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Popular and Liberating Education

By Alexandre A. Martins

In this new essay in the series Paulo Freire 100!, that celebrates his 100th birthday, Alexandre A. Martins presents the meaning of popular and liberating education in Freire's thought and how this educational model, whether used in informal learning experiences with grassroots communities or in formal education at schools, is a tool to engage people in a process of historical agency.

I begin this text with a story that I heard from a young man from Brazil. He told me how he discovered that his vocation was to be a teacher and a popular educator. (Before I continue, I must explain what popular educator means. This term is a free translation of a Portuguese expression educador popular. Both Portuguese and English versions are similar because of their Latin root. However, the meaning of popular is very different. In Portuguese, popular means something that is for and from the poor. In the Brazilian context, the popular educator is one who teaches the poor, especially those who don’t have an opportunity to go to school and are illiterate. In addition, a popular educator provides political education in order to create an environment, in which people can develop a critical consciousness. Popular education is a method of education of the poor that was deeply developed by Paulo Freire).

This young man said that when he was attending college, he had a professor who marked him forever. He was a second-year student in the philosophy program at a Catholic school, when he met this professor in a course of epistemology. On the one hand, he was fascinated with classical philosophy, especially Plato. On the other hand, he was extremely active among social movements in his country, where he said he found people who introduced him to revolutionary readings, especially Marxism. The classes in epistemology helped him to read critically any kind of texts, philosophical, scientific, journalistic and so forth. They also taught him to organize his knowledge in logical and coherent ways. It was a dense course that required from him many hours of studies to follow the professor’s lectures. However, he shared that he was not totally satisfied with these classes because he questioned himself: “It seems the only valid knowledge is this epistemological one. It is for a very small elite. Don’t the poor have any valid knowledge?” This questioning originated from his experience among the poor in social movements. Then, as an unexpected coincidence, at the second half of this course, the professor said: “It is now time to study the popular culture (just remember what I said before about the meaning of popular in the Brazilian context), the formation of its knowledge, and its historical power.” First, the young man said the professor presented Antonio Gramsci, the first philosopher who recognized the popular culture has knowledge and introduced concepts such as fragmented knowledge, knowledge of resistance, and organic intellectual. Then, he said enthusiastically “we began to study Paulo Freire and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” This study addressed his doubt. He noted that the poor have epistemological knowledge. It is a fragmented and non-systematic knowledge, as Gramsci affirmed. But it is a knowledge that must be recognized because the poor have something to say and to teach us. Paulo Freire provided this young man with what he had missed in his classes of epistemology and his activism among the poor: a way to engage in a productive dialogue with the poor and the ability to lead them to build knowledge which would empower them to become agents of their own history.

I told this story because I’ve thought a lot about the role of education for empowering people, especially the poor and students to be agents of their own history and to be critical thinkers. (Here I just make a distinction between students and the poor in the way I refer to the poor as those who are socially poor and have no access to formal education, or the education to which they had access was so limited and weak. And I refer to students as children, teenagers, and young adults who are attending school, but their education has been lacking in educating for critical thinking). As an eternal student and a teacher, I have had opportunities to teach in different contexts, countries, and languages. Just the story of this young man who found his vocation to be a popular educator, I think this is my primary vocation in education as well. And Paulo Freire has been my partner in all my experiences as an educator in poor communities, but also in schools in Brazil and in the U.S.

School in a Landless Movement camp in Brazil. Photo by Sebastião Salgado

I really believe that education has a fundamental role for the future of a country that craves to develop itself as a democratic nation of justice, freedom, and opportunities for all to flourish with dignity. Moreover, I believe that for such a nation to exist, it is necessary that a process of liberation comes from below, that is, from the poor, the oppressed, from those who are marginalized and deprived of the ability to develop critical consciousness. Paulo Freire says that only the oppressed can liberate themselves and the oppressors. And those who are not technically poor must join the poor, as organic intellectuals (I am thinking especially about academics, professors, and teachers, but other professionals as well, such as physicians, nurses, social workers, economists, lawyers etc.), and in a dialectical process help them build critical consciousness in order to understand the mechanisms of oppression, the structural violence that prevents them from flourishing, and to become historical agents of social transformation.

A famous Freire statement is: “Nobody educates anybody else, nobody educates himself, people educate among themselves mediated by the world” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Education is a process of collective construction in which teachers and students are engaged in a dialogical process open to mutual learning. We learn from each other. We learn from students, we learn from the poor, we learn from the world. We teach them as well, in a cooperative way that values everything that students and the poor bring with them, their world, concrete experiences, and struggles for liberation. It is an educational process for critical consciousness, liberation, and human flourishing by which people create and recreate their world. This education precludes any kind of banking education promoted by elites who insist on being owners of knowledge and force education to be a vertical process of depositing certain types of oriented knowledge into the minds of the oppressed. This process is strongly endorsed in schools through methodologies and systems that affirm the only function of students is to absorb contents presented by teachers. Banking education does not awaken critical consciousness nor does it liberate. Freire says: “An education that does not liberate, makes the oppressed dream of becoming oppressors” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

Freire stresses education as a dialogical process of construction of knowledge and critical consciousness grounded in an integral anthropology. The human being is a unity with conscience of the self in a dialectical relationship with the world. This anthropology grounds an optimistic vision of history where each human being can always create and recreate his/her history. History is made by human beings interconnected among themselves and in a dialectic with history itself. History is not a superior entity that determines a priori our existence. Freire rejects any fatalistic conception of history in which the poor are poor and this condition cannot be different. We must engage with the poor in such a way that they can realize themselves as agents of history. History is a possibility because the human being can make free decisions and there is no historical determinism. Therefore, education has the role of supporting people to be agents of history in a dialogic atmosphere. This is the challenge of popular education as well as of education in schools, colleges, and universities.

The young man I met years ago who shared his witness is a popular educator in slums of São Paulo city. He is also a high school teacher at São Paulo state public schools. In Brazil, teachers have suffered attacked from the federal administration that accuses them to use Freire's method to indoctrinate students in a Communist and gay ideology. Public school teachers serves students in the midst of poor working conditions and for low wages. They do whatever they can to serve their students in a country that has historically neglected basic education. Now, Bolsonaro's administration chose teachers to be scapegoats of his racist, misogynist, and homophobic obsession against everyone who is able to ask critical questions. The history of Brazil is marked by a history neglecting education. Any attempt to change this legacy – as the one led by Paulo Freire resulting in him being exiled in the 1970s, – found attacks and sabotage by conservative elites and governments. The current federal administration has intentionally ignored the role of education for the development of the country and its democracy. Policies to dismantle public education and violent attacks against teachers have been part of Bolsonaro's administration not only supporting it, but leading it in a cultural war against teachers and other educators. This situation shows how education for a dialogic process of construction of critical consciousness and liberation is far from being a reality in Brazil and how the oppressors act against education and democratic ways to attempt promote critical thinking and awareness. Although Brazilian teachers are true heroes serving in a context hostile to them, the truth is that Brazilian educational system never implemented Freire's views. Small experiences have occurred, particularly in popular level, but this nation is still waiting to see a comprehensive educational policy that can lead its children and youth to re-build this nation grounded on critical thinking and liberating dialogue towards social justice.

Paulo Freire was right to say that the oppressor will never promote an education for critical consciousness and liberation of the oppressed. The oppressors, governments and/or economic powers want people who meekly obey, and accept the crumbs from the elites. With this goal, Bosolnaro's cultural war against teachers makes sense because it serves to his project to keep Brazil in the underdevelopment and subjugation. However, Freire's dreams and those who work for people's intellectual emancipation are bigger than this war created by Bolsonaro and his supporters. I reverence all popular educators, teachers and professors around the world who are working in a dialogic way to build knowledge and to develop critical consciousness that will empower their students to be writers of their own history.

*Alexandre A. Martins is an assistant professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, USA. He is a Brazilian who has broad experience using Freire's method in his work in education and health care. His book The Cry of the Poor: liberation ethics and justice in health care (Lexington Books, 2020).

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