Paulo Freire And The War On Brasil’s Public Education

by Larissa Jacheta Riberti

“When education is not liberatory, the dream of the oppressed is to be the oppressor”

This quote is from Paulo Freire, one of the most renowned and frequently cited educational theorists in the World. The works he produced during the 20th Century conceived of education as a means to transform people, consciousness and, therefore, society. In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed he writes,

Who better than the oppressed to be prepared to understand the terrible meaning of an oppressive society? Who feels the effects of oppression more than them? Liberation does not arrive by accident, but by the praxis of the search for it; by the knowledge and recognition of the need to fight for it. A fight that due to the results that it gives to the oppressed, should be an act of love that opposes the lack of love shown by the violence of the oppressors, even when it is full of false generosity”.

In one of his most famous projects, Paulo Freire coordinated President João Goulart’s National Literacy Plan. Created through Decree number nº 53.465 of January 21, 1964, the program represented an attempt by the Ministry of Education and Culture to coordinate the base level education and adult literacy movements which had been spreading across the country since 1961. According to the decree which started the program, the goal was to facilitate 60,870 cultural circles to teach literacy to 1,834,200 adults, which represented 8.9% of the illiterate population that, in September 1963, numbered 20,442,000 people. These cultural circles were to be implemented in four successive stages (each lasting three months) in all the country’s schools. The National Literacy Plan was based on pilot projects which had been developed in the South and the Northeast.

After the civilian-military coup of April 1, 1964, however, the project was interrupted and Paulo Freire was accused of subversion and imprisoned for 72 days. When he got out, he left for exile in Chile, where he worked for 5 years in the Institute for Training and Investigation in Agrarian Reform (ICIRA) and wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

To the surprise of at least the most conscious Brazilians, this would not be the last time that Paulo Freire and his educational theories would be criminalized. The violent times of the Civil-Military Dictatorship, which lasted 21 years, left an authoritarian legacy much deeper than any historian could measure.

The consequence of this legacy is that Brazil is currently holding elections during a moment of growing fascism, with violent rhetoric and promises of restoring authoritarianism coming from the right wing extremist, Jair Bolsonaro.

Protected by impunity, the candidate from the PSL (Partido Social Liberal/Social liberal party), who defeated Fernando Haddad from the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores/Workers Party), has a long history of giving speeches praising violence, torture and the torturers. He honored one of them in Congress when he dedicated his vote in favor of the legal-parliamentary coup which deposed Dilma Rousseff from the Presidency of the Republic to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, who brutally tortured her during the military dictatorship.

Jair Bolsonaro’s speeches also frequently warn of a supposed “communist threat” and mix this paranoia with hatred and opposition to liberatory ideas. In this manner, the right wing extremist candidate includes Paulo Freire and his works in his list of enemies. The construction of a vulgar and incorrect discourse about the educator and his methodology has caused many of the “bolsonarists” to share false information about him, attributing quotes to him that were never made.

The people behind Bolsonaro’s campaign have a very clear goal in deconstructing Paulo Freire’s philosophy. Freire who preached liberation from the condition of oppression through education, has been intentionally misinterpreted by a presidential candidate and a group of supporters who back a government project that’s main proposal in the area of public education is to eliminate what it calls “Marxist indoctrination.” For this reason, in one of his announcements over the internet, Bolsonaro promised to “eradicate” Paulo Freire’s influence from the national public school curriculum.

The absurdities do not end there. Bolsonaro’s education plan also calls for implementing distance learning at all levels of public education, from grammar school to university. It appears to be no accident that the name most cited for Education and Culture Minister in a possible Bolsonaro victory is Stavros Xanthopoylos, the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s former director of online education. This measure clearly shows an attempt by the possible new government to favor private companies offering distance learning courses at “affordable” prices to the population. In another video recorded live during the week after the first round of elections, Bolsonaro said that if he implements distance education he will fire the teachers and cafeteria workers from the public schools.

Bolsonaro’s proposals not only reveal an attempt to criminalize critical thinking and limit the public, democratic and universal character of education, they also reveal a dishonest misrepresentation of Paulo Freire’s legacy and his real influence on the Brazilian public school curriculum. Supported by an illegal fake news manufacturing network, Bolsonaro has encouraged a false narrative based on a nonexistent “Marxist indoctrination” in the classroom, which is supposedly imposed alongside a so-called “gender ideology”.

Paranoia over the supposed existence of ‘Marxist indoctrination’ and ‘gender ideology’ is not new. Both were issues that accompanied the resurgence or growth of already existing neofascism in Brazil, identifiable most clearly during the 2013 protests. At the time, it was possible to observe how conservative groups took advantage of the protests that were organized by the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) to pressure for lower public transport costs in the big Brazilian cities – to begin to push for what they called, “the end of corruption”.

Encouraging an empty discourse in terms of proposals and without much political direction, these groups were responsible for creating an atmosphere of mistrust of the political class in general, even raising the “out with everyone” banner. The institutional and representative crisis that started at that point had two consequences. First, it caused a growth in anti-PT discourse which expanded after Dilma Rousseff’s 2014 re-election and the 2016 coup which deposed her. Secondly, it spurred the growth of new right-wing groups that dishonestly raise the anti-corruption banner but are financed by traditional, corrupt political parties.

This is the case of the Movimento Brasil Livre (Free Brasil Movement/MBL) which arose in 2013 on the tail of that year’s protests. Led by youth such as Kim Kataguiri and Fernando Holiday, the movement called itself “non-partisan” in 2013. However, today, both Kim and Holiday are affiliated with Democrats, one of the most conservative parties in the country. In 2016, Holiday was elected city councilman in São Paulo and this year Katiguiri was elected to Congress with one of the highest vote tallies in the state of São Paulo.

Due to its initial false characterization as a non-partisan group, the movement grew in popularity for supposedly rejecting the traditional power bases of a corrupt and non-representative political system. It did not take long, however, for the real interests behind the MBL to come out: the movement was financed by political parties and its main representatives were aligned with traditional hegemonic power sectors.

The MBL was also one of the primary producers of misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories during the arbitrary process which culminated with the coup against Dilma Rousseff. It was a coup that was proved by a conversation recorded between the Planning Minister at the time, Senator Romero Jucá (PMDB-Roraima), with the former president of Transpetro company, Sérgio Machado.

In the leaked audio, Jucá suggest a plan to Machado to “stop the bleeding in Operation Car Wash.” According to the senator, the idea was to remove Dilma Rousseff from power so that the Federal Police investigations could be interrupted. In conclusion he said that they needed to make a “Big national deal, with the Supreme Court, with everything!”

Between the date of her re-election and 2016, when Dilma was definitively blocked from the position of president, the MBL spread a series of lies about her, contributing to a media lynching. One of these lies, which fell on fertile ground, was that Brazil was being converted into a “Venezuela” and that the PT was embezzling public funds to invest in public works in countries governed by “dictators” like Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The construction of a discourse about a supposed danger of a communist takeover, something which may remind readers of the Cold War period, is a reality in 21st Century Brazil. All of the fake news spread, not only by the MBL but also by sites such as O Antagonista which are financed by business groups connected to the right wing extremist candidate, have caused the same practical result on Brazilian’s mentalities.

In a large measure, this discourse was responsible for creating a generic and vulgar idea that the Brazilian left was dominating educational institutions and policy decision making with the goal of establishing a “communist regime” in the country. As much as the left tried to convince this violent, ignorant “mass” that, in fact, economic policies of the PT in recent years were neoliberal, it is clear that a large part of the Brazilian population was stricken with a collective blindness that blocked them from coolly and rationally analyzing reality.

The situation, exacerbated through WhatsApp chains and social media publications, quickly snowballed. Currently part of the population has reached the point that it is accusing Globo, the TV network that has already admitted it supported the 1964 coup and the civilian-military dictatorship that it installed, of being communist and supporting the Workers Party. Part of this population also faithfully believes that Brazil is on the verge of being converted into a country like Venezuela.

And it is in the midst of this febrile environment, in which a large sector of the population believes that the Brazilian left is creating a megalomaniac project to take power and build a dictatorship, that the criminalization of the memory of Paulo Freire appears.

For Jair Bolsonaro and his followers, the educator exerts a direct “indoctrinating” influence on the public school curriculum. Therefore, the candidate defends a restructuring of the curriculum, in order to “extinguish” the influence of Paulo Freire and his Marxist conceptions about education. In reality, Bolsonaro is planning to eliminate the constructive character of school, replacing it with a conception of education as an essentially technical and bureaucratic practice, in which students don’t have the right to critical thinking and free interpretation, that’s primary function is training workers for the job market.

Bolsonaro’s proposal is also echoed in a new movement called “School without Party”. Founded by a lawyer named Miguel Nagib, the movement is based on lobbying to pass laws that will “regulate” teaching in the public school system. The movement also says that it is nonpartisan and supposedly aims to guarantee free thinking for teachers and students.

However, the project is supported by members of the evangelical caucus at the federal, state and municipal levels. It is also relevant to note that the MBL supports the project.

The existence and defense of this project has caused a series of uncomfortable events for teachers. Without support of any scientific analysis to debate complex issues such as freedom in the classroom, the proposal, in practice, was transformed into a simple, pure criminalization of critical discussion and of leftist thought which seeks to break from hegemonic and dominant discourses.

In this form, the movement has few criteria to determine what is or isn’t indoctrination – or what the School Without Party even means – but it motivates right-wing parents and students to gratuitously harass teachers for the most varied of reasons. More and more public school teachers are being accused of “Marxist indoctrination” whenever they mention any subject related to the left and are accused of practicing “gender ideology” when they try to discuss issues related to sexuality and homophobia.

It is not hard to see that this project aims to censor and determine the content that its supporters, mostly religious fundamentalists and conservatives, consider ideal. It aims to politicize teaching in public schools according to one party, criminalizing critical thought and persecuting anti-hegemonic discourse, above all in the humanities.

To date, the School Without Party project is moving through several municipal and state legislatures. However, it is a real threat to teachers because the Bolsonaro plan for government promises to adopt the project at all levels of the public school system.

Education professionals are being hunted in Brazil, from the criminalization of Paulo Freire and his ideas, to the attempts to institutionalize the School Without Party, which teachers are calling “the gag order”. Our days of freedom of expression and free thinking may be numbered.

Add to this to the fact that the great majority of Bolsonaro voters appear to reject any type of technical or scientific knowledge and, with this, are devaluing the projects which seek to improve and democratize education. In today’s Brazil, both Paulo Freire and the nation’s teachers are becoming more and more ostracized. Part of the population, moved by lies about the work teachers do and the meaning of education, is building an anti-intellectual mood and an aversion to any liberatory educational methodology without understanding how it functions.

The greater problem is that this refusal of rational engagement – like the belief in the existence of communist indoctrination or the imposition of a gender ideology in schools – has been converted into a project for governance. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro for President, they will face a future of repressed freedom, censorship and criminalization of teaching.

Once again, Brazil’s teachers will face dark days like those during the military dictatorship that halted one of the most important literacy programs in our history because it was viewed as a “communist threat”. This time, however, we don’t have Paulo Freire to defend us.

Larissa Jacheta Riberti is a Contemporary History teacher at Rio Grande do Norte Federal University.

The original version of this article appeared in New Socialist and this adaptation is published with permission.


By Larissa Jacheta Riberti

Larissa Jacheta Riberti is a Contemporary History teacher at Rio Grande do Norte Federal University.