Paulo Freire

“…there neither is, nor has ever been, an educational practice in zero space-time—neutral in the sense of being committed only to preponderantly abstract, intangible ideas.” — Freire, Paolo (2014) Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Bloomsbury, p.67


“Paulo Freire says that reflection and action… action… action should be directed at the structures that need to be transformed.” — one of the author’s pre-teen home schooled youngsters

In 1961, When Paulo Freire was appointed director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University, I began to help develop the curriculum necessary to give the Department of Dramatic Art and Speech at Rutgers University-Newark the status of a major field of study. By some strange coincidence, I had explored his societal turf the year before in an Anthropology class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The following year he taught Brazilian sugarcane workers to read and write in a mere forty-five days, while I worked in a similar capacity with immiserated souls on Central Avenue in Newark,New Jersey.. I did not work as expeditiously as he did, but I did carve out significant inroads vis-a-vis literacy. I fancy that the souls of both his educational targets and mine were nurtured, but the need for more than literacy lingered long in my mind. That couldn’t be the be-all and end-all.

When, two years later, a Brazilian military coup came down (courtesy of the U.S. Camelot administration), I secured my first paid post as an Instructor of Dramatic Art and Speech at Rutgers University, and one of my early directorial assignments was to present foreign plays; one of the selections was an original creation from members of Brazil’s Teatro Oficina, very much a Brechtian piece.

Leading up to 1970s, Freire published his most influential book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and worked for Chile’s Christian Democratic Agrarian Reform Movement and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. During that time, among other things, I worked with colleagues of Thich Nhat Hahn to help create the first Earth Day, and contributed to the Civil Rights and anti-war movements in the U.S. I did not suffer exile during that period, as he did in Bolivia, but I shared the experience of incarceration for threatening the powers that be… as he did.

Around the time he was offered a professorship at Harvard University, and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed was translated into English, I secured a professorship at Long Island University-Brooklyn, and distributed his work widely.

In the early 70s, when Freire was working as a special education advisor to the World Council of Churches (focusing mainly on Portguese-speaking African countries), I was dealing with issues related to the Indians of All Tribes Movement in the U.S., and fund raising for non-profits devoted to Black African needs.

After a radical change in the Brazilian political scene, he was able to return to his homeland in 1980. For the Workers Party there, he then he supervised adult literacy for six years, and– in 1988 — was appointed Secretary of Education for Sao Paulo, Brazil. During the first eight years of that decade, I served — to a great degree — in the same capacity at San Francisco’s John Adams Community College, the St. Giles College and Japan’s International Education Research and Analysis Corporation . In addition, in another bit of irony, as a columnist for The Paper of West Sonoma County on California’s Russian River, I wrote about Augusto Bol’s Theatre of the Oppressed on occasion. I felt very much aligned with the thrust of Freire’s educational injunctions on and off the stage.

On May 7, 1997 he died, and that’s when I began using his principles at Santa Cruz Academy’s Tutoring/Test Prep/Counseling/Mentoring program for the better part of two decades. And all the while, attempting to bring about impact on the macroscopic plane. Where empowerment can be realized. Outside of the classroom. Where decisions are made horizontally, broadly for one and all. Where all the world is scripted for the powers that be, unless we change the dialogue.

Time to acknowledge his singular contributions to education. With the 20th anniversary of his passing coming up, I thought that this would be a good time to give him a shout out.

But, arguably, more important at this juncture in history — and clearly Paulo would agree with this — there are lessons to be drawn from my having provided a select parallel chronology above. To be specific, all activists should understand that their contributions may not be noticed publicly. Ever. But — obviously — all fighting the good fight counts for something. And, furthermore, for high profile contributions to have a significant impact, the supportive work of unheralded proactive citizens is essential. Paulo’s influence, certainly, has been contingent upon untold numbers of folks who have advocated on behalf of his insights. That’s a very common, unacknowledged dynamic in activism.

That said, this is not to say that one should not look at one’s fighting the good fight in tiny corners as sufficient. A given activist might not be able to do more than, say, implement the pedagogy of Paulo Freire in the classroom, or write or lecture about doing so. Or make a documentary spotlighting principles. But more than that is clearly needed. And if one’s plate is too full to do more than one is doing in a tiny little corner, at least everyone can acknowledge that more in necessary. Someone has to be encouraged to deal with issues on the macroscopic plane. And that is not being done today even at UCLA’s Paulo Freire Institute. Teaching occurs on the microscopic plane. Only on the macroscopic plane, however, can the radical transformation of society can be brought about.

By securing significant decision-making capacity.

Praxis, please, praxis.

To secure sweetness, as Paulo would have had it, for the sugarcane souls of this world.

Concluding note:

Please note that when Augusto Boal presented a workshop on the Theatre of the Oppressed at Riverside Church in 2008, it was forty-one years after Dr. Martin Luther King cried out for a radical restructuring of society at that very same New York City church. Boal’s fine work, like all the necessary work which goes on worldwide in artistic and educational quarters that’s aligned with Freire’s spirit, is not securing decision-making capacity. It imagines that it is working toward the day when that will occur. But what I’m saying is that we can’t continue to only plant seeds.

Sugarcane souls must blossom, take over the garden. If they — we — do so we will be offering up a great tribute to Paulo Freire. For things rank and gross in nature possess that garden merely now, and it’s getting irretrievably toxic with each passing day.

Richard Martin Oxman has been an educator and activist for over half-a-century. He would be honored to speak gratis at any educational institution which makes a request at

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One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The contribution of Paulo to education and sugarcane cropping is very valuable and cannot be undermined. This is a fitting tribute to his services to the entire humanity in the world