Paulo Freire

Comraderie, the educator’s march towards praxis with the popular classes

Paulo Freire, patron saint of Brazilian education
Photo: Archive

By Geanini Hackbardt
From the MST webpage

“No one educates anybody else.
Nobody educates themselves alone.
People educate each other,
mediated by the world”.

Paulo Freire

Paulo learned to read with his parents under the shade of a mango tree. He was a person of presence with integrity. Both kind and hard, when it was necessary. “If someone wants to insult me he can call me a saint”, he used to say. He carried in himself the generosity of a boy and the collectivity of an adult. On May 2, 1997, at the age of 75, the great Brazilian educator departed, leaving a vivid memory of the criticism of the “banking” nature of Brazilian education, something he had pursued throughout his life.

Paulo Reglus Neves Freire was born in Recife, on 19 September 1921, in the Casa Amarela neighbourhood. He moved to Jaboatão, on the Pernambuco coast, when still a child. His father, Joaquim Temístocles Freire, was from Rio Grande do Norte, sergeant in the Army, and his mother, Edeltrudes Neves Freire, was a housewife, embroiderer from Pernambuco. The family, which had relatively good living conditions, gradually fell into poverty, especially after the crisis of 1929. And the boy who was learning to read the world, realized early on the difficulties of survival of the oppressed classes.

Paulo’s own literacy was based on the words of his childhood, on his daily life, which years later certainly influenced his work as a literacy trainer. When the boy arrived at school, his first teacher found him making copies and “reading correctly”. He entered gymnasium at 16, through a scholarship, and since 17 was already teaching Portuguese classes and studying linguistics, on his own.

At the age of 20 Paulo got a place at the Recife Law Faculty and met Elza Maia Costa de Oliveira. He married the primary school teacher and alphabetizer in 1944, and they had 5 children. Elza stimulated Paulo to systematically dedicate himself to studies and collaborated in the elaboration of the method which made him known.

Paulo Freire worked at the Industry Social Service (SESI), coordinating teachers in their work with children and promoting the relationship between school and families. There he understood that abstract discourse was not enough to convince parents, for example, to stop hitting their children. It was necessary to discuss the misery of these people, which led them to violent attitudes. The engagement in the Popular Culture Movement of Recife (MCP) was also fundamental for his pedagogical elaboration and the studies of people’s language, in the search for a way to talk to the families so that they would understand him.

“The political option is fundamental to understanding the educator’s practice. How am I coherent at this moment when I opt for the popular classes and march towards them? How do I try to be coherent in the act of marching towards them? How is it that the march towards them has to be a march, not of those who invade, but of those who aspire to be their comrades, of those who aspire to be compañeros,” he once said in a television interview.

Through his work for the Cultural Extension Service of the University of Recife, of which he was founder and the first director, he developed the first studies of a new Adult Literacy Method. In the interior of Rio Grande do Norte, in the little town of Angicos, in 1962, Paulo Freire found men and women who felt hunger in their heads, hungry to think. A jeep with a loudspeaker announced the classes and summoned the population. But the paper of his notebook was inadequate for the first words. The pencil punctured and tore the sheets. Thus, the Culture Circles replaced the literacy classes, to promote the revolution of education. He materialised the new method by alphabetising 300 male and female workers in 40 hours of lessons. To do this, the educators went into the houses, talked to the people and managed to systematise some 410 common words from the local vocabulary.

Paulo Freire in São Paulo, with the coordination of the I Literacy Congress of MOVA-SP. Credit: Paulo Freire archive, 1990

The following year Freire was invited by President João Goulart and Minister Paulo de Tarso to rethink adult literacy nationwide. In 1964, 20,000 Culture Circles were to be set up for five million illiterate people. The military coup interrupted the work and repressed all the popular mobilisation already achieved. “They said he was a communist, I don’t know what he was. And they made us afraid. For example, he gave me a notebook and gave me a book, some magazines, some things and I didn’t keep any of it. We were afraid and nervous”, recalls Maria da Pureza, one of the students taught to read and write by the educator.

If Freire proposed a liberating pedagogy, the military dictatorship established a pedagogy of fear. He was detained for 70 days and exiled for 16 years, forced to live outside Brazil. In Chile, he was a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) consultant for five years at the Institute for Training and Research in Agrarian Reform, in 1969 he worked at the Centre for Development Studies and Social Change at Harvard University. In Switzerland, in 1970, he was consultant of the World Council of Churches, where he developed literacy programmes for Tanzania and Guinea-Bissau, contributed to campaigns in Peru and Nicaragua. In 1971 he created the Institute of Cultural Action in Geneva. In 1973 he was once again faced with dictatorship, this time in Chile, where General Pinochet accused him of being a subversive. In 1980, the amnesty finally arrived and Paulo Freire became a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo and the University of Campinas.

In this period some of the most important books are published, in which he systematised his praxis, such as “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, “Cultural Action for Freedom”, “Letters to Guinea-Bissau: records of an experience in process” and “Extension or Communication?”

“We are convinced that dialogue with the popular masses is a radical requirement of every authentic revolution. This is what makes it a revolution. This is what distinguishes it from a military coup. It would be naïve to expect coups to establish dialogue with the oppressed masses. What we can expect from them is to offer the masses bait, and to legitimise themselves, or their repressive force. The real revolution, sooner or later, has to inaugurate a courageous dialogue with the masses. Its legitimacy lies in its dialogue with them, not in the bait and lie. It cannot fear the masses, their expressiveness, their effective participation in power. It cannot deny them. It cannot fail to be accountable to them. To talk about the successes, the mistakes, the errors, or the difficulties. Our conviction is that the sooner dialogue begins, the more revolution there will be”, he points out in the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.149).

In 1989, Paulo Freire became Secretary of Education in São Paulo. His mandate was marked by the restoration of teachers’ wages, the revision of the curriculum and, of course, the implementation of literacy programmes for young people and adults. He received several awards, all over the world, in recognition of the relevance of his work in the field of education. In April 1997, he launched his last book, “Pedagogy of Autonomy: Knowledge essential to educational practice”, dying shortly afterwards, victim of a myocardial infarction.

In the construction of the pillars of Freirean pedagogy, the characteristics of being are central: to be curious, to be unfinished, being in the needs the other, and the certainty that the world and the human being are constantly in transformation. For him, it was necessary to read the world, thematise (on everything that puts calluses in the hands of the working class), and to problematise. It is necessary to learn how to learn, learn how to live together, learn how to do, learn how to be and, above all, know how to learn why.

The liberating and revolutionary power of Paulo Freire’s work would not go unnoticed by the oppressive classes. So much so that even today it bothers the Brazilian right wing and the most conservative spirits. “Paulo’s legacy is the legacy of justice, of honesty, the legacy of dignifying people, the legacy of well-being, the legacy of love”, says Nita Freire, widow from the educator’s second marriage, in an interview with the MST website about the Bolsonarist attempt to defame his work.

Declared in 2012 the patron saint of Brazilian education, due to the national and international importance of his ideas and educational practices, Paulo Freire showed the world that it is possible to build a humanising, transforming and emancipating education. That is why it is scandalous that Brazil still has 11 million illiterate people, according to data from Agência Brasil in 2020.


Instituto Paulo Freire. Available HERE

Cartilha do MST, Paulo Freire vive, 2005.

Documentário Paulo Freire – Contemporâneo. Available HERE

Alfabetizacão em Angicos – A Pedagogia de Paulo Freire – Sala de Notícias Canal Futura. Available HERE

Analfabetismo cai, mas Brasil ainda tem 11 milhões sem ler e escrever. Available HERE

*Editado por Solange Engelmann