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Until his death from a heart attack on May 2, 1997, Paulo Freire devoted his life and work to a philosophy and practice of education committed to the empowerment and social transformation of communities marginalized by poverty, colonialism, and political repression. Freire worked extensively in Brazil, Chile, and West Africa, where he developed a method for teaching literacy to poor, working class, and indigenous people. The development of Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” cannot be viewed in isolation from his experience of life in Brazil during the first half of the twentieth century. Born in 1921 in Recife, a port town in the northeast province of Pernambuco, Paulo Reglus Neves Freire was raised in a middle class family that experienced severe poverty during the Great Depression. Poverty and hunger during Freire’s youth caused several setbacks in his formal schooling, an experience that shaped the later development of his educational philosophy. Freire studied law at the University of Recife, but gave up his career as a lawyer after his first case to teach Portuguese in secondary schools (Gadotti 1994). Freire married Elza Maia Costa de Oliveria, a primary school teacher, in 1944. Throughout their marriage, Elza encouraged and inspired Freire to devote himself to his work in the field of adult education.
Northeast Brazil in the early 1960s was a region of acute social polarization and economic suffering. It was during this time that Freire began to elaborate a model of politically engaged pedagogy against the prevailing “culture of silence” under which the illiterate poor labored. He emphasized the dialectic relationship between theory and practice, which is expressed through three generative themes in his work: concientization, dialogic learning, and his critique of the banking approach to education. Underpinning these three generative themes is a studentcentered system of learning that challenges how knowledge is constructed in the formal education system and in society at large. Freire’s student-centered approach stands in stark contrast to conventional educational practice, which he referred to as the “banking approach” to education. He argued that conventional learning was the tool of the elite because it treated students as objects upon which knowledge is “deposited.” Genuine learning, for Freire, could only be achieved through lived experience, critical reflection, and praxis (Aronowitz 1993, p. 9).
The idea that “experiences are lived and not transplanted” is a central tenet of Freire’s philosophy (Gadotti 1994, p. 46). Concientization is the key process by which students develop a critical awareness of the world based on the concrete experience of their everyday lives. The development of critical awareness through concientization alters power relations between students and teachers, the colonized and the colonizer, thereby transforming objects of knowledge into historical subjects (Freire 1997). Freire proposed that a dialogical theory of action based on communication and cooperation was necessary not only for understanding the mediating role of historical, colonial, and class relations (concientization), but also for the active work of changing them. Dialogic action challenges mediating social realities by posing them as problems that can be analyzed critically by those who have direct experience of them. Dialogue becomes a form of collective praxis directly concerned with unveiling inequitable conditions obscured by the ruling classes.
The success of Freire’s method for teaching literacy to Brazil’s impoverished citizens, coupled with his efforts to affect social and political change among the landless poor, led to his imprisonment after a reactionary military coup in 1964. He spent a total of seventy days in jail. After his imprisonment in Brazil, Freire was exiled to Chile, where he remained for five years before taking up posts at Harvard University and in Switzerland. He did not return to Brazil until 1980. Freire’s most famous book is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, originally published in 1970.
Other key works include Cultural Action for Freedom (1972), Education: The Practice of Freedom (1976), and Pedagogy of the Heart (1997). Thirty years on from his most influential work, the commitment to education as a pathway to liberation that Freire helped inspire remains a vibrant part of the social justice campaigns of grassroots activists, social policymakers, educators, and scholars (see McLaren 2000).
- Freire, Paulo. 1970. Cultural Action for Freedom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Review.
- Freire, Paulo. 1974. Education: The Practice of Freedom. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Co-operative.
- Freire, Paulo. 1997. Pedagogy of the Heart. Trans. Donaldo Macedo and Alexandre Oliveira. New York: Continuum.
- Freire, Paulo. 1997. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Rev. ed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum. (Orig. pub. 1970).
- Aronowitz, Stanley. 1993. Paulo Freire’s Radical Democratic In Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter, eds. Peter McLaren and Peter Leonard, 8–24. London: Routledge.
- Gadotti, Moacir. 1994. Reading Paulo Freire: His Life and Work. Trans. John Milton. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- McLaren, Peter. 2000. Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman and
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