Paulo Freire can still inspire us in the fight to democratise universities

At a time when marketised models are dominant, we must build on initiatives that put the stress on social justice and community engagement, says Peter Mayo

February 20, 2021
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Initiatives inspired by the ideas of Paulo Freire show how higher education can reach out to groups largely excluded elsewhere

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the Brazilian writer Paulo Freire (1921-97), one of the last century’s most heralded thinkers on education.

At a time when a neoliberal model of higher education is in the ascendant in many countries, with a focus on bureaucracy, measured outcomes and “employability”, his writings and example can inspire us to look at alternatives.

We can point to some striking initiatives such as the Social Science Centre at the University of Lincoln, which, for most of the past decade, offered “free, cooperative higher education courses and community projects in the city”. Or the Universidad de la Tierra or Unitierra network in Mexico, including one in Oaxaca, which arose in “the context of radical reactions against schooling observed in many Indigenous communities”.

Another classic example is the Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes (ENFF) in Freire’s native Brazil. This is run by one of the best-known subaltern social movements, the Landless Workers Movement or Movimento Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), as “a school to educate and train its members and working class youths and adults from around the world”.

In all these cases, we see higher education made accessible, serving communal needs, reaching out to the marginalised and the social movements that represent their interests. They could hardly be further from the much-touted “world class” or global university, yet all show the influence of Freire in taking as their point of departure the learners' existential situation.

According to this approach, a particular topic such as environmental degradation becomes the object of co-investigation by the community of learners and the designated educator. Their experiences are codified in the form of a play, photograph or something similar to provide critical distance from their everyday lives. In the words of North American educator Ira Shor, they get to re-experience the ordinary extraordinarily. Through this process, they are hopefully enabled to see themselves in a new light and so acquire the consciousness necessary to work for change.

The emphasis throughout Freire’s career is on investigation brought about by genuine dialogue. This puts the demand on educators that they be ready to rethink their ideas and gain new insights from their encounter with students. Although such “Socratic” approaches are not unknown in established universities, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, they are coming under increasing pressure.

Alternative projects inspired by Freire’s ideals do not always gain official recognition and accreditation. Some might be said to have a prefigurative role, in showing what a democratic university might look like. Although the ENFF has been given the status of a higher education institution, it is – needless to say – under attack from President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing government. Since it is an integral part of the powerful MST, however, it is proving a tough nut to crack.

There are a number of other ways in which Freire remains highly relevant. He was committed to the democratisation of higher education and hostile to calls for academics and other intellectuals to be “neutral”. Neutrality, as he saw it, meant siding with the dominant groups in society and so supporting the status quo. More generally, he has an important role in helping us understand the politics of knowledge, since he always stressed the collective dimension of knowledge and learning – something deeply at odds with the excessive individualism now generally characteristic of universities.

So what prevents many academics adopting Freire’s ideas?

One factor is what French philosopher and sociologist Jean-François Lyotard described in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge as “performativity”. When teaching and learning processes are evaluated in numerical terms, factors such as criticality and social justice are ignored.

Another part of the answer comes in the words of a British vice-chancellor who recently gave an address advising academics to “leave” the particular city in which their university is based and move “into the world”. Efforts to become a global brand mean that community engagement is neglected and unrewarded. For those who believe we have to do better, Freire remains a compelling voice showing how things could be otherwise.

Peter Mayo is a professor at the University of Malta, and a Freirean scholar and educator. His many books include Higher Education in a Globalising World: Community Engagement and Lifelong Learning (2019).

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