Paulo Freire and the Bankruptcy of A Banking Concept in Education

This week I began to re-familiarize myself with the Brazilian educator/philosopher/liberation theologian Paolo Freire.  I checked out Pedagogy of the Oppressed from a local library.  I became aware of Freire’s philosophy indirectly by reading various books related to ethics and justice in one of my graduate programs.  If memory serves me correctly, Bruce Birch’s book, Let Justice Roll Down: the Old Testament, Ethics, and the Christian Life, may have been my first brief introduction.

Freire argues that educators often conceptualize their pedagogy as a type of banking.  He states, “Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.”[1] Education is often a one-way transaction between two parties – the haves and have-nots.  Freire was an astute observer of culture.  He initially was addressing the context of education and oppression in Brazil, but his observations hold true for American culture.  Americans often discuss education as a form of banking.  This is evidenced by our culture’s language about education and how we conceptualize knowledge in general.

Language about Knowledge

While Freire did not specifically address this issue from a cognitive linguistic perspective in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, his comments have value in that field.  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that our word choices reveal how we conceptualize our world.[2] The metaphors we use illustrate our conceptualizations in our literal language.  Therefore, educational metaphors will show how we understand this profession.  By adopting Lakoff and Johnson’s approach to language organization, we could say that KNOWLEDGE IS A RESOURCE.  Examples of how this principle is applied to every day language include:

A student puts in his two cents.

The professor is a treasure trove of knowledge.

That teacher has a wealth of knowledge.

That was a useful (or useless) idea.

The student is filled with good ideas.

This small grouping of sentences illustrates that Americans understand KNOWLEDGE AS A RESOURCE.  We have conceptualized knowledge as a thing, commodity, or possession; therefore, it is something that is transferable from one person (in)to another.  It can be contained, horded, donated, or sold.  I am comfortable with the conceptualization that knowledge is a resource; however, I am uncomfortable with the notion that its dissemination must flow in one direction.

Banking Pedagogy

When educators suggest that it is their job to fill students’ minds with (their) ideas, their language implies that a student’s job is to passively receive the knowledge of the teacher.  The teacher becomes the sage on the stage performing for their students.  The student has no part in the drama, apart from watching it unfold.  They have been reduced to receptacles.

A pedagogical problem occurs when teachers view themselves as the only ones possessing this commodity (knowledge).  With a banking model, there is no mutual exchange of resources.  There is only a series of one way deposits.  The teacher deposits his resource, and the student passively receives it.  Paulo argues that this is a de-humanizing aspect of education, because it presupposes that a student can offer nothing.  Students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with our content, but vessels containing their own rich resources.  Each student comes into a class with a wealth of acquired resources of their own.  To negate the student’s previously acquired knowledge, is to negate their experiences and ultimately the whole person.

Paulo argues that the corrective methodology that values each student’s humanity must be dialogical. [3] The teacher shares her RESOURCES and the students share their RESOURCES.  The more honorable educational discourse occurs in symphony between the teacher (who also becomes the student) and the student (who also becomes the teacher).  Paulo’s dialogical pedagogy is challenging, but in my view it is worth the challenge.

I would love to hear from other educators about this subject.  So please feel free to weigh in on this topic.

[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (trans. Myra Bergman Ramos; New Revised 20th Anniversary ed.; New York, NY.: Continuum, 1994). 53.

[2] George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (1st ed.; University of Chicago Press, 1987); George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, IL.: University Of Chicago Press, 1980).  See particularly pages 46-48 for a discussion about ideas and how they there are cognitively ordered.

[3] Paulo defines his dialogical method as a form of problem solving. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, chap. 3.

2 comments to Paulo Freire and the Bankruptcy of A Banking Concept in Education

  • I’m no educator, but I’ve been a friend of many. The best of them consider their students’ knowledge at least as much a valuable resource as their own. This post reminds me of what I read recently in Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society: that it can be tempting for the intellectual (that is, the person whose career has to do with ideas) to underestimate the loads of knowledge that exist between the ears of many people who aren’t thought of as intellectuals. In terms of “politics,” Sowell and Freire could not be further apart. In terms of where they think the knowledge is, they agree.

  • Adam Couturier

    Hello, Mitchell.

    Thank you for interacting with my post. I have not read anything by Sowell before. However, I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment that you shared. I’ll have to check that title out in the future.

    p.s. I just stopped by your blog. I will be putting it into my reader. Cheers on your writing!

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