberation is a reality migration from the oppressor reality to a reality of one’s own making. Thus, conscientization and liberation are aptly construed as forms of reality work. This insight is where Berger’s social construction framework most illuminates Freire’s philosophy of liberation. With Berger, we can describe liberation as the resolution of the asymmetry of the oppressed’s unsuccessful socialization into the oppressor reality through the realignment of their objective reality and subjective consciousness into a more parallel relationship vis a vis reality reconstruction. How, then, does this kind of reality work happen?

Freirean Dialogue as Bergerian Conversation

Freire’s entire pedagogy pivots on his notion of dialogue, which he articulates in contradistinction to “the banking concept of education.” The banking approach to education entails a conception of the teacher as active knowledge-holder and the student as passive knowledge-recipient. Within this approach, education is centrally concerned with the successful transfer of a predefined set of knowledge from teacher to student. Freire’s critiques banking education as an oppressive education because it entails the prescription of reality from one person to another through the one-way transfer of knowledge. Berger’s idea that every social reality contains a “social stock of knowledge” that is “transmitted from generation to generation” and allows for “common participation” (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p. 41) within said reality further punctuates Freire’s indictment of banking education. It is precisely this social stock of knowledge that is deposited into students in the banking approach to education, which has the effect of socializing these persons into particular (and oftentimes oppressive) social realities.

Rather than conceive of education as the transfer of steady knowledge and thus the socialization of students into the status quo, Freire advocates for a more egalitarian pedagogy in which teacher and student co-evaluate the world. In other words, banking education operates via transference whereas Freirean dialogue embraces an ethics of accompaniment. Freire champions dialogue because in the posture of accompaniment the teacher is less likely to oppress their students through the imposition of a prescribed reality. “Dialogue,” Freire writes, “as the encounter among men to ‘name’ the world, is a fundamental precondition for their true humanization” (p. 137). And it is through this naming, which occurs in conversational negotiation between teacher and student as interlocutors, that the oppressed seize the responsibility to intervene in the world and thereby shed the oppressor reality within which they were previously submerged. Or, in Bergerian terms, what happens when the oppressed name the world as they see it is that they transfigure themselves into authors of their own reality, whereas before they were passively participating in “bad faith” in a reality that was not their own.

While much more could be said about Freirean dialogics, for the purposes of this blog post I want to draw attention to the centrality of conversation in Berger’s social construction framework. “The most important vehicle of reality-maintenance is conversation” (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p. 152). For Berger, the conversational medium is the primary form of social interaction through which social realities gain their coherence and renew their validity. He goes so far as to say, in one of my favorite quotes from him, that “the subjective reality of the world hangs on the thin thread of conversation” (Berger 1967, p. 17). Berger and Freire, then, would agree on the centrality of dialogue in the process of liberation insofar as conversation is a primary mode of reality construction.

Berger, who might as well be speaking in Freire’s voice in this passage, writes:

“[C]onversation gives firm contours to items previously apprehended in a fleeting and unclear manner. One may have doubts about one’s religion; these doubts become real in a quite different way as one discusses them. One then ‘talks oneself into’ these doubts; they are objectified as reality within one’s own consciousness. Generally, the conversational apparatus maintains reality by ‘talking through’ various elements of experience and allocating them a definite place in the real world.” (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p. 153)

What happens, then, in the dialogical encounter between critical pedagogue and the oppressed is the co-construction and maintenance of a counter-reality to the oppressor reality.

Conclusion

To recapitulate my version of who I’m calling the Bergerian Freire: The oppressed are socialized by default into the oppressor reality and stay in a state of submersion due to an anomophobic tendency inherent in the human condition, and thus are trapped in a ‘fear of freedom’ being unable to imagine reality otherwise, and hence ‘house the oppressor’ within themselves by maintaining his reality; however, the oppressed are always already on the brink of conscientization insofar as their submersion into the oppressor reality is disrupted by the buoyant asymmetries of their consciousness to that same reality; through the process of conscientization, the oppressed emerge from the oppressor reality and begin to name and construct their own reality; this counter reality construction process occurs best under dialogical conditions, whereby the prescriptivity of oppression is set aside in favor of mere conversation in all of its “reality-generating potency” (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p. 153). Within this particular reading of Freire, the situation of oppression, the work of liberation, and the pedagogy of the oppressed are all matters of reality (de)construction and maintenance.

Okay, that was a lot of jargon and three (I know, I know… that’s three too many) big block quotes—thanks for getting this far. In the next post, I will return to a more conventional blogging style and hopefully sketch out how my own biography demonstrates the liberatory reality work that I have hitherto discussed only in theory.

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