Paulo Freire, Lula, and the Next Step for Brazil

We welcome a guest post today from Andrew J. Kirkendall, author of Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy. In his political biography of Freire (1921-97), a native of Brazil’s impoverished northeast who developed adult literacy training techniques that remain influential today, Kirkendall gives new perspectives on the history of the Cold War, the meanings of radicalism, and the evolution of the Left in Latin America. In this post, he introduces Freire and imagines what he might think of Brazil’s recent history and the challenges it faces today.

September 19th marks the 89th anniversary of the birth of the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed and one of the premier Third World intellectuals of the Cold War era. As Brazil’s first working-class president (and Freire’s longtime political ally) nears the end of his second term, one wonders what Freire would think of the changes in his country since his death in 1997.

Freire developed new literacy training techniques in the early 1960s at a time when illiteracy had become a major Cold War issue. Countries competed to demonstrate the superiority of their particular socioeconomic model, and the problem of illiteracy in the Western Hemisphere became particularly politically charged following the seeming success of the Cuban literacy campaign in 1961.

Freire’s techniques combined teaching people to read and write with an attempt to “raise” their “consciousness” in ways which promised to make them active citizens willing to work for changes in the way they lived (and, ultimately, the way their societies were organized). This was seen as subversive by the military, which overthrew the national government that employed Freire in 1964. He then spent a decade and a half in exile, working in Chile under the Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei and then, during his time with the World Council of Churches in Geneva, with one-party states in post-independence Portuguese African countries like Guinea Bissau and with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. At times his techniques were used to further the goal of economic development, while also being employed to mobilize hitherto apolitical populations.

Following his return to Brazil, as the country moved back toward democracy after 20 years of military rule, Freire became one of the founders of the Workers Party along with current Brazilian president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. The Workers Party was widely regarded as a radical innovation in Brazilian political life in which workers for the first time were becoming leaders and not just followers. Since his election in 2002, Lula has been a more centrist pragmatist than he was expected to be and has disappointed some of his former associates. His policies have been credited with improving the lives of millions who had been desperately poor, however, and as he prepares to leave office, he has an extraordinarily high approval rating. Internationally, Brazil became recognized as an emerging economic powerhouse during Lula’s presidency.

As The New York Times reported recently, this recognition has obscured what remains one of the inhibiting factors in Brazil’s path to future greatness: its inadequate public education system. Illiteracy rates in Freire’s native northeast in particular remain unacceptably high.

Moreover, while the 1980s saw a return to democracy that involved an unprecedented surge in popular participation in the nation’s political life, it also saw the beginning of a takeover of many of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods by violent drug gangs. Given this situation, as sociologist Robert Gay has suggested, the Brazilian poor have to focus on basic issues of survival to such an extent that they have little time or energy for education or political activism.

Freire’s ideas and methods remain relevant even as Brazil’s political and economic situation remains more promising and some of its basic problems more intractable than ever before. Perhaps Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, now enjoying a commanding lead in the polls, will make education the priority that his old colleague would have expected and that the global economic environment demands.

Andrew J. Kirkendall is associate professor of history at Texas A&M University and author of Class Mates: Male Student Culture and the Making of a Political Class in Nineteenth-Century Brazil.