Carlos Calvo Muñoz

This paper is written from a very personal perspective. Carlos Calvo Muñoz was a student of Freire’s in Santiago, Chile, where he attended his lectures. Now a professional educator himself, he describes how Freire’s ideas have fascinated and influenced both him and his career. The article was written in the light of the field work on teachers’ life stories conducted under the project FONDECYT 1050621/2005, “The sociocultural construction of professionalism in teaching: social, political and educational commitment”.

The Subtle Presence of the Teacher: The Influence of Paulo Freire on my Training

I encountered Paulo Freire in my first year at university, when I was studying philosophy at the Catholic University of Valparaíso. The Federation of Students sent me to Santiago, together with Teresa Moya, who was studying Spanish, so that we could learn about literacy with an exiled Brazilian who had recently arrived in Chile. In Santiago he welcomed us with his elegant mixture of Portuguese and Spanish, and introduced us to the world of education. I do not remember all that was said, but I do remember his profound impact, as a result of which I stopped imagining I wanted to be a psychologist, and opted definitively for education.

Freire taught us that education was both easy and miraculous, that it required serious but pleasurable dedication, and that we were both teacher-learners and learner-teachers. It seemed that he was playing with words, arranging them to catch us out. He told us that it was not enough to say “educator”, because this ignored the “educatee” who was always present in the educator, even when invisible. He also taught us that no one ever learns anything definitively, but “is” always “knowing” or, bizarrely, “not knowing”.

Every evening journey from Santiago back to Valparaíso was filled with enthusiasm because of the discovery that education was easy, playful and committed, that we were all educated and that we all created culture, even though we should not crassly overlook discrimination and marginalization. In any educational process it was necessary, though not sufficient, that the Other should “learn to say his piece” without charlatanism or activism. I even remember the dustman in “Education as the Practice of Freedom” who discovered that he was educated by helping to keep the city clean. The realization that culture was what men and women do, illiterate and literate, finally gave me firm educational roots and strength.

The man who created culture with and out of rubbish never knew of my existence, and I knew no more about him than that he was a dustman who was “learning to say his piece”. He never discovered how much he helped a young student of education to understand what education means. His “piece”, stated keenly and precisely, moved me gently but profoundly, in the way that the beat of a butterfly’s wings can cause a storm thousands of kilometres away (Calvo 2005). Both Freire and the anonymous dustman, brothers in speech, taught me that education is this and nothing more. That education is innocence, not ingenuousness. That the complexity of a process is locked within it, and is waiting to be revealed with the help of an educator.

“Whoever teaches learns by teaching and whoever learns teaches by learning.” Freire

Years later, when I was already a professional educator, Paul Siegel, a professor at the Catholic University, told us about the rural teacher who taught music to his pupils and, returning some years later to his former school, heard his ex-pupils on the road singing songs he had never taught them. That country teacher, Paul explained – what a curious linguistic similarity to Paulo! – took me aback by telling us that we do not teach so that others can copy us, but so that they can create something new, can sing songs they have never been taught (Calvo 1989).

A disciple is not someone who copies the master, but someone who creates and, in creating, preserves, just as life reinvents itself, constantly changing and preserving. That is why education is both preservation and change. Neither takes precedence or is at first sight preferable to the other. Before making changes, we need to know how to preserve for the future; if we want to know what to preserve for the longer term, we need to ask ourselves why we should change things. But whether things are preserved or change, they are always subject to slight variations that occur through a self-organized process of feedback.

Constructing the future, which is full of possible worlds, means navigating “an ocean of uncertainties through archipelagos of certainties” (Morin 1999), if we are to transform the possible into the probable and the probable into the achievable. In consequence, the role of the educator is to mediate the learner in constructing the future, proceeding from the possible to the probable and from the probable to the achievable. This is a political task and requires commitment, if we are to avoid the many small things that may disrupt it.

Not only is the future possible, but the past is possible too, however. The past is possible because memory redefines it as a subjective experience. It is not a question of changing the facts, but of memory continually remodelling itself. The past is a possible past because I can draw today on the conversations I had with Freire decades ago, on the ideas and relationships that we unquestionably debated, although the germ of them had to wait until conditions were right for them to reveal their true complexity. Furthermore, if we discussed them, it is highly likely that my juvenile enthusiasm and lack of experience took me off in different directions, with a different understanding of what was said between us.

One clear example is our experience as literacy workers in the Summer Project carried out by the three Valparaíso Universities, the Catholic, Chile and Santa María. First, we taught students like ourselves; we then travelled to the South and taught literacy to a variety of people. When we proudly showed off what we were doing to Paulo Freire, I remember with confusion that he laughed at our work, which he thought ill-judged and unfocused when we explained it to him – in short, Freire said we were not doing anything right except wanting to teach, being sincere in our desires and respecting others. Our work was based on topics that were urban rather than rural, and hence inappropriate to the region. He told us that we could not have committed a greater number of errors. The situation became very embarrassing for us and, I imagine, for Paulo who, while not hesitating to point out our mistakes, nonetheless showed us through dialogue how we might move forward.

This is important since Paulo was able to rescue us as hopeful future educators with the potential to teach, rather than abandoning us as disenchanted future teachers unable to believe in our own capacities and in those of our learners. I believe that this was a crucial time in my life. All it would have taken was biting criticism from Freire, and my life would, I believe, have taken a different direction. I might have gone back to my intention of studying psychology, or I might have gone on with philosophy and been one of those teachers who blame their pupils for not understanding their repetitive classes – or who knows what I might have done with my life.

“The capacity to learn (should enable us) not only to adapt but above all to transform reality, to intervene in it and recreate it.” Freire

Fortunately, Freire was Freire and was incapable of being hurtful, even though he laughed heartily, without giving offence. He enjoyed making the most of our mistakes, which he found incredible, but at the same time he treated us affectionately and taught us how to overcome them once and for all. I repeat, once and for all. That was when I learnt to educate. From then on, I had to learn the thousands of items and their infinite relationships that I was to teach in my life.

Years later, a first-year education student at the Catholic University of Temuco (Calvo 1988a), with as little expertise as I in my initial discussions with Freire, wrote in a paper for me that education is about the ability to be, not about having to be. When I read this, I was struck by the simplicity and elegance of that very concise statement. I asked her to expand on it. She had no idea. It had simply come into her head .1

The notion that education is about the ability to be means that it is purely potential, that it is constantly being constructed and building on itself over time, in a spiral not in a straight time line. It advances and recedes, endlessly producing insights and confusion because every new piece of knowledge generates widespread lack of knowledge elsewhere. In short, education liberates via a series of Y-junctions. That is why education cannot be normative, as it tends to be at school.

My student’s little present allowed me to understand and to define education as the process of creating possible relationships, and schooling as the process of copying predetermined relationships

(Calvo 1987b, 1989, 1990).

Both education and schooling, that is to say, the kind of education shut up in schools, are processes; however, education flows through a historical space-time filled with emergent subtleties, Y-junctions and feedback, while the schooling process unfolds within linear time and a confined, one-location space, in which everything is planned in advance in order to avoid distractions and time-wasting, even though nothing like this occurs naturally. Because of its historical timescale and multiple locations (1987a), the education process is pure creation, continually feeding back to its own processes. This is inherent.

Because of the nature of the linearity of space-time, schooling does not feed back to itself. This is not just a matter of the calendar and the school timetable, or of classrooms with painted windows, but of the key fact that the teacher turns into a person who, instead of spreading enthusiasm for the mysteries and complexities contained within the “subject” taught, becomes time-dependent and keeps going forward without waiting sufficiently for those left behind. Linear time and confined space take over the minds of teachers and pupils, who become repetitive and far removed from their status of educator-educatees. In order to justify their activities, they become used to giving explanations that are not wrong in themselves, but are superficial in their essentials and inferences. Pupils are described as incapable, the blame is put on the huge amount of subject-matter to be “got across”, it is argued that it is impossible to cope with the numbers of pupils, and so on.

On the other hand, both education and schooling are processes that produce relationships. However, the differences between them are fundamental and crucial. In the case of schooling, relationships are not created but copied, cloned from what is said in the books and teaching guides. The relationships are predetermined and are simply repeated. It is obvious that it is not a question of changing historical facts, of denying the structure of cells, or of inventing a new geometry, but of how these are approached and re-created.

Educational relationships are unfamiliar in individual experience, even though they are established by culture, science, art and religion. They are unfamiliar because people experience the process of re-creation subjectively. In a strict sense, this means that students “discover” what others have already discovered; at a particular time and place, an “insight” occurs, allowing serendipitous discoveries to be made (Roberts 1992). No one can anticipate what a student will think, because it is a matter of possible relationships rather than of copying predetermined relationships.

Source: La Carta 212 

The educator will need to guide the educatee so that the latter knows how to arrive at criteria for choosing between the different possible relationships that may be established, which may be absurd, strange, feasible, probable, etc. Those that are feasible will be the ones left. Once the educator has begun the process of creating possible relationships, he or she will step back because the process then follows its own course, by means of which ideas will continually germinate and grow in the student, just as a drop of water gradually swells and falls chaotically when it is ready (Gleik).

This shows that education moves from the possible to the probable to the achievable, and it also indicates why schools cannot break out of the vicious circle of miserable results. It is vital to deschool school, that is to say, to reinvent it, removing all that is scholastic. In saying this, I am indebted as much to Illich2 as to Freire. School has to be reinvented to make it educational. We have extraordinary examples of how to do this in all the ethnic forms of education in the world (Calvo 1983). All we need do, therefore, is tap into the propensity for learning that exists, and the tendency to organize (Calvo 2004).

When school scholasticizes education, it restricts relationships to those previously established and sanctioned as appropriate to school curricula, for example. Among other things, this affects evaluation, which becomes punitive and extends its empire beyond the frontiers of school towards a repressive society. However much it may aim at the opposite, school evaluation still examines products rather than processes, punishing in various ways those found wanting.

Until school becomes deschooled, it will go on copying pre-established relationships and punishing equivocation. On the day when school acknowledges its error and abandons all kinds of punishment, by making a paradigm change rather than a change in strategy or methodology, as is the case today, creation will become possible. For the moment, there is no place for ignorance in school because it is regarded as a fault to be removed.

One might ask, however, how to remove the ignorance that forms an integral part of our own knowledge. All whoever has knowledge has to do is innocently to ask trivial questions, and the knowledge shrinks and the ignorance hugely grows. Obviously, if the question is ingenuous, posed in order to arrive at pre-established answers, there is no room for educational ignorance.

The relationship between knowledge and ignorance leads, in the school context, to a linear relationship between superficiality and complication; on the other hand, in that of education, it leads to the paradoxical relationship between simplicity and complexity. A pupil may learn that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen, but if he or she then wonders why it is wet, the complexity will become apparent.

The statement that “Paulo Freire spoke Portuñol” will be superficial to anyone who has no interest in what it implies, either because they think it immaterial who he was, because they do not understand the meaning of the word Portuñol, or because of some other reason. If the same person had to explain the statement, it would lead to complications because they would become increasingly entangled, not knowing what to do with each element of it, or with the sum total.

On the other hand, the same statement will be straightforward to anyone who examines what it is about. The answer may be that it is about a man who spoke neither Spanish nor Portuguese (“Portuñol”). It does not matter whether this or any other answer is correct or not, since what is important is that the answer should be re-created and not merely copied. If further explanation is sought, the enquirer may wonder how to find out who is or was the person called Paulo Freire, and who can be asked; perhaps they may find information on Google or from a friend who knows something, and so on. If they are told that he spoke Portuñol, they may wonder who else speaks it, Spanishspeakers who learn Portuguese, or Portuguese-speakers who learn Spanish, or both. In that case, their incipient, fragile knowledge will become astonishingly more complex, but it will not be complicated because they are guided by questions that continually produce search criteria.

Hence, complication and superficiality only arise when we have no criteria to guide us. On the other hand, there will be simplicity and complexity when these criteria exist or are invented, whether they are true or not. That is what the difference comes down to. Regrettably, while obsessed with truth, as in school, we overlook this fundamental, simple truth.

I learnt this subtle difference from Silvia López de Maturana, who introduced me to the thinking of Reuven Feuerstein (1988, 1991), through whom I discovered how to build on Freirean discourse and make it more fruitful. 3 I incorporated this lesson holistically, once and for all, into my Freirean learning. With its help I found it far easier to conduct literacy work, to train tutors, and to carry out my regular university teaching. I had learnt how to free myself from the intellectual blockages that prevent learning, and to build the bridges needed to establish possible relationships. I now knew how to identify at a cognitive level the point at which a relationship ceases to be possible and becomes probable.

Feuerstein taught me that the educator is a mediator who provides the educatee with “mediated learning experiences”, interposing himself or herself between the learner and whatever troubles him or her, helping him/her to understand that they need to be given the conceptual tools that will make it possible to carry out the task.

The mediator is a specialist who knows how to remove obstacles and provide guidance; he/she will also have discovered from experience that the willingness and desire to teach are necessary but not sufficient without knowledge, understanding and management of how the cognitive functions of mental operations develop, which involves much more than being skilled in using a teaching technique. 4

This perspective led me to look again at the notion of cultural deprivation, until recently regarded as a consequence of poverty, coarse and alienating. From this perspective, however, poverty does not per se
amount to cultural deprivation, which is the consequence of having missed out on mediated education. It is highly probable that resilient people are those who have had this kind of experience. In them, the individual is mediated by the educator, the mother or a friend, understands that the world establishes relationships, and is aware of these and of their implications.

From this perspective, in fact, the answers are not the most important thing, since even when they are true, they are not much help unless the individual has understood by what process he or she has arrived at them. That is why we find cultural deprivation among people who are highly educated, even to university and postgraduate level: political leaders, clerics, professionals, artists, etc.

The process is both simple and complex because it restores to learning its educational character. The educator and the educatee not only discuss politics, but also go beyond the structural cognitive limitations that affect understanding. In this way, everyone is certain to learn. There are doubtless differences, especially among those with special educational needs, sometimes severe, which make it difficult for them to learn some things; they are the exceptions, however, and they require special treatment.

The teacher has a subtle presence. He or she is certainly there, but is not overbearing. We know he/she is at hand, but we still have to look. In this way, Paulo has been present in my life, offering guidance and direction, talking to me, but his presence has not overwhelmed me. I have nonetheless asked myself how to think differently from Freire, how to be myself and not someone who copies his teacher, not because he imposed himself but because his presence was so illuminating that it still sheds light. The real danger is that his light may yet dazzle us. In order to avoid that, we need to read Freire for a good twenty years.

Source: La Carta 220 

Whenever there was an opportunity of meeting him, I naturally tried. There were a number of occasions, but I never found it possible to come face to face. I wrote to him in the 1970s, asking to work with him in Guinea Bissau, and he invited me; circumstances at the time prevented our meeting, however. On another occasion, Francisco Vio invited me to his house in El Canelo to listen to Freire, who was coming to Chile during the dictatorship. I could not go because I had agreed a few days earlier to talk to students of Differential Education from the whole of Chile, who were meeting at a Student Congress at the University of La Serena. From my parents, and from Freire, I had learnt that a commitment is a commitment, and that I could not unmake it, however much I might want to. The last occasion was the year when Paulo died. Silvia and I were preparing to take part in the Participatory Research Conference to be held in Cartagena de Indias. Sadly for us all, Paulo died a few days before it.

While I much regretted these missed opportunities to meet, they did not affect me because he was still present in me. When I was invited as a professor to the University of Valencia, in Spain, one day in September 2000, I happened to notice a poster for an International Meeting about Paulo Freire organized by the Resources and Continuing Education Centre of the Community of Valencia, headed by Pep Aparicio, and the Instituto Paulo Freire in Brazil. It seemed that the moment had arrived when I might meet the master who had died years before. I would be able to listen to major Freireans, Francisco Gutierrez and Moacir Gadoti among others, and to talk about the current impact of Freire’s thinking.

While I listened, I held a dialogue with Freire. At that moment I realised that I had been developing my own thinking when I was not reading him, just as though I had constantly been talking to him. Freire was no stranger to me; he was indeed very close. It was like a meeting between two friends who have not seen each other for decades but feel as though not a moment has passed when they embrace once more.

I was taken aback by his papers and his thought-provoking dialogues, and was astonished to realise that what was said about Freire seemed so familiar to me, so much a part of me, as though it were what I had been researching for all those years. The surprising thing was the discovery that Freire had always been guiding me, despite being separated by thousands of kilometres and decades of reading. I was still influenced, still fascinated.

The experience of Valencia was repeated at a meeting at ITESO in Guadalajara, organized by Carlos Núñez and attended by Alipio Cassali and Ana María Saúl, among others. Once again I encountered Freire, and I decided at once to re-read all Freire’s books and publications. And when I did read them I felt I was meeting an old friend as though no time had passed. I felt very happy in his company. The reading soothed me and made me think.

Freire’s ability to go straight to the core 5 still made me sit up, so that I do not understand those who say that Freire is out of date. When I read him, I did not find anything “new”, not because Freire repeated himself, but because I had come to the same conclusions independently. We did not agree about everything, but our thinking on education was complementary. Over many years, master and discíple brought into the open a dialogue that had been under the surface for a long time.

As an educator, Freire did not teach me truths, even though he was a committed, impassioned man. He did what a teacher does: he showed me how to explore possible paths, how to discover the probable, and how to work with the achievable.


Calvo, Carlos. 1983. Indigenous Education or Ethnic Education? Adult Education and Development (Germany), No. 21.

Calvo, Carlos. 1987a. “Haciendo educación y ciencia entre la sabiduría de la incertidumbre y la sabiduría de la certeza.” Revista de Tecnología Educativa, X(1):33-41.

Calvo, Carlos. 1987b. “Educación v/s escolarización”. El Canelo, Revista Chilena de Desarrollo Local, 2(2)18-20, March.

Calvo, Carlos. 1988. “Carta a los estudiantes: el recuerdo inocente en la universidad”. Universidad Católica de Temuco.

Calvo, Carlos. 1989. “De la utopía a la eutopía.” El Canelo, Revista Chilena de desarrollo local, 4(15)29-33, December.

Calvo, Carlos. 1989. “… esa canción que no enseñé”. Revista Temas de Educación, Universidad de La Serena (Chile), Primer Semestre, No. 1 and 2: 3-18.

Calvo, Carlos. 1990. “Las inocentes preguntas del que (no) sabe.” El Canelo, Revista Chilena de desarrollo local, 5(21)6-8, November.

Calvo, Carlos. 1993. “El educador para el nuevo mundo”. Multinational Basic Education Project (PRODEBAS – OAS and Ministry of Education of Chile, Bulletín No. 3:15-17, July.

Calvo, Carlos. 2002. Complejidad, caos y educación. Revista de Ciencias de la Educación. Madrid, No. 190:227-245, April-June.

Calvo, Carlos. 2004. “Educació y propensió a aprendre i a ensenyar” (pp. 71-93). In Aparicio, Pep (ed.): Ètica, complexitat i formació de persones adultes en una societat planetària. Edicions del CreC, Valencia, Spain, 2004 ISBN: 84-934152-2-7.

Calvo, Carlos. 2005. “La sutileza como germen educacional copernicano”. In Osorio, Jorge (ed.): “Ampliando los limites del Arco Iris: revisita a los nuevos paradigmas en desarrollo, educación y movimientos sociales”. Santiago: Editorial Universidad Bolivariana.

Feuerstein, Reuven et al. 1988. Don’t accept me as I am: helping retarded performers to excel. New York: Plenum, 1988.

Feuerstein, Reuven et al. 1991. Mediated Learning Experience (MLE): theoretical, psychosocial and learning implications. London: Freund Publishing House Ltd.

Gleik, James. Caos. Editorial Seix Barral, 1993.

Roberts, Royston. Descubrimientos accidentales en la ciencia. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1992.

1 I knew nothing else about her. All I remember is that she came from Antofagasta and did not return the following year.

2 When Illich put forward his arguments at the World Comparative Education Conference in Paris in 1984, he was listened to in silence, as was proper, but the silence that followed was impressive: no one challenged his plea to deschool society. As usual, however, the majority expressed disagreement in the corridors. To me, what was important was the force of his arguments and the weakness of his opponents. It made an indelible impression on me, of innermost pride.

3 I regard the differences between Feuerstein and Freire as minimal and complementary, in so far as I have been able to check them out. However, Alex Kozulin, Research Director at ICELP and translator into English of Vigostky, thinks it nothing less than a heretical insult to claim any comparison, according to what he told me when I was his student on a course at ICELP ( in Jesuralem.

4 I once met students holding in their hands a sheet from one of the tools designed by ICELP. When I asked what they were doing with it, they told me that they had to fill in the shapes, and when they did not know how to do it, the teacher did it for them with no further explanation. In this case, there was no mediation but, instead, a fundamental alteration and crass ignorance of Feuerstein’s thinking and methodology.

5 I remember when I was a graduate student at Stanford University in the United States, he replied to my request for guidance on my doctoral thesis with a single page that was direct, clear and sufficient.