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Liberation Perspectives on Justice Education

Michael Harrison, Padua College, Mornington Victoria

An important background in the discussion of how to educate for justice is Latin American theology and educational theory. Liberation theology challenged Catholic social policy and ecclesial practice, and the insights of Paulo Freire and his co-workers questioned educational theory throughout Latin America and the world in general.

The experience of poverty and oppression, and the turbulence caused by revolutionary movements attempting to wrest power from intransigent oligarchies, provide the background for these significant developments in theological and educational thought. The essential insight in this for justice education is the emphasis on the need for action and reflection as essential parts of the theological and educational process.

Liberation theologians argue that, when faced with the scandal of poverty and oppression in the Latin American context, it is not enough for the Church to support in words alone.

?if we are to understand the theology of liberation, we must first understand and take an active part in the real and historical process of liberating the oppressed?(It) is vital to move beyond a purely intellectual approach that is content with comprehending a theology?"knowing" implies loving, letting oneself become involved body and soul, communing wholly - being committed, in a word? 1

Encouraged by the conciliar social teaching encapsulated in Gaudium et Spes, and the developing insights of their own theologians, the bishops of Latin America encouraged their churches to go beyond the pious spiritualising of previous generations and actively work for justice. In the oft-quoted words of the bishops at Medellin:

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel? 2

In simple terms, the methodology of liberation theology can be described in the three-fold movement typical of much Catholic social thought - see, judge, and then act. 3 Boff and Boff describe this movement in more complex terms as three stages or mediations - the socio-analytical mediation which seeks to understand causes of the situation, the hermeneutical mediation which critically reflects on the situation, and the practical mediation which acts on the basis of this understanding and reflection. 4

Whether simple or complex in its explanation, the essential element of the process described is that action goes hand-in-hand with understanding and reflection. This is liberation theology's concept of praxis, a continual and integral movement between reflection and action where one component makes no sense without the other.

The praxis methodology was not refined solely in theological settings. Liberation theology developed concurrently in Latin America with the educational methodology of Paulo Freire, whose seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has influenced all areas of educational thought in the past thirty years. Freire's educational thought began in his experience of adult literacy programs with Brazilian peasants during the early 1960s. 5 Within the social reality of oppression and injustice, the political implications of education were never far from the surface of Freire's writings. He declared that education cannot be politically neutral, because its result is either to domesticate by accepting the given social structures, or to liberate and so humanise by challenging the status quo.

Two basic concepts are at the centre of Freire's educational methodology - praxis and conscientisation. Through praxis, humans reflect on their reality, and change that reality through action. Action is again crucial to this understanding because "? consciousness is not changed by lessons, lectures, and eloquent sermons but by the action of human beings on the world. Consciousness does not arbitrarily create reality ?" 6 This active and continuous process of action and reflection is what Freire understands as conscientisation. Humans have the capacity to both recognise and critically evaluate their reality.

the praxis by which consciousness is changed is not only action, but action and refection. Thus there is a unity between practice and theory in which both are constructed, shaped and re-shaped in constant movement from practice to theory, then back to new practice." 7

Freire therefore famously condemns what he terms the "banking" method of traditional education, where students are passive receptacles, and the teacher's wisdom is "deposited" into their memory like an ever-accumulating bank account. Freire sees this method as only being capable of domesticating students, because its purpose is to have students fit into the existing social structures. 8 In contrast to this method, Freire encourages a pedagogy built on dialogue and joint problem solving.

Because of the similarities between liberation theology and Freire's educational theory, it is not surprising that the critique from first world theologians and educators has been similar. It comes on two levels:

  • the first theological critique is that both theories lead the Christian to an over-reliance on humanity, at the cost of ignoring the place of God in history;
  • and the second practical critique is that both the theological and educational theories have been developed within the Latin American milieu and cannot be adequately transformed into theories applicable in the first world.

The first critique of the liberation theologians and Freire is the theological concern that their views on the revolutionary nature of theology and education might be overly optimistic. Some argue that liberation theology and/or a Christian appropriation of Freire's educational thought might lean towards an over-emphasis of humanity's role in the building of God's Kingdom, and so an insufficient account of God's free initiative. 9 This is certainly one of the Vatican's concerns in its initial formal reaction to liberation theology.

one places oneself within the perspective of a temporal messianism, which is one of the most radical of the expressions of secularization of the Kingdom of God and of its absorption into the immanence of human history. 10

Thomas Groome's religious education theory of "shared Christian praxis", is heavily indebted to the work of Freire 11, and has been highly influential in the field of religious education. Groome has some pertinent points to make of such a theological critique. He agrees that there is indeed an inherent danger of a type of Pelagianism, but also warns of the dangers of fatalism, should too little emphasis be put on the ability of people to change their situation.12 He discusses the central idea of the Kingdom of God in Hebrew and Christian thought, and shows how the Catholic tradition emphasises both a concern to build the Kingdom of God in the present, and a hope for the final inbreaking of God's Kingdom in the future. Therefore, in this understanding, "we are to be co-creators with God of the final Kingdom".13

Groome also reflects on this theme from a psychological perspective. People working for justice must always remember that "there are two parties to the covenant",14 and so justice requires both God's grace and people's commitment. To ignore one of these two components is to "fall into either debilitating guilt or historical irresponsibility".15

The second critique is one of practice. It notes that the Latin American experience is one where many are oppressed and in need of liberation, and so liberative action is an inevitable consequence and fundamental element of the theological and educational process. In the western world, however, educators are more often educating those who Freire might class as the oppressor. The methodology is therefore questioned on the basis that it may be an inappropriate method of motivating largely middle-class students towards social analysis and action.

Groome shows understanding of the difficulty inherent in applying Freire's theory to the first world in writing of himself as a white, male, middle-class American from the "richest and most consumer-oriented society in the world".16 He contends, however, that this does not prevent him from developing an "inclusive consciousness ? convinced that the struggles for justice and freedom in the Third and Fourth Worlds demand a revolution in values and lifestyle in our First World".17 As a religious educator, Groome believes that it is possible to "promote a socially critical consciousness that in turn empowers emancipatory action toward the end of humanisation and mutuality for all God's people".18 In an Australian context, Bezzina agrees that while these theories were developed within the Latin America milieu, "there is nothing about its message that is exclusively Latin American. All humankind can rejoice in the news that a living and true faith includes the practice of liberation ?"19 Bezzina also argues that, although the extent of poverty, oppression, and powerlessness is not as great as in Latin America, there are still significant examples of these things in contemporary Australia.20

From my own reflection and experience of Catholic secondary schools, I'm not convinced that such comments deal convincingly with the real difficulty of applying a liberation methodology to middle-class students who benefit from the social structures around them. A major concern is that students may become either so defensive of their lifestyles that they refuse to participate, or so laden with guilt that they become inoperative.21

There is also the tendentious issue raised by Freire's dialogical method and the small-group process of liberation theology. In Latin America, Freire was dealing with small voluntary groups of adults who were vitally interested in the outcomes of their learning, and concerned to change social structures that disadvantaged them. In Catholic schools, educators are dealing with 30+ students in a compulsory setting, with little life experience to reflect upon, who are sometimes uninterested in the outcomes of their learning, and for whom the social structures are often advantageous. As well, Australian Catholic educators are also dealing with the increasing prevalence of apathy and/or antipathy towards the Church, within a social context where religious practice in families is becoming increasingly marginal.

I am certainly not suggesting, however, that there is not immense wisdom and counsel to be gained from Liberation perspectives by Australian schools - simply that the application of this wisdom needs to be carefully considered within Australia's own social context. So, what wisdom is to be gained.

The overall objective of Freire and the liberation theologians is liberation, which brings together the two over-arching themes of Catholic social teaching - it encourages all people to reach for our full potential and dignity, within the context of the common good. Liberation thought suggests that this is our right, conferred on us by a God who seeks to defend the dignity of all people. These basic ideals need to be at the heart of education for justice.

However, there is little point in teaching about justice issues, if the teaching methodology does not respect the dignity of those in the educational process. Education for justice must be done in a spirit of trust, dialogue and mutuality.

Liberation theology and educational methodology suggests a process of reflection and action. Students reflect on their own situations, and those of others, and develop some action in response to this reflection. Reflection should involve the individual students coming to an understanding of the situation under consideration, through an analysis of the social structures involved, and in reference to the Church's social teaching. But an appropriate education for justice program can't leave its students at the stage of reflection. Action is a necessary and integral part of this process.

This process of reflection and action is a complex enterprise, and so schools need to develop in students the skills required. These skills include: critical thinking, conflict-resolution skills, political-action skills, interpersonal skills, envisioning and strategising skills, leadership skills. Students must learn increasingly to think for themselves, to evaluate alternative positions, to formulate their own opinions, and to be able to argue those opinions in different forums. As well as this they should learn how institutions work, and how effective action can be taken in relation to such institutions.

This is all a tall order for educators working in an Australian education system which is increasingly moving back to the requirement for students to earn their educational rewards by regurgitating large amounts of largely unprocessed information in short amounts of exam time. This is Freire's banking method of education writ large.

For me, as a Catholic Australian secondary educator, the immediate and most potent challenge presented by liberation perspectives is to find ways to break out of this stifling educational environment - move beyond simply teaching about justice, to providing opportunities for students to act for justice. In his early study of education for justice, Wren writes:

In education for justice, then, the old saying - 'I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand' - takes on a new lease of life. It suggests that we can only know justice by doing it, in a unity of action and reflection.22


1. Leonardo & Clovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology (New York: Orbis, 1987), p.9.
2. Synod of Bishops, Second General Assembly, Justice in the World (1971) n.6.
3. See Michael Bezzina, "Shining the lamp of liberation on Australian Catholic education" Word in Life, 43 (4), November, 1995, p.4.
4. See Boff & Boff, op.cit., pp.24-42, or Bezzina, op.cit., p.4.
5. The importance of this is dramatised in the story of a peasant father explaining how social conditions necessitated his beating of his children, see William Kennedy, "Conversation with Paulo Freire", in Religious Education, Vol. 79 (4) Fall 1984, pp.511-522.
6. Paulo Freire, "Education, Liberation and the Church", in Religious Education, Vol. 79 (4) Fall 1984, p.526.
7. ibid., p.527
8. See Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Middlesex: Penguin, 1972), Chap.2, particularly pp.45-47.
9. See Butkus, op. cit., p.154
10. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Certain Aspects of the "Theology Of Liberation" X, n.6-7. The document's primary concerns, however, is the perception of an uncritical use of Marxist analysis, and an over-emphasis on social rather than personal sin.
11. See Groome's discussion of his indebtedness to Freire in Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education, (New York: Harper & Row, 1980) pp.175-7.
12. Groome, "Educating justly", op. cit., p.81.
13. ibid., p.73.
14. ibid., p.81.
15. ibid., p.81.
16. Thomas Groome, "Religious education for justice by educating justly" in Padraic O'Hare (ed.), Education for Peace and Justice (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983) p.69.
17. Groome, "Educating justly", op. cit., p.69.
18. ibid., p.69. In its ambiguous phrasing, "end" here obviously refers to "the purpose of" rather than "the finish of" humanisation and mutuality!
19. Bezzina, op.cit., p.5.
20. ibid., p.5.
21. See Brennan R. Hill, Key Dimensions of Religious Education (Winona, USA: St. Mary's Press, 1988), p.129
22. Brian Wren, Education for Justice (London: SCM Press, 1977), p.11.