[OPE-L:5064] Re: The Death of Paolo Freire

Gerald Levy (glevy@pratt.edu)
Sun, 18 May 1997 09:21:19 -0700 (PDT)

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Another tribute posted on the PSN (Progressive Sociologists Network). In
solidarity, Jerry
The following is a tribute to Paulo Freire, by Peter Mayo, published in The
Sunday Times (Malta), 18/5/97.

Paulo Freire (1921 - 1997) - An appreciation

Paulo Freire has been one of the most significant educationists of the last
thirty years. His work is cited freely in the literature on education
and social thought emerging not only from the 'Third World', which
provided the context for most of his pedagogical practice and ideas, but
also from Western industrialised centres.

Freire continues to enjoy iconic status among educators and educationists
alike. An Argentinian friend of mine, Daniel Schugurensky, wrote recently,
with respect to adult education, that," in Latin America, Paulo Freire
constitutes a watershed. There is before and after Freire". Another
Argentinian, Carlos Alberto Torres, once remarked : "We can stay with
Freire or against Freire, but not without Freire."

The greatest and enduring aspect of Freire's work is his emphasis on the
political nature of all educational activity. In Freire's view, there is
no such thing as a 'neutral' education. Education can domesticate
individuals, contributing to their acceptance of or passivity in relation
to the status quo. Alternatively, it can liberate them, providing them
with the disposition to engage in a dialectical relationship with knowledge
and society. This is part and parcel of a critical reading of the world.

One way teacher-student transmission, often a reflection of a wider
prescriptive process of communication , constitutes a domesticating
education. Freire advocates a process characterised by a dialogical
approach to knowledge. Although not being on an equal footing, teacher and
learner learn from each other as they co-investigate dialectically the
object of knowledge. In his adult education work among peasants, he
generated a process whereby learners are allowed to stand back from that
which is familiar to them to perceive it in a more critical light. It is
the means by which one can reflect critically on one's action with a view
to transforming it. This process is referred to as 'praxis', a key concept
in Freire's thinking and pedagogical work.

While acknowledging that the educators need to exercise authority in any
teaching situation, an authority derived from their competence as
pedagogues, Freire argues that this authority should never degenerate into
authoritarianism. It is an authority which rests on the strength of two
other important qualities: humility and love. An e mail message by Valerie
Scatamburlo drew my attention to a remark which Freire is reported to have
uttered only a few days before his death: "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..." It captures the spirit of a published talk on the qualities
which, in Freire's view, a 'progressive teacher'should possess. This talk
was originally delivered at the University of London's Institute of
Education a few years back (see Paulo Freire at the Institute, 1995).

This is not the place to engage in a discussion concerning the dynamics
involved in a Freirean approach to learning. Such a discussion would
warrant the sort of extensive treatment that the space available would not
allow. The emphasis on a dialectical mode of thinking, certainly reflected
in Freire's own style of conceptualisation, immediately recalls Hegel and
Marx, the latter being undoubtedly the greatest influence on Freire's work.
Marx's early writings are constantly referred to and provide the basis for
Freire's social analysis in his most celebrated work, Pedagogy of the
Oppressed. This book was conceived of and written during the first six
years of his long period of exile which involved spells in Bolivia, Chile,
the US and Geneva. Freire has often acknowledged, in this regard, the
influence of his first wife, Elza (died in 1986) and such close
collaborators as the Chilean, Marcela Gajardo.

Freire was exiled following the Multinationals-backed military coup of
1964 which overthrew the 'populist' administration of Joao Goulart. At the
time of the coup, he was about to coordinate a nation wide literacy
programme which would have rendered several Brazilians (peasants and city
dwellers alike) literate and therefore eligible to vote. Because of this
and the fact that his approach involved a process of 'reading the word and
the world', Freire's work was perceived as posing a threat to the
established status quo. Interestingly enough, he presents his experience
of exile as a long process of 'praxis', of gaining critical distance from
familiar surroundings (see Learning to Question, 1989).

The Marxist-humanist element is all pervasive in Freire's work which is
however eclectic in that it draws on a broad range of writings, including
the work of Leszek Kolakowski, Karel Kosik, Eric Fromm, Antonio Gramsci,
Karl Mannheim, Teilhard de Chardin, Franz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Lev
Vygotski, Amilcar Cabral and the Christian Personalism theory of Tristian
de Atiade and Emanuel Mounier.

Pedagogical activity is not discussed in a vacuum but in the context of an
analysis of power and its structural manifestations. There are those who
often miss this key point and, consequently, adulterate his work by
reducing it to a 'method' or 'technique'. In his early work, the focus is
primarily on the Latin American context where Freire, who was born in
Recife in the North East state of Pernambuco, draws on his experiences as
an adult educator, the vocation he engaged in after having studied law and
taught Philosophy of Education. The context of his adult education work is
the Nord-este itself, one of the world's most impoverished areas.

Freire initially worked in a region characterised by semi-feudal relations
of production which campesinos had to accept to gain access to land. They
therefore lived and worked in a situation of abject thraldom. The rural
landowning class is engaged in a historical alliance with the national
indigenous bourgeoisie located in the South-east, the Sao Paulo area.
Given the situation of stark contrast in access to material goods and
power, in a country whose fortunes have been guided by colonial and
neo-colonial interests, it is not surprising that social class analysis
provides the guiding thread for Freire's writing in Pedagogy of the
Oppressed. This is something which, as Freire himself has admitted, is
conspicuously missing from his first published work, Education as the
Practice of Freedom (published in English as part of Education for
Critical Consciousness ).

Social class analysis, however, constitutes an important feature of the
radical Brazilian religious movement with which Freire's work is strongly
associated. Freire, himself a "man of faith", was certainly influenced, in
the development 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, Columbia. This conference represents a
landmark in the development of Liberation Theology. The strong
relationship between his views and that of Liberation Theology has led the
Church in Latin America, especially in the Christian base communities, to
espouse many of Freire's pedagogical principles. Freire dwells at length
on the concept of religious commitment, based on a lifelong struggle for
social and economic justice, in a series of writings on the 'Prophetic
Church', which he distinguished from the 'Traditional'or 'Modernising'
church (see The Politics of Education, 1985) .

His early work focused, for the most part, on class (33 references to
social class in Pedagogy of the Oppressed ) and this led to some severe
criticisms levelled at him primarily by North American feminists who
pointed to the invisibility of women and their experiences in his project
of liberation. This criticism seems to have had a telling effect on
Freire's later work, most of which was born out of contact with the North
American educational millieu. Issues concerning race and gender, and
social movements in general, began to feature prominently in this work. In
published dialogues, co-authors like Donaldo P. Macedo often pushed him
hard on such issues.

Writers like Kathleen Weiler sought to fuse his ideas with those
representing different strands within feminism. Probably the one feminist
writer who openly embraces his ideas, not allowing his earlier
obliviousness to race and gender to stand in the way, is Gloria Watkins,
alias bell hooks. She incorporates Freire's pedagogical ideas within the
best critical traditions of Afro-American writing. Freire's work, with its
emphasis on liberatory pedagogy, appealed to other Afro-American activists
and intellectuals, including Cornel West who hailed him "as the exemplary
organic intellectual of our time." From the mid-80s onwards, he 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 theologian Frei
Betto and and American critical pedagogue, Ira Shor.

Despite his large output as a writer, in Spanish, Portuguese and English,
Freire did not forsake direct political activity. When in exile in Geneva,
working for the World Council of Churches, he engaged in activities with
trade unionists and other social activists in Spain and Italy (see
Pedagogy of Hope , 1994) and as a consultant to governments in such former
Portuguese colonies in Africa as Guinea Bissau (see Pedagogy in Process.
1978), Cape Verde and Sao Tome & Principe. Following his return to Brazil,
after 16 years in exile, he served as consultant for the Nicaraguan and
Grenadian literacy campaigns.

His lifelong commitment to social justice culminated in his serving, on
behalf of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party), as Secretary of
Education in the Municipal Government of Sao Paulo, during Mayor Luiza
Erundina de Souza's term of office. There he engaged in reforming the
public education sector and developing a strong adult education programme
(Mova Sao Paulo), involving, as much as possible, mass organisations and
other stakeholders in the educational enterprise (see Pedagogy of the City
, 1993).

His 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 (Letters to Cristina , 1996). This is
virtually the last complete volume by Freire, but other writings and
interviews will no doubt surface in the various books, centering around his
ideas, which are about to see the light. And they will resurface in the
various conferences, symposia and conference sessions celebrating his work.

Paulo Reglus Neves Freire, who had been looking forward to a trip to Cuba
last week to collect an award from Castro, breathed his last at 5.30 am
(Brazilian time) on Friday 2nd May. The spirit of this remarkable figure,
however, lives on. The power of this spirit was recognised, a long time
ago, by none other than General Augusto Pinochet who, on seizing power
through the 1973 Coup, years after Freire had left Chile, paid the
Brazilian the supreme compliment, declaring him a 'persona non grata'.

Peter Mayo is Lecturer in the Department of Foundations in Education,
University of Malta.