- Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy
Paulo Freire (1921–1997) was arguably the most influential educational philosopher and pedagogue of the second half of the twentieth century. His writings and work on behalf of literacy as cultural action for freedom have been embraced by educators and social movements around the world. Governments of varying ideological orientations looked to Freire’s pedagogical methods as means of mobilizing largely unschooled populations on behalf of their political projects. There have been numerous excellent books on the pedagogical ideas of Freire and their application not only to literacy programs, but to all levels and types of education. This volume by Andrew J. Kirkendall is, in my judgment, the most authoritative account of the life and times of Paulo Freire.
The value of Kirkendall’s study resides in the meticulously detailed accounts of the historical and political contexts in which Freire’s thoughts evolved and how they were employed in large-scale literacy campaigns and education programs. Main chapters are on Brazil in the three years leading up to the military coup of 1964; Chile during the Christian Democratic Government of Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964–1970); Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé (as an adviser under the auspices of the World Council of Churches in Geneva); Nicaragua, during the first years of the Sandinista Revolution [End Page 157] and in its national literacy crusade (1979–1980); and the years following Freire’s return to Brazil in 1980 and his work as secretary of education in the municipal government of São Paulo (1989–1991). An epilogue reflects on the enduring legacies of Freire’s lifework for progressive educational movements in both developed and underdeveloped societies.
Although I have studied the history of literacy campaigns from a comparative perspective, I found Kirkendall’s focus on the politics of literacy in the context of the Cold War to be revelatory. Based on extensive primary and secondary sources, his study provides important insights into the polarizing consequences of emancipatory adult education programs. Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, with its emphasis on consciousness-raising leading to political action, represented both a promise and a threat to governments. Designed to equip individuals and their collectivities to name the word and change the world, his pedagogy was based on respect for the learner. Freire advocated a dialogue between teachers (often referred to as “facilitators”) and learners, with curricula arising from the language and existential realities of those engaged in the literacy process. The outcomes were unpredictable and problematic. These aspects of a literacy campaign were viewed as destabilizing by conservative and reactionary sectors of society that, aligned with the military and the U.S. government, overthrew the progressive governments of João Goulart in Brazil (1964) and Salvador Allende in Chile (1973).
But for radical one-party states, literacy outcomes are uncertain. Being able to encode and decode the printed word and other symbol systems can mean different things for the newly literate. Historically, literacy, as with more advanced levels of education, may be employed by individuals and their communities to pursue their own ends, which may not accord with those organizing educational campaigns and programs. A predetermined curriculum employed by the state to indoctrinate individuals clearly violates the most fundamental principles of Freirean pedagogy—despite his identification with the social justice goals of some revolutionary regimes. Moreover, even when human liberation is the goal of a campaign, as Kirkendall’s case studies illustrate, literacy workers frequently are unable to connect in meaningful ways with the linguistic and everyday worlds of the students. At worst, there is arrogance on the part of governments, other institutional authorities, and literacy workers, who see themselves as bringing “the word” and enlightenment to others.
Among the exemplary features of Kirkendall’s study is his uncommonly objective, balanced examination of both the strengths and shortcomings of Freire’s pedagogical thought and the campaigns that have employed it. To understand the complexity of the man and the sometimes contradictory aspects of his...