Today, 19 September 2021, we celebrate the centenary of the birth of the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, known for his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which described the literacy education programs he had developed for promoting critical consciousness and action among the masses of Brazil’s (and Latin America’s) poor.
In this context, the American scholar, Rich Gibson, has noted Freire’s use of the Cardijn see-judge-act method:
“Freire proposed that the use of his ‘see-judge-act’ student-centered methods could lead to critical consciousness, that is, an awareness of the necessity to constantly unveil appearances designed to protect injustice which, he said, then serves as a foundation for action toward equality and democracy. For Freire, no form of education could be neutral. All pedagogy is a call to action. In a society animated by inequality and authoritarianism, he sided with the many, and exposed the partisanship of those who claimed to stand above it all.”
Yet the extent to which Freire developed his literacy education program on the basis of Jocist methods and indeed in partnership with Helder Camara and the Specialised Catholic Action movements has largely remained unknown in the English-speaking world.
Fortunately, Brazilian Marist brother, Antonio Cechin, who was a noted community educator and social activist, has recorded this story of Freire’s early collaboration with Camara, the JOC and other Specialised Catholic Action youth movements (JOC – YCW, JAC – YCW for farmers, JEC-YCS, JUC – University YCS and JIC – Young Catholic Professionals).
Indeed, Cechin even credits Freire’s literacy circles with being at the origin of the development of Brazil’s famous Basic Ecclesial Communities.
This is how Cechin tells the story of the collaboration between Freire, Camara and the jocist movements:
“As soon as he was appointed bishop, Dom Hélder Câmara inaugurated an entirely new discourse in the Church of Brazil in the early 1950s. Given the vast majority of the country’s population being poor and underdeveloped, he began to appeal to the option for the poor as the option of the Man, Jesus of Nazareth, and that the Church should be engaged on this path of the poor. ‘God has a side,’ said Dom Hélder, in his early days as a bishop. The Mission of Christians in Brazil is to ‘Free the oppressed!’.”
And when Camara was appointed as Archbishop of Recife in 1964, he quickly partnered with “another great figure with an original method of education,” namely Paulo Freire.
“Born with the soul of an educator,” Freire’s “main purpose was to teach reading and writing to the vast number of illiterate people in Brazil,” Cechin recalls:
“He became the greatest pedagogue of all times in Latin America as the creator of the psycho-social method, which is also known as Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Education as a Practice of Freedom.”
And “the first to take advantage of this excellent liberating method was the Catholic Church in the person of Dom Hélder Câmara,” Cechin continues:
“The militants of the Church, the Movements of Specialised Catholic Action, especially the young people of the Church from the JAC, JEC, JIC, JOC and JUC, climbed the hills on the outskirts of the cities and at the same time threaded themselves through the countryside of Brazil wherever there were villages or villages of poor and illiterate people, in search of the ‘Generative Words’ that would serve as a starting point for meetings with 20 to 30 illiterate people, men and women.
They became literate within 20 days of meetings. Paulo Freire gave the name of Culture Circles to these groups of literacy students. The name expresses it: there are no totally uneducated people in the world. Anyone and everyone, simply because they have experience in life, is naturally a cultured person. He or she already possesses a culture. He or she knows and does many things. If you know how to plant a manioc plant, you are a farmer. The very compound word agri + cultivator, translated etymologically, means to have an agricultural culture.
I remember when Paulo Freire, who at first had dedicated himself body and soul to the literacy of the poor in Brazil, when exchanging ideas with Dom Hélder, was convinced to expand alphabet learning along with a range of basic knowledge related to fundamental needs of life, such as healthy eating, hygiene and health, human rights, etc. In addition to Generative Words, a starting point for literacy, a search for Generative Themes that were also appropriate as a starting point for the various types of knowledge of a Good Living was also undertaken.
The Culture Centers started to administer Basic Education. Because they were Education Centres organised by the Church, they became the first Ecclesial Base Communities, whose purpose is to serve as the basis for a new society and the basis for a new Church. Shortly before the military carried out the dictatorial coup of 1964, the CNBB had launched, in Brazil, the first primer called Educação de Base.
The Caminhada (Walks) started by Hélder Câmara and Paulo Freire became an authentic Historical Process of Liberation and Salvation. Liberation both from the oppressive structures of our peoples, and for the Evangelisation and Salvation of all in Christ.
As Rich Gibson has also noted, Freire was a “paradigm shifter,” who was “willing to enclose postmodernism, Catholicism, Marxism, and liberalism, a person far more complex than many of those who appropriate his work.”
PS Another nice tribute from Brazilian Dominican Friar Betto, who says, Freire’s method “involved knowing how to read the world before learning to read texts.
“This came from the methodology of the Brazilian Catholic Action, a progressive Christian movement that had the method of seeing, judging and acting,” Frei Betto recalls.
Paulo Freire (Freire Institute)
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (University of California Santa Cruz)
Antonio Cechin, Catequese Libertadora, a prima-pobre da Teologia da Libertação? (Instituto Humanitas Unisinos)
Frei Betto: “Freire llevó a los oprimidos a conquistar su autoestima política y su protagonismo” (La Capital)
Stefan Gigacz, Paolo Freire, the YCW and Cardijn (Cardijn Research)