Carlos Núñez Hurtado

Nostalgia or continuing relevance? In the light of the admission that Paulo Freire demands commitment, the author makes his own personal assessment and interpretation of Freire, and comes to the conclusion that Freire’s thinking has lost nothing of its currency.

The Continuing Relevance of Paulo Freire’s Ideas


I am very pleased that the topic allotted me concerns the continuing relevance of the ideas of Paulo Freire, an author with prominent admirers and followers. However, it is undeniable that when many of the people who knew him back in the 1970s and ’80s hear him mentioned, they comment that this is pure nostalgia for a past filled with political ideas that are, frankly, out of date.

They support this assertion by referring, almost without exception, to his classic work, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. To put it differently, the only book of Paulo’s that they have read is that one (assuming they have read it at all). Moreover, they read it – and remember reading it – in a context and an era that unquestionably left a lasting impression and were full of grand ideas, principles, happenings, commitments, personalities, etc.

There is no doubt that the world is different today. Freire warns us that

“The fatalistic, discouraging ideology which drives the liberal discourse is stalking the world. In the name of postmodernism it seeks to persuade us that we can do nothing to change the social situation which, once seen as historical and cultural, is now becoming ‘almost the natural state’.”

It is true. And in consequence, our souls are now full of defeat, despair and pragmatism. Some people reason that Paulo is no longer an author who writes about the present day. Maybe they are those who have uncritically accepted as “normal” the current hegemony of the market ethic, the ethic of death, which is now impoverishing humanity, ruining our planet and seeking to justify crimes and wars in the name of gods that it has itself invented and enthroned by means of sophisticated ideological mechanisms and telecommunications.

But this situation, so different but so similar to that of 30 or 40 years ago, seems not to worry many of our intellectuals, academics, politicians and clerics. Although they grew up during that era of struggle, many of them now think in opposite terms, and therefore find excuses for the crimes committed against those who fought in that past age that was so full both of ideals and sacrifice and – it must be admitted – of grave mistakes.

To many people, therefore, Freire is “indissolubly bound” to that past, on which they now wish to turn their backs. Others – perhaps the majority – never even knew him, or know him only as a bibliographical reference in an intellectual or academic exercise that is bland and totally devoid of commitment, as so many now are.

Source: La Carta 223

Curiously, however, many of the authors and influences that are cited and invoked today put forward arguments very close to Freirean thinking, so that it is hard to understand this dismissal and/or lack of interest in a writer who unquestionably influenced the educational thinking of the 20th century through his life and works. As an example of this, it is enough to read the paper by Edgar Morin entitled, “The seven things we need to know for the education of the future”.

What has happened is, I believe, that Freire cannot simply be “read”. Freire demands commitment. And commitment, in a neoliberal age, is very rare. Perhaps those who ignore or dismiss him are at heart unconsciously protecting themselves against the far-reaching implications of ethical, political, pedagogical and epistemological thinking which, harmoniously and coherently, requires a profound commitment to life, justice and liberation. It did so in the 1960s, and it does so now we are in the 21st century.

This is the starting point which I intend to adopt in making my personal assessment of Paulo Freire. What I shall say will therefore not necessarily be everyone’s Paulo Freire; it will be my reading of Paulo Freire. I have read, reread, internalized, renewed and reinvented Freire in my own practice over nearly forty years in the world of “Educación Popular”, as well as in my work with public institutions in a number of countries, with international agencies and, more recently, in a direct form in the academic context.

When I say “read”, I refer of course to Paulo’s written works, which are very extensive. Paulo went on living, working and writing even after his death, because Nita, his widow, made use of the materials left in his desk and his files to publish two more books posthumously, “Pedagogy of Indignation” and “Daring to Dream: toward a Pedagogy of the Unfinished”.

However, my reading is by no means the product of mere intellectual curiosity. Paulo Freire, together with many other authors, has been the guide and inspiration for the committed “Educación Popular” activities that have been shared with many other colleagues throughout the length and breadth of our continent.

It is therefore from an analytical, contextualized reading and reinterpretation of his works, and from the privilege of sharing with him a variety of activities and deeply humane, professional conversations, that I shall now, in the light of my own socio-educational, organizational, cultural and political practice, make my own interpretation of Freire.

My Reading of Freire

I shall try first to explain what I regard as the core of Freire’s thinking. I shall employ quotations from Paulo – running the risks that this involves – to illustrate how he expressed his points of view.

In successive investigations, I have found that Freire can be “read” according to four main axes, pillars or fields of knowledge:

1) his stand on, call for and development of ethical thinking and commitment

2) his revised and inspirational dialectical epistemological framework

3) his consequent pedagogy

4) his unfailing socio-political commitment

In order to clarify this assertion, let me begin with what Paulo Freire says about his general concept of education: is a knowledge process, political training, an ethical manifestation, a quest for beauty, the acquisition of scientific and technical skills; education is therefore an indispensable and specific practice of human beings in history, as a movement and a struggle.

It is evident that this contains the elements I have suggested.

I shall briefly expand on each of these four “Freirean” elements in order to reach a greater understanding of him.


In relation to ethics, Paulo constantly refers to and stresses the “ethicity” of education. He believes that there can be no education that does not adopt and pursue an ethical commitment. But as we shall see, he does not reduce this merely to the inclusion of values as a “teaching subject”, a functionalist approach to what is a “fashionable topic” in education. It seems to me that one of the main aberrations of current approaches is the wish to convert the ethical commitment (social, political and ecological) of human beings – in this case, of educators – into “a subject” or a series of classes that “teach values”.

“It should be remembered that in Mexico, the only aspect of the curriculum that we ever had – and which came close to the topic in any way – was “civics”. But years ago, our educational and political authorities, doubtless reasoning that we were already an ethical, humanist country, did away with it. It has only recently been restored as a subject in secondary education.”

In speaking of Paulo’s ethical thinking, we are obviously not talking about adding or removing subjects and/or teaching classes on values, explaining in theoretical terms what is meant by freedom, brotherhood, justice, etc. We mean placing an ethical focus at the centre of every practical and theoretical activity that is educational in an individual or a social sense.

“The practice of education is all of this: affectivity, enjoyment, academic ability and technical mastery in the service of change.” Freire

We cannot “throw out” thinking that requires us continually to renew our ethical commitment. To do this would be to doubt whether we should maintain whatever commitment we made years ago to a better world (to which we were introduced through the thinking of Freire). Commitment came through awareness (Freire’s “concientization”), making us realise that the world was unjust and full of contradictions, increasing marginalization and violence, lack of respect for human rights, acute poverty, etc.

The question we have to ask today, in 2003, should be whether the world which caused us to commit ourselves twenty, thirty or forty years ago, is any better now. Today, do we perhaps have a world with less misery, less exclusion, less violence, fewer attacks on human rights, less destruction of the environment? Some of us, if we honestly consult our consciences and our experience, would have to answer, NO. Quite the reverse. The people we used to call “marginalized” were poor, “beyond the margins” of the benefits of an unjust society, and today we shamelessly call them “excluded”.

Neoliberal thinking (and its intellectuals) is indeed shameless when it suggests cynically that such people are and should be “dispensable”. And we are not talking about other countries; we are talking about Mexico, where government officials and analysts have in the recent past explicitly said that some people are “non-viable”, and that no provision should therefore be made for them. But even when they do not say as much explicitly, with quite such cynicism, they say it in all kinds of ways in the “language” of public policy and budget allocations at all levels, including, of course, education.

Without distorting the statistics that are perhaps familiar to us all, Xavier Gorostiaga and Manfred MacNeff demonstrate from United Nations figures that some 345 individuals – not companies – enjoy wealth equivalent to the domestic product of 40% of poor countries. These are truly chilling statistics. However, we cannot simply “read them” as cold numbers. We have to make an effort to “humanize” the data, cultivating our sensibility so that it helps to reinforce our ethical commitment. When we look at these figures, we need to think of the street children on every corner, and of the indigenous Americans to whom we give – or rather, tell ourselves not to give – the alms they beg from us at every step.

In the present-day world, we have to acknowledge with regret that violation of human rights is becoming more commonplace and that violence is spreading. We are still living through the tragedy of the “holy war” unleashed by the United States against the “terrorist infidels” of Islam.

The problem is that these circumstances may not move us. Lies, theft, calumnies, violation of human rights and environmental destruction have become a “normal” feature of our pliant unconsciousness.

Source: La Carta 217 

We need to reaffirm our ethical position in the light of this injustice and this unacceptable situation. And if the situation causes us to take that step because we cannot forget our “conscientiization” and deny the urgent need to renew our ethical commitment, we must take heed and react by, for example, looking for consequences and consistency in our own work in the classroom or wherever we happen to be. “It is not through resignation” – Paulo says – “that we affirm ourselves, but through rebellion against injustice.” “Hence,” – he says – “the note of anger, legitimate anger, in what I say when I refer to the injustices inflicted on the ragged of the Earth.

This is his powerful ethical message. He always had it, but it was expressed more forcefully and consistently when humanist paradigms were “defeated” by the global changes of the late 1980s and the fall of the Berlin Wall. With it we let fall many of our convictions and commitments, finding ourselves rudderless and stripped of our paradigms.

It was at this time of the “end of history” that his thinking once more adopted a position of hope. And he backed this with his “legitimate anger”, which would not allow him, given his ethical commitment, to accept the state of affairs. He therefore tells us:

“We speak of ethics and of an essentially democratic stance because education, humanitarian education, cannot remain neutral but involves choices, turning points, decisions. Being an opponent, supporting one dream and opposing another, supporting one person and opposing another. It is this imperative which requires educators to be ethical, to be militant democrats and constantly vigilant, to ensure consistency between discourse and practice.” (Taken from “Politics and Education”)

There is no room for ambiguity. Education and educators have to be builders of the dream to which they are committed. And this involves choices and ethical turning points. We cannot adopt or work with the notion of apparent neutrality.

“The teaching of subject-matter involves the teacher’s ethical witness” he tells us in his “Pedagogy of Autonomy”. And he adds: “there can be no teaching of liberty, fraternity and equality, and no asking ‘What do you understand by that?’ without commitment and ethical consistency on the part of the teacher in his or her own educational process, in the classroom and everywhere else.”

He therefore strongly affirms, with reference to his last book, that:

“This little book is entirely criss-crossed and saturated with the sense of the need for ethicity, which is expressly inherent in the nature of teaching. As teachers and learners we truly cannot escape ethical rigour.”

In stressing the educator’s ethical commitment as a key requirement for “teaching values”, he is reaffirming the inseparable relationship between a teacher’s theory and practice. Ethics and “values” cannot be taught without reference to the specific social and historical commitment and behaviour of the educator as a person and as a citizen of the real world.

It should be pointed out that when we speak of ethics, we are usually thinking of “our” ethics; that is to say, of what we find synonymous with “good”: the acknowledgement and encouragement of values such as justice, brotherhood, freedom, kindness, etc., as being “of the nature” of being human. But in reality it is a “different” ethic – in the sense of a system of established values – that is currently hegemonic and dominant: the “market” or “neoliberal” ethic. This presumes and is based on human selfishness and competency, which justifies any means as long as the ends are reached. Consequently, it allows shameless lying and cheating. Paulo therefore tells us:

“I am absolutely convinced of the ethical nature of educational practice, as a specifically humanitarian practice. Human beings are ethical beings, whatever the ethic – the ethic of living, the humanist ethic, or the market ethic – that they have chosen to adopt and follow.”

What really exists is this world. And we are in this specific world, not in the ether. In our real lives, therefore (personal, social, political, economic, occupational, etc.), we live and act under the constant influence and conditioning of the dominant neoliberal ethic. This has little or nothing to do with the humanist ethical values that we say we have and claim to accept, recognise, live by and practise. In the personal and social context, therefore, we often take on and play roles and behave in ways that contradict what we say and desire. This happens as a result of the influence of the dominant ethic.

In the face of this hegemonic ethic, the first thing to do is to recognise its existence and the real influence that it exerts on us all, socially and culturally. We can then try to go beyond a humanist ethical position based merely on theoretical and intellectual discussion, which does not commit us. We need also to put it into practice, consistent practice, translating it into real actions in our individual, family and social lives. As educators, we need to apply it in the teaching process – the learning that we bring about. But also in our social and political context, whatever the setting of our lives, since we never stop being citizens and – simply – members of the human race.

We therefore need to go beyond fatalism and defeat, which corrode us gradually like a leprosy of the mind. This is the great danger: that we shall come to accept, perhaps unconsciously, that these absurd situations and this neoliberal ideology are “normal”. That is what I have frequently called the social establishment of a culture of “normality”.

Gradually, perhaps without realising it, we have in fact settled into this “culture of normality”. In Mexico, we read reports every day in the newspapers of some new million-dollar fraud, some new FOBAPROA, some new scandal... and this is “normal”. Eduardo Galeano offers us many stark examples of this in his book “Topsy turvy: the upside down education of the world”.

We need to unsettle (ourselves from) this complaisant “normality”, so that we can overturn this stupefying culture and ideology. However, Paulo is no ingénu. He tells us:

“Although there is no denying the existence of real despair, or the historical, economic and social reasons behind it, I cannot imagine human existence and the necessary struggle to improve it without hope and without a dream.”

But this is no ideological or simplistic debate. We need to go to the heart of the problem by recovering HOPE which, as Paulo reminds us,

“…is an ontological need. Despair is hope which, having lost its direction, becomes a distorted version of that ontological need.

There is no doubting that we live in a “bad world”, a perverse world, as he says. And it is not easy consciously to find one’s bearings. But if we dispense with hopes and dreams, there is no basis for thinking in other terms.

It is possible that an argument such as this will generate the reaction that this was the radical discourse of the left wing many years ago. But today, the world is multi-faceted, it is different, and we need to be tolerant.

However, the principle of tolerance, which is more important than ever today, should not be confused with the caricature of the old slogan “peace and love”, used so powerfully in different times by hippies and opponents of war. This is not what is meant. Paulo warns us that

“Tolerance does not in any way mean abandoning what I consider just, good and certain. A tolerant person does not renounce his dreams to fight with intransigence, but respects those whose dreams are different from his own. Tolerance” –

as he defines it –

“is the wisdom or virtue to be able to live with difference in order to combat one’s antagonists more successfully, it is a revolutionary and not a conservative, liberal virtue.”

According to this perception, it is wrong to suggest that disagreement, ideology and antagonism have finished and that we have arrived at the “end of history”, as Fukoyama says. What has happened is that many people have “thrown out the baby with the bath water” in the present so-called crisis of paradigms and are denying their earlier attitudes and commitments.

But we cannot pretend, and abandon our ethical commitment, rejecting values that we used to embrace because of criticism of experiments that came nowhere near putting those values into practice.

To sum up, educators must, even more than ordinary citizens, remain true to their dreams and ethical commitment. And Paulo stubbornly reminds of this until his dying words.


“Learning how to make decisions is decisive.” Freire

As a consequence of his ethical commitment, Paulo develops an epistemological approach that accords with his principles and values. If the aim is to create free agents through education, knowledge must never be regarded or 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 always serves the social strengthening of the educatees, through the personal and social act of understanding and liberating (themselves). In respect of “knowledge”, Paulo therefore continually raises questions in his work such as: What is knowing? What is knowledge? How do we know? In whose interest and against whose interest do we know? etc. These questions are repeated throughout Freirean thinking, which seeks to develop a dialectical rather than a positivist epistemological framework from the first to the very last books.

Freire therefore severely criticises the traditional, positivist conception of epistemology, which turns learners into mere “objects” for the passive transmission of predetermined knowledge that is often alien to their sensibilities and interests.

But this is what education generally does. And it is not a new phenomenon. No, we have always done it that way, with a few honourable exceptions. We have treated the vast majority throughout the learning process as simple “objects” of education and knowledge. In the family, in primary, secondary and higher education, in political parties (those which have been politically militant); in religion and the various churches; and in the media. In society in general – in all settings and at all levels – we have been “educated” in authoritarianism, in the vertical imposition of beliefs, norms and knowledge.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that Freire calls this kind of “educating” “banking education”, by analogy with a saver depositing money in a money box or a savings account. At the end of this process, and at a given time, the best saver will be the one who has deposited the largest amount of money in the account. Thus, in “banking education”, the best student is the one who, at the end of the period of schooling, can “repeat” from memory (his or her account) the knowledge “saved”, which the teacher has been “depositing” uncritically in pupils’ accounts, i.e., their brains.

The analogy is the best possible illustration of what generally happens in education and in everyday life. Educatees and citizens are in fact turned into mere “objects” of the knowledge that the educator or a magnanimous leader (those who “possess” the knowledge) delivers in a passive – and usually authoritarian – way to those who accept it or “are required” to accept it. And “what” they are required to accept has been chosen by the authorities and/or the class teacher. The way in which they validate their power is through examinations – in education – and through submission and passivity, in the life of society.

In this model, failure to repeat faithfully what the teacher says is “reproved”. This is the “banking” concept that Paulo is condemning when he tells us in his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, in the 1960s, how it sees knowledge: “Knowledge is a gift from those who judge themselves wise to those they judge ignorant.” Years later, in his book “Extension or Communication”, he agrees, stating that

“Knowledge is not an act in which a subject, transformed into an object, docilely and passively accepts the subject-matter that the other gives or imposes upon him or her.” “An extensionist ensures”

Paulo tells us in this work –

“that knowledge is transferred to and deposited in the learner. This is a static, verbalized method, it is a concept of knowledge that ignores confrontation with the world as the true fount of knowledge.

The world – he tells us – is the true fount of knowledge. But the world is “outside the classroom”, even though the latter is part of the world. We cannot simplify knowledge, isolating it from the real socio-economic, cultural and political context of education, teaching it from the top down, through repetition and memorization.

What is curious is that we are so unaware of having adopted this concept (despite what we say and our good intentions) that almost every university has and maintains “university extension” programmes. This means that university students and teachers “possess” knowledge that the rest of us do not, and that since they have a social conscience and a generous attitude towards service, they decide to “extend” that knowledge (whatever its quality and accuracy) to society – especially to the poor – who have no choice but to accept this generous offering.

Paulo is therefore stressing the dialectical nature of his epistemological approach when he tells us:

“Human beings know through a process that does not end in a cognizable object that can be communicated to others who are equally cognizant. Knowledge is therefore a process resulting from the continual interaction between human beings and their surroundings.”

There is no doubt that knowledge is always generated socially. Always. And there are times, periods and circumstances that produce syntheses which intellectual authors with a great capacity for understanding and projection are able to systematize and present as

“theoretical constructs”,

despite the redundancy. But these constructs do not result from mere abstract speculation far removed from reality, in some “ivory tower”. For all the intellectual capacity, the imagination and the ability to create systems, discussions and abstractions that an author or group of authors may have, knowledge and theoretical propositions are invariably historical and social constructs.

If this is so, then what Freire asserts is true: that knowledge is the result of the continual interaction between human beings and their surrounding reality. He therefore warns us:

“As soon as I divorce existing knowledge from the act of creating knowledge, I tend to accept 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 transference of knowledge,”

he says, quite harshly. “Knowledge is the relationship between the human being and his or her environment and history.” It is out of this dialectical relationship between “the being”, “the environment” and “the history” that knowledge is produced, which is by its nature a social construct and needs to be socialized at a variety of levels, and in different settings and contexts. Since it is shared socially, it can therefore always be added to. “There is no existing knowledge” – he tells us – “that is not born of other knowledge which did not previously exist and, now that it does exist, has replaced that earlier knowledge.

This is the dialectical nature of knowledge. There is no static knowledge. There can never be any. Hence, we cannot take the ideas of Plato, Pythagoras, Newton or Marx and turn them into closed dogmas. Circumstances themselves, society, those who think and act, will reinterpret them, revise, question and build on them. If this happens at all levels of science and philosophy, why “announce the death” of Paulo’s thinking, or see his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” of the 1960s as his memorial stone, freezing it as a static view of his ideas that were always so lively and dynamic?

Education always involves the application of a given theory of knowledge. One of the fundamental contributions made by Paulo is therefore his theory of knowledge: what is to be known, and how it is to be known. Paulo constantly reiterates this preoccupation throughout his work.

“Knowledge, always a process, results from the conscious impact of human beings on the objective truth which, in turn, conditions them. Hence a dynamic, contradictory unity is created between them and it. Reality itself is also dynamic and contradictory.”

This statement is certainly very similar to the notion of the paradigm of complexity, which is now so widely studied and accepted.

His epistemological focus is dialectical, complex, process-based, holistic, contextual, historical, dynamic. It consistently goes well beyond the partialism and professionalism that the positivist paradigm proclaims and maintains. Paulo insistently calls our attention to this:

“It is impossible to divorce the theory of education from its practical application. It is impossible to divorce the act of knowing existing knowledge from the act of creating new knowledge”.

Nor is it “possible to divorce teaching from learning, educating others from educating oneself.”

As will be realised, Freire does not divorce epistemology from the pedagogical process. Nor from the ethical framework. He could not do so. He therefore turns to the need to incorporate the sphere of the senses (the key to learning), embedding this area in the more complex process of knowing:

“All knowledge starts from sensibility, but if it remains at the level of the senses it does not amount to knowledge because it is only transformed into knowledge when it goes beyond the level of sensibility and becomes a rationale for action.”

This quotation sums up in an interesting way the indispensability of incorporating and dealing with the element of subjectivity – the profoundly human element – in the act of education, rather than leaving it out of the process of constructing scientific thinking. And it is sensible to stress this necessary dialectical synthesis since there is often a “pendulum tendency” that overcompensates for the disregard for the subjective found in some scientific and political trends and ends by turning it into an object and subject-matter in itself, so that education becomes a commonplace activity that lacks rigour.

Paulo puts forward this argument right from his very first writings, stating in the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” that:

“The creation of a dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity, and the denial of the latter in analysis of reality or of actions affecting it, amounts to objectivism. In the same way, the denial of objectivity in analysis or action is subjectivism, which results in solipsism, and denies action itself by denying objective reality from the moment when it begins to shape the consciousness. Neither objectivism nor subjectivism or psychologism, but a constant dialectic between subjectivism and objectivism.”

It is obvious. We have to take subjectivity into account and to start from human sensibility, but education is needed in order to turn them into “knowledge” – as the quotation states – and into knowing why, so that knowledge gets to the causes and drives the reason to act. It is thus knowledge drawn from life, for life.

Freire tells us that,

“From the point of view of theory, and of its practical application in education, it is impossible:

a) to divorce theory and practice;
b) to divorce the act of knowing knowledge that exists today from the act of creating new knowledge
c) to divorce teaching from learning, educating others from educating oneself.”
(Letters to Guinea Bissau)

We are human beings: we are individual beings burdened with personal, family and social experience; historical and objective experience, if we may call it that. However, this is also loaded with subjective connotations. We are beings living in an “objective” context, which we nonetheless experience and interpret via our own subjectivity, our own beliefs, ideological standpoints, and ethical and political choices.

We are social beings in a given historical context. So are the human beings who are educators and educatees. Or rather, always both educators and educatees, the “objects” and “subjects” of knowing and teaching.


We have already mentioned the “third column” of thinking that I find clearly developed in Freire’s thinking (and it is what he is best known for): pedagogy. When many people adopt his ethical and epistemological framework, they come up against a serious problem: how to apply the Freirean approach in the classroom, and outside it, in education in general. This is only natural since, as already indicated, we have all (or nearly all) been “trained” and equipped with theoretical and practical tools in accordance with the other model. Let us therefore look briefly at his methodological, pedagogical and didactic ideas.

Paulo does not give us recipes or particular methods, with the exception of his initial method of literacy teaching. But he does offer us this complex vision of ethical, epistemological, pedagogical and political foundations. What we have to do is find a creative synthesis and ways to apply it, according to the circumstances. This means “guiding” and “giving direction” to education, since educational practice cannot be left to chance. “The teacher has to teach, and the learner has to learn,” we are told in the video “Paulo Freire: Maker of dreams”.

This statement is relevant because once Freire’s ideas were put forward in the late 1960s, many social, political and religious sectors applied his criticism of “banking education” radically. Paulo’s famous saying “No one educates anyone else, we all educate each other” was taken the wrong way, so that they began irresponsibly to abandon and destroy the role of the teacher. This aroused very fierce criticism among more rigid academic and political commentators, who maintained – with some justification – that popular education was “merely a combination of ignorances” which denied and abandoned the essence of education.

This was a misinterpretation because Paulo never denied the role of the educator. The educator does have to educate. Liberated education cannot be left to chance. But what is important is a democratic approach to the pedagogical act of proposing subject-matter, methods, tools, etc. The educator cannot decline to make suggestions. But nor can he or she refuse to allow educatees to put forward what they are able to offer.

That is to say, education has to be seen as a democratic and democratizing act, in the classroom and outside it. In educating and making suggestions, the educator has no reason to be authoritarian. These are two extreme positions. One says: I educate and I propose, therefore I can be authoritarian and manipulative. The other states that if I am not to be so, I must abandon the role of teacher, of educator.

Source: La Carta 225  

This is obviously a false dichotomy, the product of a distorted view of Freire’s ideas. The key lies in the democratic attitude of the educator, who puts forward what he or she has to offer by means of the “pedagogy of dialogue” and participation. The educator is capable of teaching and learning; knows how to speak because he/she knows how to listen; can offer knowledge because he/she is open to the knowledge of others; can produce a synthesis between the act of teaching and the act of learning, according to the “two-way” perception of “educator-educatee, educatee-educator”.

Dialogue “is the hallmark of the cognitive act, in which the cognizable object is exposed to critical discovery through the medium of autonomous cognizant individuals.” (The Importance of Reading and the Liberation Process)

Education is not a spontaneous act. Nor can the educator act in that way. But the fact that it is not does not necessarily make the educator a manipulator.

“Education is a phenomenon in which educator and educatee educate each other through the act of education. Thus, it is not only the educator who educates, but in educating he or she is educated through dialogue with the educatee, who also educates while being educated. Thus both take control of the process, in which they both grow, and which is not governed by considerations of authority,”

Freire tells us.

Hence, in accordance with his ethical position of constructing autonomous “subjects” who liberate themselves, and his epistemological framework for the construction of knowledge, his pedagogical approach states that the starting point for any educational process is where the learner is, wherever this may be. He tells us, “The starting point is always the shared feeling between the learners, not the rigour of the teacher.” This is the only way of achieving that rigour. We cannot assume, either in education or in science or politics, that “the others do not know”, and that since they do not know, I shall tell them. Why should I ask them or take them into account if they don’t know? Thus runs the usual reasoning put forward to justify our top-down arrogance in teaching.

This applies not only to education in itself, but also to social and political activities, for example. How is public policy made if not in that way? How are development programmes and projects designed? How are curricula drawn up? Always in the offices of those who know, out of reach of those who – supposedly – do not know.

Allow me to mention (without further discussion) that an effort is currently being made in Michoacán to consult and involve citizens in a participatory way in defining policy issues. A very interesting, innovative exercise is under way, inspired by Freireanism, since Freire was, as we have said, not only a classroom educationist.

The consequences of “not starting with the others” are serious in the classroom and serious for the democratization of our country. They are very serious for social relations between government and educator-educatee because the end result is the imposition of whatever the authorities possess on the educatee and the ordinary citizen. The statement that the “starting point” is always the shared feeling of the learners and/or citizens is therefore a key strategy for liberating learners and/or citizens and enabling them to take control. This is not an attack on scientific rigour and knowledge. It is simply a different way of approaching it, and of attaining it.

He makes this clear when he states:

“This means that from the point of view of education as an act of knowing, we educators must always start – start from, not remain at – the level of understanding of the educatees, from their under standing of their environment, their observation of their situation, from how the masses themselves express their reality.”

(Educación Popular)

“To ‘wash one’s hands’ in the face of oppression is to reinforce the power of the oppressor, is to side with him. Freire

This always involves a creative act of imagination on the part of the educator, as teacher. Education therefore means constantly inventing and re-inventing a whole variety of methods and means of helping to problematize the object of knowledge which is to be ” “discovered” and eventually “apprehended” by the learners, after they have worked on it through continual dialogue among themselves, and between themselves and the teacher, who leads them democratically and patiently to a loving and mutually supportive understanding of the act of education.


This refers to the ethical motivation behind his original commitment. It can only be of a political nature, in the broadest, most noble sense of that term, and not merely that of party political pragmatism.

He therefore adopts a consistent stance, defining education also as a “political act”. He states, in consequence, “that all education is, besides a pedagogical act, a political act”. It is not that Freirean education is political in the traditional sense. Still less, that he means left-wing or revolutionary political education (with which he is often identified) but that he states that every educational act inevitably, consciously or unconsciously, has a political basis and implies a political choice.

Paulo makes a “political choice”. It could not be otherwise since, as he tells us:

What kind of educator should I be if I did not feel moved by the impulse that makes me search, honestly, for convincing arguments in defence of the dreams that I fight for?

In this statement, Paulo makes a choice. There is no question of stopping at a mere declaration of principles, without making actual social and historical commitments.

This is what Paulo means by “defining oneself” as a person and an educator. In 1975 in Costa Rica, when I had the privilege of meeting him, Paulo told me, in response to a discussion that had begun about his approach to education which some left-wing radicals of the time criticized as being “idealistic thinking”:

What has happened is that I have been wrongly interpreted, because I am seen as an educationist. But I can tell you that I am only secondarily an educationist, because I am essentially a politician.”

These words spoken by the educationist who is perhaps the best known and has had the greatest influence on the education debate, are really significant. He does not deny that he is an educationist. Nor does he decline to recognise and acknowledge the impact that his educational philosophy has had. But he defines himself in political terms, saying of himself: “I am essentially a politician, and only secondarily an educationist.” Hence, he says, “My point of view is that of the wretched of the Earth.” Or in other words, he takes a broad, tolerant view of the world that is nonetheless consistent with the reality of what happens in it. And for this reason, because the “bad” things in the world have such a brutal impact, he makes an ethical and political choice to stand alongside the impoverished of the Earth, whose viewpoint he shares.

He never accepts neutrality or blandness, which in reality do not ex-ist, because in fact we are always making choices – we are in fact choosing even when we are silent about what we are committed to criticising, or when we passively accept events and situations that merit blame. “Education is politics”, he tells us in his interview on Educación Popular. Hence, “educational practice, recognising itself as political practice, refuses to let itself be imprisoned by the narrow bureaucracy of schooling.”

And he rejects the supposed neutrality of science – behind which academics so often hide – when he tells us:

It seems to me that the so-called neutrality of science does not exist, any more than the impartiality of scientists. And neither exists to the very extent that no human action is devoid of intended goals and ways of reaching them. No human being is anhistorical or apolitical.

If this is so, we then need to realise what kind of historical commitment we make; how consciously we do so; and in consequence, what political choices we really make (even though we often claim not to be doing so, or at least do not realise we are doing so).

Obviously, this does not necessarily mean choosing an explicit ideological or party-political position. Or explicitly defending neoliberal ideology or its model. No. It is simply that, when opting “for” something, we are consequently opting “against” something else (even though there may be many middle ways). It is therefore important to define positively this “something” in our choice rather than merely leaving it to ambiguity or passivity.

It is not a question of “politicizing” science, in the popular sense of the term. Far less, of “party-politicizing” or “ideologizing” our choices as educators. We need to be fully conscious of the way we perceive the world in which we live, and in consequence to choose either humanization (however modestly we may demonstrate that choice), or barbarity.

Paulo warns us that education is like this:

“because it would be naïve to think that the dominant classes will create a form of education that allows the dominated classes critically to perceive social injustices.”

It is in fact naïve to think that changing social, economic, political and cultural models in the direction of a deeply humanized world will be encouraged by those who dominate the world hegemonically. It is naïve because we should have to accept that they were capable of acting against their own interests.

The responsibility for change belongs to us, to citizens, to educators, to everyone. It is immaterial how modest our contribution is. What matters is to add our grain of sand by making a committed ethical and political choice. And this means being clear. Because choosing means defining “for whom and for what I educate, and therefore against whom and against what I educate,” as Paulo reminds us. In other words, if we recognise the political dimension of education – in the sense intended by Paulo – in choosing our educational models and practices, we are in fact deciding, albeit unconsciously, “for whom and for what” and consequently, “against whom and against what” we conduct our educational and political activities.

We have to choose. This statement may be thought rather radical. It is the case, however, as soon as we accept that neutrality is not possible. It means committing ourselves. That may be why Paulo Freire is discounted and devalued. Remarks already referred to, such as “this is the language of the 1960s; it’s a different world today, a world of plurality and tolerance” have become the “escape route” that many “progressive” intellectuals and academics have used to evade their responsibilities. But here we go back to his attitude to tolerance.

Of course, Paulo’s writings and thinking have to be reinterpreted dynamically and critically, today and always. But one thing is clear: it is impossible to be a “Freirean” in words and discourse alone if one then contradicts oneself shamelessly in one’s educational practice.

This, in my view, is the essence of Freire’s thinking. If we adopt it, we also take on its consequences: an essentially democratic stance, clear choices, turning points and decisions, rejection of the “neutrality of science”, and social and historical commitment to deeply humanistic, holistic education. And this imperative requires educators to be ethical, to be militant democrats and constantly “vigilant” in their criticism and self-criticism of the consistency between discourse and practice.

On 14 May 1987, Moacir Gadoti, a close collaborator of Paulo and Di-rector of the “Instituto Paulo Freire”, put the same question to Paulo that the daughter of Karl Marx put to her father. This relates to the two men’s main values and beliefs. When Paulo was asked about “the quality that you most appreciate in people”, he replied: “consistency”, while recognising that: “It is impossible to be totally consistent, even though there is nothing to stop me struggling to be so from day to day.”

If we recognise the fragility of our human condition and accept our weaknesses, it is certainly impossible to think and be totally consistent, for human beings are contradictory and limited. But the struggle for consistency is a fundamental principle that ought to balance the synthesis between discourse and practice. As human beings, as citizens, as university academics, we cannot restrict ourselves to a discourse that is not accompanied by consistent practice.

At a time when all paradigms are crumbling, when former militants are turning into neoliberal functionaries and market evaluators, at this time of the market ethic, Paulo comes up with his “Pedagogy of Hope”. There is no question that this is an act of consistency and intellectual courage. We are therefore struck by the consistency of his life and works when he calls, more forcefully than ever, for a return to hope and dreams as essential elements if humanity is to have a future.

Paulo demands our commitment when he says:

“There is no hope in hope alone, nor can what is hoped be achieved through hope alone, which becomes vain hope. Hope is necessary but not sufficient, it alone does not win the struggle, but without it the struggle totters and flags; we need critical hope as a fish needs unsullied water.

“Dreaming,” Paulo tells us, “is not just a necessary political act, but is also inherent in our historical, social nature as women and men.”

After this rapid interpretative overview of Freirean ideas, the question we have to ask is whether his thinking is still relevant. Have the causes calling for us to make a renewed ethical and political commitment disappeared?

Has education moved on – in its theories and how they are applied – towards greater quantitative achievements and more pertinent, better-quality ideas?

In short, have the problems and situations that motivated Paulo Freire and many others to develop the approach called “Educación Popular” disappeared?

I honestly believe that there is only one real answer to these questions: No. In consequence, Paulo Freire is still as relevant as when he put forward those critical ideas of his that were so rigorous, innovative, committed and transformatory.

We can therefore agree with him when he states: “There is no change without a dream, and no dream without hope.” And as he says in his fraternal message inscribed in his own hand in my “Pedagogy of Hope”, we believe that hope “may sometimes tire, but never dies”.

Adult Education and Development


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