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The pedagogue of liberative education

Siddharta looks into conscientitsation and Paulo Freire's rich heritage from an Asian perspective

Par Siddharta

On a visit to Rio de Janeiro a couple of years ago I asked the late Herbert de Souza, known popularly as Betinho, if Paulo Freire's ideas were still part of the parlance of the average Brazilian social-activist. Betinho himself was riding a crest as the messiah of the new civil-society movements in Brazil. Afflicted by the HIV virus, which he had contracted through blood transfusions, his frail figure had become a symbol of hope to millions of his countrymen, many of whom prayed regularly for his recovery. A former Marxist-Leninist, Betinho was often referred to as the 'Gandhi of Brazil'. Betinho's response to my question was provocative: "Brazilians only have a memory of fifteen days", he said.


In that one line he had summed up the searing pace of change which 'new' societies like Brazil are afflicted with, where even 'yesterday' is part of history. It was also a reference to the collective amnesia which is inherently a part of the globalization process. For not only had Brazil ignored Paulo Freire, its most well known intellectual-activist, the rest of the world had followed suit. When Freire died recently (May 2nd) at the age of 75, the national and international press chose to largely ignore the most original and revolutionary figure of the last half of the century.

My involvement with the man and his ideas began 25 years ago when a small group of university students called the Free University, of which I was a part, worked till the early hours of the morning to type onto stencils what appeared to be a pirated edition of Paulo Freire's classic "Pedagogy of the Oppressed". By the end of the next day the first hundred copies of the book had rolled off the cyclostyling machine and were made available to discerning Indian readers.

The pirated book we had received came from the Philippines, a good many years before the Penguin volume was to appear in Indian book shops. At the time Freire's ideas on transformative education and political change made for heady reading, particularly to those who were young, angry, idealistic. Freire believed that oppressed communities all over the world were caught in the ' culture of silence' which made them passive and powerless, unable to 'name' their reality, much less to change it.

He conceptually divided social reality after the Marxist manner into those who were oppressed and those who were oppressors. (Today, the two-class theory has lost much of its lustre. While it is conceptually interesting and useful as a tool for mobilising people, it is nevertheless inadequate to understand complex social systems. For example, it has never been able to give a reasonable explanation for caste.) But Freire made significant departures from the traditional Marxist paradigm. He did not believe that the oppressor had to be destroyed in the process of struggle. The oppressed had an ontological mission to liberate themselves, and in the process, the oppressor as well. Nor did he feel the need of an all-inclusive party which would speak and act in the place of the people. His insistence on action which was informed and critiqued by theory, which in turn was tested and corrected by action, was meant to preclude the possibility of any form of dogma being accepted as a social truth.


This trajectory of action-reflection-action, where the oppressed learned to comprehend the cause of their oppression and then proceeded to change it, was tellingly referred to as 'conscientization'. It was not to be the usual kind of spontaneous, unreflected or dogmatic action. A higher moral purpose was invoked by Freire. For conscientization was meant to be deeply human at its core with the humanisation of social, political and economic structures as the goal.

What makes conscientization different from other similar theories is its encapsulation in a coherent methodology of social action which can be understood and practised by the oppressed themselves. Central to this way of doing things is a method of literacy where the act of learning to read and write becomes a process of advancing political awareness.


It begins by the oppressed forming a cultural circle to discuss their problems. In the ensuing discussion certain words or themes are found to repeat themselves, suggesting that they have impinged deeply in the collective consciousness of the people. These are 'generative' words which have the potential to unmask the structure of oppression within a given social situation.

For example a community may constantly refer to the word 'slum' in an uncritical manner. To many of them a slum may be a place they are condemned to live in because they are uneducated., illiterate or lazy. Or translated into our own Indian idiom a slum may be a place where a community is living out its karma. Learning to read and write 'slum' necessarily leads to an extensive discussion on what a slum means, how it is created and why certain people, and not others are obliged to live there. In this process the community moves from a consciousness which is naive and uncritical to one which is responsible and critical.

Learning to read and write thus becomes a powerful tool to understand the structures of oppression . It leads to action which does not merely provide relief from symptoms but also goes to tackle the root causes.


Freire referred to his method of education as 'liberating'. It is opposed to the 'domesticating' variety which passively transmitted information and condoned the situation of oppression. For Freire education is ' the practice of freedom'.

This is very different from 'the fear of freedom' which afflicts the oppressed (as well as a lot of us). The fear of freedom may lead a person to see the roles of the oppressor or the oppressed as the only ones available to him or her. In the conscientization process one has to go beyond these debilitating choices.

To be part of this process implies that education is never neutral. In the process of learning one is always making choices for something or against something. Above all education is transforming. It leads to higher forms of consciousness and greater clarity of action. (I have discovered all learning has to do with transformation . All learning implies a change in chemistry. Something happens within us . We become more aware, more creative and more energised. Each moment of the learning process is transforming, and we become better human beings.)

If there was one single individual in recent times who mattered significantly to the oppressed peoples of the earth it was Paulo Freire. He showed in a precise and exuberant manner that local communities could become aware and act imaginatively to overcome injustices. His thinking had a profound impact on the social situation in India although many of today's younger activists may not have heard of him. I remember the period twenty five years ago, when I visited villages around Villupuram, three hours from Madras city, where young dalits (members of the untouchable castes) were regularly meeting to understand the ideas of Freire. A few university-educated activists from Madras helped to translate these ideas into Tamil. It was truly a period of hope. In a few months local struggles against caste oppression had began to erupt all over the area. In the years that followed these ideas spread all over the state. At about the same time similar local movements began to develop all over South India, and shortly thereafter in the North as well. Freire's books were translated into all the major Indian languages and widely read among social activists. Things would never be the same for Dalits, tribals, slum-dwellers and other excluded communities.

As this millennium draws to a close it is all too likely that the problem of human rights (along with ecological survival) will be at the centre of the agenda in the 21st century. This does not necessarily mean that the situation of human rights is going to be anywhere near satisfactory. Besides, it is one thing to say that an oppressed person is empowered to confront the oppression of landlords, businessmen, bureaucrats or the state in general and quite another to say that every human being will have the right to livelihood, food, shelter and education. The present global trends, disquieting to say the least, do not give any reassurance that this may be the case.

What then is the purpose of all the increased awareness if it cannot be channelled into creative choices concerning livelihood? This is an unsettling question. It does look certain that unless the globalization process takes the question of equity seriously we are likely to witness social violence on a general and unprecedented scale. The spectacle of urban violence witnessed in cities like Rio de Janeiro could be the general rule rather than the exception.

An increase in political awareness could lead to an increase in violence in the absence of a just and participatory social process. The commercial illusions projected by the transnational corporations and the soulless perspectives of the mass-media will have vitiated the consciousness of the masses to such a point that they are probably left with little clarity about the political options open to them. In this context of unclarity and cynicism the confused social upheavals and mindless eruptions of violence may appear senseless, depraved and self-defeating.I last met Paulo Freire about ten years ago at his modest home in Sao Paulo. He was recovering from the depression which the death of his wife Elsa had caused him. This did not deter him from a serious, if somewhat subdued, discussion with me, where he defended the essential ideas he had nurtured in the past decades. I did not disagree with much of what he said. At one point I suggested that his ideas were far too influenced by the Enlightenment which believed in progress and linear development (even if many referred to the conscientization process as a spiral), where people moved from lower levels of consciousness to higher ones. Coming from India I could not deny that I was at least partially influenced by ideas related to impermanence, to interconnectedness, to the Buddhist notion of the void, to the significance of the here and now. But I also realised that I was not alone in being sceptical of a model of progress which was merely based on higher levels of consumption, of brutal competition in the market ( the dog eat dog attitude), of the poisoning of our air, land and water. It appeared to me that we had placed too much faith in concepts like 'progress' and 'development' and that poltical radicalism, while expressing geniune solidarity with the underdog, did not question the basic orientations of the system. Much of the cynicism and gloom that we saw around us was spurned by the callousness of this process.

Both Marxism and capitalism owed total allegiance to these concepts which were based almost exclusively on the attainment of the proper material conditions. Without denying the importance of material development could we incorporate notions that emphasised both community-oriented, ecological and spiritual values? Could Freire's concept of conscientization go hand in hand with our own notions of the ultimate purposes of existence? He understood my concerns but did not comment on them. (Perhaps I had not chosen the right moment to challenge some of his assumptions. I do not think that my concerns were of a purely personal nature. It could well be asked why revolutionary activity had come to a standstill and why everybody, even the excluded, were being seduced by the western model of consumer society. Perhaps we were faced with a civilisational crisis of such magnitude where even Freire's praxis had been overtaken.)

But I am beginning to carp. Despite my reservations I must underline the fact that Freire's ideas have played a major role in deepening local democracy and making it accountable to the poor. His declaration that education is the practice of freedom is permanently valid. His insistence that education is never neutral is borne out by the struggles of the poor. And his suggestion that the learning process continually transforms us as human beings is a call to find meaning and purpose in a world which offers little of either. For the oppressed of the earth Freire will always remain an authentic ally. As we near the turn of the century it will do us good to shed our collective amnesia and make a qualified return to the springs of hope which Paulo Freire urged us to drink from.

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