Alfonso Torres Carrillo

Educación Popular and Paulo Freire are inextricably linked. Alfonso Torres Carillo first makes brief reference to Freire’s background and career, before looking at what he sees as the pillars of this thinking in establishing Educación Popular; and lastly, he puts forward a number of observations about the topicality of this educational trend, among them the idea that it is possible even to create and build “other possible worlds” through education. The paper draws on the reading of works by and about Freire, and on the author’s own experience and reflections as a popular educator.

Paulo Freire and Educación Popular

The title of this article may appear redundant: it is impossible to think of Paulo Freire without Educación Popular; it is impossible to conceive of the latter without reference to its creator and principal exponent. However, since not everyone may necessarily be clear about how Freirean educational theory gave rise to and fed into the trend of popular education, I felt it was appropriate to write this simple article on the contribution of the Brazilian educationist to critical educational discourse and practice in Latin America.

A Brief Review of Paulo Freire and his Practice 1

The Brazilian educator was born in 1921 in Recife, in the north-east of Brazil, where he spent his childhood and adolescence, which were marked by financial want and contact with the peasants and workers in that region of the country. When he was a law student he married Elza, a school teacher who introduced him to education, particularly the teaching of Portuguese, an activity with which he paid for his studies and contributed to the household budget.

Building on his experiences in the Popular Culture Movement, his studies of popular language and critical analysis of Brazilian education in the mid-20th century, Freire created a literacy method which incorporated dialogue about the everyday problems faced by illiterates in learning how to read and write, and looked for alternatives that would transform them. In 1963, this novel and effective system came to the attention of Darcy Ribeiro, the Minister of Education, who asked Freire to coordinate the National Literacy Plan.

In 1964, when the hundreds of centres that were going to put this scheme into practice were being set up, there was a military coup, and Freire was imprisoned, accused of being an “international subversive”; when he came out of prison he went into exile first in Bolivia and then in Chile, where he systematized his experiences in the books Education for Liberation and Pedagogy of the Oppressed; in these, he expanded his arguments about the dominant consciousness, the oppression of education, concientization, dialogue and the process of liberation.

In 1970, Freire started his second period of exile in Europe, the United States and Africa.

“I am a teacher who favours... democracy over dictatorship of the right or the left. I am a teacher who favours constant struggle against every form of discrimination, against economic domination by individuals or social classes. I am a teacher who opposes the current capitalist order that has brought about the aberration of misery amidst plenty.” Freire

In 1980 he returned to Brazil to “relearn” his country; he was appointed professor at the Universities of Campinhas and São Paulo, and he took part in teacher training programmes, with street educators and in popular education movements, which began to expand as a result in his own country and across Latin America; in the 1980s he published a number of books and gave numerous interviews in which he stressed the political dimension of education.

In 1989 he was appointed Secretary of Education of Sâo Paulo, the most populous state in Brazil. During his period in office he carried out the huge task of putting his ideas into practice, revising the school curriculum under the banner of democratic popular public education, and improving the salaries of Brazilian educators. He summed up his experience of creating democratic popular public schools in the book “Pedagogy of the City”.

Throughout the 1990s, without giving up teaching and research at the Universities of São Paulo and Recife, or his work as adviser to many education projects, Freire devoted himself to systematizing his educational career in books such as, “Pedagogy of Hope” (1992), “Politics and Education” (1993), “Letters to Cristina” (1994) “Letters to Those Who Dare Teach” (1994), “Under the Shade of this Mango” (1997) and “Pedagogy of Autonomy” (1998).

Paulo Freire died on 2 May 1997, after giving an interview to students at the University of São Paulo in which he reaffirmed his educational, ethical and political views. In 2001, his widow published the book that he had been working on when he died: “Pedagogy of Indignation” (2001), in which he makes a radical criticism of neoliberalism and restates his position: “As regards presence in history and the world, I struggle in hope for a dream, for utopia, from the perspective of critical pedagogy.”

The Contribution of Freire to Critical Pedagogy

Freire’s wide-ranging oeuvre, and his many public presentations, form a rich set of reflections about education, pedagogy and the ethics of liberation. Similarly, it should not be forgotten that his ideas underwent changes throughout his intellectual journey of almost half a century. However, this does not prevent the works of the Brazilian educationist being read in the context of specific questions; on this occasion I aim to take stock of his contribution to the shaping of Educación Popular.

For Freire, the purpose of education is that teachers and learners should “learn to read reality so that they can write their own history”; this presupposes the ability to interpret the world critically and to act to change it in accordance with “viable unknowns”; by taking action and reflecting, through dialogue, learners and teachers take control of their lives. Having thus summarized his arguments, I shall first set out some basic ideas about each of the four dimensions referred to:

  1. Education means a critical understanding of reality
  2. Education means making a commitment to utopia and changing reality
  3. Education means training those who will make this change
  4. Education means dialogue

1. Education Means a Critical Understanding of Reality

From our earliest experience and thoughts, education is perceived as an act of knowing, of becoming aware of reality, and as an interpretation of the world which precedes the understanding of words.2 Its literacy method starts in fact from the requirement for educators to investigate educatees’ reality, and how the latter interpret that reality, in language. Even in the process of acquiring literacy, the starting point is the problematized appropriation of reality and the discussion of “naïve” interpretations by teachers and learners;

in the Freirean method, illiterates learn critically about their world through dialogue about significant problems, while learning to read and write.

In contrast to the banking concept of education, Freire regards knowing about reality not as an individual or merely intellectual act. Knowing the world is a collective, practical process involving different kinds of knowledge: consciousness, feeling, desire, will and physicality. Every educational practice must recognise what learners and teachers know about the topic, and must generate collective, dialogical experiences so that both sides develop new knowledge. The celebrated statement by Freire that “No one knows everything and no one knows nothing; no one educates anyone, no one educates himself alone, people educate each other, mediated by the world” needs to be read in this constructivist sense (“whoever teaches learns, and whoever learns teaches”) and not as a denial of the specifics of the active role that educators must play.

Knowing about the world is not merely an intellectual operation; it is a process linked to practice and to all human dimensions. This means not so much understanding and being aware of the world in order then to change it, as understanding the world from and through the practice of change, in which desires, values, will, emotions, imagination, intentions and dreams play a part.

This educational process of understanding the world is never final; rather, it is always incomplete, since the world is not given and finite, but is continually being given and changed; people too, change themselves and their questions in the process of understanding and changing the world. Hence, the products of knowledge cannot be likened to finished, unchangeable truths, but will be refined, discussed and questioned. What is needed is more a pedagogy of questions than of answers.

At a more practical level, the preoccupation with knowing is directly linked to content and methodology (what to know, and how to know it). This preoccupation, in turn, is subordinate to other more fundamental questions: why know, in whose interest, and for whom?; that is to say, to the purpose of the said educational practice. Answering them leads us to another key idea of Freire’s: every educational activity is intentional, and therefore political.

2. Education is a Political Practice

In Freire’s view, education is never neutral. Every educational practice is political, just as political practice is educational. Educational practices are always political because they involve values, projects and utopian dreams that reproduce, legitimize, question and change the relationships of power obtaining in the society; education is never neutral, but is in favour either of domination or emancipation. Hence, Freire distinguishes between conservative educational practice and progressive educational practice:

Conservative educational practice seeks, in teaching the subjectmatter, to hide the reasons for a vast array of social problems; in progressive educational practice, the teaching of the subject-matter tends to reveal the reason for those problems. While the former leads to learners accommodating themselves, adapting to the given world, the latter seeks to unsettle the learners, challenging them so that they realise that the world is not finally given and can therefore be changed, transformed and re-invented (Freire 95, Pedagogy of the City).

Education by itself does not change the world, but it is impossible to do so without it. In consequence, a progressive educator must make an ethical, political commitment to building a fairer world. The educator sees history as possibility; must not lose the capacity for indignation, must not be indifferent or neutral towards injustice, oppression, discrimination and exploitation; must keep and encourage hope in the possibility of overcoming the unjust order, of imagining achievable utopias (“the viable unknown”).

Freire therefore sees reality not merely as the starting point for education but also as the point of arrival. If reality is not given, but in the process of being given, the purpose of liberating education is to help to bring about change, in accordance with visions of the future that go beyond the existence of oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited, excluders and excluded; it means overcoming economic, social, political and cultural obstacles preventing the development of learners as human beings. Critical educational practice, linked to transformative social practice, enables people to write their own history, that is to say, to overcome the adverse circumstances and factors that condition them.

3. Education Means Taking Control

For Freire, the raison d’être of education lies in the unfinished nature of human beings. Men and women are unfinished beings who, if we realise it, need others to understand and change the world while taking control of it. Recognising this feeling that something is missing, that we need others to understand, actuate and be in the world, justifies the potential of education, which cannot be anything but communication and dialogue.

Freire does not therefore see dialogue merely as a methodological resource or a teaching strategy but as a requirement if we are to take control, to become “subjects” rather than objects; only through conversation based on shared practice and openness to the other party, who in turn listens and talks to me, do I see myself as a “subject”; not as a finished subject but as a subject who is continuously being constructed. Dialogue thus takes on an anthropological and ethical character, to the extent that we become autonomous human beings, with the ability to influence reality, and recognise, with others, that the world can be modified by other values, feelings and utopias.

Now, there can be no quest without hope in Freire’s eyes. To lose hope is to lose the possibility of taking control, of changing the world, and therefore of understanding it. That is why he argues for a “pedagogy of hope” that will overcome the ideology of fatalism, conformism and disillusionment that the dominant power tries at all costs to impose. The belief that “nothing can be done” has to be countered by the right to dream that “a different world is possible”, the slogan of the World Social Forum and the antiglobalization struggle. As Freire puts it himself:3

“To the extent that we acquire the capacity to change the world, to put names to things, to perceive, to understand, to decide, to choose, to evaluate, in sum, to ethicize the world, our movement necessarily enfolds within itself, and in history, the dreams for the realization of which we are fighting.”

Critical pedagogy must therefore help to build dreams, to reinvent utopias and to spread hope of change. In what he said and did, Freire was an example of the creative builder, which is why he succeeded

in influencing thousands of educators from the 1960s to the present day. An educational tendency grew up around the discussion and implementation of his proposals in Latin America, committed to the dreams, projects and movements of social and cultural liberation:

Educación Popular.

This took up and radicalized Freire’s argument that education is not neutral; that it must start from thorough criticism of the reality of injustice; that it must stand for utopias of change; that it must help to build up the poorer sections of the population as the controllers of change; that it must therefore help to develop critical awareness; and that it must do so using democratic methods such as dialogue.

4. Education Means Dialogue

Educación Popular Building on the Potential of Freire’s Pedagogy

During his second period of exile in 1970 in Europe, the United States and Africa, Freire’s ideas and his views on education were greeted with enthusiasm by progressive educators, clerics and social activists, against the background of the radicalization of the social struggles in Latin America. The decade that was beginning was in fact marked by the growing strength of trade unions, rural and urban movements, committed artists and educators, and by the spread of parties and movements of the political left; there were military coups in most of the countries in the continent, which set up authoritarian regimes that sought to put an end to the rise of the popular movement with fire and the sword.

In this situation, Educación Popular (EP) was forming itself into an educational and pedagogical tendency that gave its backing to organizations, struggles and resistance and liberation movements. With the influence of Marxism and other critics of capitalism such as Bourdieu, Passeron, Illich and Vasconi, the questioning of the formal education system became more radical, the political nature of education became apparent, and alternative educational theories were created.

“Democracy is not received as a gift. Democracy is fought for.” Freire

This “politicization of education” and “educationalization of politics” gave rise to what has become known as the foundation discourse of EP, the distinctive features of which we can (with variations according to different national contexts) summarize as follows:4



  1. A critical reading of social reality, in particular of the injustices created or exacerbated by the capitalist system, and of the role which the latter plays in reproducing the social order in the education system
  2. The ethical choice to pursue political emancipaiton, by identifying with the creation of a society in which current injustices and inequalities would be overcome, an aim identified with socialism
  3. Helping to turn the poorer sections of the population into protagonists of this social transformation, strengthening them and their organizations and movements though education
  4. Education as the development of a critical awareness among “popular” educatees, understood as awareness of injustice and the need to change it
  5. Creation of methodologies of work based on the collective construction of knowledge, dialogue and action

The identification of these common features does not mean that EP was a homogeneous tendency; like any historical development, it took on different nuances and emphases in each national context; under the military dictatorship in Chile, for example, it adopted the slogan of the restoration of democracy; in Central America in the 1980s, EP was associated with insurrection, and in Bolivia and Peru it went under the banner of the struggle of the rural poor and indigenous people. Similarly, the historical peculiarities of each context meant that EP inspired activities in literacy, education for human rights, gen-der education and intercultural education. Hence, rather than being a monolithic body of doctrine, EP was a field of education that differed from other educational practices and tendencies.

A huge number of cultural organizations, adult education centres, church communities and literacy circles grew up in Latin America and adopted these ideas, as well as centres specializing in promoting them and supporting grassroots experiments.5 Latin American networks such as CELADEC and the Latin American Council for Adult Education (CEAAL), and journals such as Cultura Popular, Tarea, La Piragua and Aportes, helped to circulate discussion, ideas, experience and methodological support at continental level.

By the late 1980s, EP had turned into an educational movement and a critical educational tendency maintained by a proliferation of networks and forums at national and continental level. However, questions and new ideas also began to arise, arguing for the need to reconsider some of the tenets and arguments of EP.

The So-called “Refounding” of EP

From the late 1980s, and particularly in the first half of the ’90s, dissatisfaction with some of the arguments and content of the “foundation” discourse of EP began to surface; changes in the global and Latin American political context (fall of Soviet socialism, defeat of the Sandinistas, end of the military regimes and start of the democratization process), and recognition of the limitations of educational practices (activism and lack of systematization, poor teaching, changes in educational subjects, little discussion with new paradigms), led some educators to stress the urgent need to “refound” EP.

In fact, this revision of EP had begun earlier in some countries, in response to changes in the context and to discussion of the political and educational input of certain authors; this applied to the view taken in the 1980s of authors such as Antonio Gramsci and the re-reading of Paulo Freire, which made it possible to re-evaluate culture in politics and education, and to the introduction into the debate of concepts such as hegemony and dialogue of knowledge. The main shifts that took place in each area of the foundation discourse in the last decade of the 20th century can be summed up as follows:

  1. The class-based view of Latin American society, and the reproductionist view of education, were complemented by other inputs and concepts such as hegemony, cultural politics, social movements, civil society, etc., and schools began to be seen once more as places of innovative teaching.
  2. From a perception that identified power with the apparatus of government, and change of political power with revolution, there was a move towards the recognition that power is a relationship present in all social contexts, and towards calls for democracy as a desirable and viable political model for all countries in the continent; this was linked to a renewed emphasis on the everyday, on public life, on attempts to influence public and education policy, and to participation in local government.
  3. From an economic, politicized conception of the poorer sections of society, there was a move towards recognition that these are composed of many different elements, and have a historical and cultural density; abstract categories such as the working class or people’s movements were given a more specific shape in the form of local residents, women and young people.
  4. From an emphasis on developing critical class consciousness, there was a move towards awareness of the value of the subjective features of the poorer sections of society and involvement of all aspects of them as autonomous persons: culture, physicality, emotions, values, will, critical thinking and creative imagination.
  5. From the security of a sense of possessing a Method (dialectics), there was a move towards the open-ended and uncertain construction of educational theories based on a dialogue of knowledge, interculturalism and discussion with other educational tendencies.

These changes in the political and educational conception of EP were reflected in the redefinition of priorities and the emphasis placed on practice by many centres and networks of Educación Popular in Latin America in the late 1990s and the early years of the present decade. From a close relationship with popular movements and organizations, there was a move towards novel collaboration with the national and municipal governments that replaced the authoritarian regimes; some popular educators took on government responsibilities for social policy and education in their countries.

Furthermore, in the context of educational reforms driven by the governments that succeeded the military regimes, or as the result of political democratization, some NGOs specialized in supporting and evaluating innovations in school curricula and teaching, and inservice training for teachers; others in promoting democratization and consequently in training for citizenship, and influencing the formation of public and education policy. Some educators and NGOs even began to argue that in the new context, Educación Popular was no longer relevant and that activities such as education for citizenship or human rights were more inclusive.

This enthusiasm for democratization in almost every country in the continent has been shattered by the evidence of the growing social inequalities and injustices brought about by the widespread introduction of the neoliberal model. After twenty years of adjustment policies, the indicators of inequality have shot up in all countries, unemployment and casual working have become the predominant features of the labour market; access to retirement pensions and health care are a privilege that is dying out, and two thirds of the population of the continent are affected by poverty and destitution.

The Relevance of Freire and Educación Popular on the Threshold of the 21st Century

Source: La Carta 217 

Given this deterioration in the living conditions of the majority of the population of Latin America, and old and new forms of oppression and exclusion in the 1990s and the early years of the new century, protest has again become widespread. The continent is beginning to wake up to indigenous and rural movements in countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico; in Argentina, picketing, local assemblies and the mobilization of the middle and lower classes against the financial system are renewing hopes in collective action. The World Social Forum, which has met in Porto Alegre since 2000, combines and expresses these changes in the slogan “A different world is possible”.

This growth and diversification of resistance strategies and social struggle, the emergence of new social actors, and the reinvigoration of left-wing social policy throughout the length and breadth of the continent, have faced Educación Popular with the challenge of resuming its role of alternative critical pedagogy. Social movements and organizations are turning

to it to train their leaders and their grassroots; economic solidarity initiatives and alternative development projects are involving education; indigenous and rural movements, work with young people, women, emigrants and people displaced by violence, are calling for approaches to education that match their specific needs; and so on.

These new demands on EP were expressed in the recent 6th General Assembly of CEAAL in Recife (Brazil), attended by more than two hundred popular educators from Latin America, who considered the current challenges facing EP and short and medium-term lines of future action. I summarize below the urgent calls for action made at the Assembly, and their implications for teacher training institutions such as my university:

  1. Better links between EP and social movements, to help build democracy; this will involve generating synergies between EP centres and among the social movements themselves. In order to make use of the training of individuals and collectives for change, alliances need to be established between popular education centres and social movements to work on relevant education projects. The experience of the Indigenous University in Ecuador and the agreements between certain Brazilian universities and MST, may offer a model for putting into practice the idea of a “popular university” proposed in the Assembly.
  2. EP needs to use its particular approach to education to resume its role in the generation of knowledge and critical thinking. In a return to the path first laid out by Paulo Freire, EP is asked to help create paradigms that offer alternatives to the hegemonic neoliberal discourse, building on its own special field: that of education. It is therefore suggested that educational experiences and knowledge should be more actively systematized, and that there should be more creative dialogue with other points of view, and critical action on gender, liberation theology, alternative justice, ecology, etc.
  3. EP needs to reactivate opportunities for training grassroots popular educators. Given the finding that the centres and historical organizations that make up EP are on average twenty or thirty years old, while a good proportion of social movement facilitators and activists are young people, CEAAL faces the challenge of drawing up broad strategies for training educators using an EP focus and methodology. New communication technologies will need to be used in order to reach the entire continent.
  4. Gender, human rights and the environment are perspectives that need to be taken into account in EP practice and discourse. Specialization in EP fields of action has in some cases led to the fragmentation of educational practices, so that the issues of gender, human rights and the environment have been left to networks and centres specializing in those topics, and have been overlooked in other activities. These issues are more than “transverse”, and should be made explicit, both in educational practices and in the everyday lives of education centres and social movements.
  5. Areas in which EP has been working should be continued: democracy, citizenship and local power, influencing public policy, especially in education, education, multiculturalism and interculturalism. Similarly, EP faces particular challenges, depending on the specific needs of each country and region, as in the case of Colombia, where armed conflict and widespread violence have led to an increase in initiatives on human rights, education for peace and living with displaced persons.

Education faculties and pedagogical universities in Latin America, and centres of education research, teacher training and social advancement through education have a vital opportunity and responsibility in respect of these current challenges facing EP. Given that education takes place not only in formal contexts but also in a wide variety of social settings, teacher training needs to address these issues throughout its curricula; similarly, universities as a whole need to be open to the dynamic ways in which EP occurs, and to the social and cultural actors involved.

1 Anyone wishing to learn more will find a large number of biographies and papers by and about Freire on the Internet.

2 Freire, Paulo (1983). El acto de leer y el proceso de liberación. Siglo XXI, México, p. 51.

3 Freire, Paulo (2001). Pedagogía de la indignación. Morata, Madrid, p. 43.

4 I have expanded on this idea in other papers. Torres Alfonso (2000). “Ires y venires de la Educación popular en América Latina”. In: La Piragua # 18 , CEAAL, México.

5 In Colombia, for example, CINEP, CEPECS, Servicio Colombiano, CEPALC, IPC and Dimensión Educativa.

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