Peter Mayo

Freire always sided with the disadvantaged, and his work inescapably leads to the question: On whose side am I? Peter Mayo summarises the main elements of Freire’s legacy.

10th Anniversary of Paulo Freire’s Death

On whose side are we when we teach and act?

May 2nd marked the tenth anniversary of the death of one of the twentieth century’s greatest educationists, the Brazilian Paulo Reglus Neves Freire (1921–1997). He has achieved iconic status among educators and a whole range of cultural workers striving for greater social justice and who imagine a world not as it is now but as it should and can be.

Born in Recife, in the state of Pernambuco in the impoverished North-East of Brazil, Paulo Freire dedicated the best part of his life to combating social injustices in various parts of the world and educating/ learning with the oppressed he came across in the various contexts in which he was active. He suffered imprisonment and exile for his efforts in planning what was perceived as being a “subversive” approach to literacy in Brazil in the early sixties. He moved briefly to Bolivia and then to Chile, where he was engaged in an educational programme connected with the agrarian reform, and the USA where he had his hitherto unpublished major work, Pedagogia do Oprimido (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) published in English translation. He eventually went to Geneva where he worked for the World Council of Churches. He was frequently called upon by revolutionary governments, such as those in Guinea Bissau, to assist them in developing and evaluating educational projects. He also used his sixteen year period of exile to work with a variety of groups in different parts of Europe, and he engaged, following the abertura and his return to Brazil from exile, in the complex area of municipal educational administration in São Paulo. He was also a most prolific writer; many of his works were translated into English and other languages. Books by him continued to be published throughout the last ten years, including the most recent English translation of Pedagogia da Indignação (Pedagogy of Indignation) and Pedagogia da Tolerancia. Freire’s best-known work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is regarded by many as exemplary in the way it comprises reflections on the various contexts with which he was engaged. In this work Freire constantly provides theoretical formulations and insights deriving from a variety of sources. The key aspect of Freire’s work is the emphasis on the political nature of education: education IS politics. For Freire refutes the view that education can be neutral. He argues that education can either “domesticate” or “liberate”. And a liberating education is one that fosters the disposition among learners to engage in a dialectical relationship with knowledge and society.

A unidirectional, “top-to-bottom” process of teacher-student transmission, which is often symptomatic of a wider prescriptive process of communication, constitutes domesticating education (“banking education”). Freire advocates an authentically dialogical approach to knowledge. His is a complex notion of dialogue. Although not being on an equal footing, teacher and learner learn from each other as they co-investigate dialectically the object of knowledge. The concept that lies at the heart of this process is praxis, a key term in Freire’s work which dates back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, including the work of Aristotle. It is central to Paulo Freire’s educational philosophy. This entails a process whereby learners and educators obtain a critical distance from the world they know and perceive it in a different and critical light. They are encouraged to “extraordinarily re-experience the ordinary,” as critical educator Ira Shor once put it. The community, in which the learning setting is situated, is researched beforehand by a team of educators and project participants (including learners). The research includes informal meetings with members of the community, close observation of their speech patterns, obtaining knowledge of the community members’ concerns etc. The insights, information and knowledge derived from this research are codified into learning material. This material is intended to enable learners from the same community to obtain critical distance from it so as to be able to unveil collectively and with the help of the educator, who also learns from these insights and dialogical interactions with the group, the underlying contradictions of the society in question.

“I cannot be a teacher if I fail to realise with increasing clarity that since my practice cannot be neutral, I have to define it. To take a position.” Freire

Freire places the emphasis on dialogue and on the pedagogy of the question. Knowledge is problematised. Things are called into question in what is a problem posing rather than a problem solving approach. The object of knowledge is an object of co-investigation. Knowledge is therefore not something possessed by the educator which he or she transfers to the learner but is something both educator and learner co-investigate, explore together. Knowledge is therefore conceived of as dynamic rather than static. The approach to learning is directive since learning is conceived of as a political act. The roles of educator and learner are almost interchangeable, as all learn from each other, but this is not to say that the learner and educator are on an equal footing. The latter must have a certain amount of authority (bestowed on the educator by the learner because of the former’s competence in the field of learning and as a pedagogue) which should not be allowed to degenerate into authoritarianism lest the spirit of genuine dialogue be destroyed. Only through dialogue does the group learn collectively to unveil the contradictions that underlie the reality being focused upon. Adult educators are encouraged to show tact when promoting dialogical relations and there are moments when they alternate dialogue with a certain degree of instruction, especially on consideration that people exposed for years to banking education do not engage in dialogue easily. The starting point of co-investigation is the learner’s existential reality which cannot, however, be the be-all and end-all of the learning process, lest one were guilty of populism or basismo. Educators must have enough humility to relearn, through their dialogic interactions with the learners, that which they think they already know. The lay Dominican friar, Frei Betto (Carlos Alberto Libanio Christo), reveals that Freire himself showed such humility:

“During many periods of our lives I was on intimate terms with Paulo Freire and I consider myself his disciple. For more than 20 years I worked in popular education based upon his method and we wrote a book together, with the participation of journalist Ricardo Kotscho. The first thing that impressed me about Paulo Freire was that, ever since his experience with workers in the State of Pernambuco, he allowed himself to be educated by the workers, before presuming to be their educator…He was a simple person, an unpretentious intellectual, who never wished to show off his erudition, who did not favour one person over another in any relationship. I remember him telling me how he had entered a store that sold neckties in Switzerland and could not get anyone to help him. After some time he complained and the employee said that nobody paid attention to him because he would not have enough money to buy any of those ties. He related this anecdote as a joke, laughing, to show the prejudices that exist in Europe regarding Latin-Americans.”

(Betto, 1999, p. 44)

Freire conceived of educators and learners as “integral human beings” (Darder, 2002, p. 94) in an educational process based on love (Ibid, p. 91). Love characterizes the humanizing relationship between teacher and taught (teacher-student and student-teacher, in Freire’s terms). It also drives the educator forward in teaching and working for the dismantling of dehumanizing structures. Freire is reported to have said only a few days before his death:

“I could never think of education without love and that is why I think I am an educator, first of all because I feel love…”

(in McLaren, 2002).

And the entire pedagogical process practised and articulated by Freire is based on his trust in human beings and in their ability to create “a world in which it will be easier to love” (Freire, 1970a, 1993, p.40; see Allman et. al, 1998, p. 9). Freire’s concept of love has strong Christian overtones and revolutionary ones. The revolutionary influence derived from Ernesto Che Guevara who, according to Freire, “did not hesitate to recognize the capacity of love as an indispensable condition for authentic revolutionaries.” (Freire, 1970b, p. 45).

Freire’s impact has been strongly felt among many educators including those operating within progressive, social justice-oriented social movements. The reasons for this are many. The movements are often attracted to Freire’s philosophy and pedagogical approach because of the emphases on value commitment (“on whose side are we?”), on praxis, on the collective dimension of learning and liberation, on people capable of being tactically inside and strategically outside the system, on refuting cynicism with the belief that another world is possible (a healthy utopia), on the ongoing quest for greater coherence and on the need for persons to develop and constantly adopt a critical attitude. Freire’s influence is felt most strongly among the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) – the landless peasants movement – in his native Brazil.

One comes across a fusion between reason and emotion in Freire’s writing. This strikes me as being an important feature of his work. As I wrote elsewhere (Mayo, 2004), Freire has taught me or consolidated in me several things. He helped me develop a sensitivity to the politics of knowledge and to confront a very disturbing question: on whose side am I when I teach/act? He has also taught me to appreciate the virtues of and ethical issues involved in dialogical education and to realize that this approach to learning, once again based on a dialectical engagement with the material world, implies not laissez faire pedagogy but a directive pedagogy. For someone like me who was brought up and still lives in a country with a long history of direct colonialism, it meant much to come across such a powerful anti-colonial voice as that of Freire. Reading Freire, a “southern” author, and other ‘majority world’ writers, enabled me to learn a lot about the social dimensions of knowledge. I began to feel the need to decolonize my mind through reading, thinking and acting beyond the exclusively Euro-centric framework. Coming from a country with a dominant Catholic culture, I found in Freire’s writings on the “prophetic” church, with its basis in liberation theology, insights which have enabled me to conceive of the church as a site of struggle. These insights have subsequently been enhanced by my exposure to Cornell West’s distinction between the prophetic and Constantinian church, the latter being the church that lies at the heart of the Empire. These and other elements in Freire’s work resonate with my experience and hopefully the experience of several readers of this article.


Allman, P. with Mayo, P., Cavanagh, C., Lean Heng, C. and Haddad, S. (1998), Introduction. “…the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love” Convergence, XX1 (1 & 2) pp. 9–16.

Betto, F. (1999), ‘Liberation Theology “No longer a ghetto in the Church”’, (Frei Betto interviewed in São Paulo by Carmel Borg and Peter Mayo) in The Sunday Times (Malta), 17/10/99, 44–45.

Darder, A. (2002), Reinventing Paulo Freire. A Pedagogy of Love, Boulder Colorado: Westview Press. Freire, P. (1970a, 1993), Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th Anniversary Edition), New York: Continuum. Freire, P. (1970b) Cultural Action for Freedom, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

McLaren, P. (2002), Afterword. A Legacy of Hope and Struggle. In A. Darder, Reinventing Paulo Freire. A Pedagogy of Love, (pp. 245–253), Boulder Colorado: Westview Press.

Mayo, P. (2004), Liberating Praxis. Paulo Freire’s Legacy for Radical Education and Politics, Westport, Co: Praeger.