Thoughts by Paulo Freire

Photo of Paulo Freire
  • "A teacher is no longer merely the one who teaches; but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach."
  • Thoughts on Teaching, Learning, and Pedagogy
  • Thoughts on Political Liberation and Oppression
  • Brief bio: Brazilian educator and author Paulo Freire (born Sept. 19, 1921, Recife, Brazil, died May 2, 1997, São Paulo, Brazil) sought to empower the world's oppressed through literacy programs that encouraged social and political awareness. Freire ) was Brazil's most important educator and author of many other books. He can be a tough read. His written Portuguese tends toward complex sentence structure, which makes tough going in English translation. He also liked to create words. However, his ideas are powerful and worth some effort to read and understand. In his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, Eng. ed. 1972), Freire argued that the passive nature of traditional education promoted repression. He likened such backward teaching to a bank, wherein a teacher deposited information--which Freire believed was largely false--and the student passively collected. Freire favored a "pedagogy of liberation" that encouraged dialogue between teacher and student. He sought to empower students to ask questions and to challenge the status quo. He began refining his methods during the 1950s, when he taught literacy to peasants--adult men. The use of everyday words and ideas in his lessons proved highly effective. Many of Freire's students needed only 30 hours of instruction before being able to read and write.

    In 1963 he was appointed director of the Brazilian National Literacy Program, and in this post he outlined a plan to educate five million Brazilians. The military dictators who seized power in a coup in 1964 jailed Freire for subversion. Literate peasants and workers might well challenge Brazil's backward institutions-- just what Freire hoped. After his release he went into exile, he traveled the world, assisting in the establishment of literacy programs and teaching at a number of universities. In 1979 he returned to Brazil, where he cofounded the left-wing Workers Party. He served as education secretary of São Paulo beginning in 1988 but resigned several years later. Freire wrote more than 20 books, many considered classics in the field of education. His views have become widely influential in what is usually termed critical pedagogy.

  • Additional biographical and bibliographical information on Paulo Freire

    Thoughts on Education and Politics

    Selections from The Paulo Freire Reader (Continuum, 1998)
    1. A humanizing education is the path through which men and women can become conscious about their presence in the world. The way they act and think when they develop all their capacities, taking into consideration, their needs, but also the needs and aspirations of others. (p. 9)
    2. The pedagogy of the oppressed animated by authentic humanism (and not humanitarianism) generously presents itself as a pedagogy of man. Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors ( an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization. (p. 12)
    3. But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people's vocation. This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity. (p. 45)
    4. Not infrequently, peasants in educational projects begin to discuss a generative theme in a lively manner, then stop suddenly and say to the education: "Excuse us, we ought to keep quiet and let you talk. You are the one who knows, we don't know anything." They often insist that there is no difference between them and the animals: when they do admit a difference, it favors the animals. "They are freer than we are." (p. 62)
    5. A revolutionary leadership must accordingly practice co-intentional education. Teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge. As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action, they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators. In this way, the presence of the oppressed in the struggle for their liberation will be what it should be: not pseudo-participation, but committed involvement. (pp. 66-67)
    6. Critique of the "Banking" Concept of Education: Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. (p. 67)
    7. Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferals of information. It is a learning situation in which the cognizable object (far from being the end of the cognitive act) intermediates the cognitive actors--teacher on the one hand and students on the other. Accordingly, the practice of problem-posing education entails at the outset that the teacher-student contradiction be resolved. Dialogical relations--indispensable to the capacity of cognitive actors to cooperate in perceiving the same cognizable object--are other impossible. (p. 74)
    8. Problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming--as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality. Indeed, in contrast to other animals who are unfinished, but not historical, people know themselves to be unfinished: they are aware of their incompletion. In this incompletion and this awareness lie the very roots of education as an exclusively human manifestation. The unfinished character of human beings and the transformational character of reality necessitate that education be an ongoing activity. (p. 77)
    9. One aspect of the reply is to be found in the distinction between systematic education, which can only be changed by political power, and educational projects, which should be carried out with the oppressed in the process of organizing them. (p. 54)

    Paulo Freire, Letters to Cristina: Reflections on My Life and Work (trans. By Donald Macedo, 1996)

    These excepts reveal something of Freire's childhood, education, and other formative life experiences.
    Childhood: “The search became almost a game and I started to learn the most minute details of our backyard. The banana tree leaves; the majestic cashew tree with its branches trailing on the ground, its roots curving up through the dirt like the veins of old hands; the coconut tree; the various types of mango trees; the breakfast tree and the strong wind that moved the tree branches; the singing of the birds: all of these things expanded my curiosity as a fascinated child.

    The knowledge that I was gaining of my childhood world—such as the wavy shadows, like dancing bodies, projected by banana tree leaves— began to secure in me a form of calmness that other children my age did not have. The more I tried to understand during the day how things worked, by attempting to determine varied noises and their causes, the more I began to feel liberated from my ghostly nights. My efforts to know did not kill, however, my childlike spontaneity or replace it with a deformed rationality. In truth, I was not the type of kid who spoke much of his upright world, characterized by coat, necktie, and heavy starched collar, or who repeated adults' words.

    I lived my world intensely. From my experiences I began to learn about the world's day-to-day routine without losing sight of the world's beauty. Simply put, I began to move through the world with security, whether by day or by night.

    My father played an important role in my constant search for understanding. Being affectionate, intelligent, and open, he never refused to listen to us talk about our interests. He and my mother were a harmonious couple whose union did not lose them their individuality. They exemplified for us what it means to be understood and to understand, never showing any signs of intolerance. Although my mother was Catholic and my father was a spiritualist, they always respected each other's religious opinions. From them, I learned early on the value of dialogue. I never was afraid to ask questions, and I do not recall ever being punished for disagreeing with them.

    They taught me how to read my first words and then how to write them on the ground with a wooden stick under the shade of our mango tree. My first words and phrases were linked to my experiences and not my parents'. Instead of a boring primer or, worse, an "ABC Table" for memorizing the letters of the alphabet (as if students learn how to speak by sounding out letters), I had my backyard as my first primer, my first world, my first school. The ground, protected by tree leaves, was my blackboard and sticks were my chalk.

    Early Education: By six years of age, when I arrived at the little school where Eunice Vasconcelos was my first professional teacher, I already knew how to read and write. I have never forgotten the joy with which I welcomed the exercises called "sentence forming" that our teacher gave us. She would ask me to write in a straight line all the words that I knew. Afterward, I was supposed to form sentences with these words and later we discussed the meaning of each sentence I had created. This is how, little by little, I began to know my verbs, tenses, and moods; she taught me by increasing the level of difficulty. My teacher's fundamental preoccupation was not with making me memorize grammatical definitions but with stimulating the development of my oral and writing abilities.

    There was no rupture between my parents' teaching at home and the pedagogy of my teacher Eunice at school. At home, as in school, I was always invited to learn and never reduced to an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge.

    No barrier existed between the way I was raised at home and the work I was given at school. Thus, schoolwork never was a threat to my curiosity but rather was a stimulus. The time I spent playing and searching in my backyard was not the same as my experiences in school, but school was not my opposite point of reference, something that made me feel uncomfortable. Time spent in my backyard overflowed into time in school, making me feel happy in both spaces. In the final analysis, even though school had its own conditions, it did not limit my joy in life. It is the same joy in life that has characterized my entire life. It is the same joy in life that I experienced as a child in Jaboarao and which I continued to experience, as a man, during my time in exile. This joy has a great deal to do with my optimistic outlook on life, which means that, as a critical person, I am never paralyzed by life. This is why I always push myself toward forms of engagement and action that are compatible with my political beliefs. . . .

    Some Lessons of History: In 1928, I listened to my father and my Uncle Monteiro say that it was not only necessary to change the state of things, but urgent. The country was being destroyed, robbed, humiliated. They used that notorious phrase, "Brazil is right on the edge of the abyss." These are the kinds of things they would talk about: "They won't speak, and if they do, they won't be heard; they'll be oppressed." They referred here to Vieira.

    In a greeting to the marquess of Montalvao, viceroy of Brazil, at the Misericordia Hospital in Bahia in 1638, Vieira said, in the most political of all his sermons, that the silence imposed by the crown was one of Brazil's worst predicaments.
    We well know, those of us who speak the Latin language that this word infans, infante, means one who does not speak. That was the State the boy Baptist was in when Our Lady came to visit him. This is also the stare in which Brazil has been for many years, which, in my view, has been the major cause of its troubles. Since the patient cannot speak, all conjectures are difficult medicine. That is why, of all the sufferers Christ cured, none required so much time or care as the dumb possessed man: the worst accident Brazil suffered in its infirmity was that of doing away with its own voice. Many times it may have wanted to righteously complain, many times it may have wanted to ask for the medicine to cure its condition, but respect or violence has always drowned the words in its throat, and if ever a word has made it to the ears of those who should provide a remedy, so have the voices of power, to ensure victory for the claims of reason.
    Brazil wastes away, My Lord, (let us say it in one word) because some ministers of His Majesty do not come here to seek our welfare, but rather to seek our wealth.

    Vieira played with the meanings of "taking," at times using it to mean the act of accepting responsibility, control, and at times to mean the act of possessing what belongs to others, robbery. Vieira went so far as to say to the Marquess of Montalvao and his entourage:
    The King orders them [the ministers] to take Pernambuco, and they are content to take it. This taking possession of what is others', whether by the King or by the peoples, is the source of [Brazil's] disease. And the various arts and ways and instruments of taking are the symptoms that, being extremely dangerous by nature, make the disease even more lethal. I ask, just so the causes of the symptoms become better known: In this land, does the minister of justice take? Yes, he takes. Does the minister of finance? Yes, he takes. Does the minister of the republic? Yes, he takes. Does the minister of the militia? Yes, he takes. Does the minister of state? Yes, he takes.
    Joaquim Nabuco in 1879, giving a speech about a project for constitutional reform, said:
    Gentlemen the project being currently discussed comes to this registry under the saddest of auspices. It is a project that has been debated by a council of ministers, resolved in ministerial conference, and for that reason, I said, and the honorable representative from Piauf [Mr. Doria] seconded my expression, that the investigative record on this parliamentary initiative has languished on the minister of justice's desk. The project was discussed with the emperor, was the object of transactions within the ministry leading to the termination of two of its most prominent members, and, only after having gone through all these procedures and investigations, arrived at this house, where it was endorsed by a vast majority on the same day. . . .

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