Paulo Freire

The Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire (1921-1997) developed theories that have been used, principally in Third World countries, to bring literacy to the poor and to transform the field of education.

Paulo Freire was born on the northeastern coast of Brazil in the city of Recife in 1921. Raised by his mother who was a devout Catholic and his father who was a middle-class businessman, Freire's early years paralleled those of the Great Depression. Outward symbols, such as his father always wearing a tie and having a German-made piano in their home, pointed to the family's middle-class heritage but stood in contrast to their actual conditions of poverty. Reflecting on their situation, Freire noted, "We shared the hunger, but not the class." After completing secondary school and with gradual improvement in his family's financial situation, he was able to enter Recife University, preparing to become a teacher of Portuguese.

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The Direction for his Later Life

The 15 years following World War II proved to be instrumental in giving direction to his later life. He had previously married a fellow teacher, Elza, in 1944. In addition to their shared careers in teaching, they worked together with middle-class friends in the Catholic Action Movement. This work became unsettling as they struggled with the contradictions between the Christian faith and their friends' lifestyles. In particular they faced strong resistance when suggesting that servants should be dealt with as human beings. Later they decided to work solely with "the people," the large population of the poor in Brazil.

A second experience that gave focus to Freire's later life came when he worked as a labor lawyer for the poor and involved a discussion with workers about the theories of Jean Piaget, a prominent psychologist. Evidently Freire's comments were not comprehended by one of the workers, who noted, "You talk from a background of food, comfort, and rest. The reality is that we have one room, no food, and have to make love in front of the children." Through such experiences and further study, Freire began to realize that the poor had a different sense of reality and that to communicate with them he had to use their syntax of meanings. This recognition served as a basis for his doctoral dissertation in 1959 at Recife University, where he was to soon become professor of history and philosophy of education.

Leading the National Literacy Program

In 1962 the mayor of Recife appointed Freire as head of an adult literacy program for the city. In his first experiement, Freire taught 300 adults to read and write in 45 days. This program was so successful that during the following year the President of Brazil appointed him to lead the National Literacy Program. This program was on its way to becoming similarly successful, with expected enrollments to exceed two million students in 1964. Under Brazil's constitution, however, illiterates were not allowed to vote. The O Globe, an influential conservative newspaper, claimed that Freire's method for developing literacy was stirring up the people, causing them to want to change society, and formenting subversion. As a consequence of a military overthrow of the government in 1964, Freire was jailed for 70 days, then exiled briefly to Bolivia and then to Chile for five years.

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Providing Literacy in Exile

Freire met with opposition from some Chilian citizens who viewed him as a threat to their society. However, the director of a nationwide program for reducing illiteracy employed him to work in the Chilian Agrarian Reform Corporation. This provided him the opportunity over the next few years to become more involved in research and to write three books, the most noted of which is Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). In 1969 he accepted an invitation to be a visiting professor at Harvard. He quickly found a large audience of growing support in America primarily through the appearance in English of his publications. He left Harvard in 1970 to join the Office of Education at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. In this office his work over the next decade was marked by efforts to increase literacy and liberty in Third World countries through educational programs. Of particular note were his efforts to rethink and apply his theories in the West African country of Guinea-Bissau.

End of Exile

In 1979 Freire's exile status was lifted, allowing him to return home to Brazil where he became secretary of education in Sao Paulo. During the decade of the 1980s he published widely in the areas of education, politics, and literacy. In these writings he developed themes discussed previously and he continued to rethink their practical application to new situations.

Freire believed that poor peoples of the world are dominated and victims of those who possess political power. What the poor need is liberation, an education giving them a critical consciousness, investing them with an agency for changing, and throwing off the oppressive structures of their society. Such an education would not conform and mold people to fit into the roles expected by society, but it would prepare them to realize their own values and reality, reflect and study critically their world, and move into action to transform it. When working with illiterate adults, Freire proposed the selection of words used by the poor in their everyday lives expressing their longings, frustrations, and hopes. From this list of words a shorter list is developed of possibly 16-17 words that contain the basic sounds and syllables of the language. These words are broken down (decoded) into syllables; afterwards, the learners form new words by making different combinations of syllables. In relatively a short period of time (a few days) they are usually writing simple letters to each other. During their studies a second and deeper level of analysis is occurring simultaneously. That is, the teacher using the very same words helps the students also to decode their cultural and social world. This deeper level of activity leads learners to greater awareness of the oppressive forces in their lives and to the realization of their power to transform them.

Freire wrote 25 books which were translated into 35 languages and was an honorary professor of 28 universities around the world. He maintained that he never would have been arrested or criticized had he stuck to teaching ABCs. He fell into disfavor, he said, because of his theory that illiteracy, not any religious reason, made people poor. He said, "Education is freedom." After his death in 1997, there was a three-day mourning in the state of Pernambuco.

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Further Reading on Paulo Freire

There is a biography written by Denis Collins, Paulo Freire: His Life and Thought (1977). An earlier quotational bibliography compiled by Anne Hartung and John Ohliger is in Stanley M. Grabowshi's edited work, Paulo Freire: A Revolutionary Dilemma for the Adult Educator (1972). One of Freire's coauthors, Donaldo Macedo of Boston University, is writing an authorized biography.

The reader will find Freire's books Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) and Pedagogy in Process: The Letters to Guinea-Bissau (1978) excellent introductions to his thought. Education for Critical Consciousness (1974) contains concrete and practical examples of his teaching methods. The evolution of his thought and its application to world situation in the last two decades of the 20th century can be found in The Politics of Education: Cultural Power and Liberation (1985) and in Literacy (1987), written jointly with Donaldo Macedo.