Brazil – indeed, the world – has never needed Brazilian educator Paulo Freire more than now. The election of the far-right former army captain Jair Bolsonaro as president imperils decades of social and political gains, not only in Brazil but throughout the region.
Bolsonaro comes to power just as a global generation of reactionary and nationalistic populists holds sway from Washington to Beijing, Budapest to Manila, Moscow to Canberra. Xenophobic, anti-poor and pro-capital, these men seek individually and collectively to reshape the world order from one of reasonable concern towards human and other life forms to one in which the power of super-rich individuals and elite groups is unchecked.
So, what can Freire do about all of this? Who is he? That these questions should be asked at all shows how quickly and dangerously the world has tilted to the right and far-right. Once, Freire’s name would have drawn recognition from more than educationists and leftists.
He was born on 19 September 1921 and died on 2 May 1997. It is apt that he was allowed one last May Day before dying of heart failure in Sao Paulo at the age of 75.
In the years before his death, Freire established a formidable reputation as a teacher, educational theorist and philosopher. It was in the ominous-sounding field of critical pedagogy that he became world famous, and widely respected and followed. His groundbreaking book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was in many ways the founding text of critical pedagogy and the social movement intimately tied to it.
Both “critical pedagogy” and Pedagogy of the Oppressed look and sound scary. They seem to be a negative field (“critical”) focused on something obscure, and perhaps even nasty. But both critical pedagogy and Freire’s book are very far from what they seem at first glance. “Pedagogue” in its original sense denoted a slave who went along with a child to school, “agogos” being “guide” in Greek, with “paidagogos” meaning a “boy guide”.
Knowledge is not neutral
This sense of accompanying someone rather than leading them, or pushing or pulling them along, is fundamental to the theory and practice of critical pedagogy as a philosophy and practice of education, and as a social movement. It was and remains Freire’s genius insight that this way of learning could – must – be extended beyond education and into the broader world.
In this view, teaching and learning are political acts, and knowledge is not and cannot be neutral. Teaching and learning, the whole of education, are matters of social justice and democracy. How those in the Fallist movement on South African university campuses would have benefitted from a little of Freire’s thinking and practice when they challenged the education system. Frantz Fanon is sexy, cool, profound, radical, liberating. Freire, who noted Fanon as a key influence, is all those too and puts forward a comprehensive approach to how radical education liberates both learner and teacher – and, beyond them, society as a whole.
As the experience of South African university battles over syllabuses and decolonising the academy shows, both the protesting learners and the gatekeeping teachers need to learn from each other. That they can be said not really to have done so shows that all the sound and fury on both sides has done little more than nudge the education debate slightly to the left.
What educators and students need is a text that understands their starting positions and goals. Rhetoric, so attractive and “revolutionary”, needs to be replaced by new theory and praxis. I would suggest the text for just such a movement, which would empower both sides, is a 50-year-old work titled Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Freire’s work has the capacity and power to seem new, entirely novel, when read for the first time in 2018. I first read it in the late 1970s and have turned to it, or sections of it, repeatedly in the decades since. It is a humanist’s bible, a philosopher’s touchstone, and a radical educationist’s gift to humankind.
Here is a sample from one of the world’s great texts:
“Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human. As the oppressors dehumanise others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanised. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.”
Read it, learn from it, apply it.