Education as a means of achieving true freedom: Celebrating Paulo Freire’s centenary

·7 min read

To contend with Paulo Freire's ideas about education, knowledge, the meaning of freedom and classroom dynamics is to stumble upon new ways of looking, seeking and acting. It is to view the world through a new prism and to seek out radical new methods of thinking, working and co-existing (as opposed to 'learning to live with' €" something I hope you will discover later in this piece). It is to re-examine the human condition afresh and seek to commit oneself to the discovery of true freedom.

Early life and influences

One of the most influential philosophers of education of the twentieth century, Freire was born on September 19, 1921, in Recife in northeastern Brazil. Political and economic instability took a huge toll on his family compounded by the death of Freire's father in 1934. Forced to drop out of school and support the family financially, Freire experienced hunger and poverty firsthand. He later managed to go back to school and then went on to study law between 1943 and 1947, teaching Portuguese at a school allied to his university to make up for the reduced fee that he was charged. The later course of his life was influenced both by his own early experiences and his specific context which was more or less a product of the torturous history of Brazil since the 15th century.

Brazil was a Portuguese colony from 1500 to 1822. To the Portuguese, Brazil was a commercial enterprise and their interest was in exploiting its resources in order to outsmart England and Holland economically and emerge as the dominant European power. Three centuries of brutal colonization had decimated the native population, brought in a large number of Africans as slaves and resulted in most Brazilians living in poverty even after it had nominally become an independent nation in the 19th century. Political independence notwithstanding, even in the middle of the 20th century, many Brazilians lived in a state of near penury.

In 1947, while Freire was still teaching Portuguese, he began to work at Serviço Social da Indústria (SESI), a government agency that sought to provide social services in the areas of health, housing, education, and leisure for the Brazilian working class.

At SESI, he observed first-hand the lives of the Brazilian working class and the workings of the Brazilian school system which influenced how he later developed as a teacher and political thinker. Later, Freire accepted a position as a consultant for the Division of Research and Planning. Freire did not see education merely as an academic accreditation or as a pathway to professional success through learning employment skills. He believed that learners should understand their social problems and discover themselves as creative agents. His research in adult education began to be noticed nationally and he had soon established himself as a progressive educator.

Freire's early work in education

In 1961, the mayor of Recife asked Freire to help develop literacy programmes for the city. The goal of these programmes was primarily to encourage literacy among the working class, to foster a democratic climate, and to preserve indigenous traditions, beliefs, and culture. Freire chose to use the term 'cultural circles' instead of literacy classes given the negative connotation of the word 'illiterate'. The teachers of these circles were deliberately not called teachers, but coordinators, and the students were called participants. Instead of traditional lectures, dialogue was encouraged. Freire also chose not to use traditional language primers because their content was often irrelevant to the cultural realities of the peasants and the workers he taught.

Freire's ideas of education involved not only 'reading the word' (literacy), but also reading the world i.e., the development of critical consciousness (conscientização in Portuguese). The formation of a critical consciousness would enable people to question their historical and social situation€"to read their world€" with the goal of creating of a democratic society (which was new for Brazil at that time).

Freire stressed on dialogue between teachers and students, where both learned, questioned, reflected and participated in meaning-making. His pedagogy stressed on the teacher mingling among the community, asking questions of the people, understanding their social reality and developing a list of generative words and themes which could lead to discussion in the cultural circles. By making words (literacy) relevant to the lives of people, the process of conscientization could begin along with a critical examination of reality.

The year 1962 saw the first experiments in Freire's method when 300 farmworkers were taught to read and write in just 45 days. Soon, thousands of 'cultural circles' were set up throughout Brazil to implement Freire's ideas.

Unfortunately, the military coup of 1964 (supported by the CIA) halted his work, and changed the course of Freire's later life.

Exile and Fame

After being imprisoned briefly post the coup, Freire and his family lived in exile from 1964 to 1980. Living at first in Bolivia and then in Chile, Freire continued his literacy project with Chilean farmers. These encounters brought the realization that even though people were no longer enslaved, literate and sometimes, even landowners, they did not consider themselves as being free. One of Freire's goals now became to create the circumstances for his students to discover themselves as human beings. Coupled with his earlier work in making education more meaningful and relevant, later in the '60s, Freire published his ideas in two books: Education as the Practice of Freedom in 1967 and the path-breaking Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire was critical of the traditional educational model (he called it the 'banking model') wherein the teacher instructed and students imbibed, often mutely, with little participation or contribution. It was a system that discouraged critical thinking and reflection and reproduced autocracy. Keeping with his earlier work in adult education, Freire proposed a reciprocal relationship between the teacher and the students in a democratic environment that allowed everyone to learn from each other.

Freire also believed that education and politics were closely interlinked. Teaching and learning were political acts and how and what students were taught served a political agenda. Also, an education that aimed to ostensibly serve the oppressed in a manner that the oppressed in time take on the role of the oppressor was not truly an education that liberated or enabled the creation of a better world.

Liberation was a mutual process requiring both oppressed and oppressor to engage in dialogue and simultaneously move to the path of true freedom wherein everyone had agency. Leaders weresponsible for coordinating and facilitating this dialogue among citizens, but, as Freire pointed out, leaders who denied the participation of the people they were ostensibly trying to help, effectively undermined their very goal to help.

Freire's ideas resulted in invitations from Harvard University where he taught in 1969-70 and later from the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, where he lived between 1970 and 1980. Freire worked for the WCC as a consultant to the Office of Education and popular educational reform. All along, Freire continued to take a deep interest in the affairs of colonized countries and followed closely the liberation struggles of Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Guinea-Bissau. In 1975, the newly formed government of Guinea-Bissau invited Freire to help them organize a literacy campaign.

Return and Legacy

In 1980, Freire returned to Brazil. In 1989, Freire became Secretary of Education for the city of Sao Paulo serving until 1991. He worked to reform the schools' curriculum in order to create an environment where students would be happy to learn and teachers would be encouraged to value the students' backgrounds, cultures, values, interests, and languages making education a truly democratic and participative process. He passed away on May 2, 1997.

Pedagogy of The Oppressed has been influential the world over. It has been widely translated and its emancipatory teaching model adopted in many countries. In some sense, Freire's work engages with all 'isms' (communism, capitalism, modernism) without limiting itself to these ideologies. It provides no readymade models for policy-makers to emulate or reproduce and stresses on self-discovery through dialogue. This all-encompassing nature of his work and its perceived lack of solutions have come in for criticism.

Irrespective, Freire is a beacon of inspiration. An original thinker, he is a thought titan of the kind that we witness once in a generation.

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