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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2255

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.

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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, Chile, by accepting a position with the Agrarian Reform Training and Research Institute and by serving as a consultant to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Freire worked for five years in Chile as an adult educator connected to the agrarian reform movement, a philosophical undertaking designed not to increase production for the overseers but to humanize the industry for the workers. Freire believed the peasants were conditioned and dehumanized by history and society and that they had been forced through traditional education to adapt to the values of the majority. As an alternative, he designed classroom activities to enrich rather than replace the peasant culture. His pedagogical methods investigated the background and customs that shaped the lives of his students, and his training focused on terms and concepts of importance to their daily activities. The reading vocabulary for these students therefore concentrated on familiar words such as “shanty,” “well,” “work,” “plow,” and “slum,” which led to known themes such as housing, dirt, clothing, and health. By slowly piecing together these words and themes, Freire was successful in guiding the peasants toward identifying concepts in written form. His national literacy campaign won Chile a UNESCO award for successfully eliminating illiteracy among the adult population.

In the late 1960’s, Freire accepted an invitation to be a visiting professor at the Harvard Center for Studies in Education and Development. It was a chaotic period in U.S. history, and the Brazilian was enlightened by the discovery that political and economic injustice was not limited to the Third World. As he observed the active political protests of the period, engendered by the economic and social inequities experienced by African Americans, women, and youth, he became aware of the universality of inequality and acquired an increased interest in violence as a means of altering the status quo.

Between 1969 and 1970, Freire wrote two articles for the Harvard Educational Review that were reprinted in a booklet, Cultural Action for Freedom. The work reemphasized his thesis that education could not be neutral. In 1970, his masterwork, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was translated and published in the United States. It offered many American educators their first taste of Freire’s philosophy. Many of those initially examining the theories were appalled by the sprinkling of quoted material from world leaders whom some educators considered unsavory, including Communist leaders Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, and Mao Zedong. Pedagogy of the Oppressed was critiqued for its socialism and justification of revolutionary violence, as well as its vagueness, redundancy, and complex sentence structure. Some considered the work a handbook for revolutionary education, advocating revolt as the only method for social and political change.

In 1972, Freire relocated to Geneva, Switzerland, to work as the special education consultant to the World Council of Churches. In this capacity, he traveled to assist the educational programs of newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. He was also chairman of the executive committee of the Institut d’Action Culturelle, a nonprofit organization created to train educators in the Freirean method. This training process does not offer a method or a final solution but instead promotes the theory that respect for people and open dialogue can lead to social justice.

In 1979, Freire returned to his homeland under political amnesty and accepted a faculty position at the University of São Paulo. While at the university, he found money to offer teachers an equitable salary, empowered teachers and parents, challenged students to think critically, had damaged buildings repaired, and continued to help the poor and disenfranchised through efforts to change the curriculum. He died on May 2, 1997, of a heart attack.


Freire’s influence extended beyond the classroom; he had an impact on national development through the enfranchisement of thousands of people in South America who acquired literacy through his teachings. Freire offers something to educators, Christians, Marxists, and minorities, and he has been viewed variously as a neo-Marxist, an idealist, a communist, a “theologian in disguise,” a phenomenologist, and an existentialist.

The Freirean method of education, though considered radical and subversive at the time, is really quite simple. Freire’s main tenet was that it is easier to educate if one can communicate. He believed that students must be addressed in their idiom, study that with which they identify, and learn more than what is offered through the traditional curriculum and textbooks. He felt that if schools negate the students’ day-to-day experience and their culture and language, students will ultimately resist learning by refusing to hear the language of the teacher. Consequently, he believed that the conventional form of education—the “banking system,” in which the teacher makes a deposit of knowledge and the student listens, memorizes, and regurgitates—would not halt the process of dehumanization he encountered among the population. It was his belief that students and teachers should realize that knowledge is an ongoing process and that both groups learn from and teach each other. To ensure that this exchange took place, he employed dialogue and introduced critical thinking to obviate what he called the “culture of silence” that ruled the lives of many of those with whom he interacted.

Through the use of generative words, those with which the student was familiar, Freire enabled thousands of illiterate people not only to read and write but also to become more fully human and to be in their world, not merely of it. Generative words carry emotion and meaning; they express the anxiety, fears, and dreams of the group. This emotional push moves the student toward literacy as well as enlightenment. Freire compared this mental liberation to childbirth in that the student leaves the process as a new person.

Although Freire was obviously influenced by world leaders, writers, and educators who came before him, he developed a perspective uniquely his own in relation to the milieu and reality of his world. Because the majority of his work was carried out in South America, his impact is most evident there, where he gave thousands of the illiterate population skills, liberation, and hope. This, however, is not the limit of his reach. Through his work with the World Council of Churches, he extended his method throughout most of the Third World and served as a model for educators worldwide, particularly in higher education, who have detected something inherently missing in standardized curriculums and who seek a better way.

Additional Reading

Collins, Denis. Paulo Freire: His Life, Works, and Thought. New York: Paulist Press, 1997. This book, written by a Jesuit educator, provides biographical information and an overview of Freire’s educational and sociological theories.

Elias, John L. Conscientization and Deschooling. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976. The work compares and contrasts the educational and theological theories of Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. It contains some biographical information and illustrates the effect religion had on Freire’s educational philosophy and content. An extensive bibliography for both Freire and Illich is included.

Elias, John L. Paulo Freire: Pedagogue of Liberation. Malabar, Fla.: Kreiger Press, 1994. The text analyzes the historical background of Freire’s work and the concepts included in his theories of education. It also examines the influences on his work, from existentialism to Catholic theology to Marxism, and explores the impact of Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, and others on his beliefs.

Horton, Myles, and Paulo Freire. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. One of two works that Freire created in collaboration, the book is written in interview format and features a dialogue that compares Freire’s teaching methods to liberal educational programs in the United States and elsewhere.

MacLaren, Peter, and Peter Leonard. Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter. London: Routledge Press, 1993. A collection of essays by imminent scholars and educators reflecting their assessments of Freire’s life, theories, and methods.

Shor, Ira. Freire for the Classroom: A Sourcebook for Liberatory Teaching. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1987. Designed for use by educators, the book demonstrates various ways in which Freire’s pedagogical approaches can be adapted to a variety of classrooms. Noneducators will find the work understandable.

Shor, Ira, and Paulo Freire. A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey, 1987. This work, written in interview format, contains a definition of the dialogical method employed by Freire, discussion of the fears and risks associated with transformation, and a design for overcoming language difficulties with students. The focus of the work is on classroom activities and makes this work of particular interest to educators.

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