Paulo Freire (1921-1997)

I tried reading the famous Brazilian theorist’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed years ago, but the book was so dense—I gave up. Yet Freire’s teaching method was passed down to me through experiences over the years that I found engaging and effective. My own teaching style was revolutionized through what I picked up from Freire’s insights. So after understanding his methodology through practical participation, I went back to Freire’s book. Reading it still was a tough slog, but finally the book made sense. It’s best to learn Freire in practice rather than as a mere intellectual exercise.
Dan Buttry

Influential Brazilian Education Theorist and Developer of Critical Pedagogy

To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity.
Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire spent 70 days in prison when the military junta seized power in Brazil during a 1964 coup. He had been working on a literacy campaign, teaching the rural poor how to read. His work was done under the auspices of the University of Recife and the Brazilian government. So why was this educator branded a traitor by the military?

Critical Pedagogy

Freire became one of the most influential educational theorists, developing what has been called critical pedagogy. He educated people marginalized in society so that they could participate in the analysis and transformation of their own situation. That idea about the power of grassroots education now has circled the globe. Education is not a top-down project, but rather a dialogical partnership, or as Freire puts it, a pedagogy which must be forged with, not for, the oppressed.

Focus on Issues of Poverty and Education

The Great Depression of 1929 threw Freire’s middle class Brazilian family into poverty. His experience with hunger forged a concern for the poor that he maintained throughout his life. Poverty and hunger severely restricted his access to education and his ability to take advantage of it. I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger, Freire said. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge

As his family recovered financially he was able to go to law school, but soon shifted over to the study of language and phenomenology, at the time a new approach to analyzing the way humans think and communicate. He began teaching secondary school. He met Elza Maia Costa de Oliveira, also a teacher. They married and then worked together throughout their careers as educators.

Work with the Illiterate Poor in Recife, Brazil

Freire was appointed by the government of the state of Pernambuco, where his home city of Recife is the capital, to work among the illiterate poor. Brazilian law required voters to be literate, thus disenfranchising vast numbers of the poor. Freire’s thinking was shaped by his Christian faith and by liberation theology, which taught that freedom and justice are central biblical themes, as he began developing the teaching methodologies that would make him famous. In 1961 he was appointed director of the Department of Cultural Extension at Recife University, and he began to put his ideas into practice more extensively. He worked with 300 sugar cane workers, enabling them to read and write in 45 days. One of the educational programs had the slogan, Bare feet can also learn to read. His work was so successful the Brazilian government supported the establishment of thousands of literacy projects based on his model. Students said, I now realize I am a person, an educated person, and, We were blind, now our eyes have been opened.

Education Style

Problem-Posing to Solve Issues of Oppression

The key for Freire was to connect the educational task, such as learning to read, with the issues of oppression people experience in their daily lives. He helped students analyze their own conditions and begin to speak out publicly. In a problem-posing approach to education, the particulars of an oppressive situation are turned into problems to be solved by the students in a critical co-investigation with the teacher. In the process the students’ consciousness is awakened, moving from passive fatalism to becoming active in bringing about change to relieve their oppression. The culture of silence among the dispossessed is overcome, and they are able to discover their own voices and transformative capacity.

Transcending the Banking Model of Education

As part of the change in consciousness, both the teacher and the student must transcend the dichotomy of what Freire called the banking concept of education: where the all-knowing teacher makes deposits of the selected knowledge into the empty vessels of the students. Instead, students need to recognize their own capacity to be teachers themselves. They are, in fact, the ones with the clearest vantage point of their situations in life. The teacher must be humble enough to also be a student, learning from the participants in the educational setting. Freire wrote, The humanist, revolutionary educator … must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them. Together then the teacher/student and student/teacher enter into dialog to bring about change. Praxis is the term for reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.

Imprisonment, Exile and Overcoming Illiteracy in Chile

Freire knew such thinking would not be acceptable to those who benefitted by the oppressive situations throughout Brazil. The military coup of 1964 seemed to confirm his fears for he was imprisoned and then exiled. Freire ended up in Chile where he worked for five years with the Christian Democratic Agrarian Reform Movement and UNESCO. His work there played a major role in helping Chile achieve one of the best records in the world for overcoming illiteracy.

Worldwide Acclaim

By 1969 Freire’s work was so widespread and acclaimed that Harvard University invited him to become a visiting professor. His book Pedagogy of the Oppressed had been released in Portuguese and later in English. However, the book was banned in Brazil. Freire later left the U.S. to become the special education advisor to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. In that capacity he became a consultant for education reform around the world, especially in the former Portuguese colonies of Guinea Bissau and Mozambique.

The world-renowned educator was finally allowed to return to his homeland in 1979. He worked on adult literacy with the Workers’ Party, and when they won municipal elections he was appointed Secretary of Education for São Paulo. In 1986 he was awarded the UNESCO Prize for Education for Peace.

A monument in honor of Paulo Freire at the Ministry of Education in Brazil

A monument in honor of Paulo Freire at the Ministry of Education in Brazil
Brandizzi/GFDL & CC BY-SA 2.5/Wikimedia Commons

Influences and Legacy

Freire was heavily influenced by Marxist thinking as well as by radical Catholic writers. He wrote,

I never understood how to reconcile fellowship with Christ with the exploitation of other human beings, or to reconcile a love for Christ with racial, gender and class discrimination. By the same token, I could never reconcile the Left’s liberating discourse with the Left’s discriminatory practice along the lines of race, gender and class. What a shocking contradiction: to be, at the same time, a leftist and a racist.

His work is full of revolutionary terminology, but he also provides a devastating critique of revolutionary leaders who return to the same paternalism and manipulation of their oppressors in order to seize and maintain their own power. Revolutionary leaders who speak for the people ultimately do not transform the culture, he argued. Rather, a true revolutionary lovingly enters into a genuine dialogue with the people and is humble enough to be changed by that dialogue. The leader then speaks with the people.

Around the world, popular education has been strongly influenced by Freire’s work. Teachers who follow his theories are less lecturers presenting information in packaged formats and more facilitators who raise questions to awaken the participants to search for their own answers. Freire did not live to see the new millennium, but his life continues to reshape our world.

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