Who are we?

Section 3 of

Freire-inspired programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: a critical evaluation

by Blanca Facundo

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It is necessary to qualify my use of the pronoun "we." It is not used as an academic plural nor does it refer to everyone who uses Freire's ideas. It refers to a group mainly of Latinos in the United States and Puerto Rico who early in the seventies (and late sixties) individually discovered the Pedagogy of the Oppressed and were attracted to its educational philosophy. With one exception (a project that did engage in literacy work as its basic program, though not as its only program), we were not so much attracted by Freire's literacy method, but by the educational practice of liberation and struggle against oppression implied by Freire's educational philosophy. The resonance of Freire in Puerto Rico was mostly felt by those of us who are persuaded that Puerto Rico is a Latin American country and thus resent its being an American colony. In the United States the overt reasons for Freire's popularity in this particular group were the racism and exploitation that are cruelly evident in all low-income communities.

We did not know much about Paulo Freire. Most of us were members of middle class families (even if some of us were, like myself, first generation college students), and had been "achievers" in school. A few had doctoral degrees, but, for the most part, our highest degree was a Master's in Education, the Humanities or the Social Sciences. Including Anglos, there is still only one person with a Master's in Mathematics within the group that has continued working together. The initial group included a nun, an ex-nun, a political exile from Franco's Spain, a clinical psychologist and a consultant in education, all turned into educators-for-the-pedagogy-against-oppression. The group grew into a most heterogeneous network of more than 300 persons, all interested in, working with or just curious about Paulo Freire's ideas.

At a conscious level, the initial group shared a feeling that "something must be done." We felt indebted to the oppressed because we had been privileged, even if (and perhaps because) some of our families had been themselves oppressed and had "made it" within the system. We did not have a very clear idea as to where we were going or precisely what kind of change we wanted, but surely enough we wanted change.

Creating or joining private, non-profit organizations to work "in" the system seemed at that time to be a promising option. [1] This was made possible due to the massive amounts of federal funds for programs that were created by the government after the "troubled" sixties. Programs were there for almost anything. You only had to learn how to write proposals in "proposalese," the bureaucratic language needed to get funded. We either became proficient proposal writers, or got hold of someone who was. By carefully wording and softening Freire's most radical contents we were able to obtain funds to develop a wide variety of programs. Instead of "oppressed," for instance, we used the phrase "low-income, undereducated adults." The pedagogy of the oppressed was called "non-traditional," "compensatory" or "alternative pedagogy." If the program to which we were sending a proposal was known to be staffed by liberals, we would use "Third World" somewhere in the proposal. At that time, we could not see the strings attached to federal funding, and we all needed salaries. Learners in the programs we created came from the lowest social strata and could not afford tuition fees. As a result, most institutions and programs became almost totally dependent upon federal funding. Even an institution which proudly declared itself to be an exception, after in-depth questioning was also found to be indirectly dependent upon federal funds, as its staff members received food stamps and all sorts of federal transfer payments for low-income individuals, to complement the subsistence salaries the institution paid. As of this writing the institution is no longer around.

Most of us chose to lead very simple personal lifestyles, regardless of income and place of residence. We were only a few individuals and became workaholics. There were no "bureaucracies" in our projects and, except for proposal writing and other specialized skills, all did a bit of everything, especially teaching or "facilitating" as we preferred to call our work. The absence of one person could easily deplete a project of needed staff. This led one of us to exclaim at a meeting "How can we assist in the liberation of anyone, if we are slaves to liberating education?"

The "we" that I am trying to make alive through what, admittedly, may appear to be impressionistic descriptions, refers only to the beginnings of the encounter of a small group in the United States, which occurred in 1978-79. Prior to bumping into each other, we were pretty much isolated individuals and small groups working for liberating education without knowing that there were other individuals and groups engaged in the same task. The development of what later on became a broad network, and the problems encountered in our practice, will be described later. What I have presented until now as an answer to the question "Who are we?" is, in my opinion, a naive cliché.

"Naive," if not uncritical, because for all the talk of class struggle and other Marxist terms, the question itself has never been asked by liberating educators in a non-idealistic framework. It is, indeed, a taboo to ask a question as simple as: "And what are your class or 'self'-interests?" unless one is expected to listen to and accept a platitude or evasion. But we are not alone in this problem. Let us review three examples of answers to that question: those of Saul Alinsky, Byron Kennard and Karl Marx.

Saul Alinsky asserted that self-interest is the basis upon which humans operate:

It appears shameful to admit that we operate on the basis of naked self interest, so we desperately try to reconcile every shift of circumstances that is to our self interest in terms of a broad moral justification or rationalization... We do not admit the actual fact: our own self interest. (Rules, p. 55)

What, then, we might rightfully ask, was Alinsky's self interest? Or that of his school of community organizers? Ah, my friend, there are exceptions:

there is that wondrous quality of man that from time to time floods over the natural dams of survival and self-interest... these are the exceptions to the rule, but there has been enough of them flashing through the murky past of history to suggest that episodic transfigurations of the human spirit are more than the flash of fireflies. (Rules, pp. 58-59)

We have seen Freire explain that a member of the well-to-do acts out of love to join the lot of the oppressed, committing "class suicide." In my opinion, not very different from Alinsky's "transfiguration of the human spirit."

Byron Kennard, a community organizer with more than a decade of experience in the United States, has published a very interesting book entitled Nothing Can be Done, Everything is Possible. [2] Let us see how he deals with our question:

Nature, in its bounty, seems to have programmed a few members of the human species to kick up a fuss at the first sign of oppression or abuse of authority... But nature is prudent as well as bountiful so it programmed a vastly larger number of individuals whose job it is to keep the lid on tight. (p. 1)

And, further on,

What drives the organizers? Way down deep, I confess, the answer may be pure and simple resentment of authority. So what if the psychological motivation is pathetically plain to any greenhorn Freudian? So what if organizers are all trying to get even with their fathers? If nobody ever came along and stirred things up, everyone would live as serfs or slaves under the thumb of some despot. (p 5)

How did Marx himself account for his own radicalization? If, as he stated, social being determines consciousness, how come he, as a member of the elite, opted for the cause of the proletarians? [3]

"Through the contemplation of the situation of the working class" and through "a theoretical comprehension of history."

There is no way to avoid the elitism, the "we-are-something-special" feeling in all the above examples. No one, not even the most adamant historical materialist, seems to see a why beyond lofty ideals. It may be that, as Alvin Gouldner says happened to Marxists, [4] we liberating educators have reached the limits of our self-understanding. But Gouldner sees a way out and, for what it may be worth in terms of self-reflection, I will summarize his theory, apologizing for the necessarily sketchy way in which I must do it.

According to Alvin Gouldner, "we" would be representatives of a new class in history: the cultural (as opposed to monetary) bourgeoisie. [5] Our "capital" is culture, the one we have acquired through our studies at precisely those "formal" educational institutions we criticize so much. There are two sides to the "we:" "intellectuals" and "technical intelligentsia." The terms "class" and "capital" are taken from Marx, and so justified by Gouldner, based upon Marx's texts, which, in Gouldner's terms, presented a "fundamentally inadequate" scenario when defining the class struggle as one in which the protagonists were the proletariat and capitalist classes. [6]

The New Class made its debut in the United States with Woodrow Wilson's administration and with the involvement of intellectuals in the Socialist and progressive movements that preceded it. The Cold War alienated the new class, who turned to fight its opponent, the monied class, in arenas such as academic freedom, protection of consumer rights, expertise in public policy development, reform movements for "honesty in government," the international ecology movement, and even women's liberation, about which Gouldner says: [7]

some important part of it is not only an expression of resistance to the oppression of women-in-general but a demand by educated, middle class women for full membership rights in the New Class. 

Because "no class goes to war without first seeking what it can secure through negotiations or threat, (...) one basic strategy of the New Class is to cultivate an alliance with a mass working class, proletariat or peasantry, to sharpen the conflict between that mass and the old class, and to direct that alliance against the old class and its hegemonic position in the old social order." [8]

Both the welfare state and the Socialist state are seen by Gouldner as political strategies of the cultural New Class, adding that in a Socialist state the hegemony of the New Class is greater. One of the public ideologies of the New Class is that of "professionalism" (let us remember that Ivan Illich described the "service" professions as "disabling professions"), [9] which is a "tacit claim by the New Class to technical and moral superiority over the old class," as well as "a bid for prestige within the established society" and a representation of the New Class as an alternative to the old. The New Class "is a cultural bourgeoisie who appropriates privately the advantages of an historically and collectively produced cultural capital." [10]

I could go on and on with Gouldner's theory, which has a great deal of relevance to the taboo question in "progressive" and/or "Leftist" circles everywhere. It has much more richness of contents than what I have presented. But I will leave it here trusting that you can get the idea, which I will further illustrate with an anecdote from a conversation I heard some years ago.

It was a dialogue between a Marxist-Leninist party member and a typical formally undereducated self-made capitalist on their probable future in a revolution. The Communist comes from a well-to-do middle-class family, had studied in Europe and learned a very advanced medical specialization that is very scarce in the country. The capitalist had been exposed to hunger and to the cruelty of an urban ghetto since early childhood. He got out of it through sheer force (literally, not excluding violence), leaving school when he was in the eighth grade (public school) to help sustain his mother and brothers while working in the docks for 25 cents an hour, twelve hours a day. They were neighbors.

Capitalist: Have you ever experienced hunger?

Communist: You know I haven't.

Capitalist: And now you have a very valuable profession, right? What will your financial situation be if your revolution triumphs? You will be in high demand, because there are only a few with your skills. Besides, you are a party member and surely that also will be rewarded. But, what will I be?

Communist: Your experience in organizing dock workers could be very valuable in workers' syndicates after the revolution.

Capitalist: You must be joking! What syndicates, under a Communist system? By definition, workers are no longer oppressed in a Communist society. Our struggle was collective bargaining and there is no such thing in your desired society. Come on, let us be honest! Guys like you will be at the top and guys like me will be at the bottom, after my properties are expropriated and some do-nothing party-credentialled guy is rewarded with my house. Not while I am alive. You will have to kill me first, because I love this land as much as you do, and will not become an exile.


We must start with people where they are, Freire frequently says. [11] Do we honestly think the capitalist will be changed through dialogue with a middle-class person, class suicide and all? Or is he "the enemy" with which, according to Freire, dialogue is not possible? For longer than our Communist friend had lived, the capitalist was, indeed, part of the people, and very much oppressed to boot. The Communist, as you may have gathered, I believe to be a member of the New Class. He was never oppressed.

What do we do in situations like this? Who are we, anyway, and what moves us? What do we believe in? Are we members of the New Class? Or just kind, loving people prepared to give everything, including our lives, for the oppressed? And, do we know what we are talking about when we talk about poverty and oppression? How many of us have experienced it (not as an act of will, to have the experience, but because there was no other choice) ?

In this context, let us listen to what Dianne Ravitch [12] has to say about "radicals." Summarizing Michael Katz (Class, Bureaucracy and the Schools), Ravitch establishes that, as educators became self-consciously professional "they turned inwards and built a narrow world of their own; shielded by their self-righteous, salvationist, reformist rhetoric, they lost the capacity either to accept criticism or to criticize themselves." Have "we" the "new wave" of liberating educators fallen into this particular trap?

Again, quoting Katz: [13]

I suspect that what the poor want for their children is affluence, status, and a house in the suburbs, rather than community, a guitar and soul. They may prefer schools that teach their children to read and write and cipher rather than to feel and to be. If this is the case, then an uncomfortable piece of reality must be confronted: educational radicalism is itself a species of class activity. It reflects an attempt at cultural imposition fully as much as the traditional educational emphasis on competition, restraint, and orderliness, whose bourgeois bias radicals are quick to excoriate. (My emphasis.)

It has been our field experience that, while we wanted to develop critical consciousness with learners, they wanted a high school diploma, or to learn English as a second language; and very rapidly, to get a job. [14] They did not have the time or the inclination for other "critical" subjects. And if you said that a diploma was "not important," after silence was broken through trust, a learner would be quick to say: "Not important for you. How many do you have?"

Addressing those of us who have critiqued past education reformers, and who have either been engaged in (or accepted) a radical revision of schooling, Ravitch asks: [15]

If reformers in the past have been power-hungry, manipulative and devious, why trust reformers in the present? If past reforms have served hidden 'vested interest' rather than the people, why assume beneficial consequences from present reforms? If class connections are so compelling what are we to make of the radical revisionists themselves, all of whom are, by professional status and income, members of the same upper middle class group that has traditionally led reform movements?

Ravitch tackles head-on a major dilemma "we" seldom confront. [16]

One of the most perplexing dilemmas for radical critics is whether to stress liberty or equality as the most important end for society. Most of them simply ignore the tension between the two values and assume that it is possible to have a society and a kind of schooling where both liberty and equality are maximized, while bureaucracy and administrative systems are minimized if not eliminated altogether. 

Ravitch is persuaded that "revolutionary egalitarianism cannot be achieved without extensive political and social controls." [17] I think "we" are not in agreement with Ravitch on that one, but we do have doubts. What is Ravitch's judgement of those "who propose radical egalitarianism"? Well, she thinks that we value equality more than we value liberty or efficiency because, in her opinion, full egalitarianism "could only be achieved by establishing a powerful state bureaucracy capable of constantly monitoring the redistribution of money, jobs and other rewards... the creation of a new class of bureaucrats in the theoretically classless society." [18]

The above may irritate the reader, but I do think it merits some thoughts. Over the past year (1983), there has been a very strong movement in our network away from the Soviet system, which is increasingly called "state capitalism" by many. [19] Although we never talk openly in front of "the enemy" [20] many have stated in private conversations that they ("we") could never surrender our intellectual freedom to criticize what "is not right." The issue of whether freedom and equality are mutually exclusive values has never been dealt with adequately by the Left. Yes, you can be free to die of hunger under a bridge, or of cold in winter because you cannot afford heating expenses. That, we all agree, is not freedom. But are there "freedoms" that most of us are not prepared to surrender? Which? And how does all this relate to our role in the struggle for liberation and empowerment? Could this issue of freedom or equality be one of the situations that could justify Kolakowski's view of the right not to choose? But then, Freire says that not choosing is equivalent to siding with the oppressor; that no one is neutral. If you ("we") do not choose, we are "the enemy." Or are we?

Gouldner says that a paradox of the New Class is that it (we?) is both elitist and emancipatory. [21] I think that our elitism cannot be denied, no matter how much we try to deny it. Because elitism is more than an attitude. It also has to do with the place (or role) we have in our particular societies.

An answer to the questions "Who are we?" and "What motivates us?", it seems to me, is crucial in any attempt at evaluating our work in Freire-inspired programs. We should not avoid an examination of our personal histories, our class position, our jobs, our salaries, our zone of residence, and why (and how) all these "fit" or do not fit with our overt and perhaps not so overt objectives. Freire's theory does not provide for this type of analysis. It may be beautiful to think that we are (1) acting out of love, (2) non-elitist, (3) prepared to commit "class suicide," and (4) prepared to learn from the learners, who we consider our equals in a common quest for effective ways to fight against oppression and create a new world. Beautiful, but, is it true ?

Bookish definitions for all, these vague terms, taken right out of Freire's books, have been abundant. But the problem of how to use them, once in the farmworkers' fields, public housing projects, the streets and the non-classrooms we created in the United States, was left untouched. Each had to invent his/her way at each site, not without a great deal of ideological and power struggle within each site. Ultimately, "we" represented a very heterogeneous group of self-appointed rebels (or radicals) that in three years could not agree upon a single definition upon which to act collectively. [22]


Notes to Section 3: Who Are We?

1. In and within are not the same. We used to say we were "within." To work "within" you have to reach the inner sanctum of the system. Very few Latinos have achieved that.

2. (Andover, Mass.: Brick House Publishing Company, 1982).

3. Quoted by Alvin Gouldner in, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 58.

4. Alvin Gouldner, The Two Marxisms (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

5. Gouldner's "New Class" (see note 3 above), should not be confused with that of Milovan Djilas in The New Class. An Analysis of the Communist System (New York, 1957) or in The Unperfect Society. Beyond the New Class (New York, 1969). Djilas refers to the already entrenched bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and other socialist states. Gouldner's new class, the way I see it, would be the class contending for power against the one identified by Djilas.

6. We would do well to examine whether all revolutions are a civil war among different sectors of the elite, particularly, in Alinsky's terms, between the "haves" and the "have some, want more."

7. Gouldner, New Class, p. 17.

8. Ibid.

9. Ivan Illich, Toward a History of Needs (New York: Bantam, 1980).

10. Gouldner, New Class, p. 19.

11. See my transcription of "A Dialogue with Freire" in Educación Liberadora (E.L.), January 1982, pp. 6-10, in which Freire says: "It is very important to stress that we must start where the students are, with their own perception of reality, their own level of knowledge, not with one's. (...) It is impossible to start from my side of things" (p. 7). E.L. was a newsletter published in English between Sept. 1980 and Nov. 1982, to connect practitioners of Freire's ideas in the United States and Puerto Rico. A total of eighteen issues were published. In the Jan. 1982 issue, I provided a transcription of a Seminar/ Dialogue which took place in the Spanish Educational Development (SED) Center, Washington, D.C., December 11, 1981.

12. Dianne Ravitch, The Revisionists Revised. A Critique of the Radical Attack on the Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 118.

13. Ibid., p. 124.

14. See my article, "The Emergence of a Liberating Education Project," in Educación Liberadora, December 1980, pp. 15-17.

15. Ravitch, Revisionists Revisited, p. 167.

16. Ibid., p. 155.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., p. 98.

19. The idea is that the State becomes all powerful, stifling dissent and appropriating the surplus value of the workers' labor to invest it as the State pleases. The workers may have no say at all in the way the surplus value is invested.

20. There is really no way to know who or where is "the enemy" of liberating education. The paranoid and at the same time naive way in which "the enemy" is seen, in my opinion, has prevented us from entering into dialogues with persons critical of our theory and/or practices. If we only talk to those who agree with us, are not we following a dangerously uncritical path?

21. Gouldner, New Class, p. 84.

22. This section is mostly written in the past tense. This does not mean that all the fieldwork based upon Freire has ended. The use of the past tense is due to the fact that I am engaged in a retrospective look at what transpired between 1979-1983. There are still many users of Freire's ideas in the United States, even some of those who integrated the "we" about which I talk here. However, many liberating education projects did not survive Reaganomics and/or their own internal theoretical/practical weaknesses. Projects that did survive are, for the most part, again working isolated from each other, trying to make ends meet and wondering if they will still be around next year. As of this writing, many individuals (not projects) are still connected by a network and exchanging by means of the newsletter Alternativas. This is described in the next section.