In 1968, the philosopher and educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997) published Pedagogy of the Oppressed, his most important work. The book is an investigation into how education can help empower those who are oppressed (in his example, working classes and poorer populations) and, at the same time, give them the tools to navigate the world.
In his book, Freire proposes that students stop being treated as the objects of the educational process and says they should be given the status of agents. Instead of imposing pedagogic structures upon the students, the author says the best education has to take into account where these people stand in the world and how they live their lives. From there on, Mr. Freire believed, teachers and facilitators could engage individuals in a learning process that is not passive, but active.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed was conceived and written during Freire’s exile in Chile. After the 1964 military coup in Brazil, the educator was forced to flee the country because of his “subversive” ideas. Although Freire was not the hardcore communist many communists paint him as, he was a Marxist, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed presents an anti-elitist vision, in which capitalism is seen as part of a system of oppression that keeps poor people subject to economic interests. He wrote: “For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more—always more—even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing.”
Paulo Freire’s book was also considered to be dangerous in many places around the world, being banned in places such as Latin American dictatorships, apartheid South Africa, and, strangely, Tucson, Arizona. In 2010, a group of Republican lawmakers passed a law prohibiting classes and materials that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government,” “resentment toward a race or class or people,” or “ethnic solidarity.”
Paulo Freire in politics
Upon returning to Brazil in the 1980s, Freire helped found the Workers’ Party. In 1988, mayor-elect of São Paulo Luiza Erundina invited him to be her secretary of Education. This wasn’t the first time the philosopher got involved in public administration.
A few years before the military coup, at the beginning of the 1960s, Freire spearheaded a literacy program that was supposed to teach all Brazilian citizens how to learn and write, under president João Goulart. The program was terminated by the military government before it could be implemented across the country.
The legacy of Paulo Freire
Freire’s seminal book has been regarded as one of the most important works in the field of education. It is the third-most cited social sciences book in the world, according to a study by Elliott Green, a professor at the London School of Economics. In 2012, Brazil’s Congress nominated him as “patron of Brazilian education.”
Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been translated into more than 60 languages and is currently on its 65th edition in Brazil. It’s the only Brazilian book to appear on the list of the 100 most ordered books in English-speaking universities, published by the Open Syllabus project. Freire lends his name to academic institutes in countries such as Finland, England, the United States, South Africa and Spain.
Although Freire is one of the most recognized thinkers in Brazilian history, political polarization has led some to question his work. During protests in favor of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in March 2015, signs said “enough of Paulo Freire.” In some of the current critics’ views, Freire’s influence is responsible for “leftist indoctrination” in public schools and universities. The repercussion of the accusations led the U.N. to use its official Facebook page to defend Freire’s legacy.
Last year, the ultra-conservative Free Brazil Movement (MBL) filed a request to revoke the 2012 law that made the educator patron of education, a move which was turned down by the House of Representatives’ Human Rights Committee. A representative for the U.N. complimented the fact that Freire kept his honorific title in a letter earlier this year.
Like him or not, Paulo Freire’s influence, especially through Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is probably as strong as it has ever been throughout the world. In times when fake news is thriving and capitalism is being questioned even in the United States, the capitalist champion of the last 60 years, truly empowering citizens sounds like a disruptive idea.