New article reflects on Paulo Freire's blunt challenge to anthropology

December 5, 2013
CASL > Behavioral Sciences


Brian McKenna, associate professor of anthropology, recently published an article, "Paulo Freire’s blunt challenge to anthropology: Create a Pedagogy of the Oppressed for Your Times" in the December 2013 volume of Critique of Anthropology.


Paulo Freire was a revolutionary educator. He founded an educational movement based on conducting an ethnographic evaluation of a community to identify the generative themes (or “dangerous words”) which matter profoundly to people and which, for just this reason, contain their own catalytic power. In the sixteen years since Freire’s untimely death in 1997, a small cottage industry has arisen to adapt, dissect and/or critique Freire and his life’s work. A centerpiece of this intellectual ferment surrounds Freire’s magnum opus, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). Ironically few of Freire’s acolytes and/or interlocutors have been formally educated anthropologists. This might seem surprising since much of Freire’s work overlaps with the mainstays of anthropology’s affirmed methodological imperatives surrounding: recovery of native voice, community dialogue, ethnographic research, cultural analysis, epistemological critique and working with the most disempowered. Freire was a fervent anti-capitalist but it’s often difficult to recognize this trait of his in professional anthropology. One reason is the domestication of his messages. This includes the world’s most well-known anthropologists, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and Dr. Paul Farmer. Cofounders of Partners in Health, both claim to be followers of Freire. This paper: (1) classifies seven ways anthropologists tend to interpret Freire and the critical pedagogy movement; (2) illustrates Freire’s radical educational approach by applying it to Drs. Kim and Farmer; and (3) distills the central aspects of Freire’s work that are fundamental for a renewed public anthropology. In critiquing Kim and Farmer, the article provides a detailed illustration of the Freirean approach, one which privileges problem posing over problem solving and clarity over charity. This article demonstrates the force of Freire in disrupting the “culture of silence” by way of a case study that illuminates the dangers of liberalism in a collapsing empire.