Paulo Freire’s Concept of Education

Paulo Freire has a very interesting point of view in education. He explains his points of view throughout his short story “The Banking Concept of Education” and throughout his book named Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He argues about the role of the teacher in a banking system. One of the flaws in the banking system would be the authority of the teacher. Another flaw would be the system of rewards.

One of the arguments Freire presents against the banking system is that the role of the teacher is to “fill the students by making deposits of information which he considers to constitute true knowledge. And since men receive the world as passive entities, education should make them more passive still, and adapt them to the world” (63). This is true in the fact that the teacher’s job is to fill the students with information, and this is often accomplished in a way that makes learning passive. What Freire fails to recognize is that these “lifeless and petrified” words form a solid and practical base of common knowledge. Obviously, you have to know how to count before you can add. You have to know the basic facts before you can think about challenging them. With the average fifth grader, it means very little to tell them that the Revolutionary War occurred in 1776. Most would not prefer to learn this if given the choice. Without the banking system, how would we teach children about a history that is vital to their understanding of the present and the future? You cannot, realistically sit down with a bunch of ten year-olds and expect them to come up with conclusions and opinions about a war that they know nothing about. If they know that war occurred in 1776 and that thousands of people died, at least one will be able to conclude that ‘war is bad’. Another may conclude that ‘war is good because our country was freed’. Here you have the beginnings of a dialogue among students, one that would not have been possible without the banking system. Conversation is not possible without a fair amount of factual knowledge.

Facts are good, but the way that facts are taught is not always good. Memorization without meaning is trivial and uninteresting. Students often forget the information when the test is over. This is a serious, fatal flaw in the banking system, as Freire notes. However, this problem cannot be solved by the problem-posing method. Often, a fact is a fact and is not open to debate. It would be interesting to convince people that the sky is green, but it’s not. It’s not open for debate. You cannot plausibly change the color of the sky or the fact that two and two are four. Topics that are open for debate, such as the existence of God, should be thought about and debated. It will be worthwhile to hear different opinions and maybe change your own opinion. So the question remains. How should we teach? By saying that “this is true, accept it”? No, not always. Nor should we say, “ let’s discuss the possibility that two and two are three”, which is pointless, not worthwhile, and leads nowhere but to a map of confusion about a basic, trivial concept. If Tommy, with his grand thoughts and conclusions, wants to think that two and two are three, the teacher would be wrong to let him. He should not be allowed to finish school stuck on this grand, but pointless idea. To do so would be harmful to Tommy and school would lose its meaning.
The authority of the teacher, as Freire notes, is another flaw in the banking system: “The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence” (58-59). True, the teacher is seen as an authority, both in action and in knowledge, and this doesn’t leave much room for inquiry. In an example that I recall from fifth grade, my class was learning about government when a student asked the teacher (a White man), “Can the President ever be a woman?” The teacher hesitated and said, “Yes, a woman can be President.” Another student asked, “Can the President ever be Black?” He answered, “Yes, but it is unlikely.” The same student asked, “Can anybody be the President?” “Not anybody”, he replied. “Who can’t?” The teacher cleared his throat and said, “The President has always been an older White man. We should keep it like that.” The conversation ended. Even though most of the students were girls and all were Black, no one challenged him further.

This is an extremely unfortunate characteristic of the banking system, one that should be given serious thought. It is regrettable that we had to hear such a thing from a trusted individual, but having an adult in a classroom with children will inevitably lead to this. Adults are generally looked upon as knowledgeable authorities, in just about any situation. At home, parents are the experts that the children look to for guidance. The parents, in return, give children guidance and fix their scrapes until they learn how to fix their own. Whenever there is an adult in the presence of children, this will happen inevitably. The teacher, the “Great Oppressor”, isn’t forcing the children to be submissive. Rather they expect knowledge and guidance from an adult. The problem-posing method will not change this. You can call a teacher by his first name, decrease he distance, but an adult in the class will not be seen as an equal to the students. Removing the teacher from the classroom will not help either.

Another flaw Freire presents is the system of rewards in the banking system. He notes, “The more completely he fills the receptacles, the better a teacher he is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are” (58). Sadly, this is true at all levels of education. The entire system of letter and number grades and standardized testing enforces this. We usually don’t like to admit this, (there have been numerous times that I have been reminded that standardized tests don’t measure your true knowledge), but we have them anyway and consider the results significant.

Realistically speaking, this system of rewards extends far beyond education. It is extremely evident in the professional and social fields, among others. In American culture, numbers and output are what matter. This may not be ideal and it may be unfair and narrow, but it is true. This has been so deeply ingrained into American culture that we don’t know of any other way to do comparison. Student A never does any work, never puts forth effort, and has failed every exam, but he’s an excellent thinker. Whether or not to give him a passing grade is debatable. Student B does all the work, puts forth effort, and has passed every exam, so he must be thinking. We do not hesitate to give him a passing grade. We do not know of anything else to do. Arguably, being a receptacle does take a great deal of effort and sacrifice for most students. And in this society it is the latter student who is most valued and is perceived as most prepared. It is only fair to prepare students for the type of society that they will enter. Until society is dramatically changed and we develop a new way of comparison, it is an injustice to dramatically change the system of rewards in the educational system.

Yes, I believe that the banking system has its flaws, but in all honesty, I believe it is a necessary element of education. Education itself is far too complicated to consist of one method of teaching and learning. Students need versatility. They should not solely be told facts or solely allowed to challenge and question. Perhaps being part receptacle and part challenger is the best, or perhaps it is some different combination altogether. But certainly, one cannot depend on the flawed banking system or the unrealistic problem-posing method alone.

Work Cited
Freire, “The Banking Concept of Education”
A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers; Seventh Edition. New York: Bedford/St.Martins 2006

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1982.