Paulo Freire (September 19, 1921 – May 2, 1997) was a Brazilian philosopher and educator, influenced by Marxist thought and a pioneer of "popular education." His work was intended to empower the oppressed through literacy programs to raise social and political awareness. Freire's ideas were widely used in third world countries as the theoretical base for the reform of their educational systems.
Freire's methods were successful in raising the level of literacy, although his emphasis on participatory development has been much debated. Freire advocated experiential education, particularly service learning, as the best method of education. He believed that through such active participation, people come to recognize their need for more knowledge or training, and that this motivation is key to successful learning. Additionally, though, Freire emphasized dialogue as the only legitimate pedagogical method, claiming that teacher and students must be seen as equal. While it is true that teachers should learn from their students, and students have much to teach their teachers, the educational process has as its goal the growth and development of the students. When teachers and students alike are committed to this goal, and maintain a constructive relationship based on pursuing it, youth have their best chance of fulfilling their potential, to the mutual benefit of themselves and their society.
Paulo Freire was born in Recife, Brazil, into a middle-class family. Freire learned about poverty and hunger during the Great Depression, an experience that would shape his concerns for the poor and would help to construct his particular educational worldview.
Freire entered the University of Recife in 1943, enrolling in the School of Law, but also studying philosophy and the psychology of language. Following his entrance into the bar association, he never actually practiced law and instead worked as a teacher in secondary schools teaching Portuguese.
In 1944 he married Elza Maia Costa de Oliveira, a fellow teacher, with whom he had five children. The couple engaged together in social service through the Catholic Action Movement, but soon left the group when they realized that the lifestyles of the members of the group contradicted the Christian faith they proclaimed. Instead, the Freires started to organize services on their own, engaging in the social problems of the local community.
In 1946, Freire was appointed director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in the state of Pernambuco, the Brazilian state of which Recife is the capital. In Brazil at that time, literacy was a requirement for voting in presidential elections. Working primarily among the illiterate poor, Freire began to embrace a non-orthodox form of what came to be called "popular education."
In 1961, he was appointed director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University. In 1962, he had the first opportunity for significant application of his theories, when 300 sugarcane workers were taught to read and write in just 45 days. In response to this experiment, the Brazilian government approved the creation of thousands of cultural circles across the country.
In 1964, a military coup d'état put an end to that effort, Freire being imprisoned as a traitor for 70 days. After a brief exile in Bolivia, Freire worked in Chile for five years for the Christian Democratic Agrarian Reform Movement and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In 1967, Freire published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom.
The book was well received, and Freire was offered a visiting professorship at Harvard University in 1969. The previous year, he wrote his most famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was also published in Spanish and English in 1970. Because of the political feud between the military dictatorships and the Christian socialists, of whom Freire was a supporter, the book was not published in Brazil until 1974, when Ernesto Geisel took control of Brazil and began his process of cultural liberalization.
After a year at Cambridge University, Freire moved to Geneva, Switzerland to work as a special education adviser to the World Council of Churches. During this time, Freire acted as an advisor on education reform in former Portuguese colonies in Africa, particularly Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.
In 1979, he was able to return to Brazil, where he joined the Workers' Party (PT) in the city of São Paulo, and acted as a supervisor for its adult literacy project from 1980 to 1986. When the PT won in the municipal elections in 1988, Freire was appointed Secretary of Education for São Paulo.
In 1986, his wife Elza died and Freire married Ana Maria Araújo, who was a radical reformer herself. He received the UNESCO Prize for Education for Peace in 1986. In 1991, the Paulo Freire Institute was established in São Paulo to extend and elaborate his theories on popular education. The institute maintains the Freire archives.
Freire died of heart failure on May 2, 1997, in São Paulo.
Paulo Freire's contributions to the philosophy of education come not only from the more classical approaches stemming from Plato, but also from modern Marxist and anti-colonialist thinkers. In fact, in many ways his Pedagogy of the Oppressed may best be read as an extension of or reply to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1963), which emphasized the need to provide native populations with an education which was simultaneously new and modern (rather than traditional) and anti-colonial (not simply an extension of the culture of the colonizer).
Freire is best-known for his attack on what he called the "banking" concept of education, in which the student was viewed as an empty account to be filled by the teacher, although critiques of this view were not new. The concept of the child as a tabula rasa or "blank slate" (which is basically the same as the "banking concept") had already been rejected by Rousseau's conception of the child as an active learner, and thinkers like John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead were strongly critical of the transmission of mere "facts" as the goal of education.
More challenging was Freire's strong aversion to the teacher-student dichotomy. This dichotomy is admitted in Rousseau and constrained in Dewey, but Freire came close to insisting that it should be completely abolished. This is hard to imagine in absolute terms, since there must be some enactment of the parent-child relationship in the teacher-student relationship, but what Freire suggested is that a deep reciprocity be inserted into notions of teacher and student. Freire wanted to think in terms of teacher-student and student-teacher; that is, a teacher who learns and a learner who teaches, as the basic roles of classroom participation:
…teaching cannot be a process of transference of knowledge from the one teaching to the learner. This is the mechanical transference from which results machinelike memorization, which I have already criticized. Critical study correlates with teaching that is equally critical, which necessarily demands a critical way of comprehending and of realizing the reading of the word and that of the world, the reading of text and of context (Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to those who Dare Teach).
Thus, Freire's approach was an attempt to implement something like democracy as an educational method, not merely as a goal of education. Even Dewey, for whom democracy was a touchstone, did not integrate democratic practices fully into his methods. Freire claimed that true knowledge can result only from experientially based learning, and advocated service learning as the greatest method of learning. He believed that service learning stimulated the learner’s awareness of the need for further inquiry. He saw this inner motivation as the key for successful learning, and dialogue as the key method. Thus he emphasized the equal status of students and teacher.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the most widely known of Freire's works. First published in 1970, the book examines the struggle for justice and equity within the educational system and proposes a new pedagogy.
Dedicated "to the oppressed, and to those who suffer with them and fight at their side," Freire includes a detailed Marxist class analysis in his exploration of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized:
Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion (Pedagogy of the Oppressed).
According to Freire, freedom will be the result of "praxis"—informed action—when a balance between theory and practice is achieved. Freire proposes “dialogics” as an instrument to free the colonized, through the use of cooperation, unity, organization, and cultural synthesis (overcoming problems in society to liberate human beings). This is in contrast to “antidialogics” that uses conquest, the concept of divide and rule, manipulation, and cultural invasion.
In regard to education, Freire argued that words involve a radical interaction between reflection and action and that true words are transformational. Dialogue requires mutual respect and cooperation to not only develop understanding, but also to change the world. "Authentic" education, according to Freire, will involve dialogue between the teacher and the student, mediated by the broader world context.
Freire rejected the "banking" approach to education (a metaphor used by Freire that suggests students are considered empty bank accounts that should remain open to deposits made by the teacher), claiming it results in the dehumanization of both the students and the teachers. Instead, Freire advocated for a more world-mediated, mutual approach to education that considers people incomplete. This "authentic" approach to education must allow people to be aware of their incompleteness and strive to be more fully human. This attempt to use education as a means of consciously shaping the person and the society is called "conscientization," a term first coined by Freire in the book.
Freire’s work on the philosophy of education puts him among leading authorities of popular education. He was considerably influenced by Marxism, existentialism, and phenomenology, believing that education has a distinctive purpose: to bring social change by overcoming exploitation and social alienation:
Citizenship implies freedom—to work, to eat, to dress, to wear shoes, to sleep in a house, to support oneself and one's family, to love, to be angry, to cry, to protest, to support, to move, to participate in this or that religion, this or that party, to educate oneself and one's family, to swim regardless in what ocean of one's country. Citizenship is not obtained by chance: It is a construction that, never finished, demands we fight for it. It demands commitment, political clarity, coherence, decision. For this reason a democratic education cannot be realized apart from an education of and for citizenship (Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to those who Dare Teach).
Freire claimed that by learning skills relevant to their harsh lives, people can be empowered to create a better society. Education should encourage reflection on the values and ideals people share, and should motivate people to engage in community service. Freire warned that traditional style of education only promotes the status quo by teaching the things people in power want others to learn. Capitalists, clergy, and politicians, who participate in power, manipulate society through education to stay in power and to satisfy their selfish greed. Education, therefore, is needed to liberate people from both external oppression and internal ignorance.
Freire’s theories had many critics. Gibson (2006) critiqued his work as a cul-de-sac, a combination of old-style socialism and liberal reformism. His work has also been criticized as relying too heavily on Hegel's Phenomenology (Taylor 1993; Gibson 2006).
Freire’s type of classroom has been criticized on the grounds that it can mask rather than overcome the teacher's authority. Education per se is about teaching and learning, and although Freire advocated an informal teaching style based on dialogue, his method still requires a certain type of curriculum administered by a teacher, and thus puts the teacher in a position of authority over the student.
Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been published in 17 languages and is still a widely read book in the twenty-first century. Before its publication in 1970, it was called a violent book, opposing Christian democracy and promoting anarchy and communist ideals. Later, however, he was recognized as a true pioneer of emancipatory education, one who worked to liberate the silenced and the oppressed through education, and one who taught social responsibility to the oppressed. His concept of "popular education" was widely practiced in the third world countries, especially Latin America, and is considered an original and important Latin American contribution to universal pedagogical thought.
The Paulo Freire Institute was created with the purpose of generating dialogue among scholars and to foster research into new educational theories which would modernize the way education is conducted in schools. The institute is active in 18 countries around the world.
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