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Born on September 19, 1921 to middle class parents in Recife, Brazil, Freire became familiar with poverty and hunger during the 1929 Great Depression. These experiences would shape his concerns for the poor and would help to construct his particular educational viewpoint.
Freire enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Recife in 1943. He also studied philosophy, more specifically phenomenology, and the psychology of language. Although admitted to the legal bar, he never actually practiced law but instead worked as a teacher in secondary schools teaching Portuguese. In 1944, he married Elza Maia Costa de Oliveira, a fellow teacher. The two worked together for the rest of her life and had five children.
In 1946, Freire was appointed Director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in the State of Pernambuco, the Brazilian state of which Recife is the capital. Working primarily among the illiterate poor, Freire began to embrace a non-orthodox form of what could be considered  liberation theology. In Brazil at that time, literacy was a requirement for voting in presidential elections.
In 1961, he was appointed director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University, and in 1962 he had the first opportunity for significant application of his theories, when 300 sugarcane workers were taught to read and write in just 45 days. In response to this experiment, the Brazilian government approved the creation of thousands of cultural circles across the country.
In 1964, a military coup put an end to that effort, Freire was imprisoned as a traitor for 70 days. After a brief exile in Bolivia, Freire worked in Chile for five years for the Christian Democratic Agrarian Reform Movement and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In 1967, Freire published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom. He followed this with his most famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published in Portuguese in 1968.
On the strength of reception of his work, Freire was offered a visiting professorship at Harvard University in 1969. The next year, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was published in both Spanish and English, vastly expanding its reach. Because of the political feud between Freire, a Christian socialist and the successive authoritarian military dictatorships it wasn't published in his own country of Brazil until 1974, when General Ernesto Geisel took control of Brazil and began his process of cultural liberalisation.
After a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Freire moved to Geneva, Switzerland to work as a special education adviser to the World Council of Churches. During this time Freire acted as an advisor on education reform in former Portuguese colonies in Africa, particularly Guinea Bissau and Mozambique.
In 1979, he was able to return to Brazil, and moved back in 1980. Freire joined the Workers' Party (PT) in the city of São Paulo, and acted as a supervisor for its adult literacy project from 1980 to 1986. When the PT prevailed in the municipal elections in 1988, Freire was appointed Secretary of Education for São Paulo.
In 1986, his wife Elza died. Freire married Maria Araújo Freire, who continues with her own radical educational work.
Freire died of heart failure on May 2, 1997.
- King Baudouin International Development Prize 1980. Paulo Freire was the very first person to receive this prize. He was nominated for the prize by Dr. Mathew Zachariah, Professor of Education at the University of Calgary.
- Prize for Outstanding Christian Educators with his wife Elza
- UNESCO 1986 Prize for Education for Peace
Paulo Freire contributed a philosophy of education that came not only from the more classical approaches stemming from Plato, but also from modern Marxist and anti-colonialist thinkers. In fact, in many ways his Pedagogy of the Oppressed may be best read as an extension of, or reply to, Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, which emphasized the need to provide native populations with an education which was simultaneously new and modern (rather than traditional) and anti-colonial (not simply an extension of the culture of the colonizer).
Freire is best-known for his attack on what he called the "banking" concept of education, in which the student was viewed as an empty account to be filled by the teacher. The basic critique was not new — Rousseau's conception of the child as an active learner was already a step away from tabula rasa (which is basically the same as the "banking concept"), and thinkers like John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead were strongly critical of the transmission of mere "facts" as the goal of education. Freire's work, however, updated the concept and placed it in context with current theories and practices of education, laying the foundation for what is now called critical pedagogy.
More challenging is Freire's strong aversion to the teacher-student dichotomy. This dichotomy is admitted in Rousseau and constrained in Dewey, but Freire comes close to insisting that it should be completely abolished. This is hard to imagine in absolute terms, since there must be some enactment of the teacher-student relationship in the parent-child relationship, but what Freire suggests is that a deep reciprocity be inserted into our notions of teacher and student. Freire wants us to think in terms of teacher-student and student-teacher; that is, a teacher who learns and a learner who teaches, as the basic roles of classroom participation.
This is one of the few attempts anywhere to implement something like democracy as an educational method and not merely a goal of democratic education. Even Dewey, for whom democracy was a touchstone, did not integrate democratic practices fully into his methods, though this was in part a function of Dewey's attitudes toward individuality. In its strongest early form this kind of classroom has been criticized on the grounds that it can mask rather than overcome the teacher's authority.
Freire's work has also been subject to criticism. Rich Gibson has critiqued his work as a cul-de-sac, a combination of old-style socialism (wherever Freire was not) and liberal reformism (wherever Freire was). Paul V. Taylor, in his "Texts of Paulo Freire," comes close to calling Freire a plagiarist, while Gibson notes Freire borrows heavily from Hegel's "Phenomenology." Gibson's dissertation which examines Freire's theory, practice, and history in a Marxist context is the sharpest critique of Freire to date.
Freire's major exponents in North America are Peter McLaren, Donaldo Macedo and Henry Giroux. One of McLaren's classic texts, Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter, expounds upon Freire's impact in the field of critical education. In Mexico, La Fundacion McLaren has developed an ongoing conversation with Freire's work at http://www.fundacionmclaren.org/
In 1991, the Paulo Freire Institute was established in São Paulo to extend and elaborate upon his theories of popular education. The Institute now has projects in many countries and is currently headquartered at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies where it actively maintains the Freire archives. The director is Dr. Carlos Torres, a UCLA professor and author of Freirean books including La praxis educativa de Paulo Freire (1978).
Paulo Freire's work also had a profound impact on Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa.
Upon his death, Freire was at work on a book of Ecopedagogy, a platform of work carried on by many of the Freire Institutes and Freirean Associations around the world today. It has been influential in helping to develop planetary education projects such as the Earth Charter as well as countless international grassroots campaigns per the spirit of Freirean popular education generally.
- Mann, Bernhard, The Pedagogical and Political Concepts of Mahatma Gandhi and Paulo Freire. In: Claußen, B. (Ed.) International Studies in Political Socialization and Education. Bd. 8. Hamburg 1996. ISBN 3-926952-97-0
- Aronowitz, Stanley (1993). Paulo Freire's radical democratic humanism. In P. McLaren & P. Leonard. (Eds.), Paulo Freire: A critical encounter (pp.9-)
- Adult literacy
- Adult education
- Critical consciousness
- Critical pedagogy
- Marxist Humanism
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed
- Popular education
- Praxis intervention
- Raya Dunayevskaya
- Social Reconstructionism
- Teaching for social justice
- Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed
- Steve Biko
- Frantz Fanon
- Lewis Gordon
- Mahatma Gandhi
- Nigel Gibson
Paulo Freire Institutes around the world
- The Paulo and Nita Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy
- The Paulo Freire Institute at UCLA
- The Paulo Freire Institute of South Africa
- Instituto Paulo Freire of Spain
- Instituto Paulo Freire, Brasil
- Paulo Freire Institute, Malta
- Paulo Freire Research Center, Finland
- Paulo Freire Freedom School in Tucson, Arizona
- Freire Charter School in Philadelphia, PA, USA
- The Center of Critical Pedagogy, Tel Aviv, Israel
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
- PopEd Toolkit - Exercises/Links Inspired by Freire's Work
- Rich Gibson on Freire
- Interview with Maria Araújo Freire on her marriage to Paulo Freire
- Interview excerpt with Paulo Freire on liberation theology and Marx (YouTube, subtitled in English)
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