Carlos Núñez Hurtado

Contributions to the Latin American Debate on the Present and Future Relevance of Popular Education

1. The Main Contributions of Popular Education over the Years

There is no doubt that the current of thought and action known generically as “popular education” (PE) has a common origin. However it may be reflected in time or place in Latin America, there is one “founding” inspiration: the thinking and life of Paulo Freire.

Freire summarized his concept as follows:

“As a knowledge process, as political enlightenment, as a manifestation of ethics, as a quest for beauty, and as a scientific and technical enabling process, education is a practice that has been indispensable and unique to human beings throughout history, as a movement and as a struggle.”

This ethical, epistemological, pedagogical and political “Freirean” legacy is reflected in PE in the constant quest for coherence between theory and practice.

Having adopted this ethical and political stance “from and for life”, it has sought to create and re-create the concept through numerous socio-educational, historical and contextual activities. It has therefore made a commitment to a vast number of transformative projects and processes. The majority (especially in the early stages) had particular geographical grassroots associations WITH marginalized rural and urban populations.

This development of reflection on theory and practice within PE has widened its horizons and explored other fields of knowledge, contacts and interaction with other “subjects”. New concepts and scenarios have begun to be considered, both from a theoretical point of view and through the formulation of strategies and proposals for action.

The “new” themes – and their “new actors” – are a practical reflection of changing but committed interpretations of a context that has itself certainly been changing over the years, but which have not produced solutions to the urgent ethical questions that have occupied us for many years.

PE has retained its original “pillars” (ethics, politics, epistemology, methodology and pedagogy), but its dialectical nature, its inherent flexibility and ethical and political commitment have kept pace with societal demands. It has certainly acknowledged and responded to new challenges and viewpoints. It accepts that some analyses have become obsolete. It is working to build new paradigms. And this has all been done with both “old” and “new” scenarios, individuals and locations. Its dialectical approach only allows it to build what is new by systematizing and critically reflecting on past practice.

“No knowledge exists which was not born out of other knowledge, did not previously exist and by existing today has not replaced what existed before,” Freire tells us in The Political Dimension of Education.

Anyone adopting new theoretical or conceptual trends without regard for history is not following PE, because it does not “exist” as such. It always “is existing” in dynamic, complex time and space. PE does not follow “the fashion”. It does not incorporate anything new – regardless of where it comes from – eclectically or “fashionably” without regard to its historical practice.

Paulo reminds us that

“knowledge is a process that constantly results from the way in which human beings respond to reality. But as soon as I draw a distinction between existing knowledge and the act of creating knowledge, I tend to take control of the existing knowledge as an accomplished fact and to transfer it to those who do not know. This is what happens in universities, which are centres for the transfer of knowledge…”

Interpreting this context from the standpoint of “complexity” (or “integrality”, as it is called in PE), presents us today with a new challenge, which can only be met through practice, so that new interpretations, themes, readings, actors and autonomous “subjects” are seen from this complex perspective. PE must respond to these challenges in and through new scenarios which continue the struggle.

Hence, the main contributions of PE over the last forty years have, in my view, been as follows:

  • It has been and remained a living, flexible, rigorous, committed and dynamic movement combining theory and practice.

  • It has successfully changed, critically and self-critically (undogmatically), revising its “founding” positions.

  • It has developed a vast number of projects and processes that have demonstrated and been sources of commitment, humanity, solidarity and development of abilities (skills).

  • It has provided theoretical and practical development in fields of knowledge connected to topics and sectors of great relevance, such as the environment, human rights, conflict resolution, peace, gender, local power, etc. PE has been a pioneer in these and an obvious point of reference.

  • It has influenced social change through its ability to sway public debate and to encourage citizens to become new leaders of society, culture, education and politics.

  • It has overcome the “crisis of paradigms” without abandoning the struggle to transform and humanize the process of civilization, despite undergoing internal crises brought about by confusion over paradigms.

  • From its long-standing practice it has come to appreciate that the public arena is also one of its concerns. And hence, it has had an impact in the area of public policy.

  • Its influence has also been seen in the international field through its significant presence at various international conferences such as CONFINTEA V, the Beijing summit, and the Rio conference. In many of these fields, CEAAL is still a key player.

  • In consequence, many members of CEAAL have held positions of influence at technical and policy-making levels in government, especially in the field of education.

  • The same thing has happened in politics: many members of CEAAL have been appointed or elected to government posts, locally and nationally.

  • It has had a marked impact on societies (or sections of society) as a result of social and political change, as in the case of Nicaragua, Cuba, Uruguay and Brazil.

  • It has retained the ability to network its forces. Without this, isolation and dispersal might have brought the work to an end.


To sum up, the current of thought and action of PE, embodied in many different ways and with varying emphases, has achieved relative “seniority” in the discussion and practice of transformation, both at the level of micro experience and at that of public policy and formal power.

Much remains to be done. Of course, a layer of “cultural sediment” has built up, and this will be reflected in the human profile that we wish to imprint on a model of development which is opposed to a structure of society based on the market and its ethic of death.

2. What Arguments Put Forward by Popular Education are Still Relevant and What Changes Have Been (or Should Be) Made

In a way I have already provided an answer. However, I shall expand a little. My current reading of the theoretical and practical arguments of PE still relates to its four founding “pillars”, namely:

a) The Ethical Framework We begin from a profoundly human ethical framework that entails a “moral” interpretation of the Latin American (and world) environment and leads us – inevitably if we are consistent – to make a renewed commitment to social transformation. Although there is no doubt that the world is now “different”, it is for all that still profoundly unjust, inhumane, depredatory and excluding.

Freire warns us against

“the fatalist, supine ideology which animates the liberal discourse that has been unleashed on the world. It seeks to persuade us that we can do nothing to counter the social phenomenon of postmodernism, which is said to be, or to be on its way to becoming, a largely ‘natural’ rather than a historical and cultural state of affairs.”

This warning is related to the need to keep alive both hope and our persistent ethical commitment.

The world is changing, and the phenomena of change with it. Some are genuinely new because the field of knowledge – information technology, genetics, etc. – used not to exist or did not take its present form. It is only possible to interpret these phenomena from the standpoint of ethics and its moral application, which are also the basis of our approach and commitment.

We have never had a closed, dogmatic “doctrine” or “ideology”. We have been guided by ethics. Morality, which is always the historical and contextual expression of ethics, is what moves, changes and adapts as the world changes.

Anyone who has lost their enthusiasm and thinks that “nothing can be done any more” has forfeited hope and abandoned the ontology of our approach.

Given the increasing complexity of the challenges of globalization associated with the neoliberal model, our ethical position leads us once again to reiterate our long-standing commitment, but in accordance with the signs of the times.

The ethics of PE do not change; what changes is our moral interpretation of new phenomena – and hence our interpretation of events and the modification of our response.

b) The Epistemological Framework One of the essential elements of the approach relates to our interpretation of knowledge as a human, social phenomenon, and in consequence to the theory of knowledge that we adopt.

As a

“consequence of our ethical commitment, PE adopts an epistemological approach that accords with its principles and values. While this means creating liberated subjects through education, knowledge can never be understood and used as an instrument of domination and/or alienation. Education understood and practised as an act of liberation requires an epistemological framework in which knowledge is continually socially constructed by the learning subjects, as a personal and social act of (self-)understanding and (self-)liberation.”

We use a dialectical epistemological framework. We reject a positivist focus which converts the learner into a mere “object” who passively receives pre-arranged knowledge – what Freire calls “banking educa tion”. In PE, reality is the true source of knowledge, and we cannot simplify it by isolating it from its socio-economically, culturally and politically changing context. “Knowledge is a process that constantly results from the way in which human beings respond to reality,” Paulo reminds us.

Knowledge is always socially generated. There are events and circumstances which lead to a synthesis which some authors, armed with a great capacity for understanding and looking ahead, are able to systematize and present in theoretical terms.

This dialectical relationship between “what is”, “the medium” and “history” is what produces knowledge, which is by its nature a social construct and must be socialized through a variety of levels, strata and associations. It can always be enriched since “no knowledge exists which was not born out of other knowledge, did not previously exist and by existing today has not replaced what existed before.”

Education therefore always involves the practical application of a particular theory of knowledge.

To sum up, PE adopts a complex, process-based, holistic, contextual, historical and dynamic epistemological-dialectical focus which extends beyond the partialized, employment-based vision promulgated and maintained by the positivist paradigm.

It incorporates the realm of feelings (the key to learning), but within the more complex knowledge process.

“All knowledge starts from feelings, but if it remains at the level of feelings it does not construct knowledge because it only turns into knowledge once it goes beyond the level of feelings and provides grounds for action,”

Paulo tells us. Popular educators state that

“humans are individual, social beings encumbered with personal, family, social, historical and objective experiences, but also burdened with subjective connotations. We live in an ‘objective’ context but we also experience and interpret this through our own subjectivity: beliefs, ideological positions, ethical and political standpoints. We are social beings in a given historical context. Each human being is like this, whether teacher or learner. Or to put it better, each human being is always both teacher and learner, both object and subject of the creation of knowledge and of teaching.”

c) A Consistent Pedagogical Approach By referring to “popular education” we may tend to restrict our approach solely to the “educational” or – even worse – to the simple use of tools or dynamics. But, as a consequence of the ethical and epistemological framework outlined above, we need to go beyond this “reductionism” and to follow our methodological approach, which creatively synthesises both the “management” and the “directionality” of the act of education. It is not possible to leave educational practice to chance. “The teacher must teach and the learner learn,” Freire tells us, and his famous saying that “nobody teaches anyone; we all teach each other” must not lead us irresponsibly to abandon the role of educator.

The question is that of the democratic pedagogical understanding of the act of proposing content, methods, tools, etc. The teacher cannot refuse to make such proposals, nor decline to accept those proposals that the learner is capable of making.

In PE, education is a democratic and democratizing act, both in the classroom and elsewhere.

The key is the democratic attitude of the teacher, whose approach is based on the “pedagogy of dialogue” and participation. The teacher can both teach and learn; may speak but only because he or she knows how to listen; may offer knowledge because he or she is open to the knowledge of others; and can produce a synthesis between the act of teaching and the act of learning as “teacher-learner, learnerteacher”.

In accordance with its basic principles, PE states that the “starting point” for any process of education is where the learner is, whatever this may be. “The starting point is the common consensus of the learners and not the demands of the teacher,” Freire says.

This always involves creative acts by the teacher, the constant “inventor” of all the means by which the object of knowledge is problematized and “discovered” or “apprehended” by the learners. They will have worked on it through continual dialogue between themselves and the teacher, who leads them democratically and patiently, using the loving understanding and solidarity of the act of education.

PE offers a pertinent way of meeting this requirement, not only through education itself but also through all socio-political, cultural and organizational action, fields in which it is having a growing impact.

d) Socio-politics Our ethical reasoning necessarily has political implications (in its broader dimension and interpretation).

Hence, PE adopts a consistent position by defining education also as a “political act”. In consequence, it states “that all education is a political as well as a pedagogical act”. There is no way it can restrict itself to declarations of principles and not become engaged sociohistorically. Given our ethical point of view, our political standpoint must favour and be that of the poor of the Earth.

It is not possible to remain neutral or uninfected. Hence,

“educational practice, which sees itself as a political practice, refuses to be imprisoned by the bureaucratic restrictions of school procedures.”

The fierce debate provoked by the “refounding” of PE, negating its “political dimension” and contrasting it with the “rigour of pedagogy”, ran the risk of “denaturalizing” its inherent political dimension and approach.

It is not a matter of “politicizing” learning; even less, of the “party allegiance” or “ideology” of our teaching approach. It does mean acknowledging the world as we experience it and making decisions as a result: either for humaniziation, or for barbarism.

In other words, if we recognise the political dimension of education we are in fact deciding “for someone or something”, and hence educating “against someone or something”. It is a question of choice.

3. Main Considerations in Strengthening a Popular Education Movement in Latin America that Can Contribute to Social Change

The fundamental premise is to look for “coherence”, a fundamental value which provides a balanced synthesis between CEAAL’s discourse and practice. We cannot pursue a discourse which is not backed by consequent practice.

The crisis of paradigms has turned former militants into neoliberal functionaries and/or marketing advisers. In the face of this market ethic, PE and CEAAL must continue – both in theory and in practice – to maintain the coherence and relevance of their arguments. There must be a renewed emphasis on Hope, for

“there is no hope in merely waiting, nor can what is hoped for be achieved by waiting, which is a vain hope. Hope is necessary but not sufficient; it alone does not win battles, but without it the fight flags and wavers,”

as Paulo warns.

Hence, one urgent task for CEAAL is to keep alive hopes of a better world. We need to educate for this, and to educate ourselves for it too. In consequence, we need to restore our critical capacity and to denounce the aberrations that neoliberal ideology presents to us as “normal”. We cannot go on keeping quiet under the pretext of thinking ourselves “postmodern”. It is not a matter of returning to “revolutionary” language, but of denouncing systemic crimes, lack of commitment, and the comfortable and complicit attitude of many intellectuals who have retreated into mere theoretical speculation.

We must dare to proclaim our findings and our proposals. We are no longer dogged by dogmatic certainties. Today, the crisis has “allowed” us to think, to feel and to argue and work in different ways. CEAAL needs to build on this approach.

We must return to the conviction of “working together”. We have permitted international cooperation to pursue frankly questionable criteria and activities because we have not challenged them jointly.

In consequence, I believe that CEAAL should return to its original purpose of being a network of NGOs which is primarily there to represent and serve them. It is based on and nourished by them. And it refers back to them, supports them, communicates with them and allows them to communicate with each other. But this does not mean giving up the significant international and academic ground that has been won (the reflection of our “seniority”). CEAAL has largely abandoned its partners. It has dismantled its networks. It has distanced itself from the everyday life of popular educators. It has entered other fields. But it has lost its grassroots support.

To sum up, I believe that CEAAL needs to work on ways of

  • Drawing closer to its members, so as to know what they think of and expect from CEAAL

  • Re-establishing mechanisms of communication at the grassroots, and between the grassroots and its management

  • Returning to strategies for training and multiplying teachers with rigour, creativity and solid methodology

  • Relaunching the notion of “networks” (which recognise and respond to present-day reality)

  • Taking the initiative once again in finding sustainable ways of coordinating and influencing the main networks on the continent, and elsewhere

  • Publicly repositioning the ethical, epistemological, pedagogical and political debate, avoiding both ambiguities and false certainties – DEBATE is the word, both in the international arena and within the civil society in our countries


Lastly, we need to go back to establishing – or strengthening, as the case may be – an articulate, critical, living movement with its own thinking and a genuine influence at the grassroots, in universities, among the wider public, etc. And this requires a collegial, enabling, decentralized and truly democratic management style. Work on this has begun. It needs to be pursued.

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