Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2014)
In 1947 I was teaching Portuguese at Colégio Oswaldo Cruz,1 the same school where I had completed my secondary education and, also, as a special favor of the school’s director, Dr. Aluizio Pessoa de Araújo,2 my preparatory course for law school.3 It was at that time that I received the invitation to become part of the recently created Industrial Social Service, SESI, the Regional Department of Pernambuco, set up by the National Industrial Confederation and given legal status by presidential decree.4
The invitation was transmitted through a great friend of mine and fellow alumnus of Colégio Oswaldo Cruz, a person to whom I am bound by close ties of friendship, which our political disagreements have never disturbed, to this very day. Our disagreements had to be. They expressed our diverging views of the world, and our understanding of life itself. We have got through some of the most difficult moments of our lives tempering our disagreements, thereby defending our right and our duty to preserve mutual love by ensuring that it will rise above our political options and ideological positions. Without our knowing it, at the time, we were already—each in his or her own way—postmodern! In fact, in our mutual respect, we were actually experiencing the rock-bottom foundation of politics.
His name is Paulo Rangel Moreira. Today he is an attorney of renown, and professor of law at the Federal University of Pernambuco.5 One bright afternoon in Recife, he came to our house in the Casa Forte district, 224 Rita de Souza Street, and told us—Elza, my first wife, and me—of SESI’s existence and what it could mean for us. He had already accepted the invitation extended to him by the young president of the organization, engineer and industrialist Cid Sampaio, to coordinate its social service projects. Every indication was that he would soon move to the legal department of the organization—his dream—to work in the field of his own expertise.
I listened, we listened—silent, curious, reticent, challenged—to Paulo Rangel’s optimistic discourse. We were a little afraid, too, Elza and I. Afraid of the new, perhaps. But there was also within us a willingness and a taste for risk, for adventure.
Night was “falling.” Night had “fallen.” In Recife, night “arrives” suddenly. The sun is “surprised” to find itself still shining, and makes a run for it, as if there were no time to lose.
Elza flicked on the light. “And what will Paul do in this organization?” she asked. “What will it be able to offer Paul besides the salary he needs? How will he be able to exercise his curiosity, what creative work will he be able to devote himself to so that he won’t die of sadness and longing for the teaching job he likes so much?”
We were in our last year of law school, in the middle of the school year. Something had already happened, right about the time of the invitation, that was to become very important in my life. I have already referred to it in interviews, and it has been mentioned in biographical notes in books and periodicals. It had made Elza laugh with satisfaction at seeing something happen that she had almost guessed would happen—something she had counted on happening since the beginning of our life together. At the same time, her laugh was a pleasant one, without anything like “I told you so” about it, but just full-to-the-brim of gladness.
I had come home at the end of the day with the tasty sensation of someone correcting a mistake he or she has been making. Opening the door, Elza asked me a question that, on so many people’s lips, is not much more than a kind of bureaucratic formality, but which when asked by Elza was always a genuine question, never a rote formula. It expressed lively curiosity, and betokened true investigation. She asked, “Everything all right at the office today?”
And I told her about the experience that had put an end to my brand-new career as a lawyer. I really needed to talk. I needed to recite, word for word, what I had just told the young dentist I had sitting in front of me in my very new office. Shy, frightened, nervous, his hands moving as if suddenly unhooked from his mind, detached from his conscious body, and become autonomous, and yet unable to do anything “on their own,” do anything with themselves, or connect with the words that tumbled out of his mouth (God knows how)—the young dentist had said something to me that I needed to speak with Elza about at once. I needed to talk with Elza at that special moment, just as in other, equally special moments in the course of our life. I needed to speak of the spoken, of the said and the not said, of the heard, of the listened to. To speak of the said is not only to resay the said, but to relive the living experience that has generated the saying that now, at the time of the resaying, is said once more. Thus, to resay, to speak of the said, implies hearing once again what has been said by someone else about or because of the saying that we ourselves have done.
“Something very exciting happened to me this afternoon—just a few minutes ago,” I said to Elza. “You know what? I’m not going to be a lawyer. It’s not that I see nothing special, nothing captivating, about law. Law is a a basic need. It’s a job that has to be done, and just as much as anything else, it has to be based on ethics, and competence, and seriousness, and respect for people. But law isn’t what I want.” Then I spoke of what had been, of things experienced, of words, of meaningful silences, of the said, of the heard. Of the young dentist before me whom I had invited to come talk with me as his creditor’s attorney. The young man had set up his dental office, at least partially, and had not paid his debts.
“I made a mistake,” he said. “I guess I was overoptimistic. I took out a loan I can’t pay back. But I’m legally required to have certain instruments in order to practice dentistry. So, well, sir, . . . you can take our furniture, in the dining room, the living room . . .” And then, laughing a shy laugh, without the trace of a sneer—with as much humor as irony—he finished up: “. . . Only you can’t have my eighteen-month-old baby girl.”
I had listened in silence. I was thinking. Then I said to him, “I think you and your wife and your little girl and your dining room and your living room are going to sit in a kind of suspended animation for a while, as far as your debt-troubles are concerned. I’m going to have to wait till next week to see my client and tell him I’m dropping the case. It’ll take him another week or so to get another down-and-outer like me to be his attorney. This will give you a little breathing space, even if it is just suspended animation. I’d also like to tell you that, like you, I’m closing down my career before it’s even gotten started. Thanks.”
The young man, of my own generation, may for all I know have left my office without much of a grasp of what had been said and heard. I squeezed his cold hand warmly with mine. Once he was home again and had thought over what had been said, who knows, he might have begun to understand some of the reasons that had led me to say what I had said.
That evening, relaying to Elza what had been said, I could never have imagined that, one day, so many years later, I would write Pedagogy of the Oppressed, whose discourse, whose proposal, has something to do with the experience of that afternoon, in terms of what it, too, meant, and especially in terms of the decision to accept Cid Sampaio’s invitation, conveyed to me by Paulo Rangel. I abandoned the practice of law for good that afternoon, once I had heard Elza say, “I was hoping for that. You’re an educator.” Not many months after, as the night that had arrived in such haste began, I said yes to SESI’s summons to its Division of Education and Culture, whose field of experience, study, reflection, and practice was to become an indispensable moment in the gestation of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Never does an event, a fact, a deed, a gesture of rage or love, a poem, a painting, a song, a book, have only one reason behind it. In fact, a deed, a gesture, a poem, a painting, a song, a book are always wrapped in thick wrappers. They have been touched by manifold whys. Only some of these are close enough to the event or the creation to be visible as whys. And so I have always been more interested in understanding the process in and by which things come about than in the product in itself.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed could not have gestated within me solely by reason of my stint with SESI. But my stint with SESI was fundamental to its development. Even before Pedagogy of the Oppressed, my time with SESI wove a tapestry of which Pedagogy was a kind of inevitable extension. I refer to the dissertation I defended in what was then the University of Recife, and later the Federal University of Pernambuco: “Educação e atualidade brasileira.” I later reworked my dissertation and published it as Educação como prática da liberdade, and that book basically became the forerunner of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Again, in interviews, in dialogues with intellectuals, including non-Brazilians, I have made references to more remote tapestries that enveloped me, by bits and pieces, from my childhood and adolescence onward, antedating my time with SESI, which was without any doubt a “founding time,” a foundational time.
These bits and pieces of time actually lived in me—for I had lived them—awaiting another time, which might not even have come as it came, but into which, if it did come, earlier bits and pieces of time were destined to extend, in the composition of the larger fabric.
At times, it happens to us not to perceive the “kinship” among the times we have experienced, and thus to let slip the opportunity to “solder together” disconnected cognitions, and in so doing to allow the second to shed light on the doubtful brilliance of the first.
There was my experience of infancy and adolescence with youngsters who were the children of rural and urban workers, my life as a child with children whose opportunities for life were so utterly minimal, the way in which most of their parents treated us—Temístocles, my immediately elder brother, and me—their “fear of freedom,” which I never understood, nor called it this at the time, their subservient attitude toward their employers, the boss, the owner, which later, much later, I read in Sartre was one of the expressions of the “connivance” of the oppressed with the oppressors.* There were their oppressed bodies, the unconsulted hosts of the oppressors’ parasitism.
It is interesting, in a context of childhood and adolescence, in the connivance maintained with the wickedness of the powerful—with the weakness that needed to turn into the strength of the dominated—that the time of SESI’s foundation, that time of “solderings” and “splicings” of old, pure “guesses,” to which my new knowledge with its critical emergence gave meaning, was the moment at which I read the why, or some of the whys—the tapestries and fabrics that were books already written and not yet read by me, and of books yet to be written that would come to enlighten the vivid memory that was forming me: Marx, Lukács, Fromm, Gramsci, Fanon, Memmi, Sartre, Kosik, Agnes Heller, M. Ponty, Simon Weil, Arendt, Marcuse, and so many others.
Years later, the putting into practice of some of the “solderings” and “splicings” of the inaugural years of SESI sent me into exile6—a kind of “golden spike” that enabled me to connect recollections, recognize facts, deeds, and gestures, fuse pieces of knowledge, solder moments, re-cognize in order to cognize, to know, better.
In this effort to recall moments of my experience—which necessarily, regardless of when they were, became sources of my theoretical reflections for the writing of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as they would continue to be today, as I rethink Pedagogy—I feel that it will be appropriate to refer to an excellent example of such a moment, which I experienced in the 1950s. The experience resulted in a learning process of real importance for me—for my theoretical understanding of the practice of political education, which, if it is to be progressive, must, as I have always asserted, take careful account of the reading of the world being made by popular groups and expressed in their discourse, their syntax, their semantics, their dreams and desires.
I was now working in SESI, and specifically on relations between schools and families. I had begun to experiment with various avenues to an improvement of the meeting of minds: to an understanding of the educational practice being carried out in the schools, on the part of families; to an understanding of the difficulties that families from popular areas would have in confronting problems in the implementation of their own educational activity. At bottom, I was looking for a dialogue between them from which might result the necessary mutual assistance that, at the same time—as it would imply more involvement of the families in the school—might enhance the political connotation of that involvement in the sense of opening channels of democratic participation to fathers and mothers in the actual educational policy being implemented in the schools.
I had carried out, by that time, a research project covering some one thousand families of students, throughout the urban area of Recife, the Zona da Mata, the countryside, and what might be called the “doorway” to the desert hinterland of Pernambuco,7 where SESI had nuclei or social centers in which it offered its members and their families medical and dental assistance, scholastic help, sports and recreation projects, cultural projects, and so on.
My research, which had nothing of the sophisticated about it, asked the parents questions about their relationship with their daughters and sons. I asked about punishments, rewards, the most frequent punishments, the most frequent reasons for it, their children’s reaction to the punishment, any change in their behavior, or want thereof, in the direction desired by the person doing the punishing, and so on.
I recall that, when I had sifted through the results, I was astonished, even more than I had expected to be, at the emphasis on corporal punishment, really violent punishment, in the Recife inner city, the Zona da Mata, in the rural areas, and hinterland, by contrast with the almost complete absence, not only of violent corporal punishment, but of any punishment of children, along the fishing coast. It seemed that, along the coast, under the maritime sky, the legends of individual freedom with which the culture is drenched, the fishers’ confrontation, in their precarious jangadas or rafts,8 with the forces of the sea, the independent jobber’s work done by persons free and proud, the imagination that lends such color to the fishers’ fantastic stories—it seemed that all of this had some connection with the taste for a liberty diametrically opposed to the use of violent punishment.
I do not know myself to what extent we might consider the fishers’ lifestyle too permissive, wanting boundaries, or whether, on the contrary, with their emphasis on freedom, and conditioned by their own cultural context, the fishers are simply relying on nature itself, on the world, on the sea, in and with which their children win an experience of themselves, to be the source of freedom’s necessary limits. It was as if, softening or trimming down their duty as their children’s educators, fathers and mothers shared them with the sea, with the world itself, to which it would fall, through their children’s practice, to delineate their responsibilities. In this fashion, the children would be expected to learn naturally what they might and might not do.
Indeed, the fishers lived a life of enormous contradiction. On one side, they felt free and bold, confronting the sea, in fellowship with its mysteries, doing what they called “scientific fishing,”9 of which they had spoken to me in the sunsets when, relaxing with them in their primitive shelters, their caiçaras,10 I learned to understand them better by listening to them. On the other hand, they were viciously plundered, exploited, now by the middlemen who bought for nothing the product of their hard labor, now by the moneylenders who financed their work tools.
Sometimes, as I listened to them—in my conversations with them in which I learned something of their syntax and semantics, without which I could not have worked with them, or at any rate not effectively—I wondered whether they didn’t perhaps notice how unfree they really were.
I recall that, in the fishing season, we delved into the reason why various students were missing school so frequently. Students and parents, separately, replied. The students, “Because we’re free.” The parents, “Because they’re free. They’ll go back some day.”
Punishments in the other areas of the state that I researched ranged from tying a child to a tree, locking them in a room for hours on end, giving them “cakes” with thick, heavy switches,11 forcing them to kneel on stones used to grind corn, thrashing them with leather straps. This last was the principal punishment in a town of the Zona da Mata that was famous for its shoemaking.
These punishments were applied for trivial reasons, and people watching the fishing were told, “Hard punishment makes hard people, who are up to the cruelty of life.” Or, “Getting hit makes a real man out of you.”
One of my concerns, at the time, as valid then as it is now, was with the political consequences of that kind of relationship between parents and children, which later becomes that between teachers and pupils, when it came to the learning process of our infant democracy. It was as if family and school were so completely subjected to the greater context of global society that they could do nothing but reproduce the authoritarian ideology.
I acknowledge the risks to which we expose ourselves in confronting such problems. On the one hand, there is the danger of voluntarism, ultimately a kind of “idealism of the strife” that ascribes to the will of the individual the power to do all things. On the other hand, there is the peril of a mechanistic objectivism that refuses to ascribe any role to subjectivity in the historical process.
Both of these conceptions of history, and of human beings in that history, end by definitively canceling the role of education. The first, because it attributes to education a power that it does not have; the second, because it denies that it has any power at all.
As for the relationship between authority and freedom—the subject of the research project that I have mentioned—we also run the risk either of denying freedom the right to assert itself, thus exacerbating the role of authority; or else of atrophying the latter and thus hypertrophying the former. In other words, we run the risk of succumbing to the seduction or tyranny of liberty, or to the tyranny of authority, thus acting at cross-purposes, in either hypothesis, with our incipient democracy.
This was not my position then and it is not my position now. And today as yesterday, while on perhaps better foundations than yesterday, I am completely persuaded of the importance, the urgency, of the democratization of the public school, and of the ongoing training of its educators, among whom I include security people, cafeteria personnel, and custodians, and so on. Their formation must be ongoing and scientific. Nor should it fail to instill a taste for democratic practices, among which should be an ever more active intervention on the part of educands and their families as to which direction the school is going. This has been one of the tasks to which I have devoted myself recently, so many years after having first observed this need, and spoken of it in my 1959 academic treatise, “Educação e atualidade brasileira,” to address it again as secretary of education for the City of São Paulo from January 1989 to May 1991. Here is the challenge of the democratization of the public school, so neglected by the military governments12 that, in the name of the salvation of the country from the curse of communism and from corruption, all but destroyed that country.
Finally, with the results of my study in hand, I scheduled a kind of systematic visitation of all of the SESI nuclei or social centers in the state of Pernambuco where we maintain primary schools,13 as they were called at the time, to go there and speak to the parents about the findings of the inquiry. And to do something more: to join to communication of the findings of the investigation a discussion about the problem of the relationship between authority and freedom, which would necessarily involve the question of punishment and reward in education.
The tour for discussion with the families was preceded by another, which I made in order to debate, in seminars as rigorous as it was possible to have, the same question with teachers.
I had put together—in collaboration with a colleague, Jorge Monteiro de Melo, recently deceased, whose seriousness, honesty, and devotion I now reverence—an essay on scholastic discipline, which, alongside the results of the study, became the object of our preparatory seminar in our meetings with the families. In this fashion, we prepared ourselves, as a school, to welcome the students’ families—the natural educators of those of whom we were the professional educators.
Back then, I was accustomed to give long talks on the subjects that had been selected. I was repeating the traditional route of discourse about something that you would give an audience. Then I would shift the format to a debate, discussion, dialogue about the subject with the participants. And, while I was concerned about the order and development of ideas, I proceeded almost as if I were speaking to university students. I say, “almost,” because actually my sensitivity had already made me aware of the differences in language, the syntactical and semantic differences, between the working persons with whom I was working and my own language. Hence my talks were always punctuated with, “In other words,” or, “That is to say . . .” On the other hand, despite some years of experience as an educator, with urban and rural workers, I still nearly always started out with my world, without further explanation, as if it ought to be the “south” to which their compass ought to point in giving them their bearings. It was as if my word, my theme, my reading of the world, in themselves, were to be their compass.14
It was a long learning process, which implied a journey, and not always an easy one, nearly always painful, to the point that I persuaded myself that, even when my thesis and proposal were sure, and I had no doubt in their respect, it was nevertheless imperative, first, to know whether this thesis and proposition coincided with the reading of the world of the groups or social class to whom I was speaking; second, it was incumbent upon me to be more or less abreast of, familiar with, their reading of the world, since only on the basis of the knowledge in its content, or implicit in it, would it be possible for me to discuss my reading of the world, which in turn, maintains, and is based on, another type of knowledge.
This learning process, this apprenticeship, whose story is a long one, is rehearsed in my university dissertation, cited above, continues being sketched in Educação como prática da liberdade, and becomes explicit once and for all in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. One moment—I could even say, a solemn one, among others, of this apprenticeship—occurred during the one-day seminar to which I have referred, which consisted of talks in which I discussed authority, freedom, and punishment and reward in education. It happened precisely in the SESI nucleus or social center named for President Dutra,15 at Vasco da Gama16—Amarela House—in Recife.
Basing my presentation on an excellent study by Piaget* on the child’s moral code, his and her mental representation of punishment, the proportion between the probable cause of punishment and the punishment itself, I spoke at length. I quoted Piaget himself on the subject, and argued for a dialogical, loving relationship between parents and children in place of violent punishments.
My mistake was not in citing Piaget. In fact, how much richer my presentation could have been if I had talked about him very concretely, using a map, and showing where Recife is, then the Brazilian Northeast, then to move out to the whole of Brazil, show where Brazil is in South America, relate that to the rest of the world, and finally, point to Switzerland, in Europe, the land of the author I was quoting. It would have been not only richer, but more challenging and instructive, to do that. But my actual mistake was, first, in my use of my language, my syntax, without more effort to get close to the language and syntax of my audience; and second, in my all but oblivion of the hard reality of the huge audience seated before me.
When I had concluded, a man of about forty, still rather young but already worn out and exhausted, raised his hand and gave me the clearest and most bruising lesson I have ever received in my life as an educator.
I do not know his name. I do not know whether he is still alive. Possibly not. The wickedness of the country’s socioeconomic structures, which take on stronger colors in the Brazilian Northeast—suffering, hunger, the indifference of the mighty—all this must have swallowed him up long since.
He raised his hand and gave a talk that I have never been able to forget. It seared my soul for good and all. It has exerted an enormous influence on me. Nearly always, in academic ceremonies in which I have had an honorary doctorate conferred on me by some university, I acknowledge how much I owe, as well, to persons like the one of whom I am now speaking, and not only to scholars—other thinkers who have taught me, too, and who continue to teach me, teachers without whom it would have been impossible for me to learn, like the laborer who spoke that night. Actually, were it not for the scientific rigor that offers me greater opportunities for precision in my findings, I should not be able critically to perceive the importance of common sense and the good sense therein residing. In almost every academic ceremony in which I am honored, I see him standing in one of the aisles of that big auditorium of so long ago, head erect, eyes blazing, speaking in a loud, clear voice, sure of himself, speaking his lucid speech.
“We have just heard,” he began, “some nice words from Dr. Paulo Freire. Fine words, in fact. Well spoken. Some of them were even simple enough for people to understand easily. Others were more complicated. But I think I understood the most important things that all the words together say.
“Now I’d like to ask the doctor a couple of things that I find my fellow workers agree with.”
He fixed me with a mild, but penetrating gaze, and asked: “Dr. Paulo, sir—do you know where people live? Have you ever been in any of our houses, sir?” And he began to describe their pitiful houses. He told me of the lack of facilities, of the extremely minimal space in which all their bodies were jammed. He spoke of the lack of resources for the most basic necessities. He spoke of physical exhaustion, and of the impossibility of dreams for a better tomorrow. He told me of the prohibition imposed on them from being happy—or even of having hope.
As I followed his discourse, I began to see where he was going to go with it. I was slouching in my chair, slouching because I was trying to sink down into it. And the chair was swiveling, in the need of my imagination and the desire of my body, which were both in flight, to find some hole to hide in. He paused a few seconds, ranging his eyes over the entire audience, fixed on me once more, and said, “Doctor, I have never been over to your house. But I’d like to describe it for you, sir. How many children do you have? Boys or girls?”
“Five,” I said—scrunching further down into my chair. “Three girls and two boys.”
“Well, Doctor, your house must be the only house on the lot, what they call an oitão livre house,” a house with a yard.17 “There must be a room just for you and your wife, sir. Another big room, that’s for the three girls. There’s another kind of doctor, who has a room for every son or daughter. But you’re not that kind—no, sir. You have another room for the two boys. A bathroom with running water. A kitchen with Arno appliances.18 A maid’s room—much smaller than your kids’ rooms—on the outside of the house. A little garden, with an ‘ingress’ (the English word) lawn,” a front lawn. “You must also have a room where you toss your books, sir—a ‘study,‘ a library. I can tell by the way you talk that you’ve done a lot of reading, sir, and you’ve got a good memory.”
There was nothing to add or subtract. That was my house. Another world, spacious and comfortable.
“Now Doctor, look at the difference. You come home tired, sir, I know that. You may even have a headache from the work you do. Thinking, writing, reading, giving these kind of talks that you’re giving now. That tires a person out too. But, sir,” he continued, “it’s one thing to come home, even tired, and find the kids all bathed, dressed up, clean, well fed, not hungry—and another thing to come home and find your kids dirty, hungry, crying, and making noise. And people have to get up at four in the morning the next day and start all over again—hurting, sad, hopeless. If people hit their kids, and even ‘go beyond bounds,’ as you say, it’s not because people don’t love their kids. No, it’s because life is so hard they don’t have much choice.”
This is class knowledge, I say now.
This talk was given about thirty-two years ago. I have never forgotten it. It said to me, despite the fact that I didn’t understand this at the time, much more than it immediately communicated.
In his intonations, his laborer’s syntax and rhythm, the movements of his body, his hands of an orator, in the metaphors so common to popular discourse, he called the attention of the educator there in front of him, seated, silent, sinking down into his chair, to the need, when speaking to the people, for the educator to be up to an understanding of the world the people have. An understanding of the world which, conditioned by the concrete reality that in part explains that understanding, can begin to change through a change in that concrete reality. In fact, that understanding of the world can begin to change the moment the unmasking of concrete reality begins to lay bare the “whys” of what the actual understanding had been up until then.
A change in understanding, which is of basic importance, does not of itself, however, mean a change in the concrete.
The fact that I have never forgotten the fabric in which that discourse was delivered is significant. The discourse of that faraway night is still before me, as if it had been a written text, an essay that I constantly had to review. Indeed, it was the culmination of the learning process I had undertaken long ago—that of the progressive educator: even when one must speak to the people, one must convert the “to” to a “with” the people. And this implies respect for the “knowledge of living experience” of which I always speak, on the basis of which it is possible to go beyond it.
That night, in the car on the way back home, I complained to Elza rather bitterly. Though she rarely accompanied me to meetings, when she did she made excellent observations that always helped me.
“I thought I’d been so clear,” I said. “I don’t think they understood me.”
“Could it have been you, Paulo, who didn’t understand them?” Elza asked, and she went on: “I think they got the main point of your talk. The worker made that clear in what he said. They understood you, but they needed to have you understand them. That’s the question.”
Years later, Pedagogy of the Oppressed spoke of the theory that became steeped in practice that night, a night whose memory went with me into exile along with the rememberance of so many other fabrics lived.
The moments we live either are instants in a process previously inaugurated, or else they inaugurate a new process referring in some way to something in the past. This is why I have spoken of the “kinship” among times lived—something we do not always perceive, thereby failing to unveil the fundamental why of the way in which we experience ourselves at each moment.
I should like to refer, now, to another of these times, another fabric that powerfully scored my existential experience and had a noticeable influence on the development of my pedagogical thought and educational practice.
Stepping back, now, from the moment to which I am about to refer, which I experienced between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-nine—part of it, then, while I was working in SESI—I see it as not just a moment but a process, whose point of departure occurred toward the end of my childhood and the beginning of my teen years, in Jaboatão.19
During the period I am talking about, from the ages of twenty-two to twenty-nine, I used to be overcome by a sense of despair and sadness from time to time. I was a terrible sad sack at these moments, and I suffered terribly from it. Nearly always, I would spend two or three days, or even longer, like this. Sometimes this state of mind would attack me without warning—in the street, in my office, at home. Sometimes it would come gradually, and get the best of me piecemeal. Regardless of which way it came, I felt wounded, and bored with the world, as if I were submerged in myself, in the pain whose reason I did not know, and everything around me seemed strange and foreign. Who wouldn’t despair?
One time, a schoolmate from high school managed to hurt and offend me by telling me about something in my behavior of the previous two or three days that he couldn’t understand. “You wouldn’t talk to me! On Empress Street!20 I was heading for Hospice Street, and you were walking on the other side of the street going the other way. I crossed over, and waved a big hello. I thought you’d stop and say hi! And you just kept on walking! Why did you pretend you didn’t see me?”
There were other, less striking, cases than this one. My explanation was always the same. “I didn’t see you. Look, I’m your friend! I wouldn’t do something like that!”
Elza always had deep understanding for me when this happened, and she helped me in every way she could. And the finest help she could give me, and she gave it, was not to so much as suggest to me that my attitude toward her was changing.
After I had had these experiences for some time, especially as they were beginning to happen more and more often, I began to try to see it in the framework, in which it occurred, see it as a part of the bigger picture. What were the elements, or surrounding elements, of the actual moment at which I felt that way?
When I could see the depression coming, I tried to see what it was that was there around me. I tried to see again, tried to remember, what had happened the day before, tried to hear once more what had been said and to whom it had been said, what I had heard and from whom I had heard it. When you come right down to it, I began to take my depression as an object of curiosity and investigation. I “stepped back” from it, to learn its “why.” Basically, I needed to shed some light on the framework in which it was being generated.
I began to perceive that it was repeated, almost identically—my depression, this lack of interest in the world, this pessimism: that it occurred more often in the rainy season, and mostly at or around the time of the trips I would make to the Zona da Mata to speak in SESI schools to teachers and pupils’ families on educational problems. This observation called my attention to the trips I made with the same objective to the farming zone of the state. But it didn’t happen in connection with these trips. So it wasn’t trips that were the cause of my depression.
I find it interesting that I can condense into just a few pages the three or four years of search out of the seven during which that moment was repeated.
My first visit to the city of São Paulo occurred when my search happened to be in full swing.
The day after I arrived, I was in my hotel, that afternoon, and the rain began to pour. I went over to the window to peer out at the world outside. The sky was black, and it was really coming down. But one thing was lacking, in the world that I was observing, by comparison with the pouring rain that would be accompanied with such deep depression. What was missing was green, and mud—the black earth soaking up the water, or the yellow clay turning into the slippery, or else slurpy-sticky, mass that “grabs you like a great, big constrictor,” as Gilberto Freyre said of massapê, the black clay of the Northeast.21
The dark sky of São Paulo that day, and the falling rain, had no effect on me whatsoever.
On my return to Recife, I brought with me a mental portrait that the visit to São Paulo had helped me to put together. My depressions were doubtless connected to rain, and mud—massapê clay—and the green of the cane brakes and the dark sky. Not connected to any of these elements in isolation, but to the relationship among them. What I needed now, in order to gain a clear understanding of the experience of my suffering, was to discover the remote framework in which these elements had won or had been winning the power to spark my depression. At bottom, in seeking for the deepest “why” of my pain, I was educating my hope. I never expected things just to “be that way.” I worked on things, on facts, on my will. I invented the concrete hope in which, one day, I would see myself delivered from my depression.
And so it was that, one rainy afternoon in Recife, under a leaden sky, I went to Jaboatão in quest of my childhood. If it was raining in Recife, in Jaboatão, which was known as the “spout of heaven,” there was no describing it.22And it was under a heavy rain that I paid my visit to Morro da Saúde, where I had lived as a child. I stopped in front of the house in which I had lived—the house in which my father died in the late afternoon of October 21, 1934. I saw again the long lawn that stretched before the house at the time, the lawn we played soccer on. I saw again the mango trees, their green fronds. I saw my feet again, my muddy feet going up the hill, and me soaked to the skin. I had before me, as on a canvas, my father dying, my mother in stupefaction, my family lost in sorrow.
Then I walked down the hill and went to see once more certain areas where, more out of need than for sport, I had hunted innocent little birds, with the slingshot I had made myself and with which I became an excellent shot.23
That rainy afternoon, with the sky dark as lead over the bright green land, the ground soaked, I discovered the fabric of my depression. I became conscious of various relationships between the signs and the central core, the deeper core, hidden within me. I unveiled the problem by clearly and lucidly grasping its “why.” I dug up the archeology of my pain.24
Since then, never again has the relationship between rain, green, and mud or sticky clay sparked in me the depression that had afflicted me for years. I buried it, that rainy afternoon I revisited Jaboatão. At the same time as I was struggling with my personal problem, I devoted myself to SESI groups of rural and urban workers, worked on the problem of moving from my discourse about my reading of the world to them, and moving them, challenging them, to speak of their own reading.
Many of them had possibly experienced the same process I had lived through—that of unraveling the fabric in which the facts are given, discovering their “why.”
Many, perhaps, had suffered, and not just a little, in redoing their reading of the world under the impulse of a new perception—in which it was not actually destiny or fate or an inescapable lot that explained their helplessness as workers, their impotence in the face of the defeated, squalid body of their companion, and their death for want of resources.
Let me make it clear, then, that, in the domain of socioeconomic structures, the most critical knowledge of reality, which we acquire through the unveiling of that reality, does not of itself alone effect a change in reality.
In my case, as I have just recounted, the unmasking of the “why” of my experience of suffering was all that was needed to overcome it. True, I was freed from a limitation that actually threatened both my professional activity and my life in the community of my fellow human beings. It had come to the point that I was politically limited, as well.
A more critical understanding of the situation of oppression does not yet liberate the oppressed. But the revelation is a step in the right direction. Now the person who has this new understanding can engage in a political struggle for the transformation of the concrete conditions in which the oppression prevails. Here is what I mean. In my case, it was enough to know the fabric in which my suffering had been born in order to bury it. In the area of socioeconomic structures, a critical perception of the fabric, while indispensable, is not sufficient to change the data of the problem, any more than it is enough for the worker to have in mind the idea of the object to be produced: that object has to be made.
But the hope of producing the object is as basic to the worker as the hope of remaking the world is indispensable in the struggle of oppressed men and women. The revelatory, gnosiological practice of education does not of itself effect the transformation of the world: but it implies it.
No one goes anywhere alone, least of all into exile—not even those who arrive physically alone, unaccompanied by family, spouse, children, parents, or siblings. No one leaves his or her world without having been transfixed by its roots, or with a vacuum for a soul. We carry with us the memory of many fabrics, a self soaked in our history, our culture; a memory, sometimes scattered, sometimes sharp and clear, of the streets of our childhood, of our adolescence; the reminiscence of something distant that suddenly stands out before us, in us, a shy gesture, an open hand, a smile lost in a time of misunderstanding, a sentence, a simple sentence possibly now forgotten by the one who said it. A word for so long a time attempted and never spoken, always stifled in inhibition, in the fear of being rejected—which, as it implies a lack of confidence in ourselves, also means refusal of risk.
We experience, of course, in the voyage we make, a tumult in our soul, a synthesis of contrasting feelings—the hope of immediate deliverance from the perils that surround us, relief at the absence of the inquisitor (either the brutal, offensive interrogator, or the tactically polite prosecutor to whose lips this “evil, dangerous subversive” will yield, it is thought, more easily), along with, for the extension of the tumult of and in the soul, a guilt-feeling at leaving one’s world, one’s soil, the scent of one’s soil,25 one’s folks. To the tumult in the soul belongs also the pain of the broken dream, utopia lost. The danger of losing hope. I have known exiles who began to buy a piece of furniture or two for their homes only after four or five years in exile. Their half-empty homes seemed to speak, eloquently, of their loyalty to a distant land. In fact, their half-empty rooms not only seemed to wish to speak to them of their longing to return, but looked as if the movers had just paid a visit and they were actually moving back. The half-empty house lessened the sentiment of blame at having left the “old sod.” In this, perhaps, lies a certain need that I have so often perceived in persons exiled: the need to feel persecuted, to be constantly trailed by some secret agent who dogged their step and whom they alone ever saw. To know they were so dangerous gave them, on the one hand, the sensation of still being politically alive; and on the other, the sensation of a right to survive, through cautious measures. It diminished their guilt feelings.
Indeed, one of the serious problems of the man or woman in exile is how to wrestle, tooth and nail, with feelings, desire, reason, recall, accumulated knowledge, worldviews, with the tension between a today being lived in a reality on loan and a yesterday, in their context of origin, whose fundamental marks they come here charged with. At bottom, the problem is how to preserve one’s identity in the relationship between an indispensable occupation in the new context, and a preoccupation in which the original context has to be reconstituted. How to wrestle with the yearning without allowing it to turn into nostalgia. How to invent new ways of living, and living with others, thereby overcoming or redirecting an understandable tendency on the part of the exiled woman or man always to regard the context of origin (as it cannot be got rid of as a reference, at least not over the long haul) as better than the one on loan. Sometimes it is actually better; not always, however.
Basically, it is very difficult to experience exile, to live with all the different longings—for one’s town or city, one’s country, family, relatives, a certain corner, certain meals—to live with longing, and educate it too. The education of longing has to do with the transcendence of a naively excessive optimism, of the kind, for example, with which certain companions received me in October 1964 in La Paz: “You’re just in time to turn around. We’ll be home for Christmas.”
I had arrived there after a month or a little more than a month in the Bolivian embassy in Brazil, waiting for the Brazilian government to deign to send me the safe-conduct pass without which I should not be allowed to leave. Shortly before, I had been arrested, and subjected to long interrogations by military personnel who seemed to think that, in asking these questions of theirs, they were saving not only Brazil but the whole world.
“We’ll be home for Christmas.”
“Which Christmas?” I asked, with curiosity, and even more surprise.
“This Christmas!” they answered, with unshakable certitude.
My first night in La Paz, not yet under the onslaughts of of the altitude sickness that were to fall upon me the next day, I reflected a bit on the education of longing, which figures in Pedagogy of Hope. It would be terrible, I thought, to let the desire to return kill in us the critical view, and make us look at everything that happens back home in a favorable way—create in our head a reality that isn’t real.
Exile is a difficult experience. Waiting for the letter that never comes because it has been lost, waiting for notice of a final decision that never arrives. Expecting sometimes that certain people will come, even going to the airport simply to “expect,” as if the verb were intransitive.
It is far more difficult to experience exile when we make no effort to adopt its space—time critically—accept it as an opportunity with which we have been presented. It is this critical ability to plunge into a new daily reality, without preconceptions, that brings the man or woman in exile to a more historical understanding of his or her own situation. It is one thing, then, to experience the everyday in the context of one’s origin, immersed in the habitual fabrics from which we can easily emerge to make our investigations, and something else again to experience the everyday in the loan context that calls on us not only to become able to grow attached to this new context, but also to take it as an object of our critical reflection, much more than we do our own from a point of departure in our own.
I arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, in October 1964, and another coup d’état took me by surprise. In November of the same year I landed in Arica, in Chile, where I startled my fellow passengers, as we were making our descent toward the airport, by calling out, loud and strong, “Long live oxygen!” I had left an altitude of four thousand meters and was returning to sea level. My body once more became as viable as it had been before. I moved with facility, rapidly, without exhaustion. In La Paz, carrying a package, even a little one, meant an extraordinary effort for me. At forty-three I felt old and decrepit. In Arica, and on the next day in Santiago, I got my strength back, and everything happened almost instantly, as if by sleight of hand. Long live oxygen!
I arrived in Chile with my whole self: passion, longing, sadness, hope, desire, dreams in smithereens but not abandoned, offenses, knowledge stored in the countless fabrics of living experience, availability for life, fears and terrors, doubts, a will to live and love. Hope, especially.
I arrived in Chile, and a few days later started to work as a consultant for renowned economist Jacques Chonchol, president of the Instituto de Desarrollo Agropecuario (Institute for the Development of Animal Husbandry)—the INDAP—subsequently to be minister of agriculture in the Allende government.
Only in mid-January of 1965 were we all back together. Elza, the three girls, and the two boys, with all their terrors, their doubts, their hopes, their fears, their knowledge gotten and being gotten, started a new life with me again in a strange land—a foreign land to which we were giving ourselves in such wise that it was receiving us in a way that the foreignness was turning into comradeship, friendship, siblingship. Homesick as we were for Brazil, we had a sudden special place in our hearts for Chile, which taught us Latin America in a way we had never imagined it.
I reached Chile a few days after the inauguration of Eduardo Frey’s Christian Democratic government. There was a climate of euphoria in the streets of Santiago. It was as if a profound, radical, substantial transformation of society had occurred. Only the forces of the Right, at one extreme, and those of the Marxist-Leninist Left at the other, for different reasons, obviously, did not share the euphoria. How vast it was! What a certitude there was, rooted in the minds of Christian Democracy activists, that their revolution was fixed on solid ground, that no threat could even get near it! One of their favorite arguments, more metaphysical than historical, was what they called the “democratic and constitutionalist tradition of the Chilean armed forces.”
“Never will there be an uprising against the established order,” they said, sure as sure can be, in conversations with us.
I remember a meeting that did not go very well at the home of one of these militants, with some thirty of them, in which Plínio Sampaio, Paulo de Tarso Santos,26 Almino Affonso, and I, participated.
We argued that the so-called tradition of loyalty on the part of the armed forces to the established, democratic order was not an immutable quality, an intrinsic property of the military, but a mere “historical given,” and therefore that this “tradition” might become historically shattered and a new process take its place. They answered that Brazilians in exile gave them “the impression of being crybabies who’ve had their toys taken away,” or “frustrated, helpless children.” There was no conversing with them.
A few years later the Chilean armed forces decided to change positions. I hope it was without the contribution of any of those with whom we were conversing that night, as I hope as well that none of them had to pay as dearly as thousands of other Chileans did—along with other Latin Americans—under the weight of the perversity and cruelty that came crashing down on Chile in September 1973. It was not by chance, then, that the most backward of the elite, in whom even timid liberal positions stirred threat and fear, frightened at the reformist policy of Christian Democracy, which was then regarded as a kind of middle road, dreamed of the need to put an end to all this bold, too-risky business. Just imagine what Allende’s victory meant, then, not only for the Chilean elite, but for the outsiders of the North!
I visited Chile twice during the time of the Popular Unity government, and used to say, in Europe and in the United States, that anyone who wanted to get a concrete idea of the class struggle, as expressed in the most divergent ways, really ought to pay a visit to Chile. Especially, if you wanted to see—practically touch with your hands—the tactics the dominant classes employed in the struggle, and the richness of their imagination when it came to waging a more effective struggle for the resolution of the contradiction between power and government, I would tell my audiences, you really must go to Chile. What had happened is that power, as a fabric of relations, decisions, and force, continued to be the main thing with them, while the government, which was in charge of policy, found itself being propelled by progressive forces, forces in discord with the others. This opposition, this contradiction, had to be overcome, so that both power and government would be in their hands again. The coup was the solution. And so, even within the Christian Democratic party, the Right tended to place obstacles in the way of the democratic policy of the more advanced echelons, especially of the youth. As the process developed, a clearer and clearer tendency to radicalization, and breach between the discordant options, appeared, precluding a peaceful coexistence between them, either in the party or in society itself.
On the outside, the Marxist-Leninist Left, the Communist party and the Socialist party, had their ideological, political, historical, and cultural reasons for not joining in the euphoria. They regarded it as naive at best.
In step with the waxing and deepening of the class struggle or conflicts, the rift between the forces of Right and Left, among Christian Democrats as in civil society, likewise deepened. Thus arose various tendencies on the Left calculated to regiment militants who, in direct contact with the popular bases, or seeking to understand these grassroots elements through a reading of the classic Marxists, began to call on the carpet the reformism that had finally gained the upper hand in the strategic plans of Christian Democratic policy.
The Movimiento Independente Revolucionário, the MIR, was born in Concepción, and was constituted of revolutionary youth who disagreed with what seemed to them to be a deviation on the part of the Communist party—that of a “coexistence” with elements of “bourgeois democracy.”
It is interesting, however, that the MIR, which was constantly to the Left of the Communist party, and afterwards, of the Popular Unity government itself, always manifested a sympathy for popular education, something the parties of the traditional Left generally lacked.
When the Communist party and the Socialist party refused, dogmatically, to work with certain poblaciónes who, they said, were without a “class consciousness,” so that they mobilized only for ad hoc protests and automatically demobilized whenever their demands were met, the MIR thought it necessary, first, to prove the correctness of this attitude toward the Lumpenproletariat, the “great unwashed,” and second, to observe whether, admitting the hypothesis that their proposition had been verified in certain situations, it would be verified again in a different historical moment. In other words, while there was some truth in the proposition, it could not be taken as a metaphysical postulate.
And so it came about that, now under the Popular Unity government, the MIR launched an intensive campaign of mobilization and organization—itself a piece of political pedagogy—in which it included a series of educational projects in the popular areas. In 1973, I had the opportunity to spend an evening with the leaders of the población—settlement or “new city”—of Nueba Habana, which, contrary to the dour forecast, after obtaining what it had been demanding, its own villa, continued active and creative, maintaining countless projects in the area of education, health, justice, social security, and sports. I paid a visit to a lineup of old buses, donated by the government, whose bodies, converted and adapted, had become neat, nicely set up little schoolrooms, which the children of the población attended. In the evenings, the bus-schoolrooms would fill with literacy-program clients, who were learning to read the word through a reading of the world. Nueba Habana had a future, then, if an uncertain one, and the climate surrounding it and the experimental pedagogy being plied within it was one of hope.
Alongside the MIR arose the Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitaria, and the Christian Left, further splintering the Christian Democrats. A sizable contingent of more advanced youth among the Christian Democrats joined the MAPU, or else the Christian Left, and even migrated to the MIR as well, or the Communist and Socialist parties.
Today, nearly thirty years later, one readily perceives what, at the time, only a few grasped, and already urged. They were sometimes regarded as dreamers, utopians, idealists, or even as “selling out to the gringos.” At this distance, it is easy to see that only a radical politics—not a sectarian one, however, but one that seeks a unity in diversity among progressive forces—could ever have won the battle for a democracy that could stand up to the power and virulence of the Right. Instead, there was only sectarianism and intolerance—the rejection of differences. Tolerance was not what it ought to be: the revolutionary virtue that consists in a peaceful coexistence with those who are different, in order to wage a better fight against the adversaries.
The correct road for the progressive forces standing to the Left of the Christian Democrats would have been to move—within ethical limits of concession on policy—closer and closer to them, not in order to take over the party, nor again in such a manner as to drive it to the Right, nor, indeed, so as to be absorbed into it. And for its own part, Christian Democracy, in all intolerance, rejected dialogue. There was no credibility on either side.
It was precisely by virtue of the inability of all forces to tolerate one another that Popular Unity came to power . . . without power.
From November 1964 to April 1969, I followed the ideological struggle closely. I witnessed, sometimes with surprise, retreats in the area of political ideology by persons who had proclaimed their option for the transformation of society, then became frightened and repentant, and made a fearful about-face in midcourse and turned into hidebound reactionaries. But I also saw the advances made by those who confirmed their progressive discourse by walking consistently, refusing to run from history. I likewise witnessed the progress of persons whose initial position had been timid, to say the least, but who became stronger, ultimately to assert themselves in a radicalness that never extended to sectarianism.
It would really have been impossible to experience a process this rich, this problem-fraught, to have been touched so profoundly by the climate of accelerated change, to have shared in such animated, lively discussion in the “culture circles” in which educators often had to beg the peasants to stop, since they had already gone on practically the whole night, without all of this later winning explication in this or that theoretical position of mine in the book that, at the time, was not even a project.
I was impressed, when I heard about it in evaluation meetings, or when I was actually present, by the intensity of the peasants’ involvement when they were analyzing their local and national reality. It took them what seemed like forever to spill everything that was on their minds. It was as if the “culture of silence” was suddenly shattered, and they had discovered not only that they could speak, but that their critical discourse upon the world, their world, was a way of remaking that world. It was if they had begun to perceive that the development of their language, which occurred in the course of their analysis of their reality, finally showed them that the lovelier world to which they aspired was being announced, somehow anticipated, in their imagination. It was not a matter of idealism. Imagination and conjecture about a different world than the one of oppression, are as necessary to the praxis of historical “subjects” (agents) in the process of transforming reality as it necessarily belongs to human toil that the worker or artisan first have in his or her head a design, a “conjecture,” of what he or she is about to make. Here is one of the tasks of democratic popular education, of a pedagogy of hope: that of enabling the popular classes to develop their language: not the authoritarian, sectarian gobbledygook of “educators,” but their own language—which, emerging from and returning upon their reality, sketches out the conjectures, the designs, the anticipations of their new world. Here is one of the central questions of popular education—that of language as a route to the invention of citizenship.
As Jacques Chonchol’s consultant in the Institute for the Development of Animal Husbandry, in the area of what was then called in Chile human promotion, I was able to extend my collaboration to the Ministry of Education, in cooperation with people working in adult literacy, as well as to the Corporation for Agrarian Reform.
Quite a bit later, almost two years before we left Chile, I began to work as a consultant for these same organizations on the basis of my position in another, the Instituto de Capacitación e Investigación en Reforma Agraria (Institute for Ways and Means and Research in Agrarian Reform, or ICIRA), a joint organization of the United Nations and the Chilean government. I worked there for UNESCO, against the will and under the consistent niggardly protest of the Brazilian military government of the period.
And it was as consultant for the Institute for the Development of Animal Husbandry, for the Ministry of Education, and for the Corporation for Agrarian Reform, that, as I traveled practically all over the country, always in the company of young Chileans, who were mostly progressives, I listened to peasants and discussed with them various aspects of their concrete reality. I urged upon agronomists and agricultural technologists a political, pedagogical, democratic understanding of their practice. I debated general problems of educational policy with the educators of the cities and towns I visited.
I still have in my memory today, as fresh as ever, snatches of discourses by peasants and expressions of their legitimate desires for the betterment of their world, for a finer, less-ugly world, a world whose “edges” would be less “rough,” in which it would be possible to love—Guevara’s dream, too.
I shall never forget what a UN sociologist, an excellent intellectual and no less excellent a person, a Dutchman who wore a red beard, told me after we had assisted, all enthusiastic and full of confidence in the working class, at a two hour discussion on their eagerness for the establishment of agrarian reform by the government (still the Christian Democrats) in a remote corner of Chile. The peasants had been discussing their right to the land, their right to the freedom to produce, to raise crops and livestock, to live decently, to be. They had defended their right to be respected as persons and as workers who were creators of wealth, and they had demanded their right of access to culture and knowledge. It is in this direction that those historico-social conditions intersected in which the pedagogy of the oppressed could take root—and this time I am not referring to the book I wrote—which, in turn, is here being matched by, or prolonged into, a needed pedagogy of hope.
With the meeting over, as we were leaving the wagon shed where it had been held, my Dutch friend with the red beard put his hand on my shoulder and said—choosing his phrases carefully, and speaking with conviction: “It’s been worth four days of wandering through these corners of Chile, to hear what we heard tonight.” And he added, good-humoredly, “These peasants know more than we do.”
I think it is important, at this point, to call attention to something I have emphasized in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: the relationship prevailing between political lucidity in a reading of the world, and the various levels of engagement in the process of mobilization and organization for the struggle—for the defense of rights, for laying claim to justice.
Progressive educators have to be on the alert where this datum is concerned, in their work of popular education, since not only the content, but the various manners in which one approaches the content, stand in direct relation with the levels of struggle referred to above.
It is one thing to work with popular groups, and experience the way in which those peasants operated that night, and something else again to work with popular groups who have not yet managed to “see” the oppressor “outside.”
This datum continues as valid today. The neoliberal discourses, chock-full of “modernity,” do not have sufficient force to do away with social classes and decree the nonexistence of differing interests among them, any more than they have the strength to make away with the conflicts and struggle between them.
It happens that struggle is a historical and social category. Therefore it has historicity. It changes from one space-time to another space-time. The fact of the struggle does not militate against the possibility of pacts, agreements between the antagonistic parties. In other words, agreements and accords are part of the struggle, as a historical, and not metaphysical, category.
There are historical moments in which the survival of the social whole, which is in the interest of all the social classes, imposes upon those classes the necessity of understanding one another—which does not mean that we are experiencing a new age devoid of social classes and of conflicts.
The four-and-one-half years that I lived in Chile, then, were years of a profound learning process. It was the first time, with the exception of a brief visit to Bolivia, that I had had the experience of distancing myself geographically, with its epistemological consequences, from Brazil. Hence the importance of those four-and-one-half years.
Sometimes, on long automobile trips, with stops in cities along the way—Santiago to Puerto Mont, Santiago to Arica—I gave myself over to the quest for myself, refreshing my memory when it came to Brazil, about what I had done here, with other persons, mistakes made, the verbal incontinence that few intellectuals of the Left had escaped and to which many today still devote themselves, and through which they reveal a terrible ignorance of the role of language in history.
“Agrarian reform, like it or lump it!” “Either this congress votes laws in the people’s interests or we’ll close it.”
Actually, all of this verbal incontinence, this explosion of verbiage has no connection, none whatever, with a correct, authentic progressive position. It has no connection with a correct understanding of struggle as political, historical practice. It is quite true, as well, that all of this volubility, precisely because it is not done in a vacuum, ends by generating consequences that retard needed changes even more. At times, however, the irresponsible chatter also generates a discovery of the fact that verbal restraint is an indispensable virtue for those who devote themselves to the dream of a better world—a world in which women and men meet in a process of ongoing liberation.
Basically, I sought to reunderstand the fabrics, the facts, the deeds in which I had been wrapped and enveloped. Chilean reality, in its difference from our own, helped me to a better understanding of my experiences, and the latter, reseen, helped me to understand what was happening and could be happening in Chile.
I traversed a great part of that country on trips on which I really learned a great deal. Side by side with Chilean educators, I learned by helping administer training courses for persons proposing to work at the grass roots in agrarian reform projects, those who would work with the peasants on the fundamental problem of the reading of the word, always preceded by a reading of the world. The reading and writing of the word would always imply a more critical rereading of the world as a “route” to the “rewriting”—the transformation—of that world. Hence the hope that necessarily steeps Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Hence also the need, in literacy projects conducted in a progressive perspective, for a comprehension of language, and of its role, to which we have referred, in the achievement of citizenship.
It was by attempting to inculcate a maximal respect for the cultural differences with which I had to struggle, one of them being language—in which I made an effort to express myself, as best I could, with clarity—that I learned so much of reality, and learned it with Chileans.
Respect for cultural differences, respect for the context to which one has come, a criticism of “cultural invasion,” of sectarianism, and a defense of radicalness, of which I speak in Pedagogy of the Oppressed—all of this was something that, having begun to be part of my experience years before in Brazil, whose knowledge I had brought with me into exile, in the memory contained within my own self, was intensely, rigorously experienced by me in my years in Chile.
These elements of knowledge, which had been critically constituted in me since the inauguration of SESI, were consolidated in Chilean practice, and in the theoretical reflection I made upon that practice—in enlightening readings that made me laugh for joy, almost like a teenager, at finding in them a theoretical explanation of my practice, or the confirmation of the theoretical understanding that I had had of my practice. Santiago, to mention just the team of Brazilians living there, sometimes de jure—in exile—sometimes just de facto, unquestionably provided us with a rich opportunity. Christian Democracy, which spoke of itself as a “revolution in freedom,” attracted countless intellectuals, student and union leaders, and groups of leftist political leaders from all over Latin America. Santiago, especially, had become a place, or grand context of theory-of-practice, in which those who arrived from other corners of Latin America would discuss, with Chileans and foreigners living there, both what was going on in Chile and what was going on in their own countries.
Latin America was effervescent in Santiago. Cubans were there, threatened as much as ever by the reactionary forces that, all filled with themselves, spoke of the death of socialism. The Cubans showed that changes could be made. There were the guerrilla theories, the “focus theory,” the extraordinary charismatic personality of Camilo Torres—in whom no dichotomy existed between transcendentality and worldliness, history and metahistory—liberation theology was there (so soon to provoke fear, trembling, and rage), Guevara’s capacity for love was there, as in the line he wrote to Carlos Guijano, as sincere as it was arresting: “Let me tell you, at the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the genuine revolutionary is animated by feelings of love. It is impossible to imagine an authentic revolutionary without this quality.”*
In May 1968 came the student movements in the outside world, rebellious, libertarian. There was Marcuse, with his influence on youth. In China, Mao Tse-tung and the cultural revolution.
Santiago had become almost a kind of “bedroom community”27 for intellectuals, for politicians of the most varied persuasions. In this sense, perhaps Santiago was, in itself, at that time, the best center of “learning” and knowledge in Latin America. We learned of analyses, reactions, and criticisms by Colombians, Venezuelans, Cubans, Mexicans, Bolivians, Argentinians, Paraguayans, Brazilians, Chileans, and Europeans—analyses ranging from an almost unrestricted acceptance of Christian Democracy to its total rejection. There were sectarian, intolerant criticisms, but also open, radical criticisms in the sense that I advocate.
Some of my companions in exile and I learned not only from encounters with many of the Latin Americans I have mentioned who passed through Santiago, but from the excitement of a “knowledge of living experience,” from the dreams, from the clarity, from the doubts, from the ingenuousness, from the “cunning”28 of the Chilean workers—more rural than urban, in my case.
I remember now a visit I made, with a Chilean companion, to an agrarian reform project some hours’ distance from Santiago. A number of evening “culture circles” were in operation there, and we had come to follow the process of the reading of the word and rereading of the world. In the second or third circle we visited, I felt a strong desire to try a dialogue with a group of peasants. Generally I avoided this because of the language difficulty. I was afraid my language gaffes might prejudice the smooth functioning of the work. That evening I decided to lay this concern aside, and, asking permission from the educator coordinating the discussion, I asked the group whether they were willing to have a conversation with me.
They accepted, and we began a lively dialogue, with questions and replies on both sides—promptly followed, however, by a disconcerting silence.
I too remained silent. In the silence, I remembered earlier experiences, in the Brazilian Northeast, and I guessed what was going to happen. I knew and expected that, suddenly, one of them, breaking the silence, would speak in his or her name and that of his or her companions. I even knew the tenor of that discourse. And so my own waiting, in the silence, must have been less painful than it was for them to listen to the silence.
“Excuse us, sir,” said one of them, “. . . excuse us for talking. You’re the one who should have been talking, sir. You know things, sir. We don’t.”
How many times I have heard this statement in Pernambuco, and not only in the rural zones, but even in Recife. And it was at the price of having to hear statements like that that I learned that, for the progressive educator, there is no other route than to seize the educands’ “moment” and begin with their “here” and “now”—but as a stepping-stone to getting beyond, critically, their naïveté. It will do no harm to repeat that a respect for the peasants’ ingenuousness, without ironical smiles or malicious questions, does not mean that the educator must accommodate to their level of reading of the world.
What would have been meaningless would have been for me to “fill” the silence of the group of peasants with my words, thus reinforcing the ideology that they had just enunciated. What I had to do was to begin with the acceptance of something said in the discourse of the peasant and make a problem of it for them, and thereby bring them once more to dialogue.
On the other hand, it would have been likewise meaningless—after having heard what the peasant said, begging pardon on behalf of the group for having spoken, when I was the one who knew how to do that, because I “knew”—if I had given them a lecture, with doctoral airs, on the “ideology of power and the power of ideology.”
Purely parenthetically, I cannot resist—at a moment like this, as I relive Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and speak of cases like this one that I have experienced, the experience of which has given me theoretical foundations for not only advocating, but experiencing respect for the popular groups in my work as an educator—I cannot resist expressing my regret over a certain type of criticism in which I am pointed to as an “elitist.” Or, at the opposite pole, where I am sketched as a “populist.”
The far-off years of my experiences in SESI, the years of my intense learning process with fishers, with peasants and urban laborers, among the hillocks and ravines of Recife, had vaccinated me, as it were, against an elitist arrogance. My experience has taught me that educands need to be addressed as such; but to address them as educands implies a recognition of oneself, the educator, as one of two agents here, each capable of knowing and each wishing to know, and each working with the other for an understanding of the object of cognition. Thus, teaching and learning are moments in a larger process—that of knowing, of cognizing, which implies recognizing. At bottom, what I mean is that the educand really becomes an educand when and to the extent that he or she knows, or comes to know, content, cognoscible objects, and not in the measure that the educator is depositing in the educand a description of the objects or content.
Educands recognize themselves as such by cognizing objects—discovering that they are capable of knowing, as they assist at the immersion of significates, in which process they also become critical “significators.” Rather than being educands because of some reason or other, educands need to become educands by assuming themselves, taking themselves as cognizing subjects, and not as an object upon which the discourse of the educator impinges. Herein lies, in the last analysis, the great political importance of the teaching act. It is this, among other elements, that distinguishes a progressive educator from his or her reactionary colleague.
“All right,” I said, in response to the peasant’s intervention. “Let’s say I know and you don’t. Still, I’d like to try a game with you that, to work right, will require our full effort and attention. I’m going to draw a line down the middle of this chalkboard, and I’m going to write down on this side the goals I score against you, and on this other side the ones you score against me. The game will consist in asking each other questions. If the person asked doesn’t know the answer, the person who asked the question scores a goal. I’ll start the game by asking you a question.”
At this point, precisely because I had seized the group’s “moment,” the climate was more lively than when we had begun, before the silence.
“What is the Socratic maieutic?”
General guffawing. Score one for me.
“Now it’s your turn to ask me a question,” I said.
There was some whispering, and one of them tossed out the question:
“What’s a contour curve?”
I couldn’t answer. I marked down one to one.
“What importance does Hegel have in Marx’s thought?”
Two to one.
“What’s soil liming?”
Two to two.
“What’s an intransitive verb?”
Three to two.
“What’s a contour curve got to do with erosion?”
Three to three.
Four to three.
“What’s green fertilizer?”
Four to four.
And so on, until we got to ten to ten.
As I said good-bye, I made a suggestion. “Let’s think about this evening. You had begun to have a fine discussion with me. Then you were silent, and said that only I could talk because I was the only one who knew anything. Then we played a knowledge game and we tied ten to ten. I knew ten things you didn’t, and you knew ten things I didn’t. Let’s think about this.”
On the way back home I recalled the first experience I had had, long before, in the Zona da Mata of Pernambuco, like the one I had just had here.
After a few moments of good discussion with a group of peasants, silence fell on us and enveloped us all. What one of them had said then, in Portuguese, was the same thing as I had heard tonight in Spanish—a literal translation of what the Chilean peasant had said this evening.
“Fine,” I had told them. “I know. You don’t. But why do I know and you don’t?”
Accepting his statement, I prepared the ground for my intervention. A vivacious sparkle in them all. Suddenly curiosity was kindled. The answer was not long in coming.
“You know because you’re a doctor, sir, and we’re not.”
“Right, I’m a doctor and you’re not. But why am I a doctor and you’re not?”
“Because you’ve gone to school, you’ve read things, studied things, and we haven’t.”
“And why have I been to school?”
“Because your dad could send you to school. Ours couldn’t.”
“And why couldn’t your parents send you to school?”
“Because they were peasants like us.”
“And what is ‘being a peasant’?”
“It’s not having an education . . . not owning anything . . . working from sun to sun . . . having no rights . . . having no hope.”
“And why doesn’t a peasant have any of this?”
“The will of God.”
“And who is God?”
“The Father of us all.”
“And who is a father here this evening?”
Almost all raised their hands, and said they were.
I looked around the group without saying anything. Then I picked out one of them and asked him, “How many children do you have?”
“Would you be willing to sacrifice two of them, and make them suffer so that the other one could go to school, and have a good life, in Recife? Could you love your children that way?”
“Well, if you,” I said, “a person of flesh and bones, could not commit an injustice like that—how could God commit it? Could God really be the cause of these things?”
A different kind of silence. Completely different from the first. A silence in which something began to be shared. Then:
“No. God isn’t the cause of all this. It’s the boss!”
Perhaps for the first time, those peasants were making an effort to get beyond the relationship that I called, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that of the “adherence” of the oppressed to the oppressor, in order to “step back” from the oppressor, and localize the oppressor “outside” themselves, as Fanon would say.
From that point of departure, we could have gotten to an understanding of the role of the “boss,” in the context of a certain socio-economic, political system—gotten to an understanding of the social relations of production, gotten to an understanding of class interests, and so on and so on.
What would have been completely senseless would have been if, after the silence that had so brusquely interrupted our dialogue, I had given a traditional speech, crammed with empty, intolerant slogans.
* Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to Franz Fanon, Os condenados da Terra (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira).
* Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child, trans. Marjorie Worden (New York: Brace World, 1932).
* Ernesto Guevara, Obra revolucionária (Mexico City: Era, 1967).