Who was Paulo Freire?

Paulo Reglus Neves Freire (1921 - 1997)

Paulo Reglus Neves Freire (1921 - 1997) is widely considered to have been one of the greatest thinkers on education this century. His thinking on education, born out of practice in Brazil and a variety of countries and regions throughout the world, is expressed in a number of books, articles and video/audio tape recordings. These writings span a period of over thirty years. His work was primarily in the area of the education of adults but he has written on education in general, including initial education and higher education. He was born in Recife in the state of Pernambuco which is situated in the North east of Brazil. It is one of the most impoverished regions in the country.

Although born into a middle class family, he experienced hunger as a result of the impact which the Great Depression of 1929 had on Brazil . He states that this experience of hunger made him ‘connect’ with the lives of those living in poor neighbourhoods in the city’s outskirts.

Freire lived in a region characterised by semi-feudal relations of production which campesinos (peasants) had to accept to gain access to land. The rural landowning class is engaged in a historical alliance with the national indigenous bourgeoisie located in the South-east, the São Paulo area. The situation was one of stark contrast in access to material goods and power, in a country whose fortunes have been guided by colonial and neo-colonial interests.

The hunger which Freire had suffered hampered his progress at school but he recovered lost ground and eventually studied law. His career as a lawyer was shortlived. In 1947, he started work in the Social Service of Industry (SESI - Servicio Social da Industria) and remained there for a period of ten years. He was Director of the Division of Education and Culture and was part of the first SESI education committee which its first president, Cid Sampaio, put together. Here he established contact with poor children and their parents. This formative experience was to influence Freire’s ideas on education and was to be strongly reflected in the doctoral dissertation in Education, subsequently his first book, which he successfully defended in 1959 at what was then the University of Recife, later the Federal University of Pernambuco. He also worked in adult literacy within the context of the Popular Culture Movement. He established a connection between ‘reading the word and the world’ which became the distinctive feature of his pedagogical approach. He was very successful in this regard in an experiment which occurred in the town of Angicos in Rio Grande do Norte. The populist government of Joao Goulart invited him to plan and carry out a similar project on a national scale. This project however was abruptly brought to an end by the Multinationals-backed Military Coup of 1964.

Because of the success of his ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, which was political also in the sense that it rendered people literate and therefore eligible to vote, Freire began to be regarded by the country’s reactionary forces as a potential threat to the status quo. The Military Regime, which took control in 1964 and worked in the interest of multinational companies and the landowning class thriving on a latifundium system, considered Freire a ‘subversive’. He was immediately arrested and later forced into exile.

He moved to Bolivia for a brief stay and then went to Chile where he was engaged in literacy work among campesinos (peasants) as part of the Agrarian Reform programme initiated during the period of government led by the Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei. Freire spent five years there working for UNESCO and the Chilean Institute for Agrarian Reform. There he worked with a number of intellectuals, including his close collaborator, Marcela Gajardo. From Chile, he moved to Mexico and then to the United States, specifically to Massachusetts where he lived, for the greater part of an entire year, in a relatively poor neighbourhood. There he supervised the translation of two of his books, led independent seminars and taught at Harvard, his appointment being at Harvard University’s Center for Studies in Development and Social Change. At Massachusetts, he established contact with a variety of intellectuals, including Jonathan Kozol, a close friend.

Freire left the USA for Switzerland in January 1970 where he worked for the World Council of Churches. As part of his work there, he served as consultant on education to the governments of such former Portuguese colonies in Africa as Guinea Bissau, São Tome' & Principe, Cape Verde and Mozambique. In Geneva, he was involved in the establishment of the Institute of Cultural Action.

His thinking until then, as captured in his works, betrayed several influences. Georg W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx are two very important sources of influence. Freire however draws on a broad range of writings, including the work of Leszek Kolakowski, Karel Kosik, Eric Fromm, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Mannheim, Pierre Furter, Teilhard de Chardin, Franz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Lev Vygotski, Amilcar Cabral and the Christian Personalism theory of Tristian de Atiade and Emanuel Mounier. Freire’s work reveals two dominant strands, those of Marxism and Liberation Theology.

Freire, himself a “man of faith,” was certainly influenced, in the genesis of his ideas, by the radical religious organisations which made their presence felt in Brazil in the late 50s and early 60s. There are strong similarities between his emancipatory views on education and the education document produced by the Latin American bishops at the 1968 Episcopal Conference in Medellin, Colombia which represents a landmark in the development of Liberation Theology.

After his return to Brazil following sixteen years of exile, he was actively engaged in political work on behalf of the Workers’ Party (PT) the party of which he was a founding member. This was one of the three parties constituting Brazil’s political left. Freire acted as consultant for the literacy campaigns in Grenada and Nicaragua.

In 1986, Freire became a widower, having suffered the loss of Elza, the school teacher from Recife whom he married in 1944, from whom he had three daughters and two sons and from whom he derived great inspiration. Elza (her maiden name was Elza Maia Costa Oliveira) collaborated on several projects with her husband. In 1985, they were both awarded, by the Association of Christian Educators in the US, the prize of outstanding Christian educators. On March 27, 1988, Freire married Ana Maria (Nita) Araujo Freire, an educationist in her own right and daughter of one of his former teachers.

A year later, Freire was appointed Secretary of Education (1989 -1991) in the PT Municipal Government of São Paulo during Mayor Luisa Erundina de Sousa’s term of office. As Secretary of Education, Freire carried out several reforms in the public sector, with respect to both schooling and adult education. He was responsible for six hundred and fifty four schools with seven hundred thousand students, besides being engaged in a programme of adult education and literacy training (Mova SP) which involved as much as possible, mass organisations and other stakeholders in the educational enterprise.

Following his retirement as Education Secretary in 1991, Freire remained active in a variety of ways, delivering keynote addresses at conferences, carrying out workshops and continuing to develop and articulate his ideas in a number of books and works. From the mid-80s onwards, he had been co-authoring works or engaged in ‘talking books’ (dialogical books) with a number of writers and educators, including the radical adult educator, Myles Horton (founder of the Highlander Folk High School, Tennessee), the Brazilian Dominican friar and theologian, Frei Betto, the exiled Chilean philosopher, Antonio Faundez and American critical pedagogue, Ira Shor. There was also strong collaboration between Paulo Freire and the Massachusetts-based scholar, Donaldo P. Macedo, originally from Cape Verde. Freire’s writing continued unabated until recently, when he published, as letters to his niece, a series of reflections on his youth, childhood, exile and contemporary debate. This is not the last complete volume by Freire. Others were published in the final year of his life, while there are books which were or are being published posthumously.

Paulo Freire had been looking forward to a trip to Cuba in May 1997 to collect an award from Fidel Castro. In the early hours of May 2nd of the same year, however, Paulo Freire, who had been admitted to São Paulo’s Albert Einstein Hospital, because of heart problems, breathed his last. His widow, Ana Maria Araujo Freire, stated that his agenda for 1997 was all planned. He had intended to finish another book for which he had written twenty nine pages and planned to co-write three others, one on the “deterministic fatalism of neoliberalism”. He also was to receive another six honorary degrees, from different countries, to add to the thirty five which were already in his possession. Shortly before his death, Paulo Freire is reported to have said: “I could never think of education without love and that is why I think I am an educator, first of all because I feel love.”

By Prof Peter Mayo

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