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Paulo Freire’s Ideas Are Just as Powerful Today as Ever

Socialist educator Paulo Freire was born one hundred years ago today in the Brazilian city of Recife. A longtime comrade of Freire, leading Marxist pedagogue Peter McLaren writes about how his life and work remain deeply relevant today.

Paulo Freire’s celebrity has made him both a target and a prophet in his home country of Brazil. (UNICEN Argentina)

Today marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire. Most widely known for his magisterial Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire continues to be a lodestar for teachers working in poverty-stricken communities across the globe, and for just about anyone who’s searching for a sense of justice in an unjust world.

Every critically minded educator has at some point used Freire in their teaching — either to gain some insight into the upside-down world of the oppressed or as the inspiration that led them to view teaching as a way to overturn society’s asymmetries of power and privilege. Freire’s literacy programs for empowering peasants are now used in countries all over the globe, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed is currently the third-most-cited work in the social sciences, and first in the field of education.

Freire’s celebrity has made him both a target and a prophet in his home country of Brazil. Presently, he is being singled out by far-right groups like Movimento Brasil Livre and Revoltados Online, and president Jair Bolsonaro claims he is behind a conspiracy of Marxist indoctrination in the Brazilian school system.

In fact, Bolsonaro’s attempts to extinguish Freire’s memory recall US Republican attacks on critical race theorists and Marxist educators. Bolsonaro and the right-wing movement Escola sem Partido have encouraged school students to film teachers during class, especially if they suspect them of advocating left-leaning ideas or, worse still, sponsoring Freirean-inspired political or social views. A federal deputy from Bolsonaro’s party has even introduced a bill to strip Freire of his ceremonial title as the “patron of Brazilian education.”

Even conservatives in the United States have jumped on the Freire-bashing bandwagon. The Economist’s recent issue “The threat from the illiberal left” includes an article devoted to “woke culture” that disingenuously describes Freire’s pedagogy as written in the spirit of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Never mind that the article plucks its evidence from a single footnote of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, or, more importantly, that Freire’s work was premised on solidarity with the masses and stands against the kind of violence that became a part of the Cultural Revolution.

So, why should Bolsonaro and the Economist target Freire? What is it about his ideas that they find so threatening?

The Life of a Revolutionary Educator

Paulo Freire grew up in Northeastern Brazil in the state of Recife during the global Great Depression of the 1930s. He learned to read by making letters from the branches of the mango tree in whose shade he would sit under as a youth. Freire’s experience of hunger and poverty at a young age eventually caused him to fall four grades behind his classmates, and the death of Freire’s father in 1933 only made matters worse.

Despite that, Freire eventually was able to finish his schooling, graduate from university, earn a doctorate from the University of Recife in 1959, and be admitted to the legal bar (although he never practiced law). He began his professional life at the age of twenty-six, working as a Portuguese teacher at Oswaldo Cruz Secondary School. In 1946, he was appointed director of the Department of Education and Culture of Social Services, an employer’s institution created to provide workers and their families in the state of Pernambuco with health, housing, education, and leisure services. In 1961, he became the director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University and was involved in a storied educational project aimed at dealing with mass illiteracy in 1962.

Freire’s 1962 literacy project in Recife brought him international recognition, particularly for his use of folk traditions and his placing importance on 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.

One such cultural circle saw three hundred sugarcane harvesters learn to read and write in an astonishing forty-five days. Understandably buoyed by Freire’s success, the Brazilian government led by president João Goulart drew up plans to establish two thousand Freirean cultural circles that would ideally reach five million adult learners and teach them to read within a two-year period. It was to be a great accomplishment in a country where only half the adult population could read and write.

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

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

Freire finally returned to Brazil in 1980 to teach at the Pontificia Universidade Catolica de São Paulo and the Universidade de Campinas. From 1980 to 1986, he was the supervisor of the adult literacy project for the Workers’ Party in São Paulo. Freire worked briefly as secretary of education of São Paulo, from 1989 to 1992, continuing his radical agenda of literacy reform for the people of that city.

Global Literacy Campaigns

All during his time in exile, Freire had been writing what would soon become classics: Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Cultural Action for Freedom, and Pedagogy in Process: Letters to Guinea-Bissau. Freire’s work would be taken up later by educators, philosophers, and political activists in North America and Europe, but it was fundamentally minted in the Global South: in the base communities, urban barrios, shantytowns, and favelas where it influenced — and was influenced by — countless social movements, from the anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa to the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil.

Freire always encouraged educators to reinvent his work rather than simply “transplant” it across various national borders, as he saw his teachings as emerging from a distinctly Brazilian context. He had arrived at that realization early on, having himself taken lessons from like-minded educators whose experience in other countries with mass literacy campaigns he needed to adapt to 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, which was responsible for making literate over nine hundred thousand people in less than one year, as among the great educational achievements of the twentieth century. He said similar things about the Sandinista’s literacy campaign in Nicaragua.

A 1972 edition of Pedagogy of the Opressed in Portuguese.

Freire openly acknowledged Cuban independence leader José Martí as one of the most important revolutionary thinkers of the twentieth century, and he was a staunch admirer of Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara. President Hugo Chavez in turn was a great admirer of Freire and expressed to me a desire to bring Freire’s work into the Bolivarian Revolution — a mission of which I was able play a brief and modest role.

The week after Freire’s unexpected death, he was scheduled to attend a ceremony in Cuba where Fidel Castro was to present him with a major award for his contribution to education. According to his friends, this was to be the most important award of Freire’s life.

A Resolute Marxist

For Freire, challenging capitalism was an urgent and pressing necessity. He did not often provide exact descriptions of what his vision of a socialist alternative would look like, but Freire’s adherence to a materialist epistemology was firm and deep, and he maintained throughout his life a modernist faith in human agency and in language’s unshakeable sociality.

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

He did, however, view capitalist education as reproducing the social relations of a dominating and exploitative social order, and that the typical nostrum of “improving one’s lot” through education was often an ideological veil channeling human solidarity into false narratives of individual hard work, reward, and progress.

Freire was a formidable philosopher, but instead of isolated musings, he used philosophy in the service of advancing his emancipatory pedagogy. Freire’s vision of liberation from authoritarian forms of education was drawn from the Hegelian dialectic of 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 of authentic education was part of an abiding affinity he had with radical Christian liberation theology. Dom Hélder Câmara, a Brazilian Roman Catholic archbishop of Olinda and Recife — who had a profound influence on Freire — captured the spirit of liberation theology in a few short phrases: “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 overly concerned with “religiosity” but rather with the prospect of a liberated church — in a region where much of the education system was still under control of religious authorities. Freire dreamed instead of what he called “the prophetic church”: a Church that would stand in solidarity with the victims of capitalist society. It was that vision that led Gustavo Gutierrez, who codified Liberation Theology’s central tenet of the “option for the poor,” to invite Freire to elaborate some of the key elements of the emerging radical Christian doctrine.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Despite all of Freire’s connections to liberation theology, the description that most readily captures Freire’s vocation is that of “philosopher of praxis.” Freire’s philosophy was designed, simply put, to help human beings actively become more fully human — and that political and ethical project meant understanding and also transforming the world. This was a task best captured in Freire’s popularized saying, “reading the word and the world.”

Freire was unrivaled in his obsession with the power of the spoken and written word — with what that power reveals about the world as it appears before us and about what the world could be. For Freire, the sphere of literacy enables human beings to live in the subjunctive mode — in an “as if” state that opens up pathways to new worlds.

Another of Freire’s categories, “untested feasibility,” was an elaborate philosophy of hope that called for disenfranchised groups to move beyond their “limit situations” — i.e., the constraints placed on their humanity by underdevelopment — and transform those adverse conditions into a space for creative experimentation. This was, for Freire, what was at stake in literacy: a practice that could be used to disenfranchise and exclude just as easily as it could be to emancipate.

Buttressing Freire’s pedagogy was a complex but solid materialist vision of the world and its transformation. For Freire, any action taken on the world necessarily transforms the world as we know it. Moreover, transforming the world affects the manner in which individuals act on it after. To enter into this process is how individuals learn to become subjects who act upon a dynamic, open world rather than remaining passive objects that are merely acted upon in a closed, unchanging system. This was Freire’s vision of how the oppressed can overcome subjugation.

“Dialogue” and “dialectic” are key words in the Freirean vocabulary. The dialogical “encounter,” as Freire called it, is actually the opposite of indoctrination (an irony lost on Brazilian and American critics concerned with critical race theory or Freirean “indoctrination”). Freire resisted what he called “banking education” — depositing taken-for-granted knowledge into the brain-pain of hapless students — because it was both socially oppressive and assumed a world so fixed that the same lessons could be repeated ad nauseam. As Freire says in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Since dialogue is the encounter in which the united reflection and action of the dialoguers are addressed to the world which is to be transformed and humanized, this dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants. . . . Because dialogue is an encounter among [humans] who name the world, it must not be a situation where some [humans] name it on behalf of others.

As subjects, we are encouraged by Freire to break out of the prison house of prefabricated knowledge and its attendant relations of domination by changing the material conditions that shape us. Standing with the oppressed was for Freire not just an ethical imperative — as it was for liberation theology — but also an epistemological one: it was, he insisted, the only way to break with the idea that there is some realm of pure ideas to be plucked out and transmitted by designated authorities. Truth, for Freire, was always dialogic, always about the self and the other bound together in a dialectical contradiction of everyday life.

Freire Today

Freire always resisted being identified with the many different movements and trends within education to which some have claimed he was affiliated, whether it was popular education, adult education, educational change, nonformal education, progressive education, or Marxist pedagogy. Whereas some of these currents would eventually fall into the hands of educational policy wonks, Freire’s project remained firmly a pedagogy of the oppressed.

Our world is one that Freire in many senses fought to forestall: one where knowing through problem-posing is losing ground to endless culture wars; where teachers are being criticized for evidence-based reasoning; where people are punished for challenging the history of the United States’ colonial entanglements and its brutal history of slavery. The kind of courageous thinking that Freire called for makes the moral cowardice of most of today’s political leaders and public figures all the more damning.

What is needed in our school systems today is a pedagogy that enables students to understand their lived experiences in broader, more complex sociopolitical contexts. The culture wars in the United States and Brazil are at least in part about the fear of what this would mean: rightly or wrongly, inviting students to consider the merits of feminist theory, critical race theory, decolonial theory, and other languages of analysis also means reflecting on the historical experiences that make those perspectives possible in the first place.

At its root, whether it’s in Brazil or the United States, the Right is stoking fears of a vast conspiracy of indoctrination because they themselves are afraid. By imagining our schools as a place of Darwinian struggle to impose competing worldviews, conservatives are conveniently trying to make us forget what Freire helped us to understand: that education is not just about static worldviews but also, potentially, about world-changing. Or as Freire put it: “Reading the world comes before reading the word.”