Book Review: Paulo Freire in the 21st Century: Education, Dialogue, and Transformation, by Peter Roberts

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Boulder, CO & London, Paradigm Publishers, 2009. Pp. 192. Hb. $137. Pb. $42.95.  

Reviewed by Scott Webster

This book complements Peter Roberts’ earlier volume Education, Literacy, and Humanization (2000) in which he provided a comprehensive examination of Paulo Freire’s philosophy and pedagogy.  In this more recent work Roberts explores further some of Freire’s ideas through engagement with a variety of works by other thinkers, including Dostoevsky, Hermann Hesse and the Tao Te Ching.  Because it addresses the implications of these comparisons, this book has a more applied focus than the earlier volume.  The result is a very engaging read, which offers educators some very valuable insights into how we are enacting our own pedagogical work with the students we teach.

Roberts makes the claim that Freire ought to be read holistically in order to appreciate the value that his work has for educational theory and practice and to elucidate his ideas and arguments more clearly.  This requires us to see how the diverse range of Freire’s writings relate to each other.  This is especially important regarding his later writings, which, as Roberts observes, reveal “more of ‘Freire himself’” (p. 35).  It becomes clear that Freire is not a systematic writer and so an appreciation of the breadth of his works is critically important for unpacking his ideas and philosophy more carefully.  In this regard Roberts’ own extensive understanding of Freire’s writings is very helpful in explaining some difficult tensions that appear.

For example, the tension between emotion and reason is difficult to comprehend by examining only one of Freire’s books, but balance can be found by a breadth of reading.  In another example Roberts acknowledges that some of Freire’s statements regarding reading and literacy appear to be somewhat essentialist, but on closer analysis they can be understood better “as implied prescriptive definitions” (p. 62).  It is from insights such as this that I believe students of Freire can benefit greatly from Roberts’ extensive familiarity with Freire’s writings, as he is able to draw out important nuances that are only possible through engaging with the breadth of his works.

In addition to engaging with his writings more holistically, Roberts argues there is much to be gained by making connections with other ideas and theorists.  Such an approach is in keeping with Freire’s notion of critical reading, which was central to his own pedagogical practice. It requires reading with a deliberate willingness to be challenged.  There is much illumination given to Freire’s understanding of simultaneously grappling with and loving a text.  Roberts explains that “we have to develop a feeling for Freire’s position” on various matters and that this requires us to often read beyond his arguments in order to experience – often second-hand – the lived encounters of others as they undergo transformative developments in challenging situations.  Roberts suggests that engaging with Freire’s ideas alongside particular novels can assist us to gain a better understanding of the existential aspects of Freire’s philosophy.

For example, Roberts argues in Chapter 6 that there is much to be gained by engaging with both Freire and Dostoevsky.  Roberts draws attention to some similarities between these two authors, such as the influence of the Gospels and the appreciation of transformative education as the outcome of ‘flesh and blood’ struggles of being human.  But further, Roberts argues, “both Freire and Dostoevsky demonstrate, in different ways, that we learn through living, but they also remind us that life is cruel, messy, and difficult – sometimes overwhelmingly so” (p. 116).

This significantly important existential dimension reminds us that educational theory and philosophy are not just ideas formulated in the abstract world of intellectual impassioned ‘thought’ that we then attempt to apply to the more concrete world of existence.  Rather, theory emerges after some sense is given to the tension and turmoil of lived experience.  Educational theory evolves through thinking and reflecting upon a risk-filled existence where there is not a sure, ‘right’ or certain way available to enable persons to live well.

This theme of uncertainty is important for Freire and other existentialists.  Not only is uncertainty recognised as being intrinsic to human existence but also it is to be encouraged from an educational point of view.  Roberts argues that “[e]ducation, from a Freirean point of view, is meant to make people uncomfortable.  An educated life is a life filled with questions and uncertainties” (p. 153).  The tension experienced through uncertainty not only arises between students and external oppressors, as is often readily recognised through some of Freire’s work, but also, Roberts reminds us, it refers to ‘the oppressor within’ us as well, as we face internal dilemmas regarding our own understandings, beliefs and values.

Examining this in more detail is made possible through the use of novels and here Robert’s expertise again leads us to valuable insights.  Both Hermann Hesse, as the author, and Joseph Knecht, his character in The Glass Bead Game, are discussed in detail in relation to some important themes in Freire’s work.  For example, Knecht’s transformation is explained as a process of conscientization and consequently illustrates for the reader how one might experience this important aspect of Freire’s philosophy, which is often presented by Freire himself in a more abstract manner.

Roberts’ scholarly familiarity with the works of Dostoevsky provides a most stimulating read.  Both Freire and Dostoevsky emphasised the importance of dialogue between contesting views and the valuable sorts of transformation to which this might lead.  What is most engaging is the way that Roberts himself shares his dialogue with both these thinkers and leads the reader to see how we are all personally involved in making sense of why we must ask and address the profound questions that both of these thinkers draw attention to and grapple with.

I am particularly drawn to the very balanced approach in this book.  Roberts does not present Freire romantically but readily acknowledges and reports his weakness, faults and omissions.  One of the main weaknesses of Freire is that he didn’t make his discussions and conversations scholarly by clearly identifying and referencing other thinkers and sources.  This particular shortcoming is not only acknowledged and explained by Roberts, but also he addresses it by providing a great deal of referencing himself.

I personally found this book to be a great pedagogical experience.  It does not just provide a well-referenced analysis, it also engages with how we, as the readers, can become better educators by developing our understanding of the powerful ideas associated with Freire.  One clear example is found in Chapter 5 in the discussion of the practical implications of the design of reading materials for university classes.  Roberts suggests that “Freire argues that teachers have a duty not merely to allow but to actively stimulate contrary discourses” (p. 113).  The discussion explores not only the implications for our own contexts, but also contrary discourses that Roberts provides.  I therefore highly recommend this book for both educators in general as well as those who have a special interest in the works of Freire.

Correspondence: Dr Scott Webster, School of Education, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway
Burwood, VIC 3125, Australia

Email: scott.webster@deakin.edu.au

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