Thoughts On the Centennial of Paulo Freire

I first learned of the Brazilian humanist educator, Paulo Freire, in 1978, during a class in “liberation theology” at Eden Seminary in St. Louis with Dr. M. Douglas Meeks, where Freire’s critically-acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed (translated into English in 1970) was required reading. I thought of Freire this week as we celebrate the centennial of his birth, September 19, 1921 (d. May 2, 1997). He was in the forefront of the humanist education movement as an advocate for “critical pedagogy” in his native Brazil, across Latin and South America, at the United Nations, during his year as Visiting Professor at Harvard, and working as an education advisor with the World Council of Churches in Geneva consulting with emerging African nations.

Freire developed his educational philosophy in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when the mayor of Recife asked him to develop literacy programs for the city, especially among the Brazilian working classes—programs that would help to create a democratic culture while honoring indigenous traditions. He called these programs “cultural circles,” to avoid the term “literacy” (because of the negative implication of calling the students “illiterate”). Students were “learners” or, even better, “participants,” and teachers were “coordinators” (to remove any hierarchical connotation, the classroom itself modeling democratic structures). In these cultural circles was an implicit critique of what he called “the banking model of education,” a system of deposits and withdrawals of factual information.

Freire emphasized the dynamic dialogue between learners and coordinators, where both listened, reflected, and learned from each other and the world around them, with the community as their classroom, and the curriculum arising out of the questions implicit in the social and political realities of the people themselves. These realities would generate words, terms, images, and themes which would then become the grist for the cultural circles’ lessons. This enabled the learners to become agents in their own education and learn, not simply to read words (literacy), but “read the world,” to develop a “critical consciousness” (conscientization) which would in turn make education more relevant and enable them to critique their own historical, political, cultural situation, eventually leading to the creation of a democratic society. 1962 saw his first experiment with his model when 300 Brazilian farmworkers gathered and learned to read and write in just 45 days. After its success, thousands of cultural circles were created throughout the country.

Freire married (1) Marx’s materialist understanding of history (that material and social relations are history’s driving factors), with (2) the anti-imperial revolutionary impulses of Che Guevara and pan-Africanist Frantz Fanon, and (3) Jesus’s emphasis on social justice based in radical love. These three are the basis of conscientization.

He begins with the lived-out experiences of the community. All experience—teacher’s, students’, community’s—are interrogated, especially their invisible race, class, and gender privileges, in a democratic teacher-student setting. What are each of their social, racial, class, religious, moral dynamics embedded within the traditional educational system (and its place in the socialization process) that creates a ‘culture of silence,’ education as acculturation supportive of the status quo, serving to legitimate those in power? The role of the teacher-coordinator is crucial; their skill is in intervening at critical moments to help the student-participants question their own assumptions, as well as the socialization structures and assimilation processes that lead to subtle surrenders of their autonomy, agency, freedom. This is more than knowledge as power. This is “Education as liberation”—education as life-giving, freedom-creating, everyone-and-everything-mutually-interrelated-including-the-planet liberation.

“Conscientization is an ongoing political, moral process by which the poor move toward critical consciousness” so they can be active participants in creating a more democratic society. It includes consciousness-raising but it’s more. It identifies the forces enacted on them by those in power serving their own social, political, and religious self-interests, and the moral myths and structures which keep the poor in denial, in their place, acting against their own self-interest, supporting their own subjugation (“the mimicry of the powerful”). It is an ongoing praxis; “praxis” refers to the continual need for reflection upon one’s social, political, and moral action in turn requiring new action based upon that reflection. And on and on. Liberation—psychological, political, economic, moral, spiritual—is always the goal of a critical pedagogy.

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and woman deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of the world.

Happy Birthday, Paulo!

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