Paulo Friere, “Bank Education” and writing paralysis

Reading the work of Lawrence McKeown on the republican hunger strikes in Ireland I came across multiple references to Paulo Friere. Not being the first time I saw such references, I went and found the book and quickly pushed over the first few chapters. It suffices to say that I’m bowled over, perhaps not so much as the first time I read Fanon (although there are highly emotional reasons for that), this is another instance where I am completely stunned that I didn’t come across this book five or ten years ago. What exactly was I doing in my undergrad that I wrote more than ten papers on Heidegger, and not a single one on Friere or Fanon? The answer, I think, lies in the directly French thinking went in the 50s and 60s – away from a thinking which embraced the possibility of universality and continued in the Rousseauian tradition, towards thinking of between, impossibility, entrapment. Basically, the critique of the subject – an ideology I was thoroughly entrapped in and saw Heidegger as the godfather of, was taken a particular way and direction – away from inauthenticity as a contingent aspect of capitalist and tyrannical cultural-political situations, and towards a thinking of absolute unfreedom, where the only possibilities for hope are transient moments on the margins. I think the motivations for such thinking becoming dominant are particularly nefarious – as it avoids responsibility to play a positive role in various anti-colonial or anti-capitalist movements by dismissing all institutional opposition to power as itself a mere repetition of power. This is particularly disingenuous given that the thinking which pursues the other line remains resolutely committed to confronting the tendency of the struggles of the oppressed to themselves become oppressive, but does not take this tendency as an excuse to remain neutral within a single confluence of power. 

But I actually want to comment on a specific aspect in Friere’s thinking which I find fascinating, and which sheds light on my own experience as a scholar. Friere distinguishes in chapter two of “Pedagogy of the Opressed” between a “banking” concept of education, and libertarian education. In the “banking” concept of education,

Education…becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. (72)

Implicit in the banking concept is thee assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator, not re-creator. (75)

Now there are two things to say about the banking concept of education. The first is that its critique is not in itself revolutionary – neoliberalism is perfectly happy to speak the language of students teaching themselves, so long as it can still charge them for the privilege, or at least for certification that the “education” has taken place. The radicality of the critique is not political, but it is ontological – the assumption of the student as the receptacle of knowledge, the phenomenological assumptions in the banking concept of education, run much deeper and are more nefarious than the superficial student-teacher Hegelian dialectic to be criticized. The complexity of the learning dialectic is not only in the social student-teacher relationship, but in the life world of the student and teacher themselves – learning and teaching are not static transfers in or out, but processes of transformation and becoming. And this is true, I learn as much from teaching, probably more, than from being a student, and my teaching methods are already consistent with Friere’s critique of the banking concept of education. However, I recognize that in another area of my life, my writing, I am much more stuck in the in-out model of thinking – which is a problem as a graduate student in the process of researching and writing a dissertation. I fall just as easily as the next person into the trap of “needing to read”, more and more, endless reading before the writing begins. And not to say that spurts of reading are not valuable.

But even today, I find myself endlessly critical of the incomplete character of my thinking. When I presented at the Fanon conference I felt my work was terribly rudimentary and incomplete, and not very sophisticated. And yet, a very positive reaction, even from my supervisor. Similarly, when I presented last week at TAPSS, I just made a set of observations which I thought were obvious and preliminary in the sense that they are not backed up by serious sociological research, and without a proper conclusion, and yet that was very well received also. Perhaps the clue presented here is an adjunct to Friere’s point – that education is not a process of mastery followed by output, but learning is itself an active process, a process which can produce something incomplete yet valuable. Perhaps this insight is essential both to my research, as well as to my writing practice – partiality. And there is no contradiction between a means of partiality (after all, it is phenomenological!), and a goal of universality. The defence of the universal today is no more or less naive than it was in Hegel’s time – all we have is the universal hidden in the particular, and there are no guarantees that some set of conditions will actually produce the social bonds which instantiate freedom. The rational reconstruction of the world in thought is neither true nor false, but in tension with it, the best we hope for is that the tension be productive, be itself a force of good in the world.


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