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Ethics in Paulo Freire's Pedagogy

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

By Jaqueline Balthazar Silva

In this essay, Jaqueline Balthazar Silva, who has experience serving in health care and education using Paulo Freire’s insights, shows that Freire’s project is an ethical endeavor to help human beings be realize their full historical capacity of Being More in the world.

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Freirean pedagogy is permeated by the concept that the human being has an ontological vocation. Paulo Freire's philosophy is considered humanist and personalist. This vocation is for Being More. These complex concepts mean that every human being was born to evolve through a humanization process that mainly occurs through dialogue. These concepts are interconnected.

Any educational act has a pedagogical dimension and any pedagogical dimension is a political act. For Freire, humanization means focusing on the ontological vocation of the human being for Being More. Otherwise, we have, dehumanization that means making the human being less. As a result, any form of oppression is dehumanizing.

Freire's work is about critical education, that is, raising awareness of oppression and the condition which people experience it, followed by a process of transformation towards the recognition of the dignity of every human being. This critical awareness requires looking at the reality around us and identifying all forms of social inequality and oppression. In this awareness, one is challenged to make an ethical choice to change this increasingly exclusionary and degrading reality because any form of injustice and oppression create dehumanization deepen by the capitalist system and its inequalities. Humanization and education are acts of knowledge that elevate the human being and generate a praxis of solidarity within exchange of knowledge toward the realization of human potential and the vocation for Being More.

An ethical education considers all human beings educate themselves mediated by the world and nobody self-educates, education occurs in community. The human being is the agent of his/her own history and, therefore, a person is not a being in the world – rather a being who realizes in the act of being. This means we are not static beings who are simply moved by a wave. We are people in the act of being because we always have an opportunity to review our ingrained concepts through new knowledge, new interactions, and new dialogues. The more we are open to the encounter with the different, the more we are likely to have access to other perspectives and worldviews on the same object. This makes us break prejudices, eliminate all forms of discrimination, and defend religious, ideological, ethnic-racial, and intellectual diversity.

Dialogue is an existential condition of the human being. Through dialogue, humanization takes place in pedagogical practices. Dialogue allows us to hear and be heard, as well as enables us to exercise citizenship in peaceful coexistence with the different. Nobody is born ready. Freire says that we are unfinished beings. It is through dialogue that we humanize ourselves. Therefore, the exercise of dialogue is what makes us humans and increasingly ethical.

Anyone who refuses to dialogue actually moves far from humanization what might lead to a process of ignorance and regression to a pre-human stage. Any form of aggressivity is a form of resistance and protection because the fear of the different, the unknown makes us to try to cocoon ourselves. However, only after we strip ourselves of all this armor, we are able to identify our vulnerability and to face what makes us equal as human beings – we are fragile and vulnerable. This recognition is also to realize that we are not alone. We can come together to protect ourselves and the nature around us.

Paulo Freire believes that utopia and hope (emphasized as a verb) should be the engine that drives us towards the transformation of the viable unheard of. It is unheard because it has not yet been seen and viable because it is a possibility that needs to be built. We need to be visionaries and project this possible world. Here is the reason why utopia is not something that does not or cannot exist. Utopia is right there, and we need to move forward to create it.

When Freire thought of writing the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he was inspired by the biblical verse of chapter 4 of Luke, the passage describing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, after spending forty days in the desert, where he was tempted by the devil. Jesus enters the Synagogue of Nazareth and reads the book of Isaiah that says: "He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." Inspired by this text, Paulo Freire figured out the core idea that guided ​​his vocation to the world. At this moment, he realized that his work would be serving as an educator for the liberation of the oppressed. Hence, Freire sharply questioned the way the church preached the subjugation of the poor – God did not want that.[1]

Teaching that we are all equal and deserve to be treated with dignity, Freire helped the humiliated and excluded from society to raise their self-esteem. In addition, powerful people became his enemies because he was opening people's eyes and this was bothering the oppressor.

Freire's ethics account is not a set of norms to be followed like a book of written laws on a paper. It is a set of norms intrinsic to the human being, written in the heart that are part of our daily praxis. His account is not a theory to be memorized, but rather a way of life to be lived and experienced on a daily basis.

Being ethical is to live according to some values in which our human formation was built, such as social justice, equity, respect, fraternity, and citizenship. As educators, we have an ethical duty to transform society and to keep the utopia and viable unheard of as hope for those who walk and work towards transformation – never waiting comfortably.

*Jaqueline Balthazar Silva has bachelors in Languages and in Theology; Masters’ in Ethics and Education, and in Bioethics. She serves as training advisor for the Pastoral Care in the Archdiocese of Curitiba, Brazil, and is a member of the Humanization Committee of the Hospital de Clínicas from Federal University of Paraná.

[1] FREIRE, PAULO. Ação cultural para a liberdade e outros escritos. O papel educativo das Igrejas na América Latina. 2011, p. 169 – 205.

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