Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a Brazilian philosopher and educator, best known for his model of “critical consciousness,” a forerunner of critical pedagogy. Freire considered education a force for empowerment and liberation. As such, he argued a pedagogical approach should be developed with rather than for the students, especially those who come from oppressed, marginalized populations. Freire’s model, developed to empower the oppressed, encouraged students to critique the educational situation as well as the subject, highlighted the connections between individual problems and their social context, and emphasized the importance of a dialectical coordination of inquiry and learning process.
Born to middle class parents, his father’s death during the Depression impoverished the family. This experience greatly influenced Freire’s philosophy, pedagogy, and politics. The family’s religious tradition was mixed—his father was a spiritualist, his mother a devout Roman Catholic—and Freire was raised a Catholic. In college he participated in Catholic Action, a religious organization that challenged laypeople to express their faith through acts of service, especially to the poor. This challenge and experience motivated Freire to develop adult literacy programs in northeastern Brazil. At the time, literacy was a prerequisite for voting in elections.
Freire expressed his ideology as equal parts Jesus Christ and Karl Marx. He rejected both a magical Christianity of divine intervention, which led to passivity on the part of the poor, and a theology of social service, which sought only to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Instead, he advocated a spirituality of human action aimed at dismantling oppressive forces and structures. Although he often expressed frustration and disappointment with the institutional church’s failure to take up the prophetic call for the revolutionary transformation of society, he maintained close ties with many Catholic clergy, particularly those associated with Liberation Theology.
His left wing politics, his close ties to the socialist government of João Goulart, and a belief that his literacy programs were too political led to his imprisonment by the military dictatorship in 1964 and the banning of his writings. Freire escaped, fled to Chile, and then spent sixteen years in exile, including a year as a visiting professor at Harvard and ten years as an education advisor to the World Council of Churches. Throughout his exile copies of his seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, were smuggled into Brazil, where it served as a shared point of reference for intellectuals and human rights advocates. Freire returned to Brazil in 1980, where he taught at the University of São Paulo and served as the Minister of Education for the City of São Paulo.
Darrell Boyd, “The Critical Spirituality of Paulo Freire,” International Journal of Lifelong Education 31 (November-December 2012), pp. 759-78.
Rebecca L. Hegar, “Paulo Freire: Neglected Mentor for Social Work,” Journal of Progressive Human Services 23 (2012), pp. 159-77.
Jonathan Warren, “‘A Little with God Is a Lot:’ Popular Religion and Human Security in the Land of the Brazilian Colonels,” Religion and Human Security: A Global Perspective, eds. James K. Wellman and Clark B. Lombardi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 130-49.