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Essay: “The Importance of the Act of Reading” by Paolo Freire

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: June 16, 2021*
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  • “The Importance of the Act of Reading” by Paolo Freire
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Alongside a reflection on the importance of the act of reading in his own life, “The Importance of the Act of Reading” by Paolo Freire explores literacy education as a foundational tool for social change. Thinking of it as a form of cultural expression, Freire contends that learning to be literate is itself a political act because people learn to assert their right and responsibility not only to read, interpret, and transform their own experiences, but also to reconstitute their relationship within the wider society (7). Language is a means of forming and storing ideas as reflections of reality and exchanging them in the process of human intercourse and, in accord with him, I maintain that language and power are intimately intertwined and provide a fundamental dimension of human agency and social transformation. Transecting Freire’s philosophy with the writing of William Lutz, this essay reiterates the continuing importance of critical consciousness within our wider society.

The political nature of literacy is a fundamental theme in Freire’s writing. His philosophy might be summed up best by his assertion that the “the actual act of reading literary texts is seen as part of a wider process of human development and growth based on understanding both one’s own experience and the social” (5). Language is social by nature and thus inseparably connected with people who are its creators and users; it grows and develops together with the development of society. Consequently, teaching literacy is political in how it influences students’ thinking and modifies the way that they process information; teachers not only change the way that students think but also how they internalise words and meaning, and whether that is done with the confidence and willingness to engage actively with learning material.
Otherwise said, if learning to read and write constructs a written expression for what can be said orally, then literacy is fundamental to assertively constructing a person’s voice as part of a wider project of possibility and empowerment and teaching it is political by people that determine how language is understood, learned and taught. To wit, human beings as both teachers and students within particular social and cultural formations are the starting point for analysing not only how they actively construct their own experiences within ongoing relations of power, but also how the social construction of such experiences provides them with the opportunity to give meaning and expression to their own needs and voices as part of a project of self- and social empowerment. To be able to name one’s experience is part of what it meant to read the world (8) and to begin to understand the political nature of the limits and possibilities that make up the place you come from and the world at large. Literacy education teaches to read so that they can decode and demythologise both their own cultural traditions as well as those that structure and legitimate the wider social order.

I think that Freire’s view of literacy as a tool of voice and experience cannot be understood apart from William Lutz’s own writings that allow us to understand the connection critical consciousness has to our lived reality. William Lutz in “Language, Appearance and Reality: Doublespeak in 1984” demonstrates how easily language is consciously used to manipulate (page number) and suggests that the world must be approached as a created, transformable reality which, like humans themselves, is constantly in the process of being shaped and made by human misdeeds and twisted representations of reality. His work, like Freire’s and Georger Orwell’s in “Politics and the English Language”, is fueled by a healthy rage over the desire to increase mindfulness and dialogue among those who are already literate and so he incites teachers to instill in students a respect and love for language so that they can understand its wider political power and be outraged whenever they encounter language that is grossly deceptive, evasive or confusing (390). It is Freire’s conviction that through this dialogue the truth will be made apparent.

Ultimately, the enduring value of Freire’s writing lies in a renovation of traditional educational and literacy programmes through which transformative social action can be realised. The topics or curricula that teachers choose are the vessels through which the thinking process is advanced. Freire is strongly opposed to the idea of functional literacy whereby knowledge is deposited into the minds of the students by teachers because it imposes words and ideas on the learners (9). He insists that the words and the themes used in education should be those common among the people being educated and should allow them to communicate ideas and feelings and challenge the concrete reality of their lives through discussions. Through discussing a problematic situation, they are led to see the true condition under which they live. In Freire’s words, “only by learning the significance [of things in the wider world] could [students] know how to memorize it, to fix it.” Through discussion they also begin to see that the present social reality is not determined but can be changed by them. That process, that is also political because learning to read and write flows from the discussion of themes of importance to adult learners, drawn from their real-experiences. The value in this is the richer understanding of the world, because after learning to read texts, the next step is to apply it and use it to read the world – to interrogate it and think critically about it.

There is an important thing to note about the politics of language: firstly, that literary texts and language give us a glimpse into the sociopolitical climate of the time they are written or spoken, and so are always political in some sense. For instance, especially during elections, language can become a currency of power (Lutz 383). So, those who know how to read it and understand and deconstruct what it truly means will always have more ability to implicitly or explicitly expresses their point of view or refute that of others. Knowledge and learning are political because they are power for those who generate them as they are for those who use them so it’s always important to be aware and remain critical when we go about our daily lives.

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