Confusion and despair: Blanca Facundo on Paulo Freire

Robert Mackie

Department of Education
University of Newcastle
NSW 2308, Australia

A critical commentary on "Freire-inspired programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: a critical evaluation" by Blanca Facundo

Written 1988, published on the web 1997

Go to Facundo's reply to Robert Mackie.

Go to contents page of Facundo's essay

Go to comments on Facundo's essay from Alternativas.

Return to "Facundo on Freire" entry page.

This document is located on the

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in the section on Documents

in the subsection on Facundo on Freire


Few living educators enjoy the international status and esteem of Brazil's Paulo Freire. Renowned in many countries for his work in the field of adult literacy, Freire's writing, especially the modern classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972), has proved inspirational to many thousands of teachers. Beginning in the poverty stricken north-east of Brazil during the immediate post-war years, Freire's work has subsequently broadened and developed into one of the most powerful and stimulating of contemporary educational theories.

It has been well said that Freire's work combines 'the language of critique with the language of possibility' [1]. His theory takes seriously the relationship between radical critical theory and the imperatives of radical commitment and struggle. Both the complexity and dynamics of oppression feature prominently in his articles, lectures, and books. Recognizing the multiplicity of social relations that exist within societies, Freire affirms that domination cannot be reduced solely to that of one social class upon another. In this way he departs from classical marxist theory and embarks upon a radical analysis of cultural politics. Education, in such a context, thus becomes a double-edged struggle -- for meaning, and over power relations. Locating such struggles in the particularities of people's lives, Freire argues for the power of the oppressed to achieve their own liberation. And so the tenor of his theory is hopeful, optimistic and, he would say, loving. It thus runs counter to currently fashionable cynicism and despair. Of course the basis for this optimism is Freire's Catholic humanism which cannot, as he constantly affirms, reconcile Christian love with the exploitation of human beings. Put another way, Freire's contribution to liberation theology has been the language of possibility. Only through a faith in other human beings, and through constant political struggle with them, will the kingdom of God be created on earth. By engaging with all forms of oppression we become part of the process wherein life itself is humanized. It is this focus, stemming from his long involvement with popular education, that gives Paulo Freire's work its theoretical distinction.

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It is nearly two decades now since I first encountered Freire on the printed page. Along with many others in Australia at that time, I was deeply hostile to the activities of United States imperialism in Vietnam, and highly critical of the vast economic, social, racial and gender inequalities to be found within the ironically titled 'lucky country'. Radical and left-wing political activism was, of course, very much in the air during the late 60's and, as university students, we were strongly influenced by civil rights and other related agitations in Europe, Britain and North America.

More personally, I came from a working class background, the only one of my family to complete secondary school let alone attend university. Deciding upon teaching as a career my main studies focused on literature, history and philosophy, which in time developed into an intensive study of radical educational ideas and practices. Underlying these activities was a profound disagreement with the dominant educational philosophy taught to us at that time, namely the liberal pragmatist humanism of John Dewey. Certainly it seemed clear to me then that Dewey's analysis seriously failed to question relations of power in education and society, preferring the practice of ameliorative piecemeal adjustments to inequalities, rather than adapting explicitly socialist and marxist strategies. On such matters apathy and disinterest were the norm. For me the question was, and still is, how to generate an involved, committed, critical consciousness in a largely uncommitted, hedonistic, materialist culture. Enter Paulo Freire.

It was in April 1974 that Freire, sponsored by the Australian Council of Churches, visited Melbourne for two weeks engaging in a series of meetings -- public, professional and personal. These were recorded and issued as a series of cassette tapes entitled 'Thinking with Paulo Freire'. Ten years a political exile at the time, Freire was also something of an international myth, much revered but little understood.

Following this visit, and in conjunction with educational colleagues, I formed a discussion circle to rigorously and critically examine Freire's theory and practice. This developed into a collective research project culminating in the appearance of Literacy and Revolution: The Pedagogy of Paulo Freire, published by Pluto Press, London, in 1980 and by Continuum Books in New York the following year. Widely and favourably reviewed, Literacy and Revolution has been translated into several languages and remains, modesty permitting, one of the better introductions to the work of this important and complex thinker.

Literacy and Revolution endeavoured to provide a critical explication of his ideas. We did not regard him as a seer, saint or guru. Nor did we seek in his contribution any instantly applicable method, or solution, to practise. But we did affirm Freire's crucial importance in political struggles over education -- its curricula, administration and teaching. Our experience of Freire has been largely positive, deeply enlightening in many ways. Others, especially in North America, continue to report confusion and disappointment, and it is to one such account that I now turn.



Blanca Facundo's article critically evaluating Freire-inspired programmes in the United States and Puerto Rico appears elsewhere in these pages. [2] Facundo was born in the United States colony of Puerto Rico, educated at the island's State University and combined college teaching with attempts to initiate Freireian-style programmes among the urban poor of San Juan. These endeavours in 1978 led to her involvement as an evaluator for project DARE -- Discovering Alternatives for Radical Education. Considering both her own work and that of other Hispanic comrades to be part of 'education liberadora' (liberating education), she established, in September 1980 with a three year Federal government grant, the Information and Resources Centre for Liberating Education (IRCEL). Under this umbrella some twenty-eight projects were coordinated, involving Spanish literacy, second language English, basic adult education, clowning, massage and childbirth to name but a few. Presumably some of these activities claimed derivation, in one way or another, from an aspect (or aspects) of Freire's work. While Facundo and IRCEL networked the projects for 'liberating education', IRCEL in turn was based at the Latino Institute Research Division in Reston, Virginia, for the period 1980-82. After that the Institute closed, and IRCEL sought church funds to establish Alternativas, which eventually moved back to the Puerto Rican Centre for Lifelong Studies. Facundo's evaluation of this three year period forms the basis of her article, finished in 1984, and provides the material experience for her angry disappointment.

In responding I should like to address the following points:

(a) Facundo's account of Freire's ideas and philosophy;

(b) her discussion of his work in Brazil and Guinea-Bissau;

(c) her reflections on the IRCEL experience; and

(d) on 'speaking the bad news'.

I conclude with a short third section estimating her evaluation. My comments will be brief, but I hope pertinent.


a) Freire: ideas and philosophy

Whatever else she may be, Blanca Facundo is no philosopher or historian of ideas. This emerges clearly in her general remarks (Section 6) and in her confused account of Freire's theory (Section 2 and elsewhere). While quite reasonably making the point that evaluation and transformation require both an understanding of reality and knowledge, Facundo unthinkingly proceeds to defend an 'essentialist' account of ontology familiar in Plato. This is not the only view of reality, and it is certainly not Freire's. He is a realist, that is to say there is a world independent of people, a world which is the object of our intellectual conceptualization. So the answer to her question, 'is reality really out there?' is, from Freire's viewpoint, yes, while by contrast an idealist would say it is 'in our minds'. What needs to be understood here is that Freire, following Marx, distinguishes ontologically between consciousness and the real. Both writers recognize that the world is for people, but indicate that our intellectual comprehension of the world is determined by our needs and interests. Moreover, where Freire, in a telling phrase, indicates it is our 'ontological vocation to become more human' he effectively establishes the double meaning of 'vocation'. Deriving from the Latin 'vocare', vocation refers both to a 'calling' and to 'speaking or uttering the word', as in 'calling out'. In this way Freire succinctly establishes the task for the oppressed -- it is their 'calling' to be more fully human -- and the means, to name 'the word' and in so doing name 'the world' -- in other words to become literate.

Related confusion surrounds Facundo on epistemology. Here she combines Platonist essentialism with the scepticism of Descartes by asking, 'can humans learn?' To which the answer is 'of course', as many educational theories, including Freire's, affirm. How do they learn? In many ways, but for Freire learning begins with action, is shaped by reflection, which gives rise to further action. This continuous process is directed at enhancing our capacity to act in the world and change it. Recognizing that we are social beings who come into a world that precedes us and who, hopefully, leave behind a world that succeeds us, Freire affirms that the 'we think' precedes the 'I think'. In this context Freire is misunderstood by Facundo as saying group learning is more 'true' than individual learning. Freire's point is that learning (to read and write, for example) is social in acquisition, though it may be individual in expression. Moreover, she seriously misrepresents Freire as repeatedly writing and saying that there is 'only one correct way of understanding reality'. This statement is false. He does not hold with dogmatism, but argues instead that no knowledge is ever complete. Add this fallibilist epistemology to his process ontology, and it becomes clear that Freire cannot be a dogmatist. In fact, he's not even particularly didactic. These and similar points are eloquently argued by Michael Matthews in Literacy and Revolution.

Facundo correctly draws attention to varying interpretations, including my own, of Freire's politics. Considering this point historically, as we must, it is obvious that his political opinions have altered greatly in the course of his life. Freire's liberal nationalism in post-war Brazil was followed by seventy-five days in jail and sixteen years of exile. The result was radically altered opinions. He moved left and has broadly stayed there. But Facundo is guilty of gross distortion when she suggests that Freire is 'basically personalist'. This is a distortion because it focuses solely on the elements of existentialism in his outlook, neglecting his clear and repeated arguments for collective struggle against exploitation. Without wishing to rehearse again points made in Literacy and Revolution, I find little in Facundo to persuade me that 'revolutionary socialist' is an inaccurate description of his mature politics. Likewise, she adds little new analysis to the often mentioned confusion that Freire's Catholicism brings to his politics and philosophy. I am not a Catholic, nor even religious, but Freire is and this has to be acknowledged. Conceived in strictly logical terms, marxism and religion are at odds. So to the extent that Freire is a Catholic, and it is considerable, he is not a marxist. But Facundo fails to see, as Literacy and Revolution made clear, that the argument does not terminate there. Many who are religious combine faith with radical activity, just like Freire. And this has had major benefits not only in political mobilization of the poor and dispossessed, but in providing a powerful critique of religiously inspired political reaction so common in Catholic countries. For this Freire deserves credit and thanks. With these considerations understood the appellation 'personalist' seems very wide of the mark. It describes more accurately Facundo herself.

One last point under this heading. Facundo bemoans 'the lack of understanding of Freire's intellectual development' adding correctly that it is 'a key issue'. I agree, but suggest that credit be given where it is due. I wrote on precisely this in Literacy and Revolution. Not the last word of course, but at least a serious attempt. Her further comment, that materials by and on Freire are relatively inaccessible in the United States, I find hard to believe. The bibliography in Literacy and Revolution is largely comprised of US printed material, and a vast secondary literature has existed for many years.


b) Freire in Brazil and Guinea-Bissau

Facundo attacks Paulo Freire's career in two ways: by focusing on his early work in Recife; and through an examination of his involvement in the tiny West-African republic of Guinea-Bissau. Both attacks are designed to undermine the misconception, held widely in the United States, that Freire was a 'revolutionary'. And both are also designed to cast doubt on Freire's success and, by implication, question the value of his work in literacy. In this strategy Facundo is much less than completely successful.

Regarding Freire's work in Recife Facundo adds nothing particularly new, or damaging. It is uncontested that Freire was a liberal nationalist moving in radical Catholic circles, attempting to give concrete expression to conscientizacao (critical consciousness). Of course USAID to Freire was intended to immunize north-east Brazil from the example of Cuba in the field of literacy, and, to his credit, Freire foresaw and effectively neutralized this intention. It must be emphasized that when viewed simply as a technique Freire's method was cheap and very successful. Again it is hardly surprising that opinions on the importance of Freire's work in the sixties depend on where one stood politically. The ingenuity of his approach in this regard came from the capacity to formulate a non-directive participatory programme which apparently satisfied the Brazilian left, Catholic radicals, and the Goulart government. Naturally, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, USAID saw Miguel Arraes, Paulo Freire and the like through paranoid eyes. Nor is there anything particularly novel in Facundo's conclusion that Freire was a reformer operating within the parameters of liberal capitalism. Literacy and Revolution made that point eight years ago.

With regard to Freire in Guinea-Bissau, Facundo's position depends almost entirely on a Canadian doctoral thesis by Linda Harasim. Facundo levels several serious charges against Freire's account of his work in Guinea-Bissau, published as Pedagogy in Process: Letters to Guinea-Bissau (1978). Let me make some minor points first. This book is not the most recent of Freire's works in English, as Facundo claims, for in 1985 there appeared the Politics of Education [3] containing a long interview with Freire by Donaldo Macedo, from the University of Massachusetts, concerning Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Moreover, Facundo fails to see that the Institute for Cultural Action (IDAC) team included Freire, his wife, and several others. [4] They are all authors of Guinea-Bissau: Reinventing Education (1976), which Facundo claims shocked and amazed her after reading Pedagogy in Process. She fails as well to understand the obvious point that these two publications -- IDAC's and Freire's -- are complementary, not conflictual. They are meant to be read together. Freire, after all, founded IDAC, was its head, chaired its meetings, and supervised its numerous excellent publications. Facundo also suggests that Freire and IDAC 'invited themselves' to Guinea-Bissau. This is not so as Letter 1 of Pedagogy in Process (p.71) makes clear. All Freire's visits to Africa were organized through the World Council of Churches. Letter 1 shows that a mutual friend contacted Freire and Mario Cabral, the Commissioner for Education. From this Freire wrote to Cabral seeking his support.

Far more important, however, is Harasim's statement that the Department of Adult Education in Guinea-Bissau declared, in 1980, the literacy programme of 1976-79 a failure. Serious defects in approach, the use of Portuguese, inadequate provision of materials, and poorly prepared facilitators all contributed. For Facundo this is directly attributable to Freire's impoverished understanding of Guinea-Bissau and to very bad organization.

Several points need to be made here. Firstly, Pedagogy in Process was completed by Freire in winter 1976, and his contact with the country covered the period January 1975 to Spring 1976. Judging by the dates on his letters from Geneva, Freire could only have visited Guinea-Bissau intermittently in that time. So, much of the programme's practice was guided by the PAIGC government more than by Freire himself. And, of course, it is to the government that the Adult Education Department is reporting. Further, a coup in November 1980 resulted in President Luis Cabral being replaced by his Prime Minister Joao Viera, and an eventual separation of Guinea-Bissau from the neighbouring Cape Verde Islands. Freire's contact has subsequently been with Cape Verde.

Even assuming the Adult Education Department's verdict on the literacy programme to be correct, the degree to which blame can be sheeted home to Freire is questionable. For example, he has continually argued for the use of Creole and not Portuguese, but the lack of written materials and personnel resulting from Guinea-Bissau's aching poverty impeded this. Also it is quite clear that Freire recognized the great many differences between Brazil's north-east and Guinea-Bissau. This is why he talks of 'reinventing', albeit without the greatest success, his approach to literacy rather than 'transplanting' it mechanically into a new context. Freire has never claimed for his approach miraculous, always successful, results. If others do, then he does not. Nor is there any attempt to conceal the limited effect of his work in West Africa as his dialogue with Donaldo Macedo in the Politics of Education amply demonstrates. To be sure, in his familiar fashion he romanticized Amilcar Cabral and the Guinean People. It is a recurring weakness, but he would no doubt place its derivation in a deep love of life and people.


c) Freire-inspired programmes in U.S., Puerto Rico

Facundo's account of her three years in the United States, working with IRCEL and then with Alternativas, forms the bulk of her article. It provides the major focus for her writing, but obviously I cannot comment in detail on IRCEL'S work or the projects Blanca Facundo became involved with and evaluated, because I lack the requisite knowledge. So my observations here will be fairly general.

Acting, in effect, as a community worker, Facundo, in those bitter Reagan years, clearly had her ideals dented in numerous ways. Racism and sexism provided one set of obstacles, economic cuts another. As well she admits to an uncritical adoption of what she thought was Freire's theory, without adequately understanding it. The groups with which she worked were extremely diverse, experiencing domination and struggling for liberation in widely differing ways. There is no doubt that the work she and others did was valuable, even if on reflection the three years leave her downcast and disillusioned. This is explained by a combination of self-criticism, and what she feels is the realization that Freire has got it all wrong. If Paulo Freire was the seer for 'educacion liberadora', then Facundo feels he has clearly failed. Faced with the reductionist practical functionalism of colleagues demanding Freireian style 'how-to's', Facundo was frustrated by the seeming non-applicability of his ideas. Yet Freire has never argued that his work is meant to be adapted in gridlike fashion to any site. 'What Freire does', as Henry Giroux reminds us, 'is provide a metalanguage that generates a set of categories and social practices that have to be critically mediated by those who would use them for the insights they might provide in different historical settings and contexts'. [5] Exhausted by her efforts, and with inspiration rapidly evaporating, Facundo slides fatally from blind adoration to sour attribution. She feels that Freire led her astray, and in her despair cries out, 'how can this be?'


d) On 'speaking the bad news'.

Blanca Facundo is enamoured of Alvin Gouldner's contention that where something is being systematically silenced it is the critical theorist's task to 'speak the bad news'. Clearly she feels this is necessary in the case of Paulo Freire. At many places in her article she engages in personal vilification and abuse, even referring, in a callously grotesque phrase, to Freire as 'deformed' -- which he is not. While denying the attribution of deceitful motivation to Freire, Facundo nonetheless deploys unsubtle innuendos and denigration with a view to implying Freire is dishonest. Confused he maybe, dishonest he is not. What Facundo fails to understand here is that ad hominem accusations hit people, not their theories. Determined to make of Paulo Freire a scapegoat for her disillusion, Facundo only succeeds in providing the crucial testimony for her own inadequacy.

Blanca Facundo has essayed two things: an evaluation of projects claiming to be inspired by Paulo Freire; and a critique of his theory and practice. She does better with the first than with the second, a result which is hardly surprising. No doubt she learnt much during three years in the US, and hopefully as a result Alternativas will prove more successful. On Freire though, she still has much to learn. Regrettably she has abused the language of critique, and dispensed with the language of hope. Taken as a whole her article is badly under-researched, poorly argued and ineffectively written. It adds very little to the critical scholarship on Paulo Freire, and remains a sad case of confusion and despair.



1. Henry Giroux, 'Introduction' to Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education, (New York: Bergin and Garvey, 1985), pp. xii ff.

2. I am grateful to my colleague Dr. Brian Martin of Wollongong University for providing me with the opportunity to make these comments.

3. See Freire, The Politics of Education. op. cit., pp. 175-199.

4. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy in Process: Letters to Guinea-Bissau, (London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1978), p. 27.

5. Henry Giroux, op. cit., p. xvii.