In Memory: Paulo Freire


Gibson

 

Paulo Freire, the
radical Brazilian "Vagabond of the Obvious" and the
most widely known educator in the world, died on May 2, 1997
in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He was 75.

Freire drew on
humanist and Marxist ideas to forge a concept of popular
literacy education for personal and social liberation. He
suggested that the use of his "see-judge-act"
student-centered methods could lead to critical
consciousness, an awareness of the necessity to constantly
unveil appearances designed to protect injustice, and be a
foundation for action toward equality and democracy. To
Freire, no form of education could be neutral. All pedagogy
is a call to action. In a society animated by inequality and
authoritarianism, he chose the side of the many, and exposed
the partisanship of those who claimed to stand above it all.

Freire became a world
figure after he was briefly jailed for using literacy methods
developed by Catholic-based communities among poor peasants.
He was driven from his native Brazil by a rising dictatorship
in 1964. He fled to Chile to work with the democratically
elected Allende government which fell to a CIA-manufactured
coup. He spent the next 15 years in exile, working at Harvard
and for the World Council of Churches in Geneva, organizing
and writing books for social justice.

In 1989, shortly after
he returned to Brazil as a leader of the social-democratic
Workers Party, Freire was named secretary of education in Sao
Paulo, a city of 13 million people. He served for two years.

In the early 1970s,
Freire’s
Pedagogy of the Oppressed
and
Education for Critical Consciousness
swept the globe. The books, and nearly two dozen others that
followed, proposed that education, though in inequitable
societies predominantly a tool of elite’s, is also a
democratic egalitarian weapon. Freire recommended methods
recognizing the experience and dignity of students and their
culture, techniques calling into question the assumptions
which lay at the base of their social systems. Freire’s
pedagogy united the curriculum, grasping that the seamless
coat of learning is made alien by teaching methods that split
it into irrational pieces. Freire’s geographic literacy
involved mapping problems, not memorizing borders.

Freire criticized
"banking" educational methods that see students as
empty accounts to be filled with deposits of knowledge. He
practiced a transformational style, the student becoming a
subject in gaining and experimenting with knowledge. Truth
became an examination of social understandings, not a
doctrine determined by testing services. Motivation came from
demonstrations that education is linked to power. For the
process to work, the educator-leader had to be deeply
involved in the daily lives of the students.

In Latin America, for
example, a typical Freireian social inquiry method would
trace the path of (1) a careful study of students’
surroundings and everyday lives, followed by (2) a
"codification session" with students where key
factors of life were drawn as pictures. Then (3) students
would be urged to look at the pictures not as simply reality,
but as problems, first as individual problems, then as
collective problems with underlying reasons. As codification
led to problem solving, relevant words were linked with the
students’ drawings of the world, and reality
repositioned as a human creation. Finally, (4) students were
called on to use their newly won literacy as a way to make
plans for change. Specifically, a picture of a peasant’s
hut and a bountiful hacienda would be paired with a drawing
of a peasant hoeing and a patron at rest. Why does he rest in
a hacienda while we sweat and live in huts? Especially in the
developing world, Freire was seen as a leader in a movement
which could connect literacy, social insight, revolution, and
national economic development.

There are problems
with Freire’s work. He became, against his protests, an
icon, idolized by dramatically different sectors of education
and liberation movements. A little publishing industry
evolved from uncritically praising a humble man whose life
was social criticism.

But Freire called
himself a contradictory person. His politics were never
altogether clear. The Marxist Freire urged the analysis of
labor and production. Like the entire socialist project,
Freire was not able to resolve the incongruity of human
liberation and national economic development. The humanist
post-modern Freire denied the centrality of class and focused
on deconstructing culture and language. In both cases, Freire
had to rely on the ethics of the educator-leader to mediate
the tensions between middle class teachers and profoundly
exploited students. So, with a little effort, his works were
simultaneously appropriated by capitalist enterprises like
Con Edison, relatively dogmatic Marxist movements in Guinea
Bissau and Grenada, and reformist poverty programs in the
United States.

Conservative in many
ways, Freire supported conventional school grading systems
and the use of post-revolution textbooks, routinely coded in
the tenets of the party—and beyond critique. His later
books were diluted with extraneous transcriptions of his
discussions over a glass of wine. He was compelled to
apologize to feminists and others who objected to the
male-centered language of his early books.

Nevertheless,
Freire’s focus on the role of ideology and a utopian
vision, the needs for imaging a better future before it can
be achieved, and the vital necessity of leadership fully at
one with the people, deepened the practices of movements for
social change. His grasp of the reciprocal interactions of
class, race, sex, and nationality as simultaneously pivotal
to conscious action for change pre-dated both feminism and
post-modernism. His methods open a process in which students
examine both their potential roles as self-liberators, and
the history of people who cease to be instruments of their
own oppression.

Paulo Freire,
presente.

 

Rich Gibson is
coordinator of International Social Studies Education at
Wayne State University in Detroit. His dissertation "The
Promethean Literacy" critiques Freire’s work in
theory and practice.