Paulo Freire (1921–1997) was a Brazilian philosopher and humanist who had an enormous impact on how the world views methods of educating poor and oppressed people living under less-than-adequate social conditions. After some four hundred years of European colonization and slavery in Brazil, large multitudes of indigenous peoples and former slaves of African descent lacked formal education and many had been kept illiterate. Freire recognized the need to find a way of educating masses of marginalized people. His philosophy on education was heavily influenced by the likes of Erich Fromm, Karl Marx, humanism, and existentialism.
Freire understood that one of the causes of continued lack of education in the twentieth century among natives of South America was the acceptance of the ideologies of those who originally oppressed them. He began the formulation of his overall educational plan by studying what it meant to be a human being. He looked for ways to empower individuals and protect them from negative influences. He reasoned that poverty-stricken people could improve their plight in life through work. Freire also understood that access to formal education in Brazil was traditionally limited to members of the upper societal class. Thus, for the masses, success through work could only be achieved by finding ways for the poor to educate themselves. This became a core principle in Freire’s vision as to how academic learning should be structured in the twentieth century.
Influenced by the growing modern philosophy of existentialism, Freire believed that people living in poverty conditions were free to choose the paths of their lives for themselves. He theorized that they were not bound by the oppression of the past. They were free to learn from each other. He concluded that the attempt to learn from other illiterate peasants in Brazil must be coupled with a plan to eradicate illiteracy among the masses.
In his famous work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire outlined his overall plan to re-structure the education system in Brazil for the purpose of eliminating the specter of illiteracy on a large-scale basis. He studied the “cultural circles” and discovered numerous social and political changes that needed to take place if mass education was to meet with success. For example, working-class Brazilian families raised their children in a very authoritarian manner. Children were not afforded the opportunity to freely express themselves and exchange ideas that would foster their overall education. Teaching itself was “top-down.” What Freire called “the banking method” of education had to change. Students were envisioned as receptacles obligated to absorb whatever was being fed to them by parents and teachers. Changing this dynamic to allow children to think critically would improve the knowledge base for millions of people if they were free to exchange thoughts and ideas with their teachers.
Freire launched a lifelong campaign to teach literacy to the impoverished. Education structured by dialogue and critical thinking enables learners to grow in confidence and expand on what they already know, instead of being stymied by what they do not know due to lack of formal education in their communities. This process fosters literacy and improves conditions for working-class people. It motivates students to self-learn.