A Brief Biography of Paulo Freire

A Brief Biography of Paulo Freire
by Leslie Bentley
(Current: 12/99)

EDUCATOR PAULO FREIRE was born September 19, 1921. He grew up in the Northeast of Brazil where his experiences deeply influenced his life work. The world economic crisis forced Freire to know hunger and poverty at a young age. He recalls in Moacir Gadotti’s book, Reading Paulo Freire, “I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge” (5). Because Freire lived among poor rural families and laborers, he gained a deep understanding of their lives and of the effects of socio-economics on education.

Freire became a grammar teacher while still in high school. Even then his intuition pushed him toward a dialogic education in which he strived to understand students’ expectations (5). While on the Faculty of Law in Recife, Freire met his wife, Elza Maia Costa de Oliveira, an elementary school teacher and an important force in his life. They married in 1944 when Freire was 23 and eventually had five children, three of whom became educators (4). Gadotti asserts that it was Elza who influenced Freire to intensely pursue his studies, and helped him to elaborate his groundbreaking educational methods.

Freire’s arsenal of educational thought began to manifest with his appointment in 1946 as director of Education at SESI, an employer’s institution set up to help workers and their families (Gadotti, 6). Here he began to see more disconnections between elitist educational practices and the real lives of the working class. Gadotti says, “Thus, a study of the language of the people was the starting point for the development of his work…” (7). During this time Freire also participated in the Movement for Popular Culture, and supported the active exercise of democracy in lectures and in his Ph.D. thesis, “Present-day Education in Brazil,” written in 1959. His convictions would earn him the title of “traitor.”

Freire’s pedagogy of literacy education involves not only reading the word, but also reading the world. This involves the development of critical consciousness (a process known in Portuguese as conscientização). The formation of critical consciousness allows people to question the nature of their historical and social situation—to read their world—with the goal of acting as subjects in the creation of a democratic society (which was new for Brazil at that time). For education, Freire implies a dialogic exchange between teachers and students, where both learn, both question, both reflect and both participate in meaning-making.

Concretely, this pedagogy begins with the teacher mingling among the community, asking questions of the people and gathering a list of words used in their daily lives. The teacher was to begin to understand the social reality of the people, and develop a list of generative words and themes which could lead to discussion in classes, or “cultural circles” (Gadotti 20). By making words (literacy) relevant to the lives of people, the process of conscientization could begin, in which the social construction of reality might be critically examined.

The year 1962 saw the first experiments in Freire’s method when 300 farmworkers were taught to read and write in just 45 days (15). As a result, the government approved thousands of cultural circles to be set up all over Brazil. Unfortunately, the military coup of 1964 halted the work, and changed Freire’s life.

(For a more complete exploration of Freire’s Pedagogy, see Gadotti, pages 15-30, and Freire’s Education for Critical Consciousness. For detailed insight into Freire’s concept of conscientização, see Tom Heaney’s work at: http://nlu.nl.edu/ace/Resources/Documents/FreireIssues.html)

In June 1964, Freire was imprisoned in Brazil for 70 days as a traitor. After a brief stay in Bolivia, he lived in Chile for five years working in the Christian Democratic Agrarian Reform Movement. In 1967 he published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom, bringing him acclaim and a position as visiting professor at Harvard in 1969. In 1968 he wrote his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in Spanish and English in 1970, but not in Brazil until 1974.

Freire was invited to Geneva in 1970 where he worked for ten years as a special educational advisor to the World Congress of Churches. During this time, Freire traveled worldwide helping countries to implement popular education and literacy reforms. Some of his most influential work was in Guinea-Bissau (a West African country) where he advised national literacy efforts and consequently published Pedagogy in Process: The Letters to Guinea-Bissau.

In 1979, after 15 years of exile, Freire was allowed to return to Brazil and did so in 1980. He joined the Workers’ Party (PT) in São Paulo and, from 1980 to 1986, supervised its adult literacy project. With the triumph of the PT in 1988, Freire was appointed Minister of Education for the City of São Paulo. His policy work and innovations in literacy training as Minister continue to effect the city and Brazil to this day. In 1991 the Paulo Freire Institute was created, “congregating scholars and critics of his pedagogy, in a permanent dialogue that would foster the advancement of new educational theories and concrete interventions in reality…. [This work] is carried out by 21 scholarly nuclei located in 18 countries” (Gadotti, “Homage”). The Institute is centered in São Paulo and maintains the Freire archives.

(Visit the Instituto Paulo Freire web site at: http://www.paulofreire.org.)

Freire has been recognized worldwide for his profound impact on educational thought and practice. He received numerous awards including honorary doctorates, the King Balduin Prize for International Development, the Prize for Outstanding Christian Educators in 1985 with Elza, and the UNESCO 1986 Prize for Education for Peace (Gadotti 76). In 1986, Freire’s wife, Elza died. He remarried to Ana Maria Araújo Freire, who continues with her own radical educational work.

(Much of the above biographical information is from Gadotti’s book, and from his “An Homage toPaulo Freire” with Carlos Alberto Torres: http://nlu.nl.edu/ace/Homage.html)

On May 2, 1997, Paulo Freire died of heart failure at the age of 75. Those who encountered Freire—whether as a lifelong friend, or from a distance through his intellectual writings—remember him with deep respect. Theatre artist David Diamond comments, “When I first read Paulo Freire, I was stunned and relieved and exuberant, for he was able to articulate what I knew and felt, but did not have the words for.” So it is with many who have been touched in some way by Freire’s work. He is most often referred to in the same sentence as the words love, compassion and hope.

(See the Fall 1997 issue of Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education published by Peter Lang Publishing, which contains the special section “Remembering Paulo Freire.”)

As he wished, Freire’s work continues to be reinvented and re-clarified according to changing political and intellectual thought and social movements. In terms of hope, he has stated that “New forms of subjectivity and new strategies of emancipatory praxis” arising from globally oppressed groups create “struggles which will lead to new forms of political culture and structures of radical democracy” (McLaren and Leonard, xi). And in the era of globalization, he wrote, “Narratives of liberation must not ignore the cultural particularism of their roots, yet at the same time they must not abandon the opportunity to coordinate on a global basis” (xi). As long as the struggle for more humane educational practices, for deeper insights into constructions of power and oppression, and the impulse for people to invent their own identities and realities exists—Freirean praxis will challenge every person toward personal and social liberation, both in thought and deed.

http://nlu.nl.edu/ace/Homage.html (An Homage to Paulo Freire)

http://nlu.nl.edu/ace/Resources/Documents/FreireIssues.html (Tom Heaney’s Excellent Piece on Freire)

http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-freir.htm (Informal Education)

http://www.continuum-books.com (Continuum Books)

http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/freire/freirebooks.html (Reviews of Freire’s Books)

http://www.paulofreire.org (Raymond V. Padilla of Arizona State U. on Freire) (In English and Portuguese)


Freire, Paulo. Education For Critical Consciousness. New York: Continuum, 1993.

— Letters To Christina:Reflections on My Life and Work. Trans. Donaldo Macedo. New York: Routledge, 1995.

— Pedagogy in Process: The Letters to Guniea-Bisseau. New York: Seabury Press, 1978.

— Pedagogy of the City. Trans. Donaldo Macedo. New York: Continuum, 1993.

— Pedagogy of the Heart. New York: Continuum, 1997.

— Pedagogy of Hope: Reviving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Robert R. Barr. New York: Continuum. 1995.

— Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. Rev. ed. New York: Continuum. (1973) 1994.

— The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation. Trans. Donaldo Macedo. South Hadley: Bergin and Garvey, 1985.

— and Myles Horton. We Make the Road By Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.


Castells, Manuel, Ramon Flecha, Paulo Freire, Henry A. Giroux, Donaldo Macedo, and Paul Willis. Critical Education in the New Information Age. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999.

Escobar, Miguel, Alfredo L Fernandez, Paulo Freire, and Gilberto Guervara-Niebla. Paulo Freire on Higher Education. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Faundez, Antonio, and Paulo Freire. Learning to Question: A Pedagogy of Liberation. Trans. Tony Coates. New York: Continuum, 1992.

Freire, Paulo, Ed., with James Fraser, Donaldo Macedo, Tanya McKinnon, and William Stokes. Mentoring the Mentor: A Critical Dialogue With Paulo Freire. New York: Peter Lang Publishing,

Shor, Ira, and Paulo Freire. A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education. MA: Bergin and Garvey, 1987.


Caulfield, Peter J. “From Brazil to Buncombe County: Freire and Posing Problems.” The Educational Forum 55.4 (Summer 1991) : 307 – 317.

Collins, Denis E. Paulo Freire: His Life, Works and Thought. New York: Paulist Press, 1977.

Elias, John L. Paulo Freire: Pedagogue of Liberation. Malabar, FL: Kreiger Press, 1994.

Facundo, Blanca. Freire Inspired Programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: The Latino Institute, 1984.

Freire, Ana Maria Araujo Freire, and Donaldo Macedo, Eds. The Paulo Freire Reader. New York: Continuum.

Giroux, Henry A. “Paulo Freire and the Concept of Critical Literacy.” Radical Pedagogy, pp. 77-82. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Heaney, Tom. “Issues in Freirean Pedagogy.” Thresholds in Education/ “Freire Issues” section, http://nlu.nl.edu/ace/Resources/Documents/FreireIssues.html. 08/29/96 and 12/28/99.

Leach, Tom. “Paulo Freire: Dialogue, Politics and Relevance.” International Journal of Lifelong Education 1.3 (1982) : 185 – 201.

Mayo, Peter. “Synthesizing Gramsci and Freire: possibilities for a theory of radical adult education.” International Journal of Lifelong Education 13.2 (March – April 1994) : 125 – 148.

— “Critical Literacy and Emancipatory Politics: the work of Paulo Freire.” International Journal of Educational Development. 15.4 : 363 – 379.

McLaren, Peter, “Paulo Freire and the Academy: a challenge from the U.S. Left.” Cultural Critique. (Spring 1996) : 151 – 184.

— and Colin Lankshear, eds. Politics of Liberation: Paths from Freire. London: Routledge, 1994.

— and Peter Leonard, eds. Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter. London: Routledge, 1993.

McCoy, Ken. “Liberating the Latin American Audience: The Conscientizacao of Enrique Buenaventura and Augusto Boal.” Theatre Insight 6.2 (Summer 1995) : 10 -16.

Schugurensky, Daniel. “The Legacy of Paulo Freire: A Critical Review of his Contributions.” Convergence – International Journal of Adult Education 31.1&2 (1998).

Shor, Ira, Ed. Freire for the Classroom: A Sourcebook for Liberatory Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1987.

Spring, Joel. “The Growth of Consciousness: Marx to Freire.” A Primer of Libertarian Education, pp. 61-79. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975.

Taylor, P. The Texts of Paulo Freire. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1993.

Torres, Carlos Alberto. The Politics of Nonformal Education in Latin America.

— Paulo Freire: Political Philosophy of Education.

Wallerstein, Nina. “Paulo Freire in the North: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Empowerment Education.” Trabalhos em Linguistica Aplicada 24.3 (1990).