Paulo Freire – the official patron of education in Brazil

Image: Jimmy Chan


What does the battle over Freire really tell us about the state of Brazilian society in 2021?

Paulo Freire, who was born a hundred years ago, grew up in a country where half of all adults were illiterate and therefore marginalized. Freire's ideas were forged in a uniquely Brazilian context.

In 2012, Dilma Rousseff signed Decree Law No. 12.612, making the socialist pedagogue Paulo Freire the official patron of education in Brazil. It was a fitting and seemingly uncontroversial tribute to one of the most beloved icons of the international left, considering that patron Freire is among the most celebrated intellectuals in the country.

However, from the moment pen touched paper, Rousseff's decree stirred up a firestorm of criticism. Reaching a peak after Jair Bolsonaro's victory in the 2018 presidential election, the controversy surrounding Freire's influence has become the topic of heated national discussion and fuel for countless right-wing conspiracies about "Marxist indoctrination."

What, though, does the battle over Freire really tell us about the state of Brazilian society in 2021? What does this tell us about the significance of Freire's legacy on the centenary of his birth?

Considering that his political achievements at home were always overshadowed by his intellectual reputation abroad, it even seems strange that we are debating the importance of Paulo Freire in Brazil. In the late 1960s, having been exiled by the military dictatorship, Freire was met with widespread international acclaim for his radical approach to pedagogy and his innovative methods for promoting literacy among the world's most disadvantaged. His writings – including the best sellers overall Pedagogy of the Oppressed – were immediately published in English and began to attract the attention of young people and educators in the United States and Europe. Ironically, for a thinker who always emphasized the importance of social context, Freire's method was often subject to distortion by overly enthusiastic pedagogues in the North, who envisioned his radical methods as a remedy for any and all social ills.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the extent of Freire's influence has been subject to a different kind of distortion. For some, the honorific title of “patron” bestowed by Rousseff has led many – and not just the right – to mistakenly think that there ever was some sort of comprehensive national education policy inspired by Freire. In reality, Freire's pedagogy never had any major influence on the country's educational system – not even in the era of redemocratization, when Freire contributed to the formulation of public policies. The only time Freire came close to leading a far-reaching national literacy campaign, the government was – significantly – overthrown by the armed forces.

Upon his return from exile in 1980, Freire worked as a university professor and served as secretary of education in São Paulo for socialist mayor Luiza Erundina (1989-1991), then affiliated with the Workers' Party (PT). But those initiatives were limited to the municipality of São Paulo. Furthermore, during its thirteen years in government, and despite having achieved important progress in higher education, the PT never managed to reform primary or secondary education – where Freire's methodology could easily have assumed national prominence.

The question is: Why has the far right been up in arms about Freire's almost completely fictional influence on Brazilian education? One answer draws on the country's history: accusations of left-wing indoctrination in school-level instruction have been common practice in Brazil since the beginning of the dictatorship in the 1960s. That tactic lives on with figures like Olavo de Carvalho, who, writing about “Gramscian indoctrination” and “cultural Marxism”, he insists that “if Lenin was the theoretician of the coup d'état, [Gramsci] was the strategist of the psychological revolution that paved the way for the coup d'état”. Carvalho's equating the Gramscian concept of “counter-hegemony” with brainwashing and undermining Western values ​​is part of the right's cultural war. But as far as Freire's place in Brazilian history is concerned, there is more to add.

Like its counterparts in the United States and Europe, the Brazilian extreme right sees education and culture as central components in creating and consolidating public consensus. These culture wars are especially useful for conservatives because they divert public attention away from economic policies and material difficulties, prioritizing struggles over “worldviews” instead.

In Brazil, the Escola Sem Partido (ESP) group was the first organized movement, even before Bolsonaro, to delve deeply into the culture wars. The fundamental idea of ​​this group is that Brazilian schools are fertile ground for ideological manipulation, and that the left – via Freire, in particular – has conquered its cultural hegemony there.

It is clear that Freire was destined to become an opponent of the ESP movement: after all, it was his position that schooling and literacy were important fronts in the struggle against capitalism. In addition to far-right ideologues, there were even respected pedagogues who accused Freire of going too far and confusing education with politics. Whether or not this characterization is correct, it highlights the fact that education has been one of Brazil's central political problems for more than a century. And without much knowledge of this history, it is not possible to fully appreciate all that Freire represents to Brazilian society.

illiterate and excluded

In 1882, an electoral reform law known as Lei Saraiva introduced a new form of political exclusion into what was already a rigidly hierarchical Brazilian society: illiterates were barred from voting. In fact, the illiteracy census, as the politician Ruy Barbosa called it, was not a Brazilian invention. It was common in many Latin American republics to use “ignorance” – rather than income or property, as was common in Europe – as a pretext for marginalizing the population. According to the 1890 national census, 82,63 percent of the Brazilian population fell into the illiterate category.

The concept of illiteracy in Brazil was born as a political issue, even if it was not recognized as such. Indeed, in its early years, literacy was defined by the imperative of maintaining law and order rather than promoting the public good. The Brazilian agrarian elite at the turn of the century was at that time engaged in a power struggle with an increasingly centralized state administration, and its consolidation depended on the creation of a more respectable – and manageable – civil society.

Against the backdrop of an expanding civil society and the recent abolition of slavery, illiteracy came to mean much more than an individual's inability to read or write. It was deeply tied to efforts – anti-vagrancy laws, with public morals clauses included – to control an unstoppable majority of the working class in the nascent public sphere, which could actually pose a threat to the still-forming social order.

While the Imperial Brazilian Constitution of 1824 enshrined a racialized social hierarchy, the Republican Constitution of 1891 sought to convey the idea that, through education, anyone could become an active member of the political community. Crucially, however, the 1891 Constitution also removed the previously existing guarantee of primary education for all citizens. This was a blatant case of giving citizens formal rights while surreptitiously depriving them of the material means needed to achieve those rights.

The state invited Brazilians to leave behind their ignorance and embrace their newly established civil rights by educating themselves, while at the same time restricting access to education (or, what amounted to the same thing, doing nothing to address inequalities). social barriers that prevented access). Thus education became a key ideological edifice for the grossly unequal Brazilian republic born in 1889: entrenched economic and social inequalities were made to appear as transitory differences that would be overcome through – ultimately illusory – educational opportunities.

The deprivation of the right to vote for illiterates remained effective until 1985 (the final year of the military dictatorship), making Brazil the last country in the Americas to give illiterates the right to vote. Freire's drive to politicize education makes much more sense in light of this historical exclusion of the Brazilian masses based on their lack of access to formal education. If illiteracy was a way of naturalizing social inequalities, literacy campaigns became, for Freire, a way of overthrowing the supposedly “natural” order of a society in which ignorance and poverty were seen as mutually reinforcing synonyms.

The National Literacy Program

In 1962, Brazil was enjoying a very rare period of democratic rule. Progressive President João Goulart was especially concerned with improving social indicators in Brazil's poorest states, in the northeast of the country, and he invited agrarian and urban social movements to join him in this effort. However, in his mission to politically empower the country's poor, he went against the 1891 Constitution and the harsh reality that most workers in Brazil, most of them illiterate, could not vote.

In the meantime, Calazans Fernandes, education secretary of Rio Grande do Norte – one of the states with the highest illiteracy rates – invited Freire, in the same year, to design a literacy project for the poor municipality of Angicos. The project was conducted in collaboration with SUDENE (Superintendência do Desenvolvimento do Nordeste) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Alliance for Progress.

The project that Freire oversaw involved 380 Angicos residents who attended classes totaling forty hours. The final class of 1963 was attended by President João Goulart, SUDENE economist Celso Furtado, and General Humberto Castelo Branco, who would later become the first military president after the 1964 coup. According to Calazans Fernandes, Castelo Branco approached him after class and said: “young man, you are feeding rattlesnakes here in the backlands”. The project managed – surprisingly – to educate 300 participants in just one month.

Freire's adult literacy methods would soon be applied in the state of São Paulo, a pioneering project led by the União Estadual dos Estudantes de São Paulo. Quickly, similar projects spread throughout Brazil. On January 21, 1964, Presidential Decree Number 53.464 decreed a “National Literacy Plan (PNA) based on the Paulo Freire System that would be implemented by the Ministry of Culture and Education”.

Education Minister Júlio Sambaqui decided that Freire and other members of the Angicos Literacy Project should be included in a committee responsible for implementing the initiative. The project called for the creation of 60.870 “cultural circles”, Freire's preferred term for literacy classes, throughout the country, each lasting three months and serving 1.834.200 illiterates between the ages of fifteen and forty. and five years.

During this same period, Freire's methods were gaining international attention – President John F. Kennedy had even scheduled a visit to Angicos in December 1963 (cancelled after his assassination in November 1963). The National Literacy Plan was scheduled to be launched on May 13, 1964, promising to be one of the greatest educational achievements of the 1964th century. However, the coup d'état in April 1964 brought these plans to a sudden halt. The armed forces deposed João Goulart and, in June XNUMX, Freire was imprisoned for seventy days. After his release, he went into exile.

This should be the closest Freire came to altering the great inequalities of Brazilian society.

education for the masses

The Freirean method was not just about literacy – it was also, simultaneously, a process of politicization. From the beginning, Freire had thrown out all prejudiced notions of the problem of illiteracy: the idea that the illiterate person is ignorant just waiting to be given what he needs, the instruction he lacks. Freire himself was reluctant to use the term “illiterate”, citing a reflection brought by one of his students: one cannot say that an indigenous person, for example, is illiterate. The indigenous come from a reality that does not know writing, and, for someone to be considered illiterate, it is first necessary to live in a context that knows writing and where access was denied.

In other words, illiteracy exists and is a problem only in view of the social relations that involve it. The specific problem that worried Freire in Brazil was oppression and the fact that literacy encouraged it. Freire was not concerned with combating exclusion per se – as if literacy were a magical portal to inclusion – but with an entire elitist paradigm that could exclude people by labeling them ignorant, and disparaging their knowledge as insignificant or “primitive”. ”. Freire was there to remind Brazilians that the poor were not excluded because their “ignorance” might somehow upset the political system; it was because they were a threat to the political system that working-class Brazilians were branded as ignorant and, consequently, marginalized.

This new perspective was not lost on the radical pedagogue Henry A. Giroux, for whom both “literacy” and “illiteracy” are “ideological constructions”: ways of separating individuals and groups while assigning them different social functions. Freire's cultural circles were about literacy first and foremost, but they were also about unveiling the ideological veil and questioning the social relations that produce and sustain literacy and illiteracy (for example, those who read and those who don't; those who know and those who who do not know; those who give orders and those who follow).

Freire always argued that in the teacher-student relationship “No one teaches anyone, and no one is self-taught either. People teach each other, mediated by the world”. Dialogical pedagogy, the term preferred by Freire, means having as a starting point a radical equality between individuals and social groups.

This was not just an ethical or political position for Freire, but a way to revolutionize our approach to what it means to know the world. Following in the anti-hierarchical spirit of 1968 and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Freire wanted to break down the barriers between high culture and popular culture, between academic knowledge and popular knowledge, which he saw as expressions of inequality in education and knowledge. And, as Freire was always fond of reminding, he was not interested in just elevating popular culture and knowledge to a respectable position; he wanted to overthrow the repressive system responsible for making these distinctions in the first place. Or, as he puts it: “When education is not liberating, the dream of the oppressed is to be the oppressor”.

It was not Freire who politicized the issue of education in Brazil. Education was political from the beginning: formal education was one of the main tools for social exclusion and political deprivation, and, most surprising of all, it was presented under the guise of democratic reform. By articulating his own political vision of education, Freire was, in a way, exposing the lie of the supposedly democratic Brazilian system and announcing the need to rethink public education so that schools could be an institution its masses, not simply another elitist tool to control them.

A Federal Court in Rio de Janeiro recently issued an opinion against Bolsonaro, stating that the government cannot make defamatory statements about Freire (and there were many such defamations). This is an encouraging sign, especially considering that the various fortunes of Freire's name – defamed or acclaimed – are a good barometer of where politics in Brazil stand. Along with other radical Brazilian intellectuals such as Anísio Teixeira, Florestan Fernandes and Darcy Ribeiro, Freire's name remains associated with the idea that, despite all odds, democracy can be revived and society transformed. And as long as Brazilians continue to fight for a more equal society, any mention of Freire will continue to send panic attacks to the right.

*Bernardo Bianchi is a researcher at the Marc Bloch Center at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Translation: Marina Gusmao Faria Barbosa Bueno.

Originally published on the magazine's website Jacobin-USA.

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