Now is the time to love, to learn, and to listen; Now is the Freireian moment

I have come to realise that, whatever my political future holds, I will never be a good strategist. I am too emotional, too raw. For me, to cite the oft-used phrase coined by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, my ‘optimism of the will’ too easily dominates any ‘pessimism of the intellect’. I can work on it, but that’s probably something I have to accept. Therefore, my response to today’s resounding Tory victory will not be an analytical one. Instead I wish to make an impassioned, though still considered, call to action to everyone – and I don’t just mean those who consider themselves ‘of the Left’, but every single human being in this country who desires to live in a just society. The call is to keep the faith in humanity, to keep the faith with the poorest and most marginalised in our society, and to do this by redoubling our personal and collective commitment to win true democracy. Allow me to explain.

I have read some worrying articles1 and Facebook comments today declaring the British electorate to be stupid and like turkeys voting for Christmas. The first thing to say is that it’s more a case of the turkeys not voting at all. A third of UK citizens did not vote and these non-voters are much more likely to come from the most deprived sections of society.

That said, though I totally understand the deep frustration felt by so many today, this reaction worries me. Generalisations about the stupidity of the lower orders are dehumanising and have no place in genuinely progressive politics. They are anti-democratic because they lead to a quite Leninist hierarchical, authoritarian perspective in which the unthinking masses must be led to their own liberation by an intellectual vanguard. Instead, I want to use the work of Antonio Gramsci and the inspirational Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire to argue for the intellectual potential of all people, to argue for us all to reach out to our most oppressed fellow citizens through a dialogue that starts with listening, really listening.


‘All men are intellectuals’,2 declared Gramsci. Gramsci was keen to highlight the false division in our society between intellectual and manual work, between the thinkers – the ‘intellectuals’ – and the doers. The division was false because, first, however seemingly menial, all work contains an intellectual component, and, second, because ‘[e]ach man…outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a “philosopher”, an artist, a man of taste’ who ‘contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought’.

The fundamental problem for Gramsci, following Marx, was that in a class society the dominant (or ‘hegemonic’) ideology was that of the ruling class. This insight must, of course, today be supplemented by other critical perspectives, i.e. the dominant ideology isn’t just bourgeois, but white, patriarchal, heteronormative, able-bodied, etc. In short, the production of knowledge and ‘truth’ is power, and when we surrender our intellectuality to the self-proclaimed ‘neutral’ ‘experts’ in the universities, the think-tanks, the government departments, etc, we effectively surrender our power and liberty. Indeed, Paolo Freire thought that people without this intellectual power became rendered dehumanised ‘objects’. Thus a process of subsequent humanization was necessary through a process of what he called ‘conscientization’ (becoming politically conscious). This itself must take place through an ongoing ‘praxis’ – a dynamic interaction of action and reflection – that is founded on dialogue. People become full human beings when they are able to ‘read their own world and write their own history’.


What we are really talking about here, bottom line, is that if we really want the democratisation of our society we must have the democratisation of knowledge and its production. Alternatively put, we must all become intellectuals. What this means is that those who already have intellectual power and seek to overcome hegemonic social structures must not seek to tell those less educated than them what to do or what to think, but must instead recognise the serious limits of their knowledge and must reach out to those oppressed through a dialogue that begins by listening. In his masterpiece Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire was unequivocal:

Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization…The correct method for a revolutionary leadership to employ in the task of liberation is, therefore, not “libertarian propaganda.” Nor can the leadership merely “implant” in the oppressed a belief in freedom, thus thinking to win their trust. The correct method lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientization.’

And what is the nature of this dialogue that we must all enter into with each other in order to ‘name the world’? For Freire it had four components. It had to start with love: ‘Dialogue cannot exist…in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love.Second, it had to be founded on faith: ‘Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all). Faith in people is an a priori requirement for dialogue; the “dialogical man” believes in others even before he meets them face to face‘. Third, dialogue cannot exist without hope, and, fourth, true dialogue cannot exist unless the dialoguers engage in critical thinking‘.

This was how Paolo Freire saw democratisation: as a fundamentally educational process of collective dialogue founded on love, faith, hope, and critical thinking. Truly democratic social change can take place only when the ’empirical’ (or, as Ann Hope and Sally Timmel put it, ‘social’ knowledge) of ordinary people combines with the ‘critical’ (or ‘scientific’) knowledge of educators to produce ‘transformative knowledge’ that can change our world. In short, the revolution has to be pedagogical! I think Freire was absolutely right. Indeed, he has been a central inspiration in my own life, worldview, and endeavours.

Coming back to the here and now, I really believe that Freire and other critical educators like him can show us the path to winning democracy and justice for all. Long before this week’s election here in the UK, we knew that this was a genocidal and ecocidal system. What this election result makes absolutely clear is that, given the current depth of economic crisis and ecological collapse we face, the reformist path is a dead end. We need radical, revolutionary social transformation.

If you are reading this gripped by despair, frightened by the prospect of so much more human suffering, then please think about the ideas presented here. I really believe, now more than ever, that there is no innocent bystander; that we all now have a clear moral obligation to act. Spending a bit more on your bananas or coffee won’t do it; giving money to charities won’t do it; even volunteering in shelters or food banks won’t do it. All these are admirable actions, but are reformist rather than revolutionary. We need to come together to act and build our future. It’s already begun. However, before we act we need to create spaces and time for genuine dialogue. We need to talk…and we need to listen. So, please, have faith in each other. It will be richly rewarded and our democracy can be built upon nothing else.3

1Yes, I do realise this is a spoof! But, still, it’s funny because it’s a feasible position to take.

2Let’s benevolently assume that Gramsci meant all people rather than just specifically men!

3I feel obliged to confess here the contradictions within my own personal position. At present, after a serious disagreement, I am barely speaking to my own parents. They are good, kind people and I’m working through my emotions. I know I need to take my own advice here. I will, but it’s taking time.

  28 comments for “Now is the time to love, to learn, and to listen; Now is the Freireian moment

  1. May 9, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    Thanks for this – I had a crack at Pedagogy of the Oppressed a few years ago but found it to be impenetrable without a solid prior grounding in Marx, which I didn’t really have. I was working as a teacher at the time, and found it bizarre that Friere didn’t seem to be writing for me but for others in Marxist circles. Anyway, this post clarified things for me somewhat.

    I’m still curious about the idea of democratising knowledge production though. You say:

    “What this means is that those who already have intellectual power and seek to overcome hegemonic social structures must not seek to tell those less educated than them what to do or what to think”

    Presumably a maths teacher has a duty to tell their students what to do and what to think (regarding mathematical knowledge, anyway). Conversely, an RE teacher shouldn’t foist opinions on their students, but they do have a responsibility to correct factual errors.

    So what is “democratising knowledge production”? Is it just the opinion stuff? Or does it cover the production of facts too?

    • Stan Reeves
      May 12, 2015 at 10:17 am

      If you want a practical example of Freire’s ideas in practice over more than 30 years in Edinburgh(which is easier to read), “Living Adult Education- Freire in Scotland” Kirkwood and Kirkwood. I can supply. Txt 0773 026 8001.

      • May 12, 2015 at 12:41 pm

        Thanks Stan. Will send you a message. Would be very excited to read this.

  2. May 9, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Nick

    An excellent, thoughtful response. Thank you! So, first, re Freire’s book. It’s a common criticism of ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ that the first chapter is so bloody hard to read. People can understandably accuse Freire of hypocrisy, i.e. wanting to democratise knowledge by demystifying jargon, but then writing such dense theoretical stuff. My response is that this book wasn’t aimed at the Brazilian illiterate peasantry he first worked with. This book is aimed at educators who have a special role in the process of ‘conscientization’.
    That leads me to your second excellent criticism. Here’s my response and I believe it to be consistent with Freire’s own position of the teacher. So, as possessor of expert scientific knowledge, the teacher is indispensable to the process of learning/praxis/conscientization. If a teacher is just a facilitator creating a space for people to share feelings and ideas, the group really can’t go too far. The teacher has to start by listening to the group and learning about the primary emotions they express about their life and the concrete issues that are causing most problems and fears for them. This is the starting point for the teacher. The teacher can then bring in the scientific knowledge that the students need to help them begin to understand the root causes behind the problems they face as individuals and as a community.
    In the ‘hard’ sciences like Maths or Physics, one might think that the old ‘banking method’ of just telling the students the facts remains appropriate. However, first, as any serious mathematician or physicist would readily tell you, the ‘hard’ facts aren’t always that hard. Second, I think that if we want to make our students love Maths or Physics, the principle of connecting it to their own lives and experiences remains fundamental, so I think a Freireian approach is just as valid here. Wish I’d have had such a Maths teacher at school!
    So, for me the Freireian teacher is indispensable to the process and also what’s crucial is that her/his authority doesn’t merely derive from the institutional position s/he occupies, but from the expert scientific knowledge s/he has accrued over years of dedication and effort. This is the source of his/her authority and respect, of her power.

    As for the Marxist background, I’m not sure I had much at all there when I first read PofO. That said, I have found Marx’s work to be a simply essential input to understanding our contemporary world, to wit, capitalism. So, I recommend reading him if you haven’t yet. Try Capital Vol 1. It is a brilliant read. Also, David Harvey’s lectures on it are brilliant as a companion.

    Finally, re knowledge production. What’s crucial to recognise is that the further the learning process advances, the narrower the gap between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ becomes and very soon into the process the teacher is learning from the students and the students are teaching each other and the teacher. My friend Joss Winn is doing amazing work, using Marx’s theory of value to show how ‘academic labour’ is probably mostly produced by students in the university and how knowledge within the university is actually co-produced in interactions between and among academics and students.

    Finally, finally, I’m contributing to a book called ‘Mass Intellectuality: the democratisation of higher education’ with a chapter that also explores this. Essentially, I think that democratic knowledge co-production must have at its heart a research agenda shaped by and conducted by local people and communities alongside academics; an agenda that addresses their pressing needs and interests rather than the interests of financial, economic, military, and security elites.

    I hope that’s a start and thanks again for your question. You can message me on Facebook if you want to discuss further.

    • May 9, 2015 at 6:51 pm

      Hey, thanks for the detailed response – I’ll have a look at Joss’s work and will look out for the book.

    • May 10, 2015 at 8:11 pm

      re Maths, see also this great talk by my friend Jo Evershed:

      • May 11, 2015 at 10:21 am

        Thanks Josef!
        Excited to check this out!

  3. May 9, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    I admire Paulo Freire most of the all people I possess knowledge of and my most prised possession is his last book, signed and personalised by his widow.

    So it goes without saying that I agree with your post Joel.

    I put up ‘Paulo Freire – A Brief History and Selected Quotes’ on the front page of the NatCAN website, just under the three memes in the centre of the page (

    If you don’t mind, I would very much appreciate you putting up this blog post on NatCAN so I can direct the membership to it.

    Thanks you – Joe.

    • May 11, 2015 at 10:21 am

      Thanks for this, Joe
      It would be my pleasure and honour for you to post this on NatCAN!

    • May 11, 2015 at 11:43 am

      Thanks Joe, but you spelled my name wrong. It’s “Lazarus”. Thanks

      • May 11, 2015 at 11:47 am



        Sent from Windows Mail

  4. May 11, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    Hi Joel,

    Thanks for this piece and for drawing attention to Freire’s work – I am a great fan. As a facilitator and educator myself my focus is on finding this balance between offering information/knowledge, creating spaces for a group to create their own learning while also acknowledging my own political bias – not denying it, as I don’t believe this is honest or helpful. I agree that now is our Freireian moment: we must develop or revive methods that share knowledge and methods of learning respectfully and honestly without the usual coercion that accompanies so much of what passes for education. Tools for liberation.
    Personally on the economics front I have been using the Human Scale Development framework developed by Manfred Max Neef as a conscientization tool along with several ‘stories’ or frames that I believe are crucial in developing awareness of economic language and its effect on our consciousness. I would be very interested to hear more about your work in this respect and any other ideas you have on developing a pedagogy for true democracy.

    Really inspiring stuff!

    • May 11, 2015 at 9:03 pm

      Dear Inez

      Many thanks for your great response. If you are on facebook you can find and message me there to share ideas. I guess I should get a ‘contact me’ page. Until recently no one ever did!!
      I would also very much recommend my friend Sarah Amsler’s new book called ‘Educating Radical Democracy’. Sarah uses Ernst Bloch’s idea of living on ‘the front’ of possibilities, of every democratic pedagogical moment as a moment of possibility of creating a new, alternative reality. Her book is an incredibly rich work of scholarship and is very helpful for thinking about such work in current conditions.


      • May 11, 2015 at 10:12 pm

        I browsed for the book and found “The Education of Radical Democracy” by Sarah so that must be the one you mean Joel?

  5. May 12, 2015 at 8:36 am

    Yes, that’s right, Joe. Published by Routledge…
    I will speak to Sarah to find out if her book can be disseminated in a far cheaper (i.e. free) way.

  6. Alex Mankowitz
    May 12, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    “I really believe, now more than ever, that there is no innocent bystander; that we all now have a clear moral obligation to act.”
    Not that that’s my only takeaway from this beautiful piece.
    Joel, I really want to speak with you in person about all this.
    I think the centrality of love is CENTRAL!
    I do have some questions about using theorists in advocating for dialogical and pedagogical positions – does this further entrench an ironically Leninist class conception (liberated intelligentsia vs captive proletariat) and whether we shouldn’t just go straight to love. No ideas, no tactics, just love. What do you think? I don’t mean to linger on this point, because it’s not the point, but I feel it’s initial dam that must be breached (for me definitely). Put simply, would time spent writing be better spent loving? Or is writing (like this), loving?
    If we purely focus on aiding liberation by DIRECT LOVE, won’t the liberation of X% of the human population speak louder than a million blogposts and articles?
    This is what I want to speak with you about.
    Why do you not live near me? Would quite like a coffee now! (with a tea chaser).
    Thank you for your wonderful piece and for everything you’re doing for our world.
    Love and solidarity,

    • May 12, 2015 at 9:11 pm

      Wow! Feeling the love right there, Alex!
      Personally, I think the heart and the head are crucial. That’s why I call the site ‘blogs from the head and the heart’. This is also a reference to the false separation that is made between ‘bleeding heart’ lefties and sensible ‘right-minded’ right-wingers.
      You need the head here because you need a theory of the social system/s in which we live. We need Marxism as a theoretical framework for understanding capitalism; We need Feminism as a theoretical framework for understanding patriarchy; We need Post-colonialism and black liberation theory to understand racism; We need queer theory for understanding identities; Etc, etc. We also need these schools of critical theory and others not just for understanding but because their insights point to the root causes of things and therefore guide us towards the right objectives and the right ways of achieving these objectives.
      This points me to the Leninist thing. I think this is exactly what a truly democratic pedagogical approach rejects and supersedes. Freire is crucial here as are many other thinker/practitioners.
      Even love needs to be theorised, e.g. love takes many forms. I know you mean a pure altruistic love that desires maximal happiness and freedom for others, but it could be a possessive love or an erotic love. So, we need too to theorise love.
      Hope that is helpful. Hope too to see you at some stage soon
      Solidarity and love

  7. Tony Taylor
    May 16, 2015 at 6:47 am

    Joel – many thanks for this properly ‘romantic’ head and heart piece. I’ll repost it on the In Defence of Youth Work site this weekend, where folk [who ought to know their Freire] are struggling with the consequences of the election result. It takes nothing away from your argument, but my reading is that Freire in practice had not freed himself completely from vanguardist inclinations. And if he hadn’t, all the more reason for us to be ever alert to the seduction of hierarchy.

    Yours in struggle


    • May 16, 2015 at 6:58 pm

      Thanks so much, Tony. Honoured.
      I do recognise your point. That’s a criticism levelled at him. I can see this perspective and agree with your response. I think it’s the case that we’re all human, all flawed, and, like democracy, always a work in progress.

  8. May 16, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Thank you.

  9. June 2, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Thank you Joel. You may be interested in Schools of Participation, a method of working with marginalised groups using Freirian methodology, developed and used successfully for over 10 years by Community Pride, Church Action on Poverty. See for more details.

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:37 pm

      Thanks Joyce!
      Great to learn of more Freireian projects. I wonder if it’s time for a Freireian national conference/workshop?
      I’ll definitely check out your work. Looks fantastic


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