Homage to Paulo Freire on the centenary of his birth / By Frei Betto

Paulo Freire, 1921-2021 / Perlid

Editorial note from alai.net: If we want to rescue Paulo Freire’s legacy, we must return to grassroots work with working classpeople and adopt his methods, relying on a historical perspective and looking toward utopias of freedom and the democratic horizon.

Frei Betto is most familiar with Paulo Freire, who was a personal friend. He has utilized Freire’s popular education methods in his own daily work.  This tribute to Freire on the centenary of his birth, a straightforward and exemplary presentation of his methods, derives from personal experience   We met Betto when he belonged to the scientific committee of a group of theologians and philosophers that have long edited the International Journal Concilium (in 7 languages). We have engaged in a great dialogue, at which he is a master. Betto is counted among the founders of Liberation Theology, something of which he was very proud.

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I can affirm, without fear of exaggeration, that Paulo Freire was at the root of the history of people’s power in Brazil for over 50 years, between 1966 and 2016. This power emerged as a leafy tree of the Brazilian left, active in the second half of the 20th century. There were groups that fought against the military dictatorship (1964-1985); the Basic Ecclesial communities of the Christian Churches; the broad network of popular and social movements that emerged in the 1970s; combative trade unionism; and, in the 1980s, the founding of the CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores); of ANAMPOS (National Articulation of Popular and Trade Union Movements) and then of the CMP (Central of Popular Movements); of the PT (Workers’ Parties); and of the MST (Landless Rural Workers’ Movement); and of so many other movements, NGOs and more.

If I had to answer the question: “Name one person accounting for all this”, I would say without any doubt: Paulo Freire. Without Paulo Freire’s popular education methodology, there would have been no such political activity, because he taught us something very important: we must look at history from the point of view of the oppressed and make them the protagonists of change in society.

The excluded as political subjects

Book Review: Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire – rochemamabolo
Pedagogy of the Oppress/ by Paulo Freire (1970)

On leaving political prison, at the end of 1973 – I was a political prisoner – I had the impression that all struggle out here had ended through the power of repression by the military dictatorship, and because all of us were in jail, dead, or in exile. We were firmly of the opinion that we were the only knowledgeable ones in the struggle capable of rescuing democracy. So think how surprised I was, when I found an immense network of popular movements scattered all over Brazil.

When the PT was founded in 1980, I saw left-wing comrades reacting: “Workers? No. It’s too much to think that workers might be the vanguard of the proletariat. We theoretical intellectuals, Marxists, are the ones who are able to lead the working class”. In Brazil, however, at that early stage, the oppressed themselves were becoming not only historical subjects, but also political leaders, thanks to the methodology of Paulo Freire.

Once, in Mexico, left-wing comrades asked me: “How can we do something here something similar to your process in Brazil? You have a sector of the left in the Church, a combative trade unionism, and the PT (the Workers’ Party)? How is that kind of people’s political power achieved?”

“You begin by doing people’s education,” I replied, “and 30 years from now …” 

They interrupted me:” Thirty years is too long! We want a suggestion for three years from now!” I don’t know how to do it in three years,” I observed, “but I know the way to do it in thirty years.”

In short, the whole process of building the people’s political forces that resulted in the election of Lula as president of Brazil, in 2002, and kept the PT in the federal government for thirteen years, didn’t fall from the sky. Everything was quite tenaciously built out of organizing and mobilizing at the grassroots level applying the methods of Paulo Freire.

The Paulo Freire method

TOP 25 QUOTES BY PAULO FREIRE (of 178) | A-Z Quotes

I became acquainted with the Paulo Freire method in 1963. I was living in Rio de Janeiro and was part of the National Directorate of Catholic Action. When the first work groups for the Paulo Freire method showed up, I joined a team that on Saturdays went up to Petrópolis, 70 km from Rio, to teach literacy to workers at the National Motor Factory. There I discovered that no one teaches anything to anyone. Rather, some people help others learn.

What did we do with the workers in that truck factory? We photographed the facilities, gathered the workers in a church hall, projected slides and asked them a simple question:

In this picture, what is it that you did not do? Answer: “Well, we didn’t make the tree, the plant, the road, the water….”

What you did not make is nature,” we said. But, “What is it that human labor made?”, we inquired. They replied that, “human labor made the brick, the factory, the bridge, the fence.” “That’s our culture, is the way things are,” we said, “And how were these things made?

They talked it over and then replied:

“They were made in the way we human beings transform nature for our use in the culture we live in.” Immediately, we presented the photo of the courtyard of the Fábrica Nacional de Motores filled by many trucks, and by the bicycles of the workers. We simply asked:

“In this photo, what did you make?” “The trucks.” Then, “what do you have?” “The bicycles.” “You wouldn’t be mistaken, would you?” “No, we did make the trucks…”

“And why don’t you go back home by truck? Why do you go by bicycle?” Answer: “Because the truck is expensive and it’s not ours.” “How much does a truck cost?”

“About 40,000 dollars.” “How much do you earn per month?” “Well, we make an average of $200.”

“How long would each one of you have to work, without eating, without drinking, without paying rent, and saving all your salary so as, one day, to be the owner of the truck you built?

Right there, they began to calculate and were becoming aware of the essence of how capital relates to work and of what surplus value and exploitation are.

The most elementary notions of Marxism, as a critique of capitalism, materialized through a method outlined by Paulo Freire. With the difference that we weren’t giving classes. We were not carrying out “banking education,” as Paulo Freire called it, that is; inserting political ideas into the workers’ heads. The method was inductive. As Paulo used to say, we teachers did not teach, but rather were helping the students learn.

Different and complementary cultures

When I arrived in São Bernardo do Campo (SP), in 1980, there were leftist activists who were distributing newspapers among the workers’ families. One day Dona Marta asked me: “What is “class contradiction? “

“Mrs. Marta, forget that,” I replied. She offered an excuse for the question claiming difficulty in reading; “My eyesight is bad and the print is small.” “Forget that,” I repeated. “The left writes things like that for themselves. It makes them happy. They think they are making the revolution.”

Paulo Freire taught us not only to speak in popular, evocative, non-academic language, but also to learn with the people. He taught the people how to recover their self-esteem.

After leaving prison, I lived for five years in a favela in the state of Espírito Santo. I worked in popular education there with the Paulo Freire method. When I returned to São Paulo at the end of the 1970s, Freire suggested that I write a report on our experience in education and, thanks to facilitations by journalist Ricardo Kotscho, we produced a book entitled “That School Called Life” (Ática publishers). It tells about his experience as educator and creator of his method, and mine as a grassroots educator.

In the book I tell how, in the favela where I lived, there was a group of women pregnant with their first child, who were cared for by doctors from the Municipal Health Secretariat. I asked the doctors why work only with women pregnant with their first child.

“We don’t want women who already have maternal vices,” they said, “we want to teach everything. Well, after a few months, they knocked on my door.

“Betto, we want your help”. “My help?” “There’s a short circuit between us and the women. They don’t understand what we are talking about. You, who have experience with them, could advise us.”

I went to look at their work. As I entered the neighborhood health center, I was frightened. There were very poor women there, and the Center was decorated with posters of Johnson [& Johnson] babies, blue-eyed blondes, Nestlé advertisements, etc. Faced with that visual spectacle, I reacted:

“It’s all wrong. When women come in here and see these babies, they think it’s another world. It has nothing to do with their babies.”

I watched the doctors at work. They were talking on FM and the women were tuned to AM. Their communication really didn’t work. In one session, Dr. Raul explained, in scientific language, the importance of maternal nutrition, and therefore protein, for the formation of the human brain. When he finished the presentation, the women looked at him as I would do if I opened a text in Mandarin or Arabic: without understanding anything.

“Doña María, did you understand what Dr. Raúl said?” -I asked. “No, I didn’t understand, I only understood that he said that our milk is good for the children’s heads”. “And why didn’t you understand?” “Because I have no education. I didn’t go to school much; I was born poor in the countryside. I had to work the land and help support the family.”

“And why did Dr. Raul know how to explain all that?” “Because he is a doctor, he has studied. He knows and I don’t know.”

“Doctor Raul, do you know how to cook?” -I asked. “I don’t even know how to make coffee.”

“Doña María, do you know how to cook?” “Yes, I do.” “Do you know how to make chicken in dark sauce (a dish that in Espirito Santo and also in some areas of the Northeast is called “galinha de cabidela”)? “Yes, I do.”

Please stand up,” I asked her, “and tell us how to make chicken in dark sauce.”

Dona Maria gave a culinary lecture: how the chicken is butchered, how it is plucked, how the meat is prepared and the sauce is made, etc.”

When she sat down, I said: “Doctor Raul, do you know how to make a dish like this?”

“Of course not, I like it, but I don’t know how to cook it.” Doña María,” I concluded, “If you and Doctor Raul were lost in a thick forest, starving, and suddenly a chicken appeared, he would die of hunger despite all his learning, but not you.

The woman smiled from ear to ear. At that moment she discovered a fundamental principle of Paulo Freire: there is no one person more educated than another; there are different cultures, which in society complement each other. If we tried to balance all my philosophy and theology and the culinary knowledge of the cook at the convent where I live, she can get by without my knowledge, but I cannot do without hers. That’s the difference. The knowledge of a cook is indispensable for all of us.

Paulo Freire and future challenges

Given the emergence of so many authoritarian governments and the profusion of anti-democratic, racist, homophobic, sexist and negative messages on digital networks, it seems to me of utmost importance to return to Paulo Freire on this date, which is the centennial of his birth.

The waning of progressive forces in Latin America in recent years and the emergence of neo-fascist figures such as Bolsonaro in Brazil force us to recognize that decades ago we abandoned the grassroots work of popular organization and mobilization. This vacuum among populations in the periphery, in the favelas, in poor rural areas is being filled by religious fundamentalism, drug trafficking and armed men.

Paulo Freire teaches us in his works that there is no mobilization without prior consciousness-raising. It’s necessary for people to have a “coat rack” where they can hang their political ideas and the keys they use to analyze reality. Their “coat rack” is their perception of time as history.

There are civilizations, tribes, groups, that have no perception of time as history. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that time was cyclical. Today, ideas of time return through esotericism, denialism, fatalism and religious fundamentalism. But it returns above all through neoliberalism.

The essence of neoliberalism is the separation of time from historical context. When Fukuyama declared that “history is over,” he expressed the basic message of neoliberalism, that we have reached the fullness of time! The neoliberal mode of capitalist production, based on dictates of the market, is definitive. Few are chosen and many are excluded. And there is no point in wanting to fight for an alternative society, for “another world that is possible!”

In fact, today it is difficult to speak of an alternative society. Socialism, then, out of the question! Now comes shame, an intellectual and emotional blockade. “Socialism is over, it collapsed, it collapsed, it was buried”, say the soothsayers. Any alternatives that are put forward must come from within the system.

The notion that time is history comes from the Persians, passed on to the Hebrews and accentuated by the Jewish tradition. Three great paradigms of our culture are of Jewish origin -Jesus, Marx and Freud, and, accordingly, they worked with the category of time as history.

It is not possible to study Marxism without delving into the previous modes of production, in order to understand how the capitalist mode of production came about, and also, in order to understand how its contradictions could lead to socialist and communist modes of production. Marxist analysis therefore supposes the rescue of time as history.

If someone engages in analysis or psychotherapy, the psychoanalyst asks the patient about his past, her childhood, his education. If the patient could talk about his or her intrauterine life, so much the better…. Freud’s whole psychology is a rescue of our relationships as individuals with time.

Jesus’ perspective was historical. The God of Jesus presents himself with a curriculum vitae: he is not just any god -he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – a God who makes history. The main category of Jesus’ preaching is historical: the Kingdom of God. It’s situated up there by means of ecclesiastical discourse, but theologically that’s not where it is. The Kingdom is up ahead of us. It’s the culmination of the historical process.

It is curious that in the Bible, history as a factor correlating with time is so strong that the Genesis story of the world being created already shows time as history even before human beings appeared.

For many, history is what men and women do. Therefore, there is no history before the emergence of men and women, so much so that we speak of prehistory. Even so, for the Bible, there is already history before the appearance of human beings – so much so that the Greeks considered the god of the Hebrews a very incompetent entity. A true god creates things instantaneously, like Nescafé, and not gradually, the way the biblical account has it. In the seven-day long story of Creation, already there is history. And Paulo Freire, a man with a Christian background and a militant follower of the fundamentals of Marxism, knew about the importance of reading the world as a prerequisite for reading the text.

Neoliberalism does not like this perspective. For this reason, popular education cannot be carried out without having a “vertical rack” to hang clothes on. This “rack” – time as history – is fundamental for us to be able to visualize social and political processes. This also happens in the micro dimension of our lives. Why do many people today find it difficult to decide on life projects? Why are there young people who reach the age of 20 without the slightest idea of what they want to be in life or to do? For many of them, everything is here and now.

That is why, if we want to rescue Paulo Freire’s legacy, the road leads to grassroots work with the popular classes, adapting his methods with a mind to history and openness to freedom-loving utopias and the democratic horizon. Without the people there is no salvation. And if we believe that democracy actually is government of the people for the people and with the people, our only alternative is to adopt the Paulo Freirean educational process that establishes those who are oppressed as political and historical protagonists.

When Paulo Freire returned from 15 years of exile, in August 1979, we met in São Paulo. We were neighbors and I often visited him. We became very close in our personal relations.I end this homage with this text that I wrote on May 2, 1997, the date of Paulo Freire’s death:

Literacy manuals taught: “Ivo saw the grape.” But Professor Paulo Freire, with his way of teaching literacy by raising awareness, enables adults and children in Brazil and Guinea-Bissau, in India, in Nicaragua and in so many other places to discover that Ivo saw not merely with his eyes. He also saw with his mind as he wonders whether grapes are something from nature or from human activities, from their culture.

Ivo saw that fruit does not result from human labor. It is Creation, it is nature. Paulo Freire taught Ivo that planting grapes is human action in and on nature. And the hand, a multi-use tool, awakens the potentialities of the fruit. Similarly, human beings are sown by nature over the course of a prolonged time period in which the universe evolves.

You take the grape, crush it and transform it into wine; that’s culture, as Paulo Freire pointed out. Work humanizes nature and, in the process, men and women humanize themselves. Work establishes the knot of relationships and social life. Thanks to this teacher, who began his revolutionary pedagogy with the workers of Sesi de Pernambuco, Ivo realizes that seasonal workers, who earn little, harvest the grapes and that middlemen, who earn much more, market the grapes. 

Ivo learned with Paulo that, even if he could not read, he is not an ignorant person. Before learning his letters, Ivo knew how to build a house, brick by brick. The doctor, the lawyer or the dentist, with all their studies, are not capable of building like Ivo does. Paulo Freire taught Ivo that there is no one person more educated than another, that there are parallel cultures; they are different and in society they complement each other.

“Ivo saw the grape,” and then Paulo Freire showed him the bunches, the vineyard, and the whole plantation. He taught Ivo that to understand what he is reading, it’s best to insert the text into the shared context of the author and the reader. From this relationship between text and context manifesting in dialogue, Ivo derives the occasion for taking action. What matters for Ivo’s learning, from start to finish, is praxis. This is an inductive process, from praxis to theory to praxis, that turns the learner into a subject within history.

Ivo saw the grape and did not see the bird that, from above, looks down on the vine and does not see the grape. What Ivo sees is different from what the bird sees. Thus, Paulo Freire taught Ivo a fundamental principle of epistemology: the head thinks on the basis of feet walking. One reads the world of inequalities either from the viewpoint of the oppressor or from the viewpoint of the oppressed. In the end, the readings may differ from each other no less than did the vision of Ptolemy, who viewed the solar system with his feet on Earth, from that of Copernicus, who imagined himself with his feet on the Sun.

Now Ivo sees the grape, the grapevine, and all the social relations that together convert the fruit into a chalice of wine and a party. But no longer does he see Paulo Freire, who immersed himself in Love on the morning of May 2, 1997. He leaves us his invaluable labor and testimony notable for its expertise and coherence.

Paulo was due to go to Cuba, where would have received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Havana. His heart, full of so much love, was in pain and he asked me to go there to represent him. But I had to go to Palestine and it was not possible for me to accommodate his request. However, before embarking, I did go to pray with Nita, his wife, and with his children gathered around his peaceful countenance: Paulo was seeing God. W. T. Whitney Jr modified and edited the translation from Spanish provided by www.deepl.com. The Spanish-language version is available at: https://www.alainet.org/es/articulo/213814.

Source: America Latina – en movimiento, September 14, 2021, https://www.alainet.org/es/articulo/213814