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Paulo Freire and Ralph Waldo Emerson share a similar vision in regards to traditional
methods of education. A main common view is that both writers feel that the current education
system in most places does not allow for people to reach their full capacity. Freire and Emerson
share many other ideas regarding education such as their view of practice and theory and of free
thinking. Their works are among the most thought-evoking.
In “The American Scholar” Emerson places a strong emphasis on the role of books in
education and their usage of conveying ideas. He states that, “Books are the best things, well
used; abused, among the worst” (p. 297). This refers to his thought that the idea behind books is
indeed a well thought out one. However, aside from the possible misuse of books, there are
certain tasks that a book can not accomplish. Many are relevant only for a period of time, after
which they become obsolete and new books are required. This is one of the reasons that Emerson
feels that books alone can not provide a concrete education. They must be supplemented with
additional studies, or, according to Emerson, book studies should be combined with experiences
and applied to life. To read for the sake of knowing information is pointless; instead, man should
read with the intent to apply newly obtained knowledge to his life. Man should read with a
dissecting eye, and pick apart the prose, keeping what is relevant and discarding what is babble.
This captures the true purpose of books. Paralleling Emerson’s view of books is Freire’s idea of
theory and praxis. Man can learn all there is to know about a discipline yet he cannot fully grasp
it until he has begun to exercise his newly ascertained information. There is indeed a difference
between strictly learning theory and learning theory through practice. The theory or ideas can be
deposited in a person’s head and he or she is to put into action the unrefined concepts. Freire is
opposed to this “Banking theory” (p. 357) because he feels that it is inhibiting to the mind. In his
mind, problem-posing theory is the proper route, due to the fact that it actively engages a
person’s own ideas and personal thoughts and makes him analyze and question reality.
Freire classifies standard systems of education to be a banking system. This label is used
in a literal sense, in that Freire feels that a human brain is like a vault. In the banking system
teachers deposit information in the student and it is to be expected that the student will retain the
information until a withdrawal is requested, at which point the information will be regurgitated
back in the same form that it was put in, without any processing of the information. This idea
assumes many things about the teacher-student relationship. Among these assumptions are that:
the student begins education with a clean slate, the teacher knows best or knows all and that the
student has nothing to contribute to his own education because he or she knows nothing. One
other assumption in the banking system is that a person is not considered to be a conscious being
that interacts with others; he is considered to be a spectator, not someone who is able to make a
difference. Problem-posing education is Freire’s solution to the problems posed by the banking
system of education. The main premise of this type of education is that people are considered to
be an integral part of the world, that interact with one another. Freire emphasized dialogue in
education, or a coexistence of student and teacher in which both parties are giving and taking
from the education. Unlike in a banking system where material is presented for the sole purpose
of having the students absorb it, Freire feels that ideas are conveyed to students for their analysis
of it, because their opinion is as important as the teacher’s. According to Freire, banking
education limits and shuts down creative power , and this concept is a main concern of Emerson’s
as well. A person must be brave and free from fear, because fear arises from ignorance. A man
must be a free thinker and in the right state he is “Man Thinking” (p. 295). “Man thinking” (p.
295) is simply a man thinking for himself without the influence of outside sources. On the
contrary, it is possible for him to become a simple thinker or even the imitator of another man’s
thinking. Even ideas that come from the past can be harmful to the free thinker, and may limit his
creative mind. The study of books, for example, has the potential to transform a man from a free
thinking individual to a person that merely takes in information and spits it out. This is exactly
what Freire speaks of, however; unlike Emerson, he does not acknowledge that this can happen
on its own, without a system of education imposing it.
A final shared idea between Freire and Emerson is that the full human capacity is not being
utilized. Books and teaching inhibit man’s mind, because they contain ideas which are preset and
are rarely subject to interpretation or analysis. According to Emerson, all men have the capacity
of becoming a genius, yet he does not encourage people to be genius because sometimes too
much intellect can be over influencing. Emerson believes that our full worth is not being reached
because there are things that are constraining man’s free thinking capabilities. Similarly, yet
different, Freire says that oppressors, in some cases, teachers, are not recognizing the full capacity
or inner worth of individuals. People are being alienated from free thought, because in the
opinion of oppressors, the student’s point of view does not matter. Students are instructed and
trained to listen to the teacher as if he or she knows everything there is to know, and they must
absorb everything they are told. When a person is told the same thing repeatedly it becomes a
truth to him. This is the case with the teacher-student relationship, where students have come to
accept that their input is useless and that they in fact have nothing to present.
Emerson and Freire see eye to eye on many issues regarding the education of man. The
main concept that they share is a belief that man should think freely. All other ideas stated by
Freire and Emerson are strictly extensions of this point. The educational vision of Emerson and
Freire is for man to learn in a society free of preconceptions, where all men’s ideas are valued and
where knowledge is ascertained for the use of practice not just as an end in itself.
“Banking Concept of Education” by Paolo Freire
“The American Scholar” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
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