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College Quarterly
Winter 2013 - Volume 16 Number 1
Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy
Andrew J. Kirkendall
New York: W. W. Norton, 2013
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty
"God led me to the people and the people led me to Marx" – Paulo Friere

Educational reformers of a certain age—say fifty-plus—will fondly remember some of the central figures who, despite obvious differences of background, experience and ideology, were commonly tossed together in a grab-bag of approaches to teaching and learning with some sort of relationship to “liberation” as their main connecting link. They included, but were certainly not limited to, A. S. Neill (1883-1973), Paul Goodman (1911-1972), Paulo Friere (1921-1997 and Ivan Illich (1926-2002). Their chief works consisted of Neill’s Summerhill (1960), Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd (1960) and Compulsory Mis-education (1964), Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) and Illich’s Deschooling Society (1973). They were sometimes linked to earlier advocates of “progressive” education and to later exponents of “critical pedagogy.” Such terms are not identical, but they do overlap.

Following World War II, progressive education, based on writers as disparate as Margaret Mead and Benjamin Spock, stimulated middle-class interest in educational reform. The movement was informed and inspired by the legacy of liberal thinkers, estimable philosophers and assorted democratic spirits; among the most important and influential of these individuals was John Dewey who, as it happened, embodied all three.

They sought to overcome the legacy of Charles Dickens’ fictional Mr. Grandgrind, the notoriously inhumane headmaster in Hard Times. They strove to overcome the general social attitude toward children and adolescents which presumed youngsters to be as much in need of civilization as education. In the worst cases, it was thought that children—seemingly feral beasts unaccountably dropped within the domicile—needed to be “broken” like wild horses. Accordingly, educators exhibited a preoccupation with harsh discipline, rote learning and corporal punishment for offences large and small. This, it should be recalled, was true not only for whatever children of the respectable working class and of the “loose and disorderly” people beneath it somehow managed to find their was into a proper school, but also for the scions of the elites who were bundled off to boarding schools for regular cold showers, routine beatings and punishing humiliation rituals at the hands of their teachers and the senior pupils as well. In all cases, classrooms were for sitting still, staying quiet and anticipating mortification if called upon to answer questions for which they were unprepared. In all matters, deference to authority was non-negotiable.

By contrast, the advent of “permissiveness” with regard both to misbehaviour and to previously unlicensed creativity in the exercise of intelligence betokened the new era. Pupils were, in selected circumstances and to varying degrees, encouraged to express themselves even, according to traditionalists, when they had nothing worth saying because, after all, they didn’t know anything. And, worse, when “phonics” (never mind “Ebonics”) came along to ensure that spelling and grammar were to be evermore ignored, they soon lacked the capacity to “express themselves” in recognizable English at all.

Progressive education, at least to critics such as E. D. Hirsch, was a scourge upon the educational landscape. To Hirsch and like-minded curmudgeons, it seemed to have made so much headway that a rampant progressivism had already become triumphant in American education by the 1920s (never mind the 1950s) and had set the stage for what seemed to be an almost complete cultural collapse in the far-famed and fiendish 1960s.

Perhaps I lived in a particularly backward part of an already peripheral country, but my recollection is that permissiveness was far less ubiquitous than Hirsch suggests. I recall, as a child in the early 1950s, a grade-three teacher (name withheld to protect the guilty) who strolled up and down the classroom aisles with a wooden yardstick in hand. She was always ready and seemingly eager to smack the knuckles of anyone not living up (or bending down) to her expectations. Though an extreme example of barely disguised sadism may be discounted, a similarly severe attitude more closely defines my experience than any sense of joyful children merrily partaking of the benefits of uncritical open-mindedness and undisciplined student-centred chaos.

In any case, Hirsch and other traditionalists characterized “the field of education as one mired in progressive doctrine” (Buras, 2008, p. 41). Apart from facilitating leather jackets, duck-tailed hair and dreaded rock ’n’ roll music in the early Elvis era of extensive juvenile delinquency, hide-bound old school advocates claimed that unnecessary leniency left adolescents too much to their own devices. They remained therefore unaware of anything other than sources of immediate gratification of their unhealthy desires. Thus, they were unaware of the delayed but superior benefits of self-discipline, restraint and persistent hard work. Thus, too, they spoke poorly and wrote worse. They were unaware of their collective past and destined to become incompetent citizens. They were especially easy prey for alien ideologies spread by cunning subversives and “foreign agitators.” It was, it seemed, a short step from allowing students to leave their desks without permission to permitting them to succumb to “reefer madness” or, worse, be recruited by the ever-present communists out to destroy our precious freedoms.

Progressive education’s principal sin, it was said, was that it failed to pass on to each new generation the inventory of common knowledge which, Hirsch insisted, was necessary to maintain social cohesion and civic virtue. He feared that, no matter whether young people were certified as at least minimally competent in language, mathematics and other fundamentals, their quality of life would suffer immeasurably if they did not also immerse themselves in the dominant cultural narrative of progress and development in Western Civilization (presumably the only one that mattered). So, he set himself the task of constructing a catalogue of basic knowledge and common understanding and as a foundation for the future. To paraphrase Chesterton, the problem was not so much that, lacking a basic authoritative store of cultural literacy, the next generation would know nothing, but rather that it would believe anything. Though not named as such, it was plain that the pong of “postmodernism” was in the air.

“True literacy,” Hirsch maintained, “depends on a knowledge of the specific information that is taken for granted in our public discourse. [His] emphasis on background information [made his] book an attack on all formal and technical approaches to teaching language arts” (Hirsch, 1993, p. xi). Its aim was to secure social defences by providing an arsenal for those eager to keep education in the hands of the highly educated, while disarming the pedagogical avant-garde at a time when a few unprincipled anarchists, some disheveled “beatniks” and the odd errant anthropologist seemed to be shaking the foundations of Western society as they thought they knew it.

Of course, this was a massive overreaction to the mild and long-overdue suggestions that rote learning was repressing creativity and that loosening up strict classroom discipline was a precondition for, not a subversion of, but the development of personal responsibility and democratic citizenship. Especially in elementary schools—no talking, no moving, no thinking—such changes were considered a prelude to middle-class North American society plummeting, morally and intellectually, into a pit of decadence and debauchery. The early lines in the forthcoming “culture wars” were being drawn.

The reality, I think, was quite different. While there may have been a number of delightfully experimental progressive schools for unusually talented and preferably wealthy youngsters, the mass of public education was pretty routine and hardly about either to erupt in systemic dissent or to fall into moral disrepute. Dissent would come, but it would do so when, for example, civil rights advocates threatened to integrate schools in the American South. By my lights, of course, such dissension was not an abandonment of the ideals of liberal democracy, but its opposite. Such youthful idealism amounted to a demand that the civic virtues and civic justice that constituted the values of liberalism be realized as much in reality as in rhetoric. Once the “sixties” began, a number of factors—few arising out of radical pedagogy itself—began to coalesce.

Whether existentially resisting consumerism and materialism, feeling uncertain about the assumed merits of Western democracies in light of imperialism abroad and racism, sexism and ecological degradation at home, or made anxious by the sudden realization in October, 1962, that nuclear war was more than a fearsome abstraction, it became increasingly clear that a novel sort of social awareness was available on the margins of North American society. When certain bohemian behaviours joined with political opposition to systemic repression, the American way of life was, not for the first time, set for a sort of crisis that would echo through much of the world.

The optimism that followed World War II was enabled by the grand compromise among government, business and labour, suitably supported internationally by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It arose from a sudden recognition of the depths of human evil and the root causes of global discord in unfettered competition and exploitation among and between nation-states. The desire for tranquility and security (at least on this side of the Iron Curtain) was enhanced by a bland suburban culture, electronic washing machines and the familial bliss that could be won as millions of householders followed the bouncing ball as young families sat in front of black-and-white television sets and sang along to old standards and contemporary pop confections. The “American Dream” (a single-family home in the suburbs) was within or close to within reach. People relished the hope that they would soon live in what Malvina Reynolds called “little boxes full of ticky-tacky” that “all look just the same.”

Surprisingly, superficial social success, increasing prosperity and a measure of economic equity a commitment to peace through military preparedness was seemingly not enough to ensure satisfaction. At least among those who could afford college educations for their youngsters, Daniel Bell’s reassurance that we had come an end to ideology and Seymour Lipset’s soothing report that the United States was “the good society in operation” provided only temporary solace. Indolent, unappreciative youth “grew up absurd.” The squalid sameness of their lives and the smug complacency of their elders (who had survived the depression and World War II) annoyed them. Some looked back at their education and found in Neill, Goodman, Freire and Illich some inconsistent but engaging explanations of their existential discontent.

Though the rupture was overstated, it seemed to some that, in Eliot’s gripping phrase, “the centre cannot hold.” If, as a result, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” there were plenty of (mainly young) people who would have shed few tears for the collapse of the “establishment” and the brutal banality of life in suburban tract housing. A stable, comfortable life struck its main and apparently ungrateful prime beneficiaries as inauthentic, meaningless and (in Holden Caulfield’s iconic term) “phony.”

What Neill, Goodman, Freire and Illich thought about any of this, or about each other (when they did so at all) was less the point than was the fact that they were embraced as fresh founts of inspiration and learning by the leaders and the followers of the emerging “counterculture.” By the elastic standards of the day, all of them qualified as compelling critics and few were more popular than the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire. Together with his contemporary, Ivan Illich, he is now generally recognized as one of the “fathers” of critical pedagogy. His influence is perceptible all around us when we contemplate the thought and work of people such as Antonia Darder, Henry Giroux, Joe Kincheloe, Peter McLaren, Ira Shor, Shirley Steinberg and others too abundant to cram in any conceivable catalogue of critical thought about youth and the proper way to nurture it.

While Illich’s broader commitment to “deinstitutionalization” and his scepticism about modern organizational forms went beyond education (Illich, 1971) to include medicine (Illich, 1995), religion and a foundational critique of technology (Illich, 1993), Freire remained focused on education. He promoted in practice what Illich advocated in theory: the release of education from formal structures, the empowering of students and the sponsorship of ways for people to teach themselves as they taught others. He promoted active learning in egalitarian learning communities. It was effective and it was potentially revolutionary.

Like E. D. Hirsch, Freire was profoundly committed to the need to understand history, but his purpose in doing so was not to ensure stability and continuity by reproducing the ideology of the elites in the middling classes and ultimately in the masses. Moreover, his method was not to teach the alien substance of a dominant culture to people whose experience of life had been oppression by the proponents and beneficiaries of that culture. Instead, like Antonio Gramsci (Hoare & Nowell Smith, 1971), he believed deeply in the merits of education, but he also believed that it should be understood as an opportunity for the dispossessed to achieve social justice by learning history and making history on their own. In Friere’s philosophy, the responsibility of educators is “to develop an appreciation in the child of the struggle of past generations, for progress and liberty, and thereby develop a respect for every truth that aims to emancipate the human race” (Kahn & Kellner, 2007, p. 431). In order to do so, however, the first step must be literacy.

Paulo Freire did not arrive at his emancipatory theory of education by reading Marxist tomes in a South American equivalent of the British Museum. The seeds were planted in his real-life experience of dispossession. A middle-class child whose family was brought to temporary economic grief by the Great Depression, Freire suffered poverty and learned the mighty lesson that social class is a primary determinant of education (and almost every else), not merely because the wealthy have more opportunities (which, of course, they do), but also because they do not know the pain of hunger—something with which Freire was intimately familiar. In time, Freire’s family’s fortunes improved, but the personal knowledge of poverty was not forgotten.

Freire’s mission was to bring literacy to the poor and largely adult population in what were then called “Third-World” countries beginning, of course, with his native Brazil. One immediate and very practical interest was in linking literacy and political empowerment among the poor people of his homeland because, according to the dictates of its constitution, potential voters were compelled to pass a literacy test in order to cast a ballot. With a literacy rate of less than 20% at the turn of the previous century and still more than 50% when Freire began his teaching career, the connection between literacy and the democratic franchise (when available) was obvious.

In working out his approach to teaching, learning and theorizing the part played by education in radical social transformation, Freire increasingly embodied contradictory positions: the Catholic humanist and the orthodox materialist. Kirkendall treats Freire’s attention to Marx and other radical writers largely as matters of Cold War politics. He is generally sympathetic with the first which implied a gentle reformism consistent with liberal capitalist values, but is in forceful disagreement with the second which he regards as a betrayal of democratic impulses and sensible moderation.

In terms of Kirkendall’s actual pedagogy, Freire is commonly understood to see education not merely as the acquisition of knowledge and skills, but also as a matter of personal growth and development building toward social critique and transformation. Starting not with a textbook but with an invitation to his students to describe their own lives, Friere rejected the “banking model” of education. Traditional educational philosophy and methodology viewed and treated the learner as an inanimate object, an unfilled receptacle or, in Freire’s preferred analogy, an empty bank account into which the teacher makes regular deposits thus increasing the value of the otherwise inert and passive receptacle. In the alternative, Freire insisted upon active learning in which students began to name, classify, analyze and integrate knowledge of their life-worlds and to express their observations and opinions through increasingly complex oral and written language.

Next, to pursue such a project required an alteration of the traditional teacher-student relationship, grounded as it was in the master-slave discourse. Earlier theorists of “natural” learning—notably Rousseau—had gone some way toward balancing the connection between teacher and learner, but Friere was arguably the most insistent advocate of “student-centred learning,” making the reduction and ultimate abolition of the hierarchical divide central to his work.

Finally, Freire saw that education needed to be used as an instrument of social change by altering fundamentally the self-awareness of the learner. A necessary aspect of oppression was the “culture of silence” in which critical awareness and assessment of the social, economic and political relations are repressed and learners—even if some modest gains are made in technical competencies, remain subject to the irreversible hierarchical control.

In this context, of course, critical thinking is required, but the critical thinking advocated by “critical pedagogy” is not what is meant by contemporary corporate educators who admonish students to “think outside the box.” To engage in mere “problem solving” is a sterile exercise when all that is wanted are “creative” or “imaginative” answers to predetermined questions that aim at maintaining existing political and economic arrangements, to managing discontent rather than addressing the sources of discontent, and rewarding only those who show skill at manipulating predigested organizational nourishment. It comes, in short, nowhere near Marx’s mantra (1843) that the “task confronting us here [is] the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

Such ruthless criticism is not for the faint of heart, nor does it fit well into mechanistic lists of “learning objectives,” now de rigueur in college courses. It means the ability and the desire to critique the entire set of social relations in which students find themselves— in and out of school—and the capacity to identify the relations among what is taught, how it is taught and why it is taught as well as the patterns connecting those pedagogical considerations and the larger mode of production and distribution together with its accompanying political institutions, authorities and sustaining ideologies.

The importance of the Cold War, to which Kirkendall links Freire’s life and work, is the central and most controversial aspect of the Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy. On one side were people like Friere, Frantz Fanon and other foes of colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism or, as Lenin simply put it, the “highest stage of capitalism.” On that side also were the “wretched of the Earth.” Some were caught up in the armed struggle between the two alleged superpowers and engaged in proxy wars, civil wars, rebellions and repressions throughout the world, but most notably in South-east Asia. Some merely endured the active humiliation of political repression and the constant burden of economic oppression.

On the other were the perpetrators and the beneficiaries of some of the world’s most despotic regimes and their enablers and handlers, sometimes in organizations such as the more reactionary parts of the Roman Catholic Church and sometimes in the military, intelligence, political and economic institutions of the imperial centres.

As his reputation spread and as the practical success of his methods became better known, Freire’s ideas invigorated and inspired theorists and practitioners from racial ghettoes in North America to the most barren cultural landscapes in the poorest of the poor nations. His influence was omnipresent in projects devoted to literacy training, national liberation movements, development authorities concerned with nation building and theological debates within the Roman Catholic Church over reforms proposed by Pope John XXIII and his ecumenical and somewhat humanistic supporters.

In Freire’s half-century career, he was occasionally given important government jobs and occasionally imprisoned. He was applauded and denounced by religious leaders, politicians and authentic advocates of equitable economic development and democracy. Kirkendall ignores none of it as he focuses on Freire’s theory and practice of education within the ongoing struggles for effective power in the societies where Freire worked, Brazil, Chile, Grenada and the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. He also worked with the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization and in Switzerland as a special advisor to the World Council of Churches.

Although some of the less limber minds amongst us cannot grasp the concept of a Christian Marxist, those who did and were able to deal deftly with was many suppose to be a fundamental contradiction found Friere’s philosophy to be congenial. He believed that literacy was crucial to economic development, political democracy and social justice. In the absence of an educated population, “progress” (whatever we believe that to be) is unthinkable. He also believed that human development, personal freedom and social justice required an active faith. His career almost perfectly covers the era of the Cold War, and therein lies the problem. Had Western beliefs (freedom, democracy, tolerance) been matched by behaviour, then we can imagine Paulo Friere working happily as an educational advisor in President John F. Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress.” Unhappily, the realities of Latin American comprador capitalism and US military support for the cruelest of dictatorships made that cheerful relationship impossible.

In 1964, the dominant military with American approval and support, cancelled Brazil’s promising democratic experiment and Freire went into exile in Chile. There, he supervised the Chilean literacy programs until forced to flee to Africa and to Nicaragua where he lamented the CIA-backed military coup that resulted in the death of Chile’s twice democratically elected President Salvador Allende and initiated the brutal, seventeen-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. It is here that Kirkendall’s assessment turns sour.

As long as Freire was working with the authorities to promote literacy and democracy in developing countries, he is praised. His commitment to human development and the far-famed “third-way” of nonalignment between the adversarial forces of the USA and the USSR is given full marks for idealism and at least partial marks for pragmatism. In Brazil, for instance, Freire worked well with the modernizing president Joao Goulart and in Chile with Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei.

When these democracies were overthrown by the military and Freire sought refuge elsewhere (let us not forget that, when Allende was overthrown, Freire’s former ally Eduardo Frei backed the military coup), it suddenly became Freire who is the traitor to liberal values. Especially after 1975, Freire was welcomed in revolutionary, one-party states. There, Kirkendall argues that Freire’s successes with literacy programs suddenly failed and that he turned into a partisan propagandist on behalf of putatively communist governments. This represents a jolt to the left that Kirkendall cannot abide.

Kirkendall gives little weight to the ease with which the United States justified a whole series of military takeovers of Latin American democracies from Guatemala in 1954 to the Dominican Republic in 1965 and on through its consistent and sometimes illegal (even by US standards) civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, culminating in the short-lived removal Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the double-coups against Jean-Baptiste Aristide in Haiti and, under President Obama, the takeover of Honduras in 2010.

Some might wonder why it took Freire—once and always a devout Christian—so long to recognize that Western liberals have a bad habit of failing to deliver on their promises and stifling economic development when it seemed to pose a threat to US corporate interests. As well, arrest, incarceration and exile—all justified by expressed US concerns about the alleged spread of communism and undertaken by harsh and corrupt local authorities might have made him understandably sceptical. Contrary to Kirkendall’s position, I am prepared to believe the radicalization of Paulo Freire (if that’s what it was) came about out of justifiable mistrust and disillusionment with the liberal democrats with whom he shared basic values, but who’s vicious, reactionary actions spoke immeasurably louder than their democratic words.

As it happens, Latin America in the past decade and more has witnessed a compelling rebirth, especially since the USA has had its guns trained in North Africa, the Near and the Middle East. Political democracies and more prosperous and equitable economies have emerged. Almost everywhere, despite in murderous effects of the “war on drugs,” paramilitary death squads no longer patrol the streets looking for potential dissenters to “disappear.” Freire-inspired work is therefore continuing.

Of more than marginal interest, however, is the fact that Freire’s inspiration can be found prominently in North America, where “The Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy” is successfully continuing his tradition. It is the mission of this group of dedicated activists and academics to maintain a commitment to active engagement and a critical consciousness among teachers and students alike. The pervasive corporatization of K-12 schools in the United States and Canada is newly contested ground. The different but even more blatant corporatization of college and university teaching and research is opening up to serious debate and decision in the coming years.

From “core competencies” to commercialized MOOCs and from government controls over scientific research to pervasive standardized testing, the problems of literacy and cultural literacy have taken dramatic new turns.

Near the end of his life, Freire said (Freire, 1999, p. 202):

“The role of an educator who is pedagogically and critically radical is to avoid being indifferent, a characteristic who promotes a laissez-faire education. The radical educator has to be an active presence in educational practice. But, educators should never allow their active and curious presence to transform the learners’ presence into a shadow of the educator presence. Nor can educators be a shadow of their learners. The educator who dares to teach has to stimulate learners to live a critically conscious presence in the pedagogical and historical process.”

That’s not the sort of thing that can be twisted into Bloomian “learning outcomes” and it certainly is something different from the admonition against bringing politics into the classroom. That, of course, is impossible; for the classroom is an inherently moral and political place. What teachers must do is not abandon or abhor politics, but decide which political agenda they are going to advance, for there is no neutrality.

Few of us are going to self-identify as “radical educators” or are not, at least, likely to announce the fact at the next available faculty meeting. All of us, however, must decide how to deal with this ultimately unavoidable question.

No doubt Kirkendall has made his choice, and that doesn’t make his work intrinsically objectionable. In fact, it is an imposing work of historical scholarship. There is plenty to learn about Freire thanks to his use of an exceptional array of primary sources retrieved from Brazilian, Chilean, and Nicaraguan manuscripts, the archives of the World Council of Churches and abundant US government sources. This meticulous research is praiseworthy and much of the subsequent analysis is helpful to anyone interested in Freire’s pedagogy, politics or both.

At the same time, Freire deserves the respect of having his approach to his work and his life described and explained by people with a more “critical” consciousness as well. That has partly been done. A balancing treatment should be undertaken.


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Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at