Revolutionary of the word


A political biography of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire portrays him as a sui generis revolutionary committed to empowerment through literacy
Photograph by Slobodan Dimitrov


Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy
Andrew J. Kirkendall
2010, University of North
Carolina Press
264 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

EVERY revolution has its literacy campaign, for when you teach a man how to read, you offer him the potential to free himself from the ignorance that has kept him oppressed.

The Soviet Union considered literacy its “third front” and the Red Army became teachers in fatigues; Mao tried to simplify written Chinese and literacy became a tool of Communist party legitimation; Fidel Castro vowed before the UN in 1960 to eliminate illiteracy within one year in Cuba; one of the first acts of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, in a nod to the Soviet model, was to launch a massive literacy campaign.

Even today, Latin America’s leftwing governments wield literacy campaigns with the zeal of the proto-revolutionary in their efforts to roll back the residues of imperialism: there have been significant literacy initiatives in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Bolivia under Evo Morales, for example, and both have won plaudits for their education policies.

One of the reasons for the prominence of the literacy campaign in revolutionary politics is that it speaks loudly to the role of the activist state in promoting public education while offering a potent symbol of modernisation combined with a powerful tool of mobilisation.

Champion of literacy

Paulo Freire, the greatest champion of literacy and education to come out of the third world. was also a revolutionary – although his Utopian ideal was probably closer to the vision expounded by liberation theology than anything else. He was a developmental nationalist steeped in the activist Catholicism of north-eastern Brazil, combining a pragmatic approach to change on the ground with a commitment to civic, not guerrilla, advancement. His revolution was as much within the church, at least initially, as beyond it – part of a new generation of Catholic thinkers inspired by Jacques Maritain who were undermining the authoritarian hierarchy that had helped to prop up the quasi-fascist Estado Novo with all the limitations it had placed on the provision of education.

Andrew Kirkendall’s groundbreaking political biography of Freire brings together, for the first time, an archive fragmented by the great man’s many travels and postings. Freire was the pioneer of adult literacy training techniques that would eventually have a global impact and his work for Brazilian state agencies in the 1960s took him on through exile to post-independence Africa, and thereafter to the World Council of Churches in Geneva. His works and research on critical pedagogy have been of profound influence, especially but not exclusively in the developing world.

His peaceful efforts to give ordinary men and women – particularly illiterate peasants – the tools with which to make their citizenship meaningful did not stop him generating the enmity of the US during the Cold War – advancing its own consciousness-building agenda through the Alliance for Progress in the early 1960s – and Freire suffered imprisonment under the Brazilian military and then a decade and a half in exile.

The key to Freire’s work and legacy in Latin America and beyond was the way he associated literacy with active citizenship, making his contribution to the greater global transitions to democracy highly significant, if largely unacknowledged. It also made his work among the poor and his belief in consciousness-raising potentially explosive in a Cold War context in which the Brazilian north-east was seen by the US as a region teetering on the brink of insurgency in the wake of the Cuban revolution, and decolonisation throughout the third world was nurturing a new global sensitivity to the relationship between development and education.

Freire’s revolutionary vocation was first confirmed in the “Brazilian Revolution” that began in 1961 under President João Goulart, which led to the politicisation of US aid programmes in the country’s north-east. The military coup against Goulart, inspired and supported by the US, revealed the extent to which the paranoid superpower feared consciousness-raising – and Freire was jailed and his national literacy campaign dissolved.

But this move began the process that propelled Freire and his methods and ideas to new heights. He would go on to work for the Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei in Chile, thereafter the World Council of Churches, newly independent countries in Africa and, in the 1980s, Nicaragua, where the cross-class settlement that initially characterised the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution was a perfect environment for applying the Brazilian educator’s principles. Although he spent little time in Nicaragua, his role was key to legitimising the Sandinista regime’s education programme in the eyes of the world. Freire was also visibly inspired by the initiative under the former Jesuit priest Fernando Cardenal, which appears to have set a high personal watermark in his career. Kirkendall says that the Brazilian was profoundly moved by his experience, and that Freire wrote:

“Hardly ever in my life had I experienced moments richer than or even comparable to this time spent in Managua, breathing a revolutionary air full of hope and genuine popular participation.” [p.126]

If Freire moved slowly away from a humanist perspective towards a class one during his career, that was almost certainly only in keeping with hardening attitudes on the left as the US unleashed military terror and proxy wars throughout the region, and anyway this ideological drift by Freire was never quite completed. If his methods – particularly in Africa – were employed in establishing the hegemony of one-party states, then this was also probably an inevitable consequence of a decolonisation process that entailed of necessity social revolution. Yet Freire remained committed to pluralism and popular democracy, and was not a Marxist. His work, if anything, attests to the social commitment of the popular wing of the Catholic church – and a beacon of the latter’s continuing potential to aid the poor despite the concerted, secular attack against it being waged in the developed world.

Kirkendall is careful to highlight every aspect of this pioneering man, and engages in a soul-searching examination of his legacy in the book’s epilogue, pointing out that while he spent his life advising states about the value of literacy – with all the attendant dangers – he also empowered generations of poor people to think for themselves and therefore form the basis of a civil society that, despite Latin America’s many problems, has become one of the region’s growing strengths.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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