Paulo Reglus Neves Freire was a professor and philosopher known for his work with adult illiterates and for promoting critical pedagogy, a theory and philosophy of education. He believed that each student has a way of thinking critically and is not just a passive recipient of knowledge or education from a teacher. He studied the relationship between teaching and learning and endorsed that the teacher should help students in developing freedom of thought that would enable them to use their knowledge to take constructive action. Freire grew up in poverty and hunger during the Great Depression of the 1930s and this explained his concerns about helping the poor. Poverty and related difficulties made him lag behind in social development and his ability to learn was severely diminished due to constant hunger and malnourishment. Eventually when his misfortunes ended and he got the opportunity to seek out a better life for himself, he decided that he wanted to contribute towards helping the poor. He became an educator and started working with the illiterate poor. He developed his own educational theories and taught hundreds of poor workers to read and write in just 45 days. He is the author of the book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ which is one of the foundational texts of the critical pedagogy movement.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born into a middle-class family in Recife, Brazil in 1921. He was still a young boy when the Great Depression of 1929 engulfed the world economy and he was pushed into a life of poverty and hunger.
His family moved to a less expensive city of Jaboatao dos Guararapes in 1931 and his father died in 1933 leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. The young boy was exposed to a harsh life marked by poverty and constant hunger. These factors greatly diminished his learning ability and he ended up four grades behind.
His childhood experiences instilled in him empathy for the poor and less fortunate, and he was deeply motivated to do something to make their lives better.
Gradually his family’s fortunes improved and he was able to pursue higher education at reputable institutions. He joined Law School at the University of Recife in 1943. He also studied philosophy, and the psychology of language.
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He started working as a teacher of Portuguese upon his graduation. In spite of being admitted to the legal bar he never practiced law.
He was appointed the Director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in the state of Pernambuco in 1946. While here he worked with illiterate poor and developed his own non-orthodox form of liberation theology.
He became the director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University in 1961 and became involved in an educational project aimed at dealing with mass illiteracy in 1962. Through the adoption of his theories 300 sugarcane workers were taught to read and write within 45 days.
This initial success of his theories prompted the Brazilian government to extend the movement to several states. During 1963-64 the government drew up a plan to establish 2000 cultural circles to reach 2, 000,000 illiterates.
The supposed plan could not be realized as a military coup in 1964 brought the existing regime to an end and Freire was imprisoned for 70 days following the coup.
He first went to Bolivia on a brief exile and then moved to Chile where he started working for the Christian Democratic Agrarian Reform Movement and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
He published his first book ‘Education as the Practice of Freedom’ in 1967 and followed it with his seminal work, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ in 1968, originally in Portuguese. This book became very popular and was soon translated into other languages like English and Spanish.
He was offered a visiting professorship at Harvard University in 1969.
He was appointed the special educational advisor to the Department of Education, World Congress of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland in 1970. During this time he advised former Portuguese colonies in Africa on educational reforms.
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In 1980, he was made the supervisor of adult literacy project for the Workers’ Party in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a post he held till 1986.
His book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ is considered one of the foundational texts of critical pedagogy. He advocates building a newer model of relationship between the teacher, student and society. He proposed that the learner in a teacher-student relationship should be treated as a co-creator of knowledge and not as a passive recipient of knowledge.
Awards & Achievements
The King Balduin prize for International Development was bestowed upon him in Belgium in 1980.
He was awarded the UNESCO 1986 prize for Education for Peace.
He was presented with the Andres Bello Inter-American Prize for Education by the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1992.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Elza Maia Costa de Oliveira, a teacher, in 1944. The couple had five children and was happily married till Elza’s death in 1986.
He was very broken after the death of his wife and by chance reconnected with a former pupil of his, Maria Araujo. The two eventually fell in love and married.
He died of heart failure in 1997 at the age of 75.