Free speech movement

Learning, 30 July 2020

Free speech movement

Paulo Freire: Activism Through Education

Investigation by Géraldine Gourbe


Alternative, institutional and critical pedagogical approaches have seen a renewed interest these past few years. This attraction to new forms of education is often based on unique experiments conducted from 1950 to 1970, starting with those by Paulo Freire, known for his literacy program for adults in impoverished communities, a literacy activism designed to combat different forms of oppression.

[ 1 ]

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1969), translated from Portuguese (Brazil) to English by Myra Bergman Ramos, The Continuum, 2005.

[ 2 ]

On a philosophical level, Freire is inspired by phenomenology, existentialism, Christian personalism and humanist Marxism. In the early 1960s, various mass education movements were created in Brazil, including: the Popular Cultura Movement (MCP) in May 1960; the “Campaign standing on the ground also learns to read” in Natal, February 1961; and the Basic Education Movement (MEB) in March 1961.

[ 3 ]

We will cite specific terminology coined by Freire in quotation marks.

[ 4 ]

“[The coloniser] leaves out of account the human memory and the ineffaceable marks left upon it; and then, above all there is something which perhaps he has never known: we only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us. Three generations did we say? Hardly has the second generation opened their eyes than from then on they’ve seen their fathers being flogged. In psychiatric terms, they are “traumatized” for life. But these constantly renewed aggressions, far from bringing them to submission, thrust them into an unbearable contradiction which the European will pay for sooner or later. After that, when it is their turn to be broken in, when they are taught what shame and hunger and pain are, all that is stirred up in them is a volcanic fury whose force is equal to that of the pressure put upon them.” Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to <em>The Wretched of the Earth</em> by Frantz Fanon, (Maspero,1961), Black Cat Edition, 1968.

[ 5 ]

Valerie Solanas, SCUM Manifesto, Association pour tailler les hommes en pièces (Olympia Press,1968), Maspero, 1971, Mille et Une Nuits – Fayard, 2005, postface by Michel Houellebecq.

[ 6 ]

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, op. cit., p.46.

[ 7 ]

Ibid., p.77.

[ 8 ]

Ibid., p.48.

[ 9 ]

Ibid., p.78.

[ 10 ]

Ibid., p.103.

[ 11 ]

Géraldine Gourbe, “Savoir et devenir pédagogique de l’émancipation, afro/féminisme et afro/marxisme”, Initiales journal #10, dedicated to Maria Montessori, September 2017, p.52-54

[ 12 ]

Ibid., p.79.

Paulo Freire’s pedagogical principles are rooted in the premise that an oppressed person is not simply a victim, but an historical subject capable of transforming society, less through acts of rebellion than through an alternative collective practice that produces another culture, and another imagination, of its own1.

Freire’s literacy method for adults—so here we’re in the realm of educating the masses2 —is predicated on an emancipatory pedagogy nourished by observations of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial legacy in Latin America. The unequal relationships between major landowners and peasants have left their mark on Brazilian society. Silenced for centuries, the indigenous populations have come to tacitly accept this “domination3”, allowing a consciousness of the “dominated” to emerge. The dominator’s language, value system and “myths” are therefore assimilated by the peasants. “Cultural alienation” goes hand in hand with “political alienation”: the peasant value system adapts itself to justify, and therefore perpetuate, the status quo. This corresponds to a first level of consciousness in the oppressed, a first stage Freire describes as “magical perception”: the individual adapts to the situation passively and defensively, without realizing the socio-economic contradictions of society. The individual is silent and docile. The second stage, called “naïve perception”, corresponds to an individual becoming aware of a problem for the first time without relating it to structural problems in society. The problems are individualized and therefore perceived as accidents. In the case of “magical” as in “naïve” perceptions, the individual has no global vision of the structural foundations of inequality. The liberating pedagogy comes in as a mediator in order to first and foremost avoid the pitfalls of reproducing a pattern of oppression whose various steps are analyzed by Frantz Fanon in his essay The Wretched of the Earth4, where he observes the effects of colonization on the colonized from the perspective of neurosis and trauma. Following the classic principle of psychology, he explains that it takes only three generations of trauma sufferers to create the conditions that drive them to armed struggle. With this argument, Fanon seems to justify the unjustifiable: the systematic recourse to violence by the colonized, founded on a simple “backlash” principle. Fanon considers this form of violence as just because it fights against a primary form of violence, that of the colonizer. In this sense, SCUM Manifesto5 by feminist Valerie Solanas joins Fanon’s radical gesture by proposing the insurrection of a community of women against a community of men:

« The central problem is this: How can the oppressed… participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be ‘hosts’ of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization6. »

Paulo Freire, La Pédagogie des Opprimés, édition originale en anglais, © Penguin Books

Paulo Freire, La Pédagogie des Opprimés, édition originale en anglais, © Penguin Books

Of their own initiative

Although Freire is inspired by Fanon when it comes to the complex and gradual ways in which oppression and domination are internalized, he suggests replacing armed struggle with producing emancipatory knowledge and culture: traditional institutional education delegitimizes culture in the eyes of oppressed peasants by showing their ignorance respective to a knowledge that has been established as the only legitimate knowledge. According to the classical model, knowledge is dispensed vertically and through authority, by “banking” (that is, depositing knowledge or learning according to quantity and not based on the quality of learning or critical thinking), against which Freire explains his method:

«Problem-posing’ education, responding to the essence of consciousness—intentionality—rejects communiqués and embodies communication7. »

In classical transmission, the professor is the sole custodian of legitimate knowledge, which he imposes onto his students. In contrast, Freire considers the oppressed subject as capable of transcending and recreating the world with complete autonomy. Indeed, according to the pedagogue, who would be called ‘de-colonial’, no one is born without culture because all culture is man-made. Educating is therefore the result of the praxis enabling Man to become a subject, and thus more human:

«To deny the importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naive and simplistic. It is to admit the impossible: a world without people. This objectivistic position is as ingenuous as that of subjectivism, which postulates people without a world8. »

Education of the oppressed must come about on their own initiative, rather than imposed from above, so they may become aware of themselves and their ability to influence their environment. It is about teaching someone self-liberation, to emancipate oneself from the colonization of the mind by proposing a humanist and liberating notion of education. In this sense, Paulo Freire is in line with existentialist philosophy. Here, literacy proves to be an eminently political act, since illiteracy is the result of denying peasants their right to self-expression. Learning to read marks a step toward full participation in the life of society, or at least the life of literary society. These new educators are no longer the detainers of knowledge, the experts, but individuals also engaged in a learning process, in interrelation with those who are learning to read:

« The problem-posing method does not dichotomize the activity of the teacher-student: she is not ‘cognitive’ at one point and ‘narrative’ at another. She is always ‘cognitive,’ whether preparing a project or engaging in dialogue with the students9. »

Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth original edition © Maspero Edition

Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth original edition © Maspero Edition

Moving beyond simplistic readings of reality

It isn’t until the final stage of consciousness, “critical consciousness”, that the oppressed manage to analyze reality and its contradictions. Freire’s method has been confirmed by a series of experiments repeated throughout more than twenty years in the rural and urban regions of South America. They consisted of organizing the population into groups, in cultural circles, and talking with them about their reality, analyzing the conditions of local life and even developing projects that would allow them to affect this reality.

In concrete terms, the work began with interviews where the teacher-student could get familiar with the reality of those learning to read and their linguistic universe. These first meetings made it possible to determine “generative themes” selected for their phonetic richness. By decomposing and then recombining their syllables, other words could be found. These generative themes could also help to address the social context, and therefore raise awareness, since they are codified, that is, graphically represented on slides or posters. The participants try to decode the existential situation represented, allowing each person a chance to exercise their way of communicating and acting. This decoding is the fruit of a dialogue between those learning to read, the teacher-student who tries to raise issues in the form of questions, offering the group a possibility to go beyond a simplistic reading of reality:

« When an individual is presented with a coded existential situation (a sketch or photograph which leads by abstraction to the concreteness of existential reality), his tendency is to ‘split’ that coded situation. In the process of decoding, this separation corresponds to the stage we call the ‘description of the situation,’ and facilitates the discovery of the interaction among the parts of the disjoined whole. This whole (the coded situation), which previously had been only diffusely apprehended, begins to acquire meaning as thought flows back to it from the various dimensions10. »

Valérie Solanas, the SCUM Manifesto, édition originale Maurice Girodias © Olympia Press, New York

Valérie Solanas, the SCUM Manifesto, édition originale Maurice Girodias © Olympia Press, New York

Those learning to read therefore discover their place in society, their power to transform their situation and, at the same time, they come to recognize the necessity of learning to read and write. In the late 1960s, Freire’s pedagogy of emancipation spreads to the North American continent, at the heart of the Free Speech movement developing on North American campuses. It instills a different way of thinking about knowledge production and the creation of culture, starting with small groups that emphasize the legitimacy of difference or oppression in developing certain kinds of knowledge, cultures and imaginations that might nuance the power of certain regimes of visibility. Very close to the Afro-American feminists (as witnessed, for example, in bell hooks11, Paulo Freire opened his Marxist grid, until then applied essentially to social class, to gender and race:

« Students, as they are increasingly posed with problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge. Because they apprehend the challenge as interrelated to other problems within a total context, not as a theoretical question, the resulting comprehension tends to be increasingly critical and thus constantly less alienated. Their response to the challenge evokes new challenges, followed by new understandings; and gradually the students come to regard themselves as committed12. »

Translation by Maya Dalinsky Cover: Bumper sticker from the Free Speech Movement archives

This text is from a conference given during the «L’édition comme experience» days, initiated by Céline Chazaviel at Villa Arson (Nice), March 12 and 13, 2018, and led to an online publication created by Open Source Publishing and a student group :

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