Paulo Freire’s Radical Method Was Rooted in Brazil’s Historical Inequalities

Paulo Freire, who was born one hundred years ago today, came of age in a country where half of all adults were illiterate and therefore disenfranchised. Freire’s ideas were forged in a uniquely Brazilian context.

Paulo Freire, 1963. (Brazilian National Archives)

In 2012, Dilma Rousseff signed into law Decree No. 12.612, making socialist pedagogue Paulo Freire the official patron of education in Brazil. It was a fitting tribute to one of the international left’s most beloved icons, and a seemingly uncontroversial one considering the grandfatherly Freire, who today would have turned one hundred years old, is among the country’s most celebrated intellectuals.

However, from the moment pen touched paper, Rousseff’s decree has set off a firestorm of criticism. Reaching a fever pitch after Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in the 2018 presidential election, the controversy around Freire’s influence has become a topic of heated national discussion and the fuel for countless right-wing conspiracies of “Marxist indoctrination.”

What, though, does the battle over Freire actually tell us about the state of Brazilian society in 2021? What does it tell us about the meaning of Freire’s legacy on the centennial of his birth?

Considering his political accomplishments at home were always overshadowed by his intellectual reputation abroad, it seems odd to even be debating Freire’s status in Brazil. In the late 1960s, having been exiled by the military dictatorship, Freire was greeted with widespread international acclaim for his radical approach to pedagogy and his innovative methods for promoting literacy among the world’s most disenfranchised. His writings — including the global best seller Pedagogy of the Oppressed — were immediately published in English and began to attract the attention of educators and young people in the United States and Europe. Ironically, for a thinker who had always emphasized the importance of social context, Freire’s method was often prone to distortions by overly enthusiastic pedagogues in the North who imagined his radical methods as a panacea for any and all social ills.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the extent of Freire’s influence has been subject to a different kind of distortion. For one, the “patron” honorific awarded by Rousseff has led many — not just the Right — to mistakenly think that there once existed some kind of overarching Freire-inspired national education policy. In fact, Freirean pedagogy has never held any major influence over the country’s educational system — not even in the era of re-democratization, when Freire had a hand in shaping public policy. The one time Freire came close to heading a far-reaching national literacy campaign, the government was — tellingly — overthrown by the armed forces.

Following his return from exile in 1980, Freire did work as a university professor and served as secretary of education in São Paulo for the socialist mayor Luiza Erundina (1989–1991), then affiliated with the Workers’ Party (PT). But those initiatives were limited to the municipality of São Paulo. Moreover, during its thirteen years in government, and despite achieving important progressive advances in higher education, the PT never managed to reform primary or secondary education — where Freire’s methodology could easily have assumed national prominence.

The question is: Why has the far right been up in arms over an almost completely fictional Freirean influence in Brazilian education? One answer lies in the country’s history: accusations of left-wing indoctrination through grade-level instruction have been a common practice in Brazil since the beginning of the dictatorship in the 1960s. That tactic lives on with figures like Olavo de Carvalho, who, writing about “Gramscian indoctrination” and “cultural Marxism,” insists that “if Lenin was the theorist of the putsch, [Gramsci] was the strategist of a psychological revolution paving the way to the coup d’état.” Carvalho’s equation of the Gramscian concept of “counter-hegemony” with brainwashing and the undermining of Western values is pat far-right culture-war fodder. But where Freire’s place in Brazilian history is concerned, there’s more to the story.

Like its counterparts in the United States and Europe, the Brazilian ultraright views education and culture as playing a central role in the creation and consolidation of public consensus. These culture wars are especially useful for conservatives because they push public attention away from economic policy and material struggles, instead prioritizing fights over “worldviews.”

In Brazil, the Escola Sem Partido (Nonpartisan School, or ESP) group was the first organized movement, before even Bolsonaro, to step boldly into the culture wars. Their founding charter is the idea that Brazilian schools are ground zero for ideological manipulation, and that the Left — via Freire, in particular — has sealed its cultural hegemony there.

Of course, Freire was bound to become an adversary of the ESP movement: after all, it was his position that schooling and literacy were important fronts in the fight against capitalism. Beyond the far-right ideologues, there were even respected pedagogues who accused Freire of going too far and confusing education with politics. Whether right or wrong, that characterization overlooks the fact that education has been one of Brazil’s central political problems for more than a century. And without some knowledge of that history, one can’t fully appreciate all that Freire represents to Brazilian society.

Illiterate and Disenfranchised

In 1882, an electoral reform bill known as the Saraiva Law introduced a new form of political exclusion into what was already a rigidly hierarchical Brazilian society: illiterate people were barred from voting. In truth, the “literary census,” as politician Ruy Barbosa called it, was not a Brazilian invention. It was common in many Latin American republics to use “ignorance” — rather than income or property, as was common in Europe — as a pretext to disenfranchise the population. According to the 1890 national census, 82.63 percent of the overall population of Brazil fell into the “illiterate” category.

The concept of illiteracy in Brazil was thus born as a political question, although it wasn’t recognized as such. In fact, in its earliest years, literacy was defined by the imperatives of maintaining law and order rather than promoting the public good. Brazil’s turn-of-the-century agrarian elite was at the time engaged in a power struggle with an increasingly centralized state administration, the consolidation of which depended on creating a more respectable — and manageable — civil society.

Against the backdrop of an expanding civil society and the recent abolition of slavery, illiteracy came to mean much more than an individual’s inability to read or write. It was deeply bound up with efforts — anti-vagrancy laws, public morality clauses included — to control an unruly working-class majority in the nascent public sphere that might actually represent a threat to the still forming social order.

Whereas Brazil’s 1824 Imperial Constitution had enshrined a racially defined social hierarchy, the 1891 Republican Constitution sought to convey the idea that through education, anyone could become an active member of the political community. However, crucially, the 1891 Constitution also removed the previously existing guarantee of primary-level instruction for all citizens. This was a brazen case of giving citizens formal rights while surreptitiously depriving them of the material means to achieve them.

The state called on Brazilians to leave behind their ignorance and embrace their newfound civic rights by educating themselves, while at the same time restricting access to education (or, what amounted to the same, doing nothing to address the social inequalities that frustrated access). Education thus became a key ideological edifice for the grossly unequal Brazilian republic born in 1889: entrenched economic and social inequalities were made to look like transitory differences that would be overcome through — ultimately illusory — education opportunities.

Disenfranchisement of the illiterate remained in effect until 1985 (the final year of the military dictatorship), making Brazil the last country in the Americas to give illiterates the right to vote. Freire’s drive to politicize education makes much more sense in light of this historic exclusion of the Brazilian masses, based on their lack of access to formal instruction. If illiteracy was a way to naturalize inequalities, literacy campaigns became, for Freire, a way to upend the supposedly “natural” order of a society where ignorance and poverty were seen as synonymous and mutually reinforcing.

The National Literacy Program

In 1962, Brazil was enjoying an all too rare period of democratic rule. Progressive president João Goulart was especially concerned with improving social indicators in Brazil’s poorest states in the country’s northeast, and he invited agrarian and urban social movements to join in the effort. However, in his quest to politically empower the country’s poor, he ran up against the 1891 Constitution and the hard reality that most workers in Brazil, the majority illiterate, could not vote.

Meanwhile, Calazans Fernandes, secretary of education for Rio Grande do Norte — one of the states with the highest illiteracy races — had invited Freire the same year to design a literacy project for the poor municipality Angicos. The project was conducted in collaboration with the SUDENE (Superintendence for the Development of the Northeast) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Alliance for Progress.

The project that Freire oversaw catered to 380 residents of Angicos who attended classes totaling forty hours. The final class in April 1963 was attended by president João Goulart, the economist Celso Furtado of the SUDENE, and general Humberto Castelo Branco, later to become the first military president after the 1964 coup. According to Calazans Fernandes, Castelo Branco approached him after the class and said: “young man, you’re fattening up rattlesnakes here in these backlands [sertões].” The project managed — astonishingly — to teach literacy to three hundred participants in just over a month.

The adult literacy methods of Freire would soon be applied in the state of São Paulo, a pioneering project conducted by the São Paulo State Student Union. Soon, similar projects spread across the country. On January 21, 1964, Presidential Decree No. 53.464 enacted a “National Literacy Program [PNA] based on the Paulo Freire System to be implemented through the Ministry of Education and Culture”.

Education Minister Júlio Sambaqui decided that Freire and other members of the Angicos Literacy Project should be included in a committee responsible for implementing the initiative. The project called for the creation of 60,870 “culture circles,” the term Freire preferred to literacy classes, throughout the country, each one lasting three months, and attending to 1,834,200 illiterate individuals between the ages of fifteen and forty-five.

During that same time period, Freire’s methods were turning heads internationally — President John F. Kennedy had even scheduled a visit to Angicos in December 1963 (cancelled after his assassination on November 1963). The National Literacy Project was scheduled to launch on May 13, 1964, promising to be one of the greatest educational achievements of the twentieth century. However, the coup d’état in April 1964 brought those plans to an abrupt halt. The armed forces ousted João Goulart, and in June 1964, Freire was imprisoned for seventy days. Following his release, he went into exile.

This was to be the closest Freire ever came to altering the gross inequities of Brazilian society.

Education for the Masses

The Freire method was not just about teaching literacy — it was also, simultaneously, a process of politicization. From his earliest days, Freire had thrown overboard all preconceived notions of the illiteracy problem: the idea that the illiterate person is an ignoramus just waiting to be given the necessary, missing instruction. Freire himself was reluctant to even use the term “illiterate,” citing an insight brought to his attention by one of his own students: one cannot say that an Indian, for example, is illiterate. The Indian comes from a reality that does not know writing, and for someone to be considered illiterate they must first live in a context which knows writing and where they were deprived access to it.

In other words, illiteracy exists and is a problem only vis-à-vis the social relations that surround it. The specific problem that concerned Freire in Brazil was oppression and the fact that literacy abetted it. Freire was not concerned with combatting social exclusion per se — as though literacy were a magic portal to inclusion — but with a whole elitist paradigm that could exclude people by labelling them as ignorant and denigrate any knowledge they might have as meaningless or “primitive.” Freire was there to remind Brazilians that the poor were not excluded because their “ignorance” could somehow disturb the political system; it was because they were a threat to the political system that working-class Brazilians were branded as ignorant and consequently disenfranchised.

This new perspective was not lost on radical pedagogue Henry A. Giroux, for whom both literacy and illiteracy are “ideological constructions”: ways of separating individuals and groups while assigning them different social functions. Freire’s cultural circles were about literacy first and foremost, but they were also about pulling back the ideological veil and questioning the social relations that produce and sustain literacy and illiteracy (i.e., those who read and those who don’t; those who know and those who don’t; those who give orders and those who follow).

Freire always argued that in the teacher-pupil relation, “No one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world.” Dialogical pedagogy, the term Freire preferred, meant taking as a starting point a radical equality between individuals and social groups.

This was not just an ethical or political stance for Freire, but a way to revolutionize our approach of what it meant to know the world. Following in the anti-hierarchical spirit of 1968 and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Freire wanted to break down the barriers between high and popular culture, academic and popular knowledge, which he saw as expressions of inequality in education and knowledge. And, as Freire always liked to remind, he was not interested in just elevating popular culture and knowledge to a respectable position; he wanted to break down the oppressive system responsible for making those distinctions in the first place. Or, as he put it: “When education is not liberatory, the dream of the oppressed is to be the oppressor.”

It was not Freire who politicized the issue of education in Brazil. Education was political from the outset: formal education was one of the foremost tools for social exclusion and political disenfranchisement, and, most egregiously of all, it was presented in the guise of democratic reform. By articulating his own political vision of education, Freire was in one sense simply giving the lie to Brazil’s supposedly democratic system and announcing the need to rethink public instruction so that schools could be an institution of the masses, not simply another elite tool for managing them.

A Federal Court in Rio de Janeiro recently issued a ruling against Bolsonaro, stating that the government cannot make defamatory remarks against Freire (and there have been legions of such remarks). This is an encouraging sign, especially since the varying fortunes of Freire’s name — vilified or championed — is a good thermometer of where politics are in Brazil. Along with other radical intellectuals in Brazil, like Anísio Teixeira, Florestan Fernandes and Darcy Ribeiro, Freire’s name is still associated with the idea that, despite all odds, democracy can be revived and society transformed. And so long as Brazilians continue to struggle for a more egalitarian society, any mention of Freire will continue to send the right wing into fits of panic.