Developing Critical Consciousness
in an Age of Oppression

Critical consciousness is the ability to perceive social, political, and economic oppression and to take action against the oppressive elements of society

   The concept of critical consciousness (conscientizacao) was developed by Paulo Freire primarily in his books:
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed
  • Education for Critical Consciousness

   The tactics of critical consciousness and a pedagogy of the oppressed were first developed by Freire in his work with third-world people, helping them gain an awareness of world conditions while teaching them to read.

   In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire exposed our educational system as one in which:
  • the teacher is the depositor, the students are the depositories
  • the teacher issues communiques (instead of communicating) which students passively receive, memorize, and repeat
  • knowledge becomes a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those they consider to know nothing
  • teachers and administrators choose the instructional program content and students adapt to it
  • "The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role impressed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them."


Though Freire worked with various educators throughout the world, the concept of critical consciousness never had significant impact on pedagogical practice. In our current narcissistic era, schools at all levels teach students to pursue money and self-interest. As Gekko, the tycoon, says in the movie Wall Street, "Greed is good." A critical awareness of what is happening in the world is decidedly not a part of the contemporary curriculum--from grade school to graduate school.


   If you examine graduate courses on Global Economy, for example, you'll not find a single mention of the terrible human costs: rising unemployment in the home economies, slave wages in the third world countries where manufacturing is relocated, runaway immigration, and a constant degradation of the environment.

   Freire worked to help third-world people overcome illiteracy. Today, his insights can be applied to two different kinds illiteracy:

  • Those who cannot grasp the sense of letters or symbols
  • Those who can "read" (in the grammar school sense) but who cannot read: understand the meaning of the words they see
    • There are those today, for example, who "read" about such things as worker layoffs and American corporations relocating their manufacturing plants in China or Indonesia, but who do not understand the meaning of what they "read."
    • Another kind of modern-day "illiteracy" occurs as people "read" or "hear" the "news" in newspapers or on TV, and allow themselves to be taken in by the propaganda that such "news" involves.

   Now, more than ever, we need to begin developing a critical consciousness in all of us who are oppressed by this new imperialistic strategy of globalism. We're up against a number of obstacles:

  • the lack of awareness that we are the oppressed
  • the lack of solidarity among the oppressed people
  • the loss of a common tradition of democracy and human rights
  • the indifference of oppressed people to their situation
   Living in an age of repression, we become accustomed to it. So what if our schools no longer teach people how to read or think, no longer help students gain an understanding of why human liberty is so precious and precarious. Our movies, TV shows, and books present images of "cool," illiterate, violence-prone savages dressed in the latest styles and exhibiting the popular ego-centered attitudes. Unable to understand the creativity of a well-written novel or screenplay, no longer capable of appreciating the depths of classical music, people today move in a grey world of ego-gratification and violence. Soon the false values become identified as the true, and we have movies such as Pulp Fiction, The Godfather, and As Good As It Gets touted as masterpieces.

   We only become aware of the oppressive nature of contemporary society when we become the victim of unemployment or a mugging or some other mishap. Trained to be oblivious to the plight of others, we fail to see the hundreds of thousands who suffer from homelessness, lack of medical care, and wage slavery.

   Since people are encouraged to pursue their own interests, there is no feeling of solidarity and hence no possibility of concerted effort to overcome the oppressive conditions. It seems perfectly normal that a two-class society is rapidly developing, with new billionaires being created every year while millions of workers are laid off, denied welfare, and their tax money stolen by wealthy looters in such scams as the savings and loan fraud, the Mexican "loan" scandal, and the IMF repayment to wealthy investors who suffered from the Asian stockmarket crash.

   We must begin to awaken ourselves to what's happening in the world and taking action to overcome the oppressive conditions. And here Freire's books are exceptionally helpful.

"Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society? Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation? They will not gain this liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it. And this fight, because of the purpose given it by the oppressed, will actually constitute an act of love opposing the lovelessness which lies at the heart of the oppressors' violence, lovelessness even when clothed in false generosity."

   As oppressed people we must become aware of what has happened to us and develop our own sense of what it means to be truly human.

"How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be 'hosts' of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization."

   As we begin to struggle against oppressive conditions, we must retain an optimistic attitude, with assurance that the struggle for freedom will ultimately succeed.

"In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit , but as a limiting situation which they can transform."

   We need to struggle against all the different forms of oppression:

  • External
    • Political: for example, making people think that politicians aren't bought by big money
    • Economic: making people into wage slaves and creating increased unemployment
    • Military: creating huge defense budgets so the military-supply corporations make obscene profits
    • Informational: making people think that the false information they're being given is true

  • Internal
    • Allowing ourselves to become people who want others to make all major decisions for us
    • Failing to keep ourselves informed about what's happening in the world
    • Failing to become aware of our own prejudices and blind spots
    • Making ourselves believe that we can't change ourselves and our world

   Oppressors, persons who have become possessed (literally) with the idea that "having" is the ultimate value, lose the ability to think rationally over time. At present, the plutocratic elite is blind to anything but their own frenzy to gain more wealth and fame. They are unaware that they are creating the very circumstances of their defeat: a society in which larger numbers of people are falling into poverty, where people of all ethnic, gender, and religious groupings are beginning to see that their common enemy is the plutocratic, corporate-based plunderer class.

   Americans have a history of ultimately ridding themselves of oppression, as in the American revolution and the passing of anti-monopoly laws in this century. As we create effective methods to assimilate the newly-arriving Americans into our historic cultural values of democracy and human rights, a mighty struggle is building against the current oppression of imperialistic globalism.