Paulo Freire

Brazilian adult educator, Paulo Freire, died Friday, May 2, 1997, of a heart attack. He was 75 years old. His legacy of commitment, love and hope to American educators can be found in the critical pedagogy which infuses hundreds of "grass roots" organizations, college classrooms, and most recently school reform efforts in major urban areas.

Exiled from his native Brazil during a military coup in 1964 for his educational work among the rural poor, he continued his "pedagogy of the oppressed" in Chile, and later--under the auspices of the World Council of Churches in Geneva--throughout the world. In 1969, he taught at Harvard University and ten years later returned to his own country under a political amnesty. In 1988 he was also appointed Minister of Education for the City of Sao Paulo--a position which made him responsible for guiding school reform within two-thirds of the nation's schools.

Freire's life and work as an educator is optimistic in spite of poverty, imprisonment, and exile. He is a world leader in the struggle for the liberation of the poorest of the poor: the marginalized classes who constitute the "cultures of silence" in many lands. On a planet where more than half the people go hungry every day because nations are incapable of feeding all their citizens, where we cannot yet agree that every human being has a right to eat and to be housed, Paulo Freire toils to help men and women overcome their sense of powerlessness to act in their own behalf.

He was born on September 19, 1921 in Recife, a port city of northeastern Brazil. He has said of his parents that it was they who taught him at an early age to prize dialogue and to respect the choices of others-key elements in his understanding of adult education. His parents were middle class but suffered financial reverses so severe during the Great Depression that Freire learned what it is to go hungry. It was in childhood that he determined to dedicate his life to the struggle against hunger.

After his family situation improved a bit, he was able to enter the University of Recife where he enrolled in the Faculty of Law and also studied philosophy and the psychology of language while working part-time as an instructor of Portuguese in a secondary school. During this same period he was reading the works of Marx and also Catholic intellectuals-Maritain, Bernanos, and Mounier-all of whom strongly influenced his educational philosophy.

In 1944, Freire married Elza Maia Costa Oliveira of Recife, a grade school teacher who eventually bore three daughters and two sons. As a parent, Paulo's interest in theories of education began to grow, leading him to do more extensive reading in education, philosophy, and the sociology of education than in law. In fact after passing the bar he quickly abandoned law as a means of earning a living in order to go to work as a welfare official and later as director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in the State of Pernambuco.

His experiences during those years of public service brought him into direct contact with the urban poor. The educational and organizational assignments he undertook there led him to begin to formulate a means of communicating with the dispossessed that would later develop into his dialogical method for adult education. His involvement in adult education also included directing seminars and teaching courses in the history and philosophy of education at the University of Recife, where he was awarded a doctoral degree in 1959.

In the early 1960's Brazil was a restless nation. Numerous reform movements flourished simultaneously as socialists, communists, students, labor leaders, populists, and Christian militants all sought their own socio-political goals. It was in the midst of this ferment and heightened expectations that Freire became the first director of the University of Recife's Cultural Extension Service which brought literacy programs to thousands of peasants in the northeast. Later, from June 1963 up to March 1964, Freire's literacy teams worked throughout the entire nation. They claimed success in interesting adult illiterates to read and write in as short a time as thirty hours!

The secret of this success is found in the resistance of Freire and his co-workers to merely teaching the instrumental and decontextualized skills of reading and writing, but rather by presenting participation in the political process through knowledge of reading and writing as a desirable and attainable goal for all Brazilians. Freire won the attention of the poor and awakened their hope that they could start to have a say in the day-to-day decisions that affected their lives in the Brazilian countryside. Peasant passivity and fatalism waned as literacy became attainable and valued. Freire's methods were incontestably politicizing and, in the eyes of the Brazilian military and land-owners anxious to stave off land reform, outrageously radical.

Eventually, the military overthrew the reform-minded Goulart regime in Brazil in April of 1964. All progressive movements were suppressed and Freire was thrown into jail for his "subversive" activities. He spent a total of seventy days there where he was repeatedly questioned and accused. In prison he began his first major educational work, Education as the Practice of Freedom. This book, an analysis of Paulo's failure to effect change in Brazil, had to be completed in Chile, because Freire was sent into exile.

After his expulsion from Brazil, Freire worked in Chile for five years with the adult education programs of the Eduardo Frei government headed by Waldemar Cortes who attracted international attention and UNESCO acknowledgment that Chile was one of the five nations of the world which had best succeeded in overcoming illiteracy.

Toward the end of the 1960's, Freire's work brought him into contact with a new culture that changed his thought significantly. At the invitation of Harvard University he left Latin America to come to the United States where he taught as Visiting Professor at Harvard's Center for Studies in Education and Development and was also Fellow at the Center for the Study of Development and Social Change.

Those years were, of course, a period of violent unrest in the United States when opposition to the country's involvement in Southeast Asia brought police and militias onto university campuses. Racial unrest had, since 1965, flared into violence on the streets of American cities. Minority spokespersons and war protesters were publishing and teaching, and they influenced Freire profoundly. His reading of the American scene was an awakening to him because he found that repression and exclusion of the powerless from economic and political life was not limited to third world countries and cultures of dependence. He extended his definition of the third world from a geographical concern to a political concept, and the theme of violence became a greater preoccupation in his writings from that time on.

It is during this period that Freire wrote his more famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Education is to be the path to permanent liberation and admits of two stages. The first stage is that by which people become aware (conscientized) of their oppression and through praxis transform that state. The second stage builds upon the first and is a permanent process of liberating cultural action.

After leaving Harvard in the early 1970's, Freire served as consultant and eventually as Assistant Secretary of Education for the World Council of Churches in Switzerland and traveled all over the world lecturing and devoting his efforts to assisting educational programs of newly independent countries in Asia and Africa, such as Tanzania and Guinea Bissau. He also served as chair of the executive committee of the Institute for Cultural Action (IDAC), which is headquartered in Geneva.

In 1979, Paulo was invited by the Brazilian government to return from exile where he assumed a faculty position at the University of Sao Paulo. In 1988 he was also appointed Minister of Education for the City of Sao Paulo-a position which made him responsible for guiding school reform within two-thirds of the nation's schools.

In 1992, Paulo Freire celebrated his 70th birthday in New York with over two hundred friends-adult educators, educational reformers, scholars and "grass-roots" activists. Three days of festivity and workshops, sponsored by the New School for Social Research, marked the ongoing, vital impact of the life and work of Paulo Freire.

Paulo Freire died in Rio de Janeiro on May 2, 1997, at the age of 75. He leaves behind a legacy of commitment, love, and hope for oppressed peoples throughout the world.


Select Bibliography

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum 1970.  

This early work remains the best introduction to Freire's critique of education and the consequent pedagogy of liberation which he first developed in Chile. Although convoluted and replete with neologisms (and sexist language, concerning which his consciousness was soon raised by his students in the United States), the book merits careful and critical reading.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Continuum 1994.

This text represents a chronicle and synthesis of ongoing social struggles in Latin America and the Third World. Freire, reflecting his dialogues with adult educators over the past twenty-five years, reexamines his best-known analytic themes-with even deeper understanding and a greater wisdom.

John L. Elias, Paulo Freire: Pedagogue of Liberation. Malabar, FL: Kreiger Press 1994.

This book analyzes the historical and conceptual background of Freire's work, looking especially at the major influences on his writings: liberalism, existentialism, phenomenology, Catholic liberation theology, and Marxism.

Blanca Facundo, Freire Inspired Programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: The Latino Institute 1984.

This well documented critique of Freire's work and the programs he inspired is available on-line, together with documents which continue the dialogue which Blanca began in her monograph.

Ira Shor and Paulo Freire, A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education. Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey, 1987.

Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Freire is at his best in dialogue. The conversations with Ira Shor focus more on classroom issues and, therefore, might be of greater interest to college faculty. The Horton-Freire dialogue is remarkable in its justaposition of Freire's Third World perspective with an American tradition of liberatory education which began at Highlander in the 1930's.

Ira Shor, Critical Teaching and Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987.

Ira Shor (editor), Freire for the Classroom: A Sourcebook for Liberatory Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1987.

Both of these books emphasize what can be done in the college classroom. Ira Shor is a faculty member at Staten Island Community College in New York. In Critical Teaching he reflects on his own experiences as a college English teacher with working class students. In Freire in the Classroom he compiles a variety of practical applications of Freirean pedagogy to specific curricula.

Peter McLaren and Peter Leonard, Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

McLaren and Leonard have brought together a group of international scholars and educators to reflect on Freire's work. Included among them are Stanley Aronowitz, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, Ira Shor, Carlos Alberto Torres, and Cornel West.

Tom Heaney (1989). "Freirean Literacy in North America: The Community-Based Education Movement" Thresholds in Education.