Paulo Freire Biography

Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Although Freire’s major contribution was to help impoverished and illiterate residents of South America, his educational pedagogy has become the worldwide model for institutions and instructors wishing to liberalize their curriculums.

Early Life

Paulo Freire, the son of Joaquim Themisodes Freire and Edeltrus Neves Freire, was born in Recife, a seaport and center of great poverty in northeast Brazil. Unlike the majority of the city’s population, Freire spent his early life in middle-class comfort; however, in 1929, when the repercussions from the Great Depression in the United States trickled southward, the Freire family lost its financial stability and joined the masses gripped by destitution. In 1931, in an effort to improve his economic situation, Joaquim Freire relocated to Jabatoa but died soon after, leaving his wife and child in even more penurious circumstances.

With every thought ruled by extreme hunger and deprivation, Paulo Freire fell two years behind in school. His performance was so below par that many of his teachers diagnosed him as mentally retarded. These unfortunate circumstances caused the young Freire to vow to dedicate his life to the “struggle against hunger.” As the effects of the Depression faded and financial conditions improved, Freire compensated for his educational deficiencies, completed his schooling, and entered the University at Recife to study law, including classes in philosophy and the psychology of language. He married Eliza Maia Costa Oliveria, a grade-school teacher, in 1944; the union produced three daughters and two sons. Following the birth of his first child, his interest in education and educational theories grew, and soon Freire was reading more in education, philosophy, and sociology than he was in law.

Life’s Work

After graduating from the university, Freire passed the bar examination but abandoned the profession of law to work for the welfare department and later to become the director of the Department of Education and Culture for the social service in the state of Pernambuco. In this capacity, he came into direct contact with the urban poor and began to formulate his pedagogical theories. He returned to school and was awarded a doctoral degree in adult education from the University of Recife in 1959.

In the early 1960’s, Brazil was in a state of political and social unrest, produced in part by the government’s policies. Although a type of democratic electoral policy was in place, using elections to alter the power structure was difficult primarily because peasants who were legally unable to vote because of their illiteracy made up the majority of the population. In an effort to erase this inequity, the University of Recife developed the Cultural Extension Service, which was to undertake the literacy training of thousands of the disenfranchised. Freire, as the first director of this service, realized the difficulties inherent in learning what one does not understand and insisted that the program be both social and political. He attempted to change the ingrained mind-set of the peasants by teaching not only adult literacy but also democratic skills. He refused to use the traditional literacy texts because he felt the sentences, advocating middle-and upper-class values, had no meaning for the peasants. He altered the face of literacy education by concentrating on teaching critical thinking rather than employing the conventional curriculum of memorization and recitation. In this manner, he transformed the established pedagogy from paternalism, which kept the peasants captives of the historical cycle, to humanism, through which they could gain liberation from that cycle. Freire did not give credence to theories of determinism, Social Darwinism, or behaviorism because he held that behavior can be modified by willing it to be changed.

Although Freire’s views were utopian, the methods that he employed to achieve his ends were overwhelmingly successful. The literacy movement officially began in 1963, and three hundred people learned to read and write in only forty-five days. In June, Paulo de Tarso, a friend of Freire, became minister of education, and the program was expanded to serve the peasant population of the entire nation. Freire was appointed director of the national literacy campaign. Thousands enrolled, and college students volunteered as coordinators. After only one year of operation, plans were underway to establish twenty thousand centers across Brazil that would serve 20 million illiterates.

As word of Freire’s success reached officials of the government, newly established by a military coup, they began to fear that his work would give thousands of peasants a political voice and countered by labeling the educator a politicizing radical. The politicians, encouraged by the editorial support of the right-wing newspaper Globo, had Freire arrested for “subversive” activities, and in April, 1964, he was jailed along with 150 other political prisoners. While incarcerated, Freire began working on “Education and the Practice of Freedom,” his first written account of his attempts in humanistic education and his analysis of why those attempts failed to produce change. After seventy days in confinement, the educator was released, stripped of his citizenship, and exiled to Chile.

A man of passionate optimism in spite of poverty, imprisonment, and exile, Freire continued his mission in Santiago,...

(The entire section is 2255 words.)