Paulo Freire and the Cultural Dimension of the Fight for Liberation

August 17, 2016

The Intellectual Battles in Revolutionized Latin America

Paulo Freire (1921-1997) is not only one of the most relevant Latin American educators of the last hundred years, but also one of the most important educators in the contemporary era worldwide. He achieved popularity following the publication of two of his books in which he systematizes the lessons learned during his work in Brazil and Chile in the1960s: Educação como prática da liberdade, of 1967, and Pedagogia do oprimido, of 1970.

As an important representative of the Latin American intellectual class of the mid-20th century, Paulo Freire participated in debates about how to accelerate the process of development. During those years there was wide consensus that the social situation in the region was unsustainable, and about the urgent need to find ways to remedy it.

Like many others developmentalists, Paulo Freire thought that the traditional, closed, rural society that prevailed in much of Latin America should be left behind, opening the way to a more modern, open, urban society. He believed that revolution, not reform, was the way to achieve this change. These ideas were defended by intellectuals who knew that the fight against imperialism, economic dependency, and oppression was unavoidable. Among these intellectuals were the Brazilian Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Cuban Fidel Castro, the Chilean Enzo Faletto, the Martinican Frantz Fanon, and the Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Paulo Freire, like all intellectuals for whom liberation was a priority, committed himself to the fight for it. He knew that in Latin America this struggle had already been declared, and so there was no other alternative but take sides. This explains the "barricade language" that he used to explain his ideas and his understanding of what he considered to be "true knowledge”, "true learning”, and even "true love”.

In this semantic struggle, the conflict was between positions that promoted domination and those that promoted liberation. In the author’s view, dominant perspectives sought to preserve oppressive structures, contributing to the perpetuation of the privilege of some at the expense of the suffering of many. Liberators, on the other hand, wanted to abolish domination and build a new society free of the oppressors and the oppressed.

One of the objectives of this semantic struggle, according to the author, was to expose the falsity of affirmations claiming that the best and only option was to maintain the existing order. The following text by Paulo Freire allows us to appreciate some the myths he was trying to debunk:

We have, for example, the myth that the “oppressor order” is an order of freedom. One that allows people to work wherever they want; that if they don’t like their boss, they can leave the job and look for other alternatives at any time. The myth is that this “order” respects people’s rights and that we must be grateful for their existence. There is the myth that we can all become entrepreneurs, and that street vendors are as much entrepreneurs as the owners of the largest companies. There is the myth of the right to education for all, when the truth is that the number of Brazilians attending elementary school, and the ones who stay in school, is shockingly low. There is the myth of social equality, when the question “Do you know who you are talking to?” is a question we still hear today. There is the myth of the heroism of the oppressors and their role as guardians of “Christianity and Western order” against “materialistic barbarism...” (Translation made by the author from Freire 2005: 159-160).


This semantic struggle was set against not only those perspectives that promoted domination, but also against those supposedly “liberating” perspectives that did not support, and even hindered, the objectives of liberation. These “sectarian” perspectives, as Freire called them, took a narrow historical view, allowing no space for the will of the people, considering that transformation would come about independently of people’s actions, and thus implying that it made no difference whether people joined the liberation efforts or not. Paulo Freire, like all intellectuals in favor of liberation, considered that there is no liberation without a fight.

Main Coordinates of His Educational Thinking

To contribute to the revolutionary struggle, Paulo Freire proposed an educational strategy that was opposed to those that prevailed at the time, those he considered to be domesticating or alienating. He proposed a Literacy Method through the Awareness of Injustice. An alternative, as its name suggests, that aimed to achieve both literacy and awareness simultaneously.

Our biggest challenge was not only the shocking level of illiteracy and finding ways to overcome it. The problem for us was beyond literacy, it was the need to overcome our lack of experience in democracy. That is to say, the challenge was to try to overcome political inexperience and illiteracy simultaneously (Translation made by the author from Freire 2007: 102).


Because reading and writing were vital tools to appropriately participate in the prevailing production mode, industrialization, literacy became an important goal in Latin America from the beginning of the 20thcentury.

But those who wanted to free society understood that teaching students to comprehend reality was as important as literacy. The challenge, according to Paulo Freire, was to help people overcome the magical and naive conceptions that governed their existence, and to cultivate critical rationality to identify and confront all kinds of contradictions. In other words, the goal was to make people acknowledge their condition of oppression, and motivate them to fight against it. This goal is explained in the following statement:

Education must be brave and allow people to self-reflect, to be aware about their time, about their responsibilities, about their role in the new social and cultural context. Education must allow them to question reality and to increase that capacity, highlighting their potential (Translation made by the author from Freire 2007: 67).


To achieve these objectives, Paulo Freire created a methodology based on two ideas. The first one was that knowledge is transformation, which means that as knowledge is based in understanding. We only understand that which is based in our previous knowledge. This way of thinking can be understood in phrases like, “studying is not an act of consuming ideas, but of creating and re-creating them” (Freire 1982: 12). The second idea was that “uncultured-ness” does not exist. Nobody ignores everything, just as nobody knows it all, meaning that we should all cooperate within the teaching-learning process, and that we can all learn from it.

The Literacy Method through the Awareness of Injustice was implemented, in practice, in the so-called “cultural circles”, non-formal educational settings with two distinctive characteristics. First, the content presented was based on information familiar to the students, which was previously systematized through a participative investigation process. Secondly, this methodology had low implementation costs and was highly reproducible. This is because the methodology did not need the support of expensive pedagogical materials; on the contrary, it was based on love. It is also very important to mention that Paulo Freire, to improve this methodology, looked at his own literacy process: he and his parents would sit under a tree in the garden of their house drawing letters in the dirt (Freire and Horton 2009; Freire 2010).

What were the key elements of his literacy method? The key elements, without a doubt, were the conviction, dedication and love with which the people involved participated in the process.

Contemporary Relevance of Educational Thinking of Paulo Freire

Although the literacy process developed by Paulo Freire was his major contribution to pedagogy, the legacy of his ideas is also worth highlighting. A key element was his strong support of theory, which contrasted with the technical approach to education of the right and the anti-intellectualism of the left, both steering away from systematic reflection. He believed that "action" and "thinking" are inseparable because all actions lacking thinking are simply activism and all thinking lacking action is merely empty words. These two vices obstruct any liberationist effort.

Another point that we need to highlight is his emphasis on the political nature of education; the identification of the ideological components of education and, further, the understanding that education as a whole is strictly political (Freire and Betto 1988). Education is not neutral, therefore, there is not just one way to approach education. In other words, it is necessary to identify the background and the social implications of different methodologies and pedagogical resources (Freire 2006).

Today, when hyper-specialized visions are used to understand reality, the work of Paulo Freire can be seen as a good example of how to develop holistic perspectives capable of pinpointing specific problems in a more general context. This opens the path to initiatives that can reach a broader number of people, and as a result, contribute to achieving better solutions to problems that affect us all.

Original Article: Andrés Donoso Romo (2016). "Paulo Freire, o pensamento latino-americano e a luta pela libertação," Latin American Research Review 51(1): 43-61. DOI: 10.1353/lar.2016.0009



Freire, Paulo (1982) Ação cultural para a liberdade e outros escritos, Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra.

Freire, Paulo (2005) [1970] Pedagogia do oprimido, Rio de Janeiro: Paz & Terra.

Freire, Paulo (2006) [1992] Pedagogia da esperança. Um reencontro com a pedagogia do oprimido, São Paulo: Paz & Terra.

Freire, Paulo (2007) [1967] Educação como prática da liberdade, Rio de Janeiro: Paz & Terra.

Freire, Paulo (2010) [1995] À sombra desta mangueira, São Paulo: Olha d’ Água.

Freire, Paulo and Betto, Frei (1988) [1985] Essa escola chamada vida, São Paulo: Ática.

Freire, Paulo and Horton, Myles (2009) [1990] O caminho se faz caminhando: conversas sobre educação e mudança social, Petrópolis: Vozes.

About Author(s)

Andrés Donoso Romo
Andrés Donoso Romo is a researcher at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados at the Universidad de Playa Ancha, Valparaíso, Chile. He has an undergraduate degree in social anthropology and a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the Universidad de Chile. In addition, he has a PhD in Latin American Integration from the Universidade de São Paulo. His publications include Identidad y educación en América Latina. Ensayos (Caracas: Editorial Laboratorio Educativo, 2012) and Educación y nación al sur de la frontera: organizaciones mapuche en el umbral de nuestra contemporaneidad, 1880-1930 (Santiago: Editorial Pehuén, 2008).