Paulo Freire – the power of ideas

Dora Longo Bahia. Democracy (project for Avenida Paulista II), 2020 Acrylic, water-based pen and watercolor on paper 29.7 x 21 cm


For the Brazilian educator education is not just about static worldviews, but also, potentially, about transforming the world

This month marks the XNUMXth anniversary of the birth of Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire. Most widely known for his masterful Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire continues to be a guiding star for teachers working in poverty-stricken communities around the globe and for all those seeking a sense of justice in an unjust world.

Every critically-minded educator has used Freire at some point in their teaching – whether to understand the confused world of the oppressed or as the inspiration that led them to see teaching as a way to break down the asymmetries of power and privilege in society. Freire's literacy programs for peasant empowerment are used today in many countries around the globe and Pedagogy of the Oppressed it is currently the third most cited work in the social sciences and the first in the field of education.

Freire's celebrity has made him both a target and a prophet in his native Brazil. He is currently being targeted by far-right groups such as Movimento Brasil Livre and Revoltados Online, and President Jair Bolsonaro claims he is the one behind a conspiracy of Marxist indoctrination in the Brazilian school system.

Indeed, Bolsonaro's attempts to extinguish Freire's memory are reminiscent of attacks by Republicans in the United States on critical race theorists and Marxist educators. Bolsonaro and the far-right Escola Sem Partido movement have encouraged students to film teachers during classes, especially if they suspect that they are defenders of left-wing ideas or, even worse, that they propose Freirean-inspired political or social views. A federal deputy from Bolsonaro’s party even introduced a law to strip Freire of his ceremonial title as “patron of Brazilian education”.

Even US conservatives jumped on the bandwagon of attacks on Freire. The recent edition of The Economist,, “The Threat of the Illiberal Left”, includes an article dedicated to “culture woke up which mistakenly describes Freire's pedagogy as something written in the spirit of Mao's Cultural Revolution. This is not to say that the article draws its evidence from a single footnote to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, or, more importantly, that Freire's work was premised on solidarity with the masses and took a stand against the kind of violence that became part of the Cultural Revolution.

So why Bolsonaro and the magazine The Economist, should they target Freire? What do they find so threatening about your ideas?


The Life of a Revolutionary Educator

Paulo Freire was born in northeastern Brazil, in the state of Recife, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He learned to read by drawing the letters of the alphabet with the branches of the mango tree in whose shade he used to sit as a young man. The experience of hunger and poverty, which Freire had from an early age, ended up making him four years behind his peers of the same age in school and the death of his father in 1933 only made things worse.

Despite this, Freire was eventually able to finish his studies, graduate from university, earn a doctorate at the University of Recife in 1959, and be admitted to the bar exam (although he never practiced law). He began his professional career at the age of twenty-six, working as a Portuguese teacher at Escola Secundária Oswaldo Cruz. In 1946, he was named director of the Department of Education and Culture of SESI's Social Service, an employers' institution created to provide workers in the state of Pernambuco and their families with health, housing, education, and leisure services. In 1961, he became director of the Department of Cultural Extension at the University of Recife and was involved in a celebrated project aimed at dealing with mass illiteracy in 1962.

This literacy project by Freire in Recife brought him international recognition, particularly for his use of popular traditions and the importance he attached to the collective construction of knowledge. It was there that Freire began to create what he called “cultural circles” – a term he preferred to “literacy classes”, since literacy and illiteracy assumed that reading and writing were already an integral part of the workers' social world.

In one of these cultural circles, three hundred sugarcane harvesters learned to read and write in a record time of forty-five days. Spurred, understandably, by Freire's success, the Brazilian government, led by João Goulart, made plans to establish two thousand Freirean cultural circles, which would ideally reach five million adult learners and teach them to read within a two-year period. It was to be a major achievement in a country where only half the adult population could read and write.

What did not happen. Instead, in 1964, a right-wing military coup ousted Goulart's democratically elected government. Freire, accused of preaching communism, was interrogated and detained. He was imprisoned by the military government for seventy days and went into self-exile out of fear that his prominent position in the national literacy campaign might lead to his assassination. In fact, the Brazilian military considered Freire an “international subversive” and “a traitor to Christ and the Brazilian people”, accused of trying to make Brazil a “Bolshevik country”.

Freire's sixteen years in exile were tumultuous but productive: after a brief stay in Bolivia, he spent five years in Chile, where he became involved in the Christian-Democratic Movement for Agrarian Reform and worked as a UNESCO consultant with the Institute of Research and Training for Agrarian Reform. In 1969, he was a visiting scholar at the Center for Studies in Development and Social Change at Harvard University, but the following year he moved to Geneva, Switzerland. There he served as a consultant to the Office of Education of the World Council of Churches, where he developed literacy programs for Tanzania and Guinea-Bissau aimed at the re-Africanization of these countries. He was also part of the development of literacy programs in post-revolutionary former Portuguese colonies, such as Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, and assisted the governments of Peru and Nicaragua with their own literacy campaigns.

Freire finally returned to Brazil in 1980 to teach at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo and the University of Campinas. From 1980 to 1986, he was supervisor of the Workers' Party's adult literacy project in São Paulo. Freire served briefly as São Paulo's secretary of education from 1989 to 1992, continuing his radical agenda of reforming the literacy process for the city's population.


Global literacy campaigns

Throughout his time in exile, Freire was writing what would soon become classic books: Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Cultural action for freedom e Pedagogy in process: letters to Guinea-Bissau. Freire's work would later be absorbed by educators, philosophers and political activists in North America and Europe, but it was fundamentally coined in the Global South: in grassroots communities, Neighborhoods urban areas, suburbs and slums, where she influenced – and was influenced by – countless social movements, from anti-government efforts toapartheid in South Africa to the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil.

Freire always encouraged educators to reinvent their work, rather than simply “transplanting” it across varied national borders, as he saw his teaching as arising in a specifically Brazilian context. He came to this realization early on, having himself studied with like-minded educators whose experiences in mass literacy campaigns in other countries he had to adapt for Brazil. Freire met the architect of the Cuban Literacy Campaign, Raúl Ferrer, in 1965 at the World Conference Against Illiteracy in Tehran. Ferrer and Freire met again in 1979 to discuss the role of literacy in the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua.

Freire considered the Cuban literacy campaign, responsible for making more than nine hundred thousand people literate in less than a year, one of the greatest educational achievements of the XNUMXth century. He said similar things about the Sandinista literacy campaign in Nicaragua. Freire openly recognized Cuban independence leader José Martí as one of the most important revolutionary thinkers of the XNUMXth century and was a staunch admirer of Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara. President Hugo Chavez, for his part, was a great admirer of Freire and expressed to me his desire to bring Freire's work to the Bolivarian Revolution – a mission in which I was able to play a brief and modest role.

The week after his unexpected death, Freire was to attend a ceremony in Cuba in which Fidel Castro would present him with an important award for his contribution to education. According to his friends, this would be the most important award in Freire's life.


a resolute marxist

For Freire, challenging capitalism was an urgent and pressing need. He did not always offer exact descriptions of what his vision of a socialist alternative would be, but Freire's adherence to materialist epistemology was firm and deep, and he maintained throughout his life a modernist faith in human agency and the unshakable sociality of language.

Freire was decidedly Marxist, but his language never draped the political landscape with the usual Marxist-Leninist jargon. He did not preach, for example, that all value originates in the sphere of production, nor did he believe that the main role of schools was to serve the agents of capital and their masters.

He saw, however, capitalist education as something that reproduced the social relations of a social order of domination and exploitation; and he also saw that the typical panacea of ​​“improving one's life” through education was most often an ideological veil that channeled human solidarity into false narratives of individual effort, reward and progress.

Freire was a formidable philosopher, but instead of isolated meditations, he used philosophy to advance his emancipatory pedagogy. Freire's vision of the liberation of education from its authoritarian forms was drawn from the Hegelian dialectic between master and slave; his description of the self-transformation of the oppressed was inspired by the existentialism of Martin Buber and Jean-Paul Sartre; and his conception of the historicity of social relations was influenced by the historical materialism of Karl Marx.

Freire's emphasis on love as a necessary precondition for authentic education was part of his continued affinity with radical Christian liberation theology. Dom Hélder Câmara, the Catholic archbishop of Olinda and Recife – who had a profound influence on Freire – captured the spirit of liberation theology in a few short sentences: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Freire, himself a Catholic, was not so concerned with “religiosity” as with the prospect of an emancipated church – in a region where much of the educational system was still under the control of religious authorities. Freire dreamed, on the contrary, of what he called a “prophetic church”: a Church that would stand in solidarity with the victims of capitalist society. It was this vision that led Gustavo Gutierrez, who codified the central principle of Liberation Theology as the “option for the poor”, to invite Freire to elaborate some of the key elements of this emerging radical Christian doctrine.


Pedagogy of the Oppressed

For all of Freire's connections to liberation theology, the description that most instantly captures his vocation is that of a "philosopher of praxis." Freire's philosophy was designed, in a nutshell, to help human beings actively become more human – and this political and ethical project meant understanding as well as transforming the world. This was a task best captured in Freire's popularized saying: "the reading of the word and the world".

Freire's obsession with the power of the spoken and written word was unparalleled – with what that power reveals about the world as it appears before us and what that world could become. For him, the sphere of literacy would make human beings capable of living in the subjunctive mood – in a state of “as if” that opens the way to new worlds.

Another of Freire's categories, the "viable unpublished", was an elaborate philosophy of hope that called on dispossessed groups to go beyond their "edge-situations" - that is, the constraints on their humanity posed by underdevelopment - and transform such conditions. adverse events in a space of creative experimentation. For Freire, this is what literacy was at stake: a practice that could be used as much to dispossess and exclude as it was to emancipate.

Anchoring Freire's pedagogy was a complex but solid materialist view of the world and its transformation. For Freire, any action taken in the world necessarily transforms it. More than that, transforming the world affects the way in which individuals will act in it afterwards. Entering this process is how individuals learn to become subjects who act on a dynamic and open world, instead of remaining passive objects on which to act in a closed and immutable system. This was Freire's view of how the oppressed could overcome subjugation.

“Dialogue” and “dialectics” are key words in Freire's vocabulary. The dialogic “encounter,” as Freire called it, is the very opposite of indoctrination (an irony that goes unnoticed by Brazilian and American critics concerned with critical race theory or Freirean “indoctrination”). Freire resisted what he called “banking education” – that which crams a lot of knowledge into the heads of poor students – because it was socially oppressive and because it assumed a world so fixed that the same lessons could be repeated. ad nauseam. As Freire says in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

If it [the dialogue] is the encounter in which the reflection and action of its subjects are united, addressed to the world to be transformed and humanized, it cannot be reduced to an act of depositing ideas of one subject in the other, nor does it become a simple exchange of ideas to be consumed by the exchangers. (...) Because it is a meeting of men who speak the world, it should not be a donation of speaking from one to another.

As subjects, we are encouraged by Freire to break the prison of prefabricated knowledge and its respective relations of domination by changing the material conditions that shape us. Standing on the side of the oppressed was not, for Freire, just an ethical imperative – as it was for liberation theology – but also an epistemological imperative: it was, he insisted, the only way to break with the idea that there would be a realm of ideas. pure to be clamped and transmitted by the designated authorities. Truth, for Freire, was always dialogic, always involving the self and the other, linked in a dialectical contradiction of everyday life.


Freire today

Freire always resisted being identified with the diverse movements and trends in education to which some people claimed he was linked, be they popular education, adult education, educational reforms, non-formal education, progressive education, or Marxist pedagogy. . While some of these currents would eventually fall into the hands of public policy specialists, Freire's project remained firmly a pedagogy. of oppressed.

Our world is, in many ways, the world that Freire fought to avoid: a world where knowing through critical inquiry gives way to endless culture wars; where teachers are criticized for arguing based on evidence; where people are punished for challenging America's history of colonial involvements and its brutal history of slavery. The kind of courageous thinking that Freire advocated makes the moral cowardice of most political leaders and public figures today even more reprehensible.

What is needed in our school systems today is a pedagogy that allows students to understand their life experiences in broader and more complex socio-political contexts. The culture wars in the United States and Brazil are due, in part, to a fear of what this might mean: right or wrong, inviting students to consider the merits of feminist theory, critical race theory, decolonial theory, and other analytic languages, it also means reflecting on the historical experiences that made these perspectives possible in the first place.

At its root, whether in Brazil or in the United States, the right is feeding the fear of a vast doctrinal conspiracy because this is what they themselves fear. By imagining our schools as a site of Darwinian wrangling to impose conflicting worldviews, conservatives are trying to conveniently make us forget what Freire helped us to understand: that education is not just about static worldviews, but also about , potentially, of transforming the world. Or, as Freire puts it: “The reading of the world precedes the reading of the word”.

* Peter McLaren is professor of pedagogy at Chapman University (USA). Author, among other books, of life in schools (I think publisher).

Translation: Anouch Kurkdjian

Originally published in the magazine Jacobin [

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