Paulo Freire in aller Welt

Liberatory education and globalization

von Heinz-Peter Gerhardt (Bonn)

1. Concepts

In what follows, I will use the term liberatory education to refer to the history and working methods of popular education in Latin America (educação popular in Portuguese) since the 1960s and the reception of this educational theory and practice worldwide. Its most important advocate is considered to be the Brazilian Paulo Freire (1921-1997). In Germany, the basic concepts and methodology of liberatory education such as thematic universe, key words, codification-decodification, dialogue, the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy, humanization, humility, love, hope, autonomy and the culture of silence have been adopted, discussed and have undergone practical application since the early 1970s (i.e. since the publication of Paulo Freire's principal work "Pedagogy of the Oppressed").1)

Approaches based on liberatory education are also subsumed or discussed under the headings "dialogical education"2), constructivist pedagogy (Siebert and Arnold 1997; Siebert 1999), the "new sociology of education" (Sünker et al. 1994; Castells et al. 1999), "new perspectives in sociology of education" (Mitchell and Torres 1998; Arnove and Torres 1998) and the situational approach (Zimmer et al. 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c; Stoll 1995; Iben 1994). The metaphor of liberation in this educational approach is much more common and less controversial in Latin America (educação libertadora in Portuguese)3) and the English-speaking world (liberating or liberatory education)4) than it is in educational circles in Germany.5)

  • 1) cf. the ambitious attempt of Schroeder and Knauth (1998) to describe the formation of liberatory paradigms in two socio-cultural contexts (Latin America and Europe) and for three academic disciplines (pedagogy, theology and philosophy) over a period of five centuries. They summarize their necessarily provisional conclusion in four points (pp. 78-79): 1. "Thus liberatory theology, pedagogy and philosophy must rely on models for reconstructing the basis of this experience (= the anouncement of God in the other, H.-P. G.). These models can act as a mediator between theonomous autonomy and the thinking of moral autonomy from the structure of practical reason." (...) 2. "With the expansion and differentiation of the concept of oppression to include forms of ethnic, sexual and racial discrimination, the question of intercultural hermeneutics reflected on the basis of theories of difference has become more pressing. The common issue of the three disciplines has from the very beginning been a criticism of a Eurocentric way of thinking which confuses itself with a universalist perspective." (...) 3. "The discussion up to now (...) has made clear that the general concern of liberation has been incorporated into various contexts and languages and will produce a wide variety of theologies, pedagogical approaches and philosophies of liberation." (...) 4. "All three disciplines are academic endeavors to be applied practically, on a theory-led basis within a dialectical practice-theory circle."
  • 2) see the discussion in the journal of the same name which the "Paulo Freire Kooperation" in Oldenburg ( has been publishing for two years.
  • 3) cf. e.g. Mosca and Aguirre (1990) who wrote a handbook on improving human rights in Latin America from the perspective of liberatory theology and education. For these authors, liberatory education is the practical application of liberatory theology. See also Gandin (1995) who, based on empirical studies of two Catholic high schools, links liberatory education as a pedagogical option in these schools with the resolutions of the Latin American Conference of Bishops in Medellin (1968).
  • 4) cf. S. Aronowitz as quoted by A. M. A. Freire and Macedo (1998), p. 5. "In fact, in concert with many liberal and radical educators some teachers have interpreted liberatory education to chiefly mean instilling humanistic values in a non-repressive way. The school seems to be a massive values clarification exercise ... Many read Freire's dialogic pedagogy as a tool for student motivation and cannot recognize that for him dialogue is a content whose goal is social as much as individual change. In Freire's educational philosophy the first principle is that the conventional distinction between teachers as expert and learner as an empty biophysiological shell is questioned. Education takes place when there are two learners who occupy somewhat different spaces in an ongoing dialogue. But both participants bring knowledge to the relationship and one of the objects of the pedagogic process is to explore what each knows and what they can teach each other. A second object is to foster reflection on the self as actor in the world in consequence of knowing."
  • 5) Meueler 1994, p. 91: "The term "liberatory education" clearly indicates that its proponents over-estimate their own abilities. The concept itself has an enormous dissociative effect. Only those who speak and act in its name fight for the kingdom of freedom, know where it is to be found and lead the way to it. By contrast, pedagogy without the noble modifier "liberatory" is suspected of enslaving and subjugating those in its care.

2. History

Liberatory educators have their intellectual roots in the post-World War II tradition of anticolonial and antihegemonic (center - periphery) struggle. From the very beginning, they opposed authoritarian and later liberal and neo-liberal representatives of colonialism and neo-colonialism. The latter they saw in the basic tenets of the free market ideology, in other words globalism (for more on this term, see Bühler and Datta 1998, p. 3). Struggles for liberation initially aimed at increasing national strength. To this extent, the emphatic and undifferentiated national perspective is understandable: all Brazilians, all Algerians, all inhabitants of Guinea-Bissau were expected to fight against the threat posed by hegemonic powers from abroad. This struggle soon led, however, to more differentiation, i. e. alliances with the enemies of the various oppressors or hegemonic powers in one's own or in other countries. In the Brazilian version of this struggle, a radical Christian interpretation of events saw the country as being dehumanized with respect to its inhabitants. They have been robbed of their rights as people, their human rights. Within each country, this depersonalization and dehumanization is seen first and foremost in those people who, "like animals," have been and are being deprived of their human right to culture (agricultural workers, slum inhabitants, the illiterate). The reinstatement of this right to culture (at first to be able speak in one's own words; then literacy, basic education, political participation, but before that the recognition of being oneself a "creator of culture") serves liberatory educational conscientization and releases - based on experience especially in teaching adult literacy - an enormous potential for learning and taking action (Gerhardt 1979).

After having been forcibly exiled from Latin America, many liberatory educators then discovered the Third World in the First: the migrants, the unemployed, the homeless, the street children and the politically and economically illiterate.6) A network of local practices, globally applied theory and method elements, organizations and movements arose and were consolidated between the South and the North in the beginning and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, between the South and the East. One could even go so far as to say that liberatory education is one of the few educational concepts from the southern hemisphere which have been adopted by educators in the North.

  • 6) P. Freire as quoted in Freire and Macedo 1998, p. 240: The quilombos - the hiding places used by runaway slaves - constituted an exemplary moment in that learning process of rebellion - of a reinvention of life on the part of slaves who took their existence and history in hand, and, starting with the necessary "obedience," set out in quest of the invention of freedom. In a recent public discussion (...) Otávio Ianni, referring to this slavocratic past of ours and the marks it has left on our society, brought out its positive signs as well - the slaves' resistance, their rebellion. He spoke of the corresponding troubles, today, of the "landless," the "homeless," the "schoolless," the "foodless," the "jobless" as current kinds of quilombos, or "underground railroads." It is our task as progressive educators to take advantage of this tradition of struggle, of resistance, and "work it." It is a task that, to be sure, is a perverted one from the purely idealist outlook, as well as from the mechanistic, dogmatic, authoritarian viewpoint that converts education into pure "communication," the sheer transmission of neutral content."

3. Global learning

Global learning, i.e. in liberatory educational terms, the use of reflection and action to eliminate dehumanization in the world as a whole, has thus since the beginning of the seventies at the latest been the pedagogical practice of proponents of liberation in pedagogy. Liberatory educators attempt to withstand the tension between the knowledge and action of specific people who set out with them in a quest to discover additional knowledge and skills, on the one hand, and universal knowledge, products, customs and morality on the other. The universal is not considered to be superior, as it arises out of diverse local practices and their processing, in other words it is rediscovered, modified, enriched and adapted in every act of reception. These discoveries and rediscoveries of old/new, local/global and particular/general are possible with - on the basis of specific standards - liberatory educational approaches, three of which will be briefly mentioned here: respect for others, love and the act of hope.

  1. Only if I remind myself in political and pedagogical processes - even if there are setbacks - that the other I become acquainted with in these processes wishes to pursue a path together with me, will I continue to give such processes a chance. I must respect the other (subjects and objects) for their otherness and recognize them as being something different from me, as having another identity or materiality in order to be able to risk taking a common step towards recognition and action.
  2. Liberatory educators must be in love with love, with love for others and for the path to be pursued together. Without this passion for love - which entails the danger of burning and being burnt - pedagogy is nothing more than the mechanical transfer of knowledge, a social technology. Were not all great pedagogues passionate about the things and people they worked with?
  3. Hope for the possibility of change is the single most important prerequisite for successful liberatory education, for changing structures, other people and ourselves.7)

In the following, two diagrams will be used to help clarify the position of liberatory education on global learning.

  • 7) P. Freire (1998, p. 69): "Hope is something shared between teachers and students. The hope that we can learn together, teach together, be curiously impatient together, produce something together, and resist together obstacles that prevent the flowering of our joy. In truth from the point of view of the human condition, hope is an essential component and not an intruder. It would be a serious contradiction of what we are if, aware of our unfinishedness, we were not disposed to participate in a constant movement of search, which in its very nature is an expression of hope. Hope is a natural, possible, and necessary impetus in the context of or unfinishedness. Hope is an indispensable seasoning in our human, historical experience. Without it, instead of history we would have pure determinism. History exists only where time is problematized and not simply a given. A future that is inexorable is a denial of history."

3.1 The importance of the microlevel

Learning which focuses on certain themes in projects and movements, wherever possible "extra muros," is an important characteristic of liberatory education. In recent years, this type of learning is being increasingly promoted and practiced in preschool and school instruction.8) A new type of school is being ushered in.

  • 8) cf. the report issued by 15 educators on their work in the primary schools of São Paulo during the time (1989-1991) when Paulo Freire was the municipal councilor for education in Pontuschka (1993). The experiences and practices described in this anthology agree in many respects with the demands put forward by von Hentig (1993) and Negt (1997) with respect to necessary reforms in schools and the educational system in Germany. Unlike the municipalities and federal states of Germany, the governmentof the city of São Paulo possessed the political will and strength, at least for a few years, to carry out these reforms.

Liberatory educators are revolutionaries in the truest sense of the word. They are looking for the roots of problems in the contemporary educational system. And they believe they have discovered them in the way the marketplace has become the sole deciding factor in educational and social questions with the structure of neoliberalist capitalism which is fundamentally lacking in solidarity and fails to take ethical questions into consideration. They thus work counterfactually on educating subjects who are autonomous and capable of solidarity and teach them on the basis of self-reflection and self-control. They focus on ethical questions in terms of a conscious decision for the humanization of the individual and continual joint efforts to set rules for schools, society and politics.

The microlevel is the level on which the work of liberatory educators is focused (Figure 1). They reflect on their own approach to problems and on those of their clientele in the places where they arise and attempt, as teacher-learners and as learner-teachers (for more information on these terms, see Freire 1970), to provide specific solutions. Time and again they are confronted by borderline situations, be they for themselves, for the group with which they work or for both. Overcoming these borderline situations, or as the liberatory educators would say "limit - situations", in a certain place at a certain time requires their full attention. These time and place related limits reveal the previous cognitive, emotional and behavioral boundaries of the individual or the group. Along but mainly beyond these limits is where new things are learned and old are thrown overboard or rearranged for new ways of thinking and acting. In situations such as these, we often witness the introduction of what are known as "hinged themes," i.e. themes which connect the current theme with another on the same or on a different level. Changes between levels take place based on problems and interests, i.e. in accordance with the logic of the issue being dealt with and the interests of the group(s) concerned. Narrowing the field of vision in this way is necessary to maintain the motivation of the group for a problem and to keep track of the objective, namely the transformation of myself or my group as an actor and the transformation of the object of my or our interest in the act of understanding and undertaking.

The differentiation between micro-, meso- and macrolevels shown in Figure 1 thus has little to do with a hierarchical structure. What is important here is the identification of problems for educational processes which can be encountered on various levels but cannot be solved solely on the first level on which they appear. In many cases, these problems must initiate or occur concomitantly with learning processes, behavioral changes and actions on other levels. Only then people and structures begin to move. Examples such as phasing out nuclear energy, environmental problems or even seemingly dry topics such as modernizing public administration for stronger national and international governments and institutions can be used to illustrate this process (Gerhardt and Schwöbel 1996; Gerhardt 1998).

3.2 Local and global

Figure 2 is a further approach to the theme of liberatory education and globalization. Using a chain, which is perhaps too symbolic for this purpose, it connects the individuals and groups from Figure 1 9) with the three already mentioned levels in teaching- and learning-oriented communication forms typical of liberatory education such as thematic investigation generative and hinged themes (Freire 1970, pp. 78 ff.). At the microlevel, groups examine locally produced knowledge etc. and by doing so create relationships, networks and perhaps even institutions. These groups also exist at the meso- (national) and macrolevels (international). Greenpeace, Amnesty International and World Watch are just a few which come to mind.

  • 9) They are now additionally categorized according to their professional and class origins. In the terminology of liberatory educators, there are laymen, class traitors, organic intellectuals and professionals. For more information, see Gerhardt 1986.

Worship, prioritization and critical analysis are responses to locally and internationally produced knowledge and are characteristic of certain groups and factions within liberatory education. In an analysis of the situation of the popular education movement in Brazil up to 1990, I designated these groups using terms from German political parlance such as Basisdemokraten or grassroots democrats and Realpolitiker or political pragmatists (Gerhardt 1986). Strictly speaking, groups ranging from grassroots democrats to fundamentalists tend to prefer local "products" to those coming from afar. In polemical terms, they worship local "wisdom" and prioritize its use for their own educational objectives. Political pragmatists tend to point towards the international or at least national level and to disregard that which is produced locally. Both sides engage in a critical analysis primarily of the other but at times even of their own approach. As I mentioned earlier, these processes take place on all levels and between them by means of certain organizational forms such as informal relationships, networks and new or transformed institutions.

4. Conclusion

I hope to have made clear that the globalization of problems in educational policy and practice and of the corresponding attempts at solving these problems have characterized the liberatory approach in education from the very beginning. Those who seek to confine the effectiveness of liberatory educational theory and practice to the situation in Latin America have failed to take note of what has been said, written and done since the 1970s 10) or underestimate the rapid globalization of structural oppressive mechanisms in our one world: street children, the "two-thirds society" and new poverty are key words, too, of this new type of globalization.11) Liberatory educators such as Paulo Freire made it clear early on where they stood when it came to any type of oppression of humans by humans. They did what they could to stop it whether by educational or political means. And they started to build up a global network formed around schools and adult education, youth organizations, religious groups, and political parties with the common interest to enhance the individual and collective value of human beings (Carnoy 1998, p. 18). It is up to us to continue their work.12)

  • 10) See footnote 1. Torres and Mitchell (1998, pp. 3-7) summarize the state of the discussion in three theoretical and methodological points: 1. "In addition to a more flexible and even playful notion o