Paulo Freire, Prophetic Thought, and the Politics of Hope

  • Henry A. Giroux


Fueled by the initial success of their attack on the welfare state in the early 1980s, many conservatives and liberals joined forces in dismantling all public spheres not governed by the imperatives of the market.1 In addition, they have conducted an ongoing and relentless attack on public spaces that provide intellectuals with the opportunity to “openly debate issues of vital public concern, publish tracts and newspapers, engage in heated, but civic-spirited discussions”2 and deploy political practices that help keep alive, as the poet Robert Haas puts it, “the idea of justice, which is going dead in us all the time.”3 But the threat to critical intellectual work is evident not only in attempts to eliminate oppositional public spheres that connect educators, artists, and others to an insurgent cultural politics.4 The very notion of culture as a terrain of struggle—that is, the recognition of culture and power as a constitutive political and educational practice—is, as I have mentioned previously, also under attack by a growing number of left-oriented progressives. Mired in a deep-rooted cynicism, many left intellectuals discount the very concept of the political. In some cases, self-serving discourses about the “reactionary” nature of hope are used to buttress the dismissal of any form of cultural politics that makes a call for social change.


Public School Public Sphere Educational Practice Cultural Politics Critical Consciousness 
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  1. 1.
    My reference to the public sphere draws primarily from the following: Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989);Google Scholar
  2. various papers collected in Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), especially Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” pp. 99–108;Google Scholar
  3. Oscar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993);Google Scholar
  4. Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 1993);Google Scholar
  5. Bruce Robbins, ed., The Phantom Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  6. 2.
    Stanley Aronowitz, “The Situation of the Left in the United States,” Socialist Review 23:3 (1994), p. 59.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    My notion of the oppositional or counter-public sphere is developed in Negt and Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience. See also Henry A. Giroux, Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education (New York: Routledge, 1992),Google Scholar
  8. and Stanley Aronowitz and Henry A. Giroux, Education Still Under Siege (Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1993).Google Scholar
  9. 5.
    A classic example of this type of critique can be found in Illan Gur-Ze’ev, “Toward a Nonrepresentative Critical Pedagogy,” Educational Theory 48:4 (Fall 1998), pp. 463–486. This piece suggests that Freire shares a dogmatic idealism that puts his work in the same camp as national socialist ideologues. It also argues that Freire’s teaching is noncritical in that it posits the knowledge of the oppressed as self-evident and unproblematic. Such pieces are not only theoretically silly but harbor a mean-spirited cynicism that banishes hope from the very realm of politics.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 6.
    Simon Frith, Performance Rites (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 204.Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    Herman Gray, “Is Cultural Studies Inflated?” in Cary Nelson and Dilip Parameshway Goankar, eds., Disciplinarity and Dissent in Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 211.Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    Cited in Joy James, Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 175.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    Richard Johnson, “Reinventing Cultural Studies: Remembering for the Best Version,” in Elizabeth Long, ed., From Sociology to Cultural Studies (Malden, Mass: Basil Blackwell, 1997), p. 464.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    Marcuse cited in Stanley Aronowitz, “The Unknown Herbert Marcuse,” Social Text 17:1 (Spring 1999), p. 139.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    Two typical examples of this discourse, characterized by Martha C. Nussbaum as “hip quietism,” can be found in Elizabeth Ellsworth, Teaching Positions (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997); Mimi Orner, Janet Miller, and Elizabeth Ellsworth, “Excessive Moments and Educational Discourses that Try to Contain Them,” Educational Theory 45:4 (Fall 1996), pp. 71–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 13.
    Cited in Stanley Aronowitz, “Introduction,” in Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), p. 6.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Continuum Press, 1994), pp. 8–9.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    See especially Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education (Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1985);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo, Literacy: Reading the Word and the World (Wesport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1987); See also Henry A. Giroux, “Introduction,” in Freire, Politics of Education, pp. xi–xxv.Google Scholar
  20. 16.
    For a classic analysis of this position, George Counts, Dare the School Build a New Social Order (New York: John Day, 1932);Google Scholar
  21. Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957 (New York: Random House, 1961).Google Scholar
  22. For a more recent critical analysis of this position, see Aronowitz and Giroux, Education Still Under Siege; James Fraser, Reading, Writing, and Justice: School Reform as If Democracy Matters (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  23. 19.
    For an analysis of schooling as a site of reproduction and resistance, see Giroux, Theory and Resistance in Education (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey Press, 1983), and Giroux, Schooling and the Struggle for Democratic Public Life. Google Scholar
  24. 20.
    A classic statement on this issue can be found in Newt Gingrich, To Renew America (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).Google Scholar
  25. 21.
    For an excellent analysis of the right-wing attack on the welfare state, see Stanley Aronowitz, The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism (New York: Routledge, 1996).Google Scholar
  26. For an analysis of how this attack particularly affects children, see Ruth Sidel, Keeping Women and Children Last (New York: Penguin Books, 1996).Google Scholar
  27. 22.
    I take this issue up in Henry A. Giroux, Channel Surfing: Race Talk and the Destruction of American Youth (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  28. 27.
    Stanley Aronowitz, “Paulo Freire’s Democratic Humanism,” in Peter McLaren and Peter Leonard, eds., Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 17.Google Scholar
  29. 28.
    One recent example of this can be found in Alice McIntyre, Making Meaning of Whiteness (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), pp. 19–20. McIntyre refers to Freire’s work as a “methodology for learning” as if such a “methodology” can be understood outside of the specific historical context, radical political theory, and specific set of social formations and conditions that produced it. The refusal to contextualize Freire’s work betrays a positivist refusal to deal with the relationship between political projects and the emergence of specific educational formations.Google Scholar
  30. 29.
    Paulo Freire, Letters to Christina: Reflections on My Life and Work (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 113–114.Google Scholar
  31. 30.
    Lawrence Grossberg, Bringing It All Back Home: Essays on Cultural Studies (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), p. 264.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Q. Hoare and G. Smith (New York: International Press, 1971), p. 350.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Homi Bhabha, “The Enchantment of Art,” in Carol Becker and Ann Wiens, eds., The Artists in Society (Chicago: New Art Examiner, 1994), p. 28.Google Scholar
  34. 36.
    Jane Gallop, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), p. 62. Gallop relates a chilling story about her own colleagues who opposed a conference she was organizing on the grounds that it would make students “unhappy or remind them of painful experiences.” Gallop rightly criticizes this position and argues that “We who were planning the conference considered it our primary duty to foster knowledge. Inasmuch as we were teachers, it was our responsibility to expose students to as much learning as possible. Protecting students from knowledge that would make them uncomfortable seemed ultimately a failure to teach them, placing some other relationship above our duty as their teachers…. We … assumed that what women most need is knowledge and that women students are tough enough to learn” (pp. 61–62). While this critique is applied to some versions of feminist education, the notion that the educational goal of making students feel good—and conversely not making them uncomfortable in the learning process—has become one of the defining features of a number of strands of critical educational practices. I would argue such a position is the ideological and educational antithesis of what Freire had in mind when he talked about dialogue and sharing power with students.Google Scholar
  35. 37.
    Lauren Berlant, “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy,” in E. Ann Kaplan and George Levine, eds., The Politics of Research (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 153–154.Google Scholar
  36. 40.
    Gerald Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York: Norton, 1992). For an insightful rebuttal of Graff’s attack on radical pedagogy, see Freire and Macedo, “A Dialogue,” pp. 188–228.Google Scholar
  37. 44.
    Surely Freire would have agreed wholeheartedly with Stuart Hall’s insight that: “It is only through the way in which we represent and imagine ourselves that we come to know how we are constituted and who we are. There is no escape from the politics of representation.” Stuart Hall, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Popular Culture?” in Gina Dent, ed., Black Popular Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), p. 30. At the same time, Freire was as much concerned with what educators do with language as with decoding its meanings.Google Scholar

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© Henry A. Giroux 2000

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