Countering the “Chega Freire” Campaign in Brazil: Our Emancipatory Struggle Continues

Paulo Freire. (Photo: Slobodan Dimitrov)Paulo Freire. (Photo: Slobodan Dimitrov)Truthout can only survive through reader support. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation and help publish journalism with real integrity and independence!

In Brazil, the disturbing impact of a “Chega Freire” or Enough with Freire” reactionary movement appears to be gaining momentum, bolstered by the interests of right wing activists and their sympathizers who seek to advance a staunchly instrumental and prescribed form of education across the country. Critical opponents of “Chega Freire” point to the barbarism of a banking educational approach that functions to censor open dialogue and critical reflection within education, by way of a curriculum that disembodies students from their own learning.

Meanwhile, civil unrest has led to the call for military intervention by the more reactionary sectors of the population. This, of course, is also backlash against the left-wing government of President Dilma Rousseff, which has had to contend with accusations of corruption by right wing opponents, aimed at discrediting social and political efforts of the current government – efforts that lifted over 20 million Brazilians from the risk of daily hunger as they were also guaranteed free access to housing, education, and health care. The irony here is that never has there been more corruption in government than when rightist were formerly in rule. The difference is that when they were in rule, they enjoyed both control of the means of communication and resources to keep corruption sufficiently under wraps. And, as we are seeing in the present moment, when not in power, they also have the means to fuel vicious campaigns against educational efforts they now liken to Marxism and communism.

If this were not already hugely troubling, “Chega Freire” proponents have accused Paulo Freire of stealing Frank Laubach’s literacy method and repackaging the method as his own. The man who developed the Laubach Method, an adult literacy program also known as “Each One Teach One,” was a Congregational Minister and missionary who promoted Christian nature, placing an emphasis on citizenship, social peace, personal ethics and the existence of God. Moreover, Laubach firmly preached that practicing the presence of God would do more good for humanity than secular political and diplomatic efforts – all during a time when colonized populations the world over were calling for independence.

No literacy method is neutral, but rather formulated and executed in conjunction with it political aims, whether they be citizen passivity or participation.

Frank Laubach was invited by many third world governments, including dictatorships, to bring his Laubach Method to their illiterate poor communities, in the hopes of stimulating literacy advances in their countries and, thus, increasing the productivity of the nation’s workforce and economic standing in the world. In 1943, the government of Brazil invited Laubach to discuss issues of literacy, given his success with impoverished and illiterate populations in the Philippines and other regions. Paulo Freire was only a young man of 22 in 1943 when Laubach began his work with the government of Brazil and did not become the director of Serviço Social da Indústria (Social Service for Industry or SESI) in Pernambuco until 1954. Hence, contrary to what some suggest, Freire was not part of the government’s official meetings with Labauch. Nevertheless, it is likely that Freire may have, indeed, heard of the Labauch Method, but, given his own pedagogical and political stance, would not have ascribed to its instrumentalist approach.

Before proceeding, it is important for us as human beings living together in the world, to remember that no ideas are truly the sole property of anyone person, as Western capitalism’s marketing influence on knowledge production would have us believe. Instead, we are constantly influenced by other’s people words and ideas – those we may cite in academic contexts and those we may not. There are, moreover, many instances in which people in different parts of the world, engaging similar conditions, may arrive to similar ways of engaging these conditions. For example, both Freire and Vygotsky share many similar ideas, but Freire had never read Vygotsky until he was in his mid-sixties because Vygotsky’s texts were not translated into Portuguese. This is especially not unusual in the area of literacy or education, in that we, as human beings, are far more similar than many wish to believe, particularly with respect to the process of learning from our environment. So, if Labauch did literacy work among the country people of the Philippines and other colonized and impoverished populations, it would not be surprising that both men might arrive to what might appear on the surface to be similar approaches.

However, what cannot be lost here is that the bulk of Freire’s pedagogical writings are not about an instrumental method of literacy, such as that promoted by Labauch’s Christianized depoliticized approach, but rather are about the deep political nature of literacy and its manifestation within a banking method of hegemonic education. This implicitly points to the practice of a methodology that must be intimately linked to the ontological and epistemological dimensions that inform its execution. Inherent here are always larger questions related to pedagogy, economics, and politics. Hence, no literacy method is neutral, but rather formulated and executed in conjunction with it political aims, whether they be citizen passivity or participation.

If one truly comprehends Paulo Freire’s pedagogical perspective, one would readily know that his work was not about a method of learning to read and write, but rather an approach to understanding the ways in which a liberatory pedagogy of literacy can create a space for critical reflection, empowerment and transformation among people who have been oppressed and excluded from political participation. Hence, it is no wonder that those wishing to halt democratic participation and empowerment efforts of educators committed to working with the most oppressed would be so intent on discrediting not only Freire’s work, but also the very integrity of the man.

As a quick aside, it is also interesting to note that given Freire’s longstanding relationships with Jesuits and liberation theologists, there are those who could also accuse him of stealing his pedagogy from the Ignations – which would be just as absurd. All this recalls similar mean-spirited attacks that were at another time launched to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. in the US, accusing him of plagiarism, particularly as his work became more and more focused on economic justiceand the needs of the poor and the poor themselves began to take to the streets and demand social change.

So, although the turbulence in Brazil may be frightening for many, calls for military intervention also speak to the extent to which the oppressed would be silenced in a country that has suffered from a gross system of racialized economic inequality. However, as Paulo Freire understood only too well, great social change has seldom been achieved without social turbulence and struggle on the streets. This does not mean that it is not frightening or worrisome when it does happen; but rather, that it must be understood as a moment when new possibilities may emerge.

Such a moment is currently underway in Brazil where calls of “Chega Freire” are being commonsensically popularized by the mainstream corporate media, as the interest of the ultra right sector sconsolidate to take control once again. Yet, we cannot forget that the greater the reactionary political mean-spiritedness gets, the more we can be certain that current struggles on the ground are interfering with the smooth rule of the wealthy and powerful in the country. Hopefully, the change that will occur from this difficult historical moment will be in the interest of the most vulnerable populations and the establishment of greater democratic life. Reminding us that democracy is never guaranteed and, thus, a process of on going struggles, which leaves us ultimately to answer the great question: on what side of history will we stand? Freire captured the impossibility of neutrality best when he wrote in Pedagogy of Indignation:

“Choice and decision – a subject’s actions of which we cannot speak within a mechanistic understanding of history, whether from the right or the left, but must rather understand as time of possibility – necessarily underscore the importance of education. Education, which must be never neutral, can be at the service either of decision, of world transformation and of critical insertion within the world or of immobility and the possible permanence of unjust structures, of human beings’ settling for a reality seen as untouchable.”