I just finished reading James Lindsay’s new book The Marxification of Education: Paulo Freire’s Critical Marxism and the Theft of Education (2022). I recommend it to anyone concerned about education in the United States and, indeed, the world. If you are a teacher or a professor, if you have children or grandchildren, if you care about future generations, read this book. Or listen to Lindsay’s podcasts. If you know someone that falls into these categories, share this post with them. If I did not know from forty years of experience in higher education that Lindsay is telling the truth, I would think he was spinning a wild conspiracy theory.
In his book, Lindsay documents the work and influence of the Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire on American schools of education and, through the teachers trained there, on all levels of education. Until a week ago I had never heard of him, but he is one of the most influential theorists in contemporary education. His methods are used in virtually every school in the United States, public and private. Much of the time teachers, administrators, and facilitators have no idea of the theoretical background of these methods or of their aims. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, for I hate to think they know what they are doing.
South American liberation theology—a mixture of Marxism and Roman Catholicism condemned by Pope John Paul II (1978-2005)—was a formative influence on Freire. And the religious aspect of his work comes through quite often. He speaks of his educational method as inducing “conversion,” and an “Easter” experience. He speaks of hope for the coming “kingdom of God,” that is, socialist utopia. Che Guevara is at the top of his list of saints. Freire’s first book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was published in 1970, but the book that made him famous in the United States was his 1985 book, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation. When I say that Freire is a “Marxist,” I am not speculating or trying to discredit him by association. He makes his adherence to Marxist analysis unashamedly clear in his own works.
In traditional education the goal is to transfer to students the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the culture in which they live. Freire calls this the “banking” or “nutritionist” view of education. It reproduces the teacher in the student and hence perpetuates the status quo of society. But through his Marxist lens, Freire sees society divided into those who have power and those who don’t, the oppressors and the oppressed. Society should be changed radically in a socialist direction. He offers his method of education as a means to this radical end. Freire redefines what it means to educate, to be educated, and to know. “To educate” means to awaken the oppressed to their status and empower them to take charge of their lives by working for societal change. “To be educated” means to be awake to the power dynamics in society. “To know” is to be attuned to the nuances of your own experience as oppressed. The oppressors, too, need to be awakened to their guilt and complicity in oppression. The “oppressed” become perpetually angry and offended, and the Woke “oppressor” enters a life of self-loathing and perpetual apology. And everyone becomes an activist.
The upshot of all this, according to Lindsay, is that students get robbed of a real education in reading, writing, mathematics, and every other content area. And they become “emotional wrecks” in the process.
Freire’s method unfolds in three phases: generative, codification, and decodification. “Teachers and students” are replaced by “educators and learners” who learn together through a “dialogic” (conversation) method. In the first phase of the dialogue, the educator generates from the learners information about their “lived experience” in search of hidden relationships of power, privilege, and oppression. In codification, the educator creates an image that pictures these structures of power, privilege, and oppression in an objective way so that the learner can see them from a distance. The learner, then, comes to see themselves in this generalized image, but now they understand themselves as a part of a class of victims in an unjust power structure. Thirdly, the process of decodification applies the Marxist analysis to the codified image. Decodification awakens the learner to the systemic causes of their oppression and to the possibility and necessity of wholesale societal change. It sensitizes them to the subtle ways in which traditional language, rules, traditions, expectations, and norms serve to justify and reinforce the power structures of stratified society.
The Marxification of Education explores dozens of ways Freire’s educational theory and its offshoots are applied in colleges, universities, and K through 12 schools. I can highlight only two. Read the book!
The Freirean educational model is a perfect way to educate learners in Critical Race Theory. CRT contends that the United States is systemically racist and has been so from its founding. Only a radical reordering of society along antiracist lines (diversity, equity, and inclusion) can address systemic racism. In Freire’s “generative” phase, learners are canvased or surveyed looking for indicators of unequal power between people of color and white people. The next phase encodes those indicators in objective images, for example, a video clip of a white person double checking to see that their car doors are locked after parking in a black neighborhood. In the third phase, the coded images are decoded and interpreted through the lens of Marxist theory, that is, Critical Race Theory.
Perhaps you have wondered why many public schools require young children to read or listen to books such as Gender Queer (written in comic book style) and others that contain pornographic illustrations of sex of all kinds and at all ages? And why would school districts and public libraries sponsor “Drag Queen Story Hour”? I did not understand these trends until I read Lindsay’s explanation of the aim and method of Paulo Freire’s theory of education. Reading Gender Queer and watching a grown man dressed in “women’s” clothes dance provocatively are part of the generative and codification phases of learning. These experiences elicit information from children about their understandings of gender, family, and sex, which can then be used in the decodification phase. The drag queen is a living illustration that rules are made to be broken, that the present social/moral order possesses no real authority but is imposed by those who benefit from it. Drag Queen Story Hour is a defiant and irreverent attack on the “oppressive” societal structures associated with sex, family, and gender identity. Children are thrown into a world without boundaries, they are robbed of their childhood, and their education is stolen from them. And Freirean educational theorists call it “learning.”
Lindsay discusses many other terms and concepts associated with Freire’s educational theory. You may have heard of some of them without realizing their theoretical meaning. Do a quick search on some of them. Wikipedia usually has the basics even if it tends to sanitize the ideas a bit:
Cultural Competence, Comprehensive Sex Education, Culturally Relevant Teaching, (Transformative) Social-Emotional Learning, Problematization, Knowledges, Critical Pedagogy, Liberatory, Project-based learning, Decolonization, Conscientization, Queer Marxist Theory, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), Antiracism, and Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED).
To be continued…