Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy

Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy

Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy

Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy

Synopsis

In the twentieth century, illiteracy and its elimination were political issues important enough to figure in the fall of governments (as in Brazil in 1964), the building of nations (in newly independent African countries in the 1970s), and the construction of a revolutionary order (Nicaragua in 1980). This political biography of Paulo Freire (1921-97), who played a crucial role in shaping international literacy education, also presents a thoughtful examination of the volatile politics of literacy during the Cold War. A native of Brazil's impoverished northeast, Freire developed adult literacy training techniques that involved consciousness-raising, encouraging peasants and newly urban peoples to see themselves as active citizens who could transform their own lives. Freire's work for state and national government agencies in Brazil in the early 1960s eventually aroused the suspicion of the Brazilian military, as well as of U.S. government aid programs. Political pressures led to Freire's brief imprisonment, following the military coup of 1964, and then to more than a decade and a half in exile. During this period, Freire continued his work in Chile, Nicaragua, and postindependence African countries, as well as in Geneva with the World Council of Churches and in the United States at Harvard University. Andrew J. Kirkendall's evenhanded appraisal of Freire's pioneering life and work, which remains influential today, gives new perspectives on the history of the Cold War, the meanings of radicalism, and the evolution of the Left in Latin America. In the twentieth century, illiteracy and its elimination were political issues important enough to figure in the fall of governments (as in Brazil in 1964), the building of nations (in newly independent African countries in the 1970s), and the construction of a revolutionary order (Nicaragua in 1980). This political biography of Paulo Freire (1921-97), who played a crucial role in shaping international literacy education, also presents a thoughtful examination of the volatile politics of literacy during the Cold War. A native of Brazil's impoverished northeast, Freire developed adult literacy training techniques that involved consciousness-raising, encouraging peasants and newly urban peoples to see themselves as active citizens who could transform their own lives. Freire's work for state and national government agencies in Brazil in the early 1960s eventually aroused the suspicion of the Brazilian military, as well as of U.S. government aid programs. Political pressures led to Freire's brief imprisonment, following the military coup of 1964, and then to more than a decade and a half in exile. During this period, Freire continued his work in Chile, Nicaragua, and postindependence African countries, as well as in Geneva with the World Council of Churches and in the United States at Harvard University. Andrew J. Kirkendall's evenhanded appraisal of Freire's pioneering life and work, which remains influential today, gives new perspectives on the history of the Cold War, the meanings of radicalism, and the evolution of the Left in Latin America.

Excerpt

In a makeshift school built out of coconut trees in 1963 in the poor northeastern Brazilian city of Natal, a group of adult students sat and worked on their ABCs. This was no ordinary night class. As these men and women, many of whom were new to urban life, learned to recognize the words they spoke in letters and syllables, they began to perceive a chance of changing their worlds. Slides depicting scenes from their daily life projected onto a screen prompted them to discuss their realities and to understand them as having been made through human action and therefore capable of being changed through their own actions. Their “consciousness,” in the language of the time, was being “raised.” If expectations were being raised as well, within a year they would be dashed by a military coup that put an end to these lessons. Many of these students’ teachers would be imprisoned. Politicians who had supported these literacy programs usually lost their political rights and went into exile.

The man who designed the literacy program, Paulo Reglus Neves Freire, also ended up in prison. In the decade and a half spent in exile following his time in prison, Freire became one of the foremost intellectuals from what was for many decades called the Third World. He became a key player in world events because of his creation of new techniques for literacy training and consciousness raising. He sought to transform educational practices that reinforced the status quo and demonstrated a belief that knowledge was something that was deposited in inert students and that tended to “domesticate” them. In theory at least and generally in practice as well, Freire wanted to create questioning, critical, active adults. Literacy training, moreover, was . . .

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