Our 1984 Experience with Paulo Freire (Personal Reflection XIV)

freire-neutral

This 14th “Personal Reflections” blog continues my modest project of explaining myself to my three adult children who are often puzzled by my criticisms of the United States in these blogs and elsewhere. Half- jokingly (I think) they often ask, “Why do you hate America, Dad?”

Of course, I don’t hate the country of my birth. Quite the opposite. But my patriotism and loyalty take quite different directions from those fostered by the mainstream media and the otherwise fine educations our children received at Wellesley (Maggie), Lafayette (Brendan), and Davidson (Patrick). In contrast to those sources, and for reasons connected with faith, my own thinking aspires to view the world from the perspective of the world’s impoverished majority (both nationally and in the Global South) rather than from that of privileged classes within the United States.

Along with liberation theologians, Paulo Freire has played a major role in shaping me that way. Freire’s the great Brazilian educator who (among other books) wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness. His influence on liberation theology is immeasurable.

Peggy and I got to know Paulo quite well beginning in 1982 when we participated in his two-week seminar at Boston College. Then during my first sabbatical from Berea College (1983-’84) Peggy worked with him for six months at his center in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Every week, she joined a team of young Brazilians conducting one of Paulo’s literacy programs in Sao Paulo’s impoverished favelas. It was all part of her research on Freire for her Ed.D (Philosophy of Education doctorate) at the University of Kentucky. In 1986 the American Education Research Association gave Peggy’s work the year’s “Outstanding Dissertation Award for Conceptual Research.” She later published an article based on her work in the Harvard Educational Review.

I remember spending our sixth wedding anniversary in Freire’s apartment in Sao Paulo where we had a memorable supper with him and his wife, Elsa. Afterwards Paulo read aloud from the latest chapter in Peggy’s evolving dissertation. I recall his pausing after reading a lengthy quotation from one of his works and remarking, “Right now I am loving these words.”

I’m convinced that the Rivage-Seul’s were given the gift of tongues for our Brazil experience. During the first semester of my sabbatical (at the end of 1983) and in preparation for our trip to Brazil, I had studied Portuguese at the University of Colorado in Boulder. [I had been given a fellowship there (at the Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy) to research the relationship between freedom and justice. It was to prepare me to head Berea’s newly established Freshman Seminar whose readings were organized around that theme.] In any case, my Latin, French, and Italian helped me learn Portuguese. Peggy’s college French major (at Central Michigan University) helped her as well. Then in Anapolis, Brazil with the help of a tutor, we spent our first two months studying intensively. And it somehow worked. We ended up quite able to carry on in the language.

Brazil at this time was still run by its generals. That was the result of a 1964 coup sponsored by the CIA. The father of my Portuguese teacher at CU was one of those generals. So she arranged for our first few nights in the country to be spent at the Clube Militar as guests of the oppressors and fierce enemies of liberation theology in Brazil which was a hotbed of the discipline. (More about that later.) Staying at the Clube was very creepy for us.

But back to Paulo Freire . . . . After our return to the United States we had a warm reunion with him at the Highlander Center where he was working on a text with the Center’s founder, the great activist, Myles Horton. Horton’s work had directly influenced Martin Luther King. In fact, in the ‘60s, the F.B.I. had published photos of MLK at what they called the “Communist” Center (Highlander). It was part of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to portray King as a Red. Paulo’s and Myles’ text was eventually published as We Make the Road by Walking.

As I said, Freire’s method of teaching and learning was central to the methodology of liberation theology, which had increasingly seized my attention since I first encountered it in 1969.

One of Freire’s key concepts (shared with liberation theology) is “the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.”  Basically it says that the poor and oppressed know more about the world (and about the Bible) than the rich and comfortable. That idea constitutes a key basis for my own analysis of the world.

(I’ll explain that more fully next week.)