[News] Education as a means of achieving true freedom: Celebrating Paulo Freire’s centenary-Art-and-culture News

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Education
as a means of achieving true freedom: Celebrating Paulo Freire’s
centenary-Art-and-culture News
September 19, 2021
------------------------------

To contend with Paulo Freire’s ideas about education, knowledge, the
meaning of freedom and classroom dynamics is to re-examine the human
condition afresh and seek to commit oneself to the discovery of true
freedom.

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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