Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Paulo Freire publishes Pedagogy of the Oppressed

This year, after being expelled to Chile from Brazil by the military regime for his literacy work in Angicos, Paulo Freire (1921-1997) wrote 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed', his second book and arguably his most influential one. A few years later, it had been translated into several languages and discussed widely by educators, politicians, academics, and community organizers. In some countries ruled by military regimes the book was forbidden and burned, but people managed to access it through a foreign language edition, photocopies or travels abroad. As a result of the book, Freire himself was banned from entering a few countries, particularly in Latin America and Africa, where his philosophical and methodological approaches were adopted by multiple popular education groups, non-governmental organizations, revolutionary movements and socialist-oriented governments.

Readers, shaped by different social locations and preoccupations, emphasized different issues raised in the book. In 'Pedagogy of hope', in which Freire revisits 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' a quarter century later, he recounts the dialogues that he established with readers in the years after its publication. Broadly speaking, he identified three main types of readers. Students and professors from European and North American universities were more theoretically oriented, and interested in the rigor and precision of the text, its internal contradictions and inconsistencies, and its relationship with the other ideas of other thinkers that may have inspired the work. Those in the Third World were more interested in the political dimension of the book, and in its philosophical, ethical, ideological and epistemological ramifications. Finally, workers' interest centered on a more critical understanding of reality in order to improve future practice.

What is 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' about, and why did it create so much discussion in the academic community, and so much fear among authoritarian governments? One of the main appeals of the book is that in it Freire developed a critical reflection about his own practices as an adult educator. Hence, methodological, theoretical and political concerns interplay constantly, and local experiences are related to universal themes such as the relationships between individual consciousness and the social world, authority and freedom, and oppression and social change (1). In 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed', Freire elaborates on the ideas presented in his previous book ('Education as a Practice of Freedom') (2) but abandons his original developmentalist approach and incorporates philosophical elements of Marxist analysis, a change that can be largely attributed to his Chilean experience. In 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed,' Freire examines the authoritarian educational system, and labels its practice as 'banking education'. In this model, the teacher is the subject of the learning process, and the learners are its objects; the role of the teacher is to deposit contents in the mind of the learner, as if it was a tabula rasa to be filled with information. Hence, the teacher is considered as knowledgeable and the student as ignorant. This oppressive model, says Freire, mirrors the attitudes and practices of an oppressive society in which to be is merely to have. Criticizing his own former practice as a banking educator, Freire said that "it was as if my word, my theme, my reading of the world, in themselves, were to be their compass" (3). His critique of banking education goes beyond ideologies, as he also deplores the dogmatic approach of authoritarian revolutionary leaders who do not want to waste time in dialogue, thinking that such time could be better used to 'reveal the truth.' For Freire, this 'vanguardist' approach is as banking and reprehensible as the education model carried out by the elites.

In opposition to the banking model, Freire proposes a liberatory or emancipatory one, based on a horizontal relation between teachers and learners (co-intentionality), on critical thinking and on social transformation. In Freire's model, the teacher becomes a facilitator, the traditional class becomes a cultural circle, the emphasis shifts form lecture to problem-posing strategies, and the content, previously removed from the learners' experience, becomes relevant to the group. For Freire, literacy implies as much the acquisition of language as a political process of citizenship, in which people take history into their hands. Hence, the departure point of any educational process is not the world of the teacher, but the world of the learner. He also suggested that a critical analysis of reality could start with a critical reading of the official curriculum. He pointed out that teachers and students alike tend to consider the curriculum as something given, a neutral content to be transmitted, without understanding that education is a political act. The more teachers and students challenge this naive perspective, the easier it becomes to engage in a critical analysis of social reality.

After reading 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed', it may be argued that, for the most part, Freire's theoretical contribution is not new or original. To some extent, this claim has its validity. In the writings of Freire we find, for instance, elements of Socratic maieutics, philosophical existentialism, phenomenology, Hegelianism, Marxism, progressive education and liberation theology. Together with Marx and the Bible are Sartre and Husserl, Mounier and Buber, Fannon and Memmi, Mao and Guevara, Althusser and Fromm, Hegel and Unamuno, Kosik and Furter, Chardin and Maritain, Marcuse and Cabral. Even though Freire was influenced by these and other authors, his merit was to combine their ideas into an original formulation. As Fausto Franco has pointed out, in reading Freire one may have the impression of listening to familiar sounds everywhere, but at the same time experiencing an overall harmony of the whole that is new.

Indeed, Freire provided one of the most creative syntheses of twentieth century adult educational theory, in which he articulated a language of critique and a language of possibility at a time when it was most needed, particularly in Latin America. His denunciation of the oppressive elements of the educational system helped to demystify the pedagogism of the 1960s, while his annunciation of possible dreams ('inedito viable') and his alternative pedagogical model offered an alternative to the Althusserian pessimism of the 1970s. During those years, educators either attributed to education a liberating power that on its own it does not have, or denied it of any value until after there is a revolution. Using a dialectical perspective, Freire cautioned against both voluntarism (a kind of idealism that attributes to the will of the individual the power to change all things) and determinism (a sort of mechanic structuralism that underestimates the role of agents in historical processes). By doing so, he criticized both objectivism and subjectivism, because each of them alone is incapable of giving account of the tension between consciousness and the world (4).

One of the most important concepts in Freire's early works is conscientization (5) (consciousness-raising or critical awareness), the ability to critically perceive the causes of reality. Freire claims that reading the word cannot be separated from reading the world, but acknowledges that the possibilities of conscientization are limited. Although a transition from a naive to a critical consciousness is key in the process of liberation, it should not be assumed that a critical consciousness leads automatically to a process of transformation. This means that a critical consciousness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for collective change. While in his first works Freire takes a subjectivist stand, assuming that the unveiling of reality would translate into transformative action, in further writings he revisited his position and recognized that a more critical understanding of oppressive situations, although a step in the right direction, does not yet liberate the oppressed (6).

An interesting dimension of the problem-posing model is its efficiency in terms of learners' achievement. In Brazil, peasants who participated in the cultural circles not only acquired tools to unveil structures of domination, but also acquired literacy skills in a record time of 40 days. Thus, the reason that led to the cancellation of the literacy project and to Freire's imprisonment was clearly not its inefficiency, but the military government's fear of its potential political implications. Upon being expelled from Brazil, Freire found political asylum in Bolivia, but after three weeks another coup d'etat forced him to seek refuge in an effervescent Chile, where a few years later he would witness yet another military intervention and a new exile. These experiences played an important role in his political radicalization.

Between 'Education as a Practice of Freedom,' his first book, and 'Pedagogia da Autonomia,' his last one, it is possible to find many faces of Freire. Each one of his books reflects an engagement in a particular political-pedagogic activity, (7) and its content was influenced by the historical context and the milieu in which it was written. Throughout the years, however, some constant themes remained. In Brazil, in exile and back in Brazil, Freire was increasingly convinced about the political nature of education, the inseparability of learning to read the word and the world and the need to strengthen the linkages between theory and practice. He also felt strongly about the importance of deepening democracy in all social interactions. The democracy he was keen about was not the laissez-faire democracy that proclaims an abstract equality and freedom and blames the victims for their own failure, but a radical one which aims at helping the dominated groups to develop political determination, that is, to organize and mobilize in order to achieve their own objectives (8). As a truly revolutionary humanist, he never lost faith in the capacity of human beings to build a better world together. For this reason, while he cautioned us against the positivism and authoritarianism inherent in modernist projects, he also alerted us against the reactionary version of postmodernism that assumes the disappearance of dreams and utopias.

In 1980, as Minister of Education of Sao Paulo, he had his second opportunity in Brazil to influence educational change from an administrative post. From this position he fostered higher degrees of autonomy, collective participation in decision-making and community involvement in public schools, all which implied a decentralization of power. In performing this job, he did not incur the typical abuses related to positions of authority in Latin America, and was proud of it, because he proved to other people --and to himself-- that power does not always corrupt. During those days, he said to a group of Uruguayan educators, "If I die, for instance, this year, I would not have written the four books I wanted to write, but I proved myself in a job that I needed to perform before dying. Much more necessary than writing those four books was to know how I would behave holding power, and I would like to tell you that I behave well, with a relative coherence" (9). For instance, when he approved school lunches for poor students, he was accused of promoting 'assistentialism', a position highly criticized in his writings. Freire clarified that his practice did not contradict his theory, because he always rejected assistentialism for being a patronizing, charity-like strategy that creates dependency without addressing the roots of inequalities, but defended assistence to those in need as preconditions for learning.

Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator and more importantly, friend of humankind, died in 1997 at the age of 75. He was an adult educator strongly committed to the progressive politics of the twentieth century, travelling the path with Jane Addams, John Dewey, Robby Kidd, Eduard Lindeman, Myles Horton, Julius Nyerere and many others. Throughout his life, both in Brazil and abroad, he engaged in liberatory projects and critically reflected on his actions. He manifested anger and rigor in denouncing structures of oppression, and immense love and creativity in announcing a better world. By describing his village he was universal, and eventually became one of the most influential Latin American intellectuals of this time, and its foremost adult educator. He gave new impetus to the popular education movement and influenced the development of participatory-action research models. His work has been read, discussed and applied by thousands of people in a great variety of countries and disciplines. He may not be here, with his humor and his passion, but he is present through his legacy and through every adult educator who reinvents him in order to challenge oppression.

Freire has provided an invaluable contribution to adult literacy, to popular education and to the understanding of the role of culture in social reproduction and social change, not only in developing countries but also in developed ones. By translating the principles of progressive education to the field of adult education, and linking it to the tradition of community organization for social change, he provided a powerful combination. By crossing disciplinary boundaries, he encouraged a much needed dialogue among fields of inquiry. By talking simultaneously about reason and knowledge, and about love and hope, he brought together understanding and sensitivity. Today, in the context of global and social polarization, increasing levels of marginalization and new dimensions of poverty, his ideas need to be re-thought, adapted, challenged and re-invented to face the new century.

At the end of his life, Freire was particularly concerned with the ascendance and consolidation of neoliberalism. As a response to the logic of consumerism that derives from the neoliberal model, Freire was interested in furthering the notion of radical citizenship and in the development of a citizenship education that focuses on civil and political rights. He was also interested in improving the dialogue among committed adult educators. Indeed, in spite of the amount, quality and creativeness of adult education experiences that have flourished during the last decades all over the world, there are few processes that help projects to build on the accumulated knowledge.

In 1990, in an interview with Carlos A. Torres, Paulo Freire asked himself: "What is my legacy?", and he answered his own question with these words:

    I think that it is possible to be said about Paulo Freire, when I die, that Paulo Freire was a man who loved, who could not understand life's existence without love and without knowing. Paulo Freire lived, loved and tried to know. Paulo Freire was constantly curious and asking questions to himself.

In this, his own epitaph, he reminds us of two important qualities of educators: love and intellectual curiosity. Paulo Freire is not anymore among us, but his legacy is still alive, guiding us, encouraging us, and challenging us to define our dreams and live up to them.


(1) Erich Fromm, for instance, expressed that the educational practices proposed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed constituted a kind of historico-cultural, political psychoanalysis.

(2) 'Education as a practice of freedom' was an elaboration on Freire's doctoral dissertation. In this book, born in the context of poverty and exploitation in North East Brazil, Freire attempted a first critique of the authoritarian education of the time, linking it with larger societal structures, and developing seminal ideas and practical methods for an emancipatory education which could contribute to humanize society.

(3) Pedagogy of Hope, p.22

(4) He contended that people who emphasize subjectivism believe that the task is to transform the consciousness of individuals, who in turn will transform reality. Conversely, those who emphasize objectivism assume that only when objective reality changes, subjectivities will change. The first position is typical among well-intentioned Christians, and the second among bad readers of Marx. Freire argued that neither of them understand that historical processes are dialectic and often contradictory. "Paulo Freire en Buenos Aires", Consejo de Educación de Adultos de América Latina, 1985, p.17.

(5) Contrary to what is generally assumed, Freire did not invent this term. The word has been previously used in France, and Freire heard of it through the intellectuals of the Instituto Superior de Etudos Brasileiros. However, it was with Freire that the term became popularized. Like 'empowerment', the word 'conscientization' has been co-opted by mainstream adult education programs aiming at the preservation of the status quo. Concerned about the misuse of the term, he stopped using it in 1972.

(6) Pedagogy of Hope, p.30 and 102.

(7) See Pedagogy in Process, p. 176.

(8) "We shouldn't be afraid of using the word 'democracy'," said Freire to Argentinean educators in 1985. He argued that many people became skeptic about the word because they relate it to social democracy and reformism. Instead, Freire suggested, democracy can be associated with socialism and with revolution. "Paulo Freire en Buenos Aires", Consejo de Educacion de Adultos de América Latina, 1985, p.19.

(9) Centro de Investigaciones y Desarrollo Cultural (CIDC)Paulo Freire conversando con educadores. Roca Viva: Montevideo, 1990, p. 32.


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