Paulo Freire Essay

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Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator who is one of the twentieth century’s most important educational theorists. His ideas have been globally influential upon a wide variety of social and educational movements, and they have played a central role in founding the contemporary international movement in education known as critical pedagogy.

During his lifetime, he directed literacy programs aimed at empowering the poor and dispossessed, first in Brazil—for which he was jailed as a subversive in 1964 after a military coup took power—and then throughout the developing world during his period of exile from Brazil (lasting until 1980) when he worked for organizations such as UNESCO, the World Council of Churches, and the Institute for Cultural Action. From 1989 until 1991, he served as the city of São Paulo’s Secretary of Education, an experience chronicled in his book Pedagogy of the City (1993).

Freire’s pedagogical approach includes, but is not limited to, a highly innovative and successful adult literacy method, the “culture circle,” which he helped develop in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as his critique of authoritarian “banking pedagogy” in conjunction with his demand for an emancipatory, radically dialogical, and problem-posing form of education as outlined in his most famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972). Freire continually responded to critics and friends over the course of his lifetime, thereby developing a series of books that sought to update and resituate his pedagogical praxis in order to take account of changing political conditions and progressive advances in theories such as feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism.

Certain themes are common across the Freirean oeuvre, such as his critique that schools are never value-neutral or apolitical institutions; his belief that there is a dialectical relationship between practice and thought; his humanistic love and belief in people’s creative freedom; his ethical demand that educators work to excoriate and transform the dehumanizing forces at work in the world; and his conclusion that the goal of true education should be critical consciousness as generated through the active, equal learning of teachers and students together as part of their attempt to realize the dream of a truly democratic community.

Many of Freire’s books incorporate experiments with style in order to highlight the dialogical and personal nature of his texts. These include books of letters, such as Pedagogy in Process (1978), an account of his literacy campaign in service of Amilcar Cabral’s independence movement in Guinea-Bissau, and Letters to Christina (1996), in which he reflects autobiographically on his career in pedagogy, politics, and philosophy. He also published a number of conversational “talking books,” including A Pedagogy for Liberation (1987) with Ira Shor, the first of Freire’s books to examine at length the applicability of his ideas to schooling in the developed world; Literacy: Reading the Word and the World (1987) with Donaldo Macedo, which critiqued technocratic forms of reading and writing as ways in which dominant interests are always served and socially reproduced; and We Make the Road by Walking (1990) with Myles Horton, wherein Freire shares and contrasts his views about social justice education with the legendary cofounder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

Upon his death, he was at work on a book of ecopedagogy, parts of which have since been released as Pedagogy of Indignation (2004); he hoped it would rearticulate his commitment to the need to educate for planetary sustainability and create societies that embodied a love and respect for all creatures and the experience of nature.


  1. Kahn, R., & Kellner, D. (2007). Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich: Technology, politics and the reconstruction of education. Policy Futures in Education, 5(4), 431–448.
  2. Roberts, P. (2000). Education, literacy, and humanization: Exploring the work of Paulo Freire. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

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