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I started this work with the history of Paulo Freire, a human being who later on became internationally famous and, I believe, deformed, romanticized and perhaps misunderstood. I tried to understand and share the environment that nurtured Freire's ideas and practices in Brazil. This led me to produce a necessarily brief overview of Brazil's political, social and economic development between 1930-1964, and to explore the ideas (ideology?) that either originated from or produced (depending on your point of view) the development of Brazil and Freire's educational philosophy.
Paulo Freire was and is, like each of us, a human being ingrained in a specific historical epoch, a social class, a national context and an intellectual tradition, elements which may both form and deform us. After a careful reading of several sources and re-readings of Freire, I am persuaded that his context during the 1950's was that of developmental capitalist nationalism, within which he acted as a liberal member of a Catholic intellectual élite. The context of the ideas first expressed by Freire has been presented in the first section and it does not sustain the vision of a "revolutionary" Paulo Freire as per the Marxist "Third World" formulations that we have seen in the sixties and seventies. Yet, I believe, that is how we saw Freire when we adopted his ideas.
In the second section, I turn towards the many ways in which Freire has been -- and is -- read, understood (misunderstood?) and perceived in the United States. I try to identify the factors that constitute obstacles to the comprehension of Freire's ideas and practices; obstacles that are both of a practical and philosophical nature, and which have a lot to do with the fact that U.S. intellectuals -- natives or residents -- are formed in an environment which is quite different from that of a middle-class intellectual who is born and raised in a Latin American country (in this case, Brazil). I conclude that the urgency to understand a romanticized Freire in order to act "radically" within the United States through the deliberate adoption of what was considered a "Third World revolutionary approach," led many educators to the creation of "Freire-inspired programs" in a spontaneous and uncritical way.
In section three, I first try to describe the type of persons who integrated the "we" to which I refer in Section Two. I offer a summary of the way in which we saw ourselves and what we believed to be our motivations. Then I make a 180 degree turn to declare that "we" never confronted or critically examined who we are and what motivated us within a non-idealist framework. To provide a sense of balance, I examine the issues in question from a materialist perspective, and with perspectives of those who have criticized "educational radicals" in the United States. I then present Alvin Gouldner, an author of a theory that makes quite a great deal of sense to me, and which offers an alternative means for all to explore who we are, where we come from, and where we want to go.
The fourth section is aimed at describing the basis of the activities conducted in the United States by some practitioners of Freire's ideas (mostly Latinos), as I perceived those activities between 1978-1983. At the middle of the section, I introduce the fact that, during 1980-1982, a federally-funded project emerged within which "we" tried to work together, and what resulted from it. It may seem that I inverted the chronology here, but it is not so, as the federally-funded stage came after we had worked in liberating education for several years.
Section Five offers a general account of specific problems encountered by practitioners of liberating education due to the fact that we work in the U.S. society. I refer to individual and institutional problems, both with the entrenched system and among ourselves. I summarize two non-Latino sources that I consider "a must" for understanding the practice of liberating education in the United States. I react to the sources that are summarized from a Latino perspective, both mine and the one I obtained from others while residing in the United States between 1980-1983. I point out the many ways in which we Latinos are (some by choice) isolated from the White progressive élites and question the extent to which the stated goals of liberating education are attainable for Latinos in the United States, given that we are not politically organized in any meaningful way.
In the sixth section, I discuss evaluation as a separate problem faced by liberating education practitioners in the system. Evaluation constitutes a problem because it is an activity required by external sources of funding in ways that practitioners do not consider adequate nor relevant; and because the type of evaluations which we would like to be free to conduct are not acceptable to the system. The problem, however, goes beyond the previous statement of facts. Evaluation, as education itself, is inseparable from ontology and epistemology, subjects seldom explored or discussed by practitioners (or by the educational system, for that matter), being considered too abstract to be practical. Ontology and epistemology may be whatever we make them to be, but one thing is for sure: we all act based upon an ontological and epistemological stand, often in contradictory ways. I conclude that Freire cannot help us in this problem because his own theoretical formulations on the subjects are contradictory. Adopting Freire's positions without reflecting upon their contradictions only creates -- as it has created -- a great deal of confusion.
In the same section I introduce the hypothesis that U.S. progressives have gone beyond Freire and perhaps beyond the Third World in their denunciation of oppression and their announcements for "a better world." Important here is the "transformational movement" which is linked to the "new physics" which has been disseminated in the United States by the mass paperback trade. This movement I believe to be a strategy of the Cultural New Class. There may very well be a dissonance between what U.S. progressives want and what the Third World wants. Should this be the case, evaluating the operationalization of a "Third World philosophy of education" within the United States under the assumption that U.S. practitioners, many of whom are "into" the transformational movement, are attuned to the Third World -- either the one in or out of the United States -- would be, at best, a quixotic venture. I do believe that transformational thought and practices in the United States have gone beyond Freire, and in many ways are contradictory to Freire's theory and practices, no matter how many superficial similarities can be identified. I conclude that our uncritical adoption of Freire's educational philosophy and the disparate ways in which it was uncritically mixed with transformational ideas and practices, U.S. style, was a serious error for which only we are to blame. The United States context is simply too different from that in which Freire developed his ideas, and we have not really tried to explore the differences. It was easier to assume that the Third World was the same in any country.
The last section examines Freire's own practice in Guinea-Bissau as a means to explore what transpired when Freire's ideas and practices were used in a newly independent Third World country. The result which emerges is one of failure; a failure that Freire has never mentioned to the "we" I have referred to throughout this essay. A key issue is that Freire seems to have violated the very same principles he establishes in his writings as a guide for action. There are lessons in this for those of us who did the same in the United States. The issue must be raised on whether Freire's educational philosophy and practices are workable at all.
The concern has been privately expressed to me in personal letters over the past year, ranging from "Why hasn't Paulo discussed this with us?" to an over-protective insistence on keeping the matter between friends. I have opted to open up the subject as still another issue that must be explored by Freire practitioners in the United States.
Confusing the shoulds with the is may very well be a human trait. It is certainly tempting, as it plays upon our desire to believe in something that can be considered as "truth" beyond any reasonable doubt. Freire practitioners committed this mistake. Freire seems to have committed it too.
Any evaluation of Freire-inspired programs in the United States should consider the many unresolved issues I raise in this essay: who are we, where do we come from, what are we looking for, how sound is our approach based both in the writings of Freire and in the concrete context in which we work. Of course, this can be totally ignored in evaluations required by funding sources. It is sufficient to use one of the many "surnamed evaluation models" available, specifically the qualitative models. Any program can be thus evaluated and the "Freire-inspired" aspect can be ignored.
I ask for more honesty with ourselves. I think it is time for us to ask uncomfortable questions. The most important of these may be whether, in fact, after a decade of trying to practice Freire's educational philosophy, we should admit that it is not applicable to our work. It is in this context that the new information about Freire's formative period in Brazil and his work in Guinea-Bissau should be critically examined.
The idea is not to judge Paulo Freire. He has been an inspiration to us in moments when we were about to give up in our quest for a more just and equitable society. If only for that reason-and there are more than one -- we owe him. We owe him justice and respect. For me, this means being as critical of his ideas and practices as he taught us to be critical of ours. It is time that we do both. That is what I have tried to do.