Paulo Freire: The Brazilian Philosopher Who Revolutionized Education

Paulo Freire is one of the most influential figures in pedagogy. What were his theories?

Aug 16, 2023By Igor Zanetti, Student of Philosophy

paulo freire brazilian philosopher


A Brazilian philosopher who changed how the whole world views education, Paulo Freire and his work are of utmost importance to the areas of philosophy, pedagogy, and the Social Sciences as a whole.


Who Is Paulo Freire?

Photo of Paulo Freire, via Diário do Nordeste Jornal.


Paulo Reglus Neves Freire was born in Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, one of the Northeastern states of Brazil, in 1921. He is one of the founders of the critical pedagogy movement and is regarded worldwide as one of the most important minds in the areas of philosophy of education and pedagogy. His magnum opus, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was a groundbreaking book at the time and remains extremely relevant to this day.


The Northeast of Brazil is a region that went through several hardships during the history of the country due to the naturally harsh environment and the constant abuse of power by local authorities. This rough reality only became worse during the Great Depression of 1929, which heavily impacted the economy of Brazil.


During that time, even though Paulo belonged to a middle-class family, the economical crisis forced them into temporarily experiencing poverty and hunger first-hand. It was through the experience of living in such a harsh reality that the philosophy of Paulo Freire was born.

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His theory was a system that aimed to bring knowledge to the marginalized groups of society in an effective manner while respecting their realities and educating them to have a critical view of the world. Furthermore, we can observe influences from many previous philosophers in the work of Paulo Freire, such as Rousseau, Hegel, and Kierkegaard, and even from authors of the same era, namely Jean-Paul Sartre and John Dewey.


CCC enrollees studying, c.1930-1940, via National Archives.


The main objective of Paulo Freire and his philosophy is to educate people about their own potential as human beings, to show them that they have the power to change themselves and the world around them for the better.


A historical example of this happened in 1961 when Paulo Freire and his team applied a method that was able to teach literacy to 300 rural workers who had no previous formal education, in the span of only 45 days. Such a feat was enough to catch the attention of the Brazilian government, and the president João Goulart intended to apply the same method in many other areas of the country, before the military coup d’état of 1964 that led Brazil to a dictatorship that lasted for over two decades. During that period, due to political persecution, Paulo Freire left the country and did not return until 1980.


Moving forward, we will be going through the most important aspects of Paulo Freire’s work, exploring the basics of the philosophy of education, and taking a look at the critical pedagogy movement that started in the 20th century and is still happening today.


The Philosophy of Education

Students studying, 1965, via UTA Libraries Digital Gallery.


What is the philosophy of education, and what is the difference between that area and pedagogy? It is very easy to misunderstand these two areas as being the same thing, yet also very easy to understand the difference between the two.


Pedagogy is the practice of teaching along with the study of the methods applied, most often in schools and other educational institutions.


The philosophy of education, on the other hand, is a branch of practical philosophy that analyzes education as a whole. It studies the specific nature, characteristics, and aims of different educational models, as well as the problems that arise from them.


Its origins can be traced all the way back to the roots of philosophy itself because the relationship between philosophy and education is simply unavoidable. A great early example of this is the conflict between Socrates and the Sophists, which heavily discussed the nature of education and how it should be practiced.


The Boulevard by Gino Severini, 1910, via Wikimedia Commons.


One of the defining characteristics of the philosophy of education is how wide-ranging this area of knowledge is, tackling the education given at home by parents and family, the day-to-day education of each specific culture, and the formal education applied in schools and other educational facilities.


The biggest reason why this area is so complex is that whenever we analyze a given model of education, it is necessary to understand the relation between the individuals and the society where said model is applied, its culture, economy, laws, and politics. This is necessary to fully understand the origins, objectives, and impact of education.


For example, a specific society could live in constant military conflict due to internal or international turmoil, and for that reason, apply an educational model that has objectives related to building military power. While that is easy to understand, the philosophy of education aims to further analyze that model, which specific parts of it work and which don’t, whether the knowledge transmitted by that model is worthwhile, and the impacts of adopting that approach both at individual and societal levels.


As mentioned before, the relationship between philosophy and education is so intimate that most philosophers have tackled the philosophy of education in some shape or form during their works. However, some of the most notable names in the area, other than Paulo Freire, are Plato, Aristotle, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, John Locke, and the many philosophers who were part of the Frankfurt School.


The Critical Pedagogy Movement

A Woman Thinking by Sir William Orpen, 1930, via Sotheby’s.


Paulo Freire was the first philosopher to use the term “banking education” in order to criticize the traditional form of education applied in almost every school up until that point in time. A banking model of education, as explained by Paulo Freire, is a form of pedagogy that understands students as empty accounts, on which the teacher would then deposit knowledge until the desired threshold.


From that point of view, the problems of such a model are very easy to point out, namely the lack of space for students to express themselves and nurture their creativity, the absence of respect for the reality from which each student comes from, and the stiffness of the knowledge that is shared in the classroom.


Furthermore, we can assume that the economically dominating classes possess a heavy influence over the traditional model of education, being the ones in positions of power most of the time, both in public and private schools, and therefore enforcing an educational model that benefits their interests.


Paulo Freire panel by Luiz Carlos Cappellano, via Wikimedia Commons.


It was from the observation of those problems that the critical pedagogy movement was born. Critical pedagogy is a school of thought inside the philosophy of education that has the objective of building a new form of education that allows for the development of individuals capable of critical thinking, encouraging the students to pursue their own goals and to question the status quo.


Education shouldn’t be a mechanism for the dominating classes of society to expand their power through indoctrination, but instead, a tool for the oppressed to actively change their reality for the better and for us to improve as human beings. Briefly speaking, it is a school of thought inside pedagogy and philosophy of education whose goals are ultimately emancipatory, both from an intellectual and from a social standpoint.


Other than Paulo Freire himself, who is the father of the critical pedagogy movement, some other notable names within it are Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Gloria Jean Watkins, also known as bell hooks, and Antonia Darder. What all of these authors have in common is the utmost concern with the development of a democratic educational system that respects the students and their personal interests, guiding them towards critical thinking and teaching them to recognize the importance of fighting against all sorts of discrimination and widespread misconceptions. The critical pedagogy movement is still active today, with many followers of this school of thought spread all over the world.


Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Girls in school by Doug Linstedt, 2016, via Unsplash.


When we talk about the origins of critical pedagogy as a theory and as a social and philosophical movement, there are two very notable roots that should be understood: the Frankfurt School in 1923, as a very important inspiration to the movement through their critical theory, and the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed written by Paulo Freire in 1968, marking the actual starting point of critical pedagogy itself.


It is in that book that Paulo Freire establishes very important concepts such as the previously mentioned banking education, which was heavily criticized by critical pedagogy authors, and the dialogic teaching method, in which teacher and student would share their knowledge with each other through constant dialogue, and school subjects would be taught in a manner that connects the academic disciplines to the reality and interests of the students.


After exposing the flaws of the traditional banking education model and offering a better alternative in the form of the dialogic teaching method, Paulo Freire moves on to explain the importance of education as a tool to change society for the better. According to the philosopher, educators should be revolutionary figures with the responsibility of not only sharing their knowledge with the students, but also encouraging them to pursue self-reflection, self-improvement, critical thinking, and class awareness.


Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a great and timeless read for anyone interested in the philosophy of education, serving as a guide for professionals in the area of pedagogy that are willing to question the traditional methods of teaching and pursue the development of a democratic spaces inside the classroom.


The Legacy of Paulo Freire’s Philosophy

Photo of Paulo Freire, via Instituto Paulo Freire.


Paulo Freire is one of the most notable philosophers when it comes to education, by far the most famous and awarded Brazilian author, the patron of education in Brazil, and a figure that is worldwide recognized as a pedagogical genius. The Paulo Freire Institute in São Paulo serves as an archive for the extensive work of the author. The institute encourages the continuation of Freire’s work in the area of education, promoting many events and activities that follow his philosophy and his method of teaching.


Whether you agree with the specific methods of teaching proposed by the authors of the critical pedagogy school of thought, it is undeniable that for our further development as a species, we must always seek improvements in each and every area, and that education, as one of the most important pillars of our society, should be no different.


Educational models have to update themselves in order to always feel fresh and be able to reach new generations of students. It is well proven that students learn better when the lessons being taught are able to propose a dialogue with their reality and interests, when they use a language that is accessible and familiar to them, and when they can freely express their opinions and discuss the school subjects.


And yet, perhaps the most important part of Paulo Freire’s legacy is the incentive to critical thinking, the basis of any philosophy and something of utmost importance for us as individuals, especially in current times where we are constantly bombarded with endless amounts of information that may or may not be true.

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By Igor ZanettiStudent of PhilosophyIgor is a contributing writer and student of Philosophy at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (Brazil). He has a long-standing passion for philosophy and all forms of art, from literature to modern genres.