Andrew J. Kirkendall.  Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy,  Chapel Hill  University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Marian B. Mollin (Virginia Tech)
Published on H-LatAm (March, 2012)
Commissioned by Dennis R. Hidalgo

Democracy, Justice, and the History of Paulo Freire’s World

Few books from the “global sixties” have gained a more widespread and
lasting influence than _The Pedagogy of the Oppressed_,_ _Paulo
Freire’s iconic 1970 text on education and social justice.  Alongside
such works as Frantz Fanon’s _The Wretched of the Earth _(1961) and
Simone de Beauvoir’s _The Second Sex_,_ _Freire’s _The Pedagogy of
the Oppressed_ became a transnational force for social and political
change.  As historian Andrew J. Kirkendall chronicles in _Paulo
Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy_, Freire’s ideas about
literacy training and humanistic empowerment helped shape liberation
struggles in Latin America, efforts at state building and citizen
empowerment in postcolonial Africa, United Nations and
nongovernmental (NGO) perspectives on “development,” teacher
education programs in the United States, and ecclesial reforms in the
post-Vatican II Catholic Church.  While aspects of this story are
familiar to many, Kirkendall’s book presents them in a new light by
placing Freire’s efforts squarely within the changing context of the
Cold War world and by examining long overlooked dimensions of
Freire’s career.  In doing so, Kirkendall provides an insightful and
historically informed explanation of the reasons behind Freire’s
far-ranging impact, even as he analyzes the contradictions that
putting the “Freire method” into practice brought to light.  The
result is a sweeping and ambitious study that spans the global and
chronological reach of the Cold War, yet keeps a clear focus on the
meaning and significance of Freire’s work as an educator of the
popular classes.

Kirkendall forcefully demonstrates how the dynamics of the Cold War,
and the way they played out both in Brazil and on the global stage,
shaped and transformed the trajectory of Freire’s career.  As
Kirkendall makes clear, Freire was very much a product of his time
and place.  From the start of his career as an educator in 1946
through his death in 1997, Freire responded to an ever-changing and
intertwined series of local and global realities, of which a defining
piece was the belief that literacy was necessary to support the kind
of economic development that would create more modern and equitable
societies in the so-called developing world.  His first position, as
director of an industrialist-funded worker education program in
northeastern Brazil, reflected the way these beliefs shaped the
priorities of Brazilian elites in the 1940s, who, in the midst of
increasing democratization, hoped that combating illiteracy would
calm an increasingly restive working class and promote “social
peace.”  These suppositions, combined with the influences of
Brazilian nationalism, postwar European existentialism, and Catholic
humanism, shaped Freire as well.  By the 1950s, he had transformed
literacy education into a vehicle to raise the consciousness of and
to empower Brazil’s marginal classes, making a name for himself among
educators across the region.  The United States’ decision to promote
development, and thus literacy, as a way to deter communist expansion
heightened the significance of Freire’s work and increased his
prominence on a national level.  Freire benefited from these dynamics
in the early 1960s, when the United States funneled millions of
dollars of aid into northeastern Brazil through the Alliance for
Progress, but also suffered from them after 1964 when the Brazilian
elite and the United States abandoned his country’s burgeoning
democratic experiment in favor of a military coup.  Nevertheless,
life in exile expanded his reach.  Kirkendall recounts how the
literacy programs that Freire supervised in Chile from 1964 to 1969
gave him a continental stage and transformed him into one of the most
internationally recognized figures of the Latin American new Left.
By the early 1970s, his influence had achieved global reach through
his work with the World Council of Churches–where he guided the
council’s international education efforts–and the publication of his
seminal text, _The Pedagogy of the Oppressed._  In the 1970s and
1980s, as anti-imperialist struggles increasingly defined the fault
lines of late Cold War policy and debate, Freire took his literacy
programs to West Africa and Nicaragua, where they became linked to
the formation of revolutionary consciousness.  By the end of his life
he had come to stand not just as a Brazilian or a South American, but
as a representative of liberation struggles across the third world.

Kirkendall_ _saves his most pointed analysis for his assessment of
Freire’s work over the course of the educator’s long career.  In the
first half of the book, Kirkendall applauds how Freire and his
literacy programs personified the best and most idealistic impulses
of the Latin American new Left of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly
its commitment to human welfare, social change, and the search for a
nonaligned “third way” between capitalism and communism.  According
to Kirkendall, Freire’s quest for a more equitable society was most
successfully manifest in the literacy projects that he established in
Brazil and Chile during the hopeful years of the 1960s.  Freire built
off on the democratizing forces promoted by Joao Goulart in Brazil
and Eduardo Frei in Chile as he structured programs around the tenets
of dialogue, reflection, and communication.  His end goal was to
raise both literacy levels and the social and political consciousness
of the programs’ participants, students, and teachers alike, and thus
move toward more just and participatory societies.  Kirkendall argues
that these efforts deserve praise, not only because of their
successful educational outcomes, but also because Freire’s ability to
eschew partisan political identification, at least temporarily,
furthered “the democratization of both Brazil and Chile” (p. 89).

Kirkendall’s positive assessment of Freire’s work quickly wanes,
however, once his analysis of the 1970s begins.  The second half of
the book vigorously criticizes Freire and his followers for
abandoning what the author describes as their commitment to
pluralistic democracy in favor of uncritical support for one-party
revolutionary states.  Kirkendall bemoans how, over time,
consciousness raising too often led to radicalization and a decisive
shift to the left, not only for Freire but also for progressive
movements across Latin America.  From Kirkendall’s perspective,
Freire’s growing tendency to ignore anyone to his political right
betrayed his pedagogical commitment to “dialogue.”  So, too, did his
eager embrace of third world revolutions that disavowed capitalism
and liberal democracy in favor of “liberation.”  In Kirkendall’s
telling, the contradictions between Freire’s theory and practice only
increased after 1975, when Freire took the lead in developing
literacy programs in the former Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau
and São Tome and Principe, and in revolutionary Nicaragua.  In a
compellingly told and largely overlooked piece of Freire’s history,
Kirkendall makes it clear that the Freire method did not necessarily
translate well to other countries.  In some instances, literacy rates
did not appreciably rise; in all three of these cases, the projects
served blatantly partisan purposes, with heavy overtones of
indoctrination.  Ultimately Kirkendall argues that by using his
programs to promote revolutionary one-party political states, Freire
compromised his personal ideals and the most fundamental tenets of
his pedagogical beliefs.

In making this assessment, however, Kirkendall neglects important
details about the growing global critique of Western liberalism, an
unintentional result of U.S. Cold War policies in the developing
world.  Kirkendall thus criticizes Freire’s move to the left and
subsequent embrace of one-party revolutionary states, but does not
fully explain why these shifts may have occurred.  Most notably, he
neglects to discuss how Freire’s ideological evolution reflected a
growing global disenchantment with the contradictions in Western
liberalism, a disenchantment that went far beyond Freire or the
larger Latin American new Left.  As Freire and his allies came to
learn, much that was promised by the United States was never
delivered, and U.S. foreign policymakers frequently sacrificed their
ostensible commitment to democracy and economic development in other
nations for the sake of containing a perceived communist menace.  As
a result, from the mid-1960s on, many of those who struggled for a
more equitable world–in the United States, in Latin America, and
across the developing world–came to mistrust the U.S. government and
the Cold War liberalism it represented.  These were not simply
theoretical debates.  Freire was certainly radicalized by the
challenging dialogues that his literacy programs stimulated.  But it
is likely that his consciousness also evolved due to the experience
of living through a U.S.-backed military coup; of suffering through
arrest, imprisonment, and exile; and of seeing his hopes for
pluralistic democracy snuffed out again and again by a combination of
homegrown reactionaries and U.S. foreign policy.  Kirkendall does
concede that changes in the broader political climate played some
role in Freire’s shifting allegiances, explaining that “as
[democratic] options narrowed, opinions hardened” (p. 89).  But
_Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy_ pays scant
attention to how U.S. intervention contributed to the narrowing of
these democratic possibilities, not only in nations that experienced
U.S.-supported right-wing military coups, but also in nations that
experienced revolutions from below and then struggled to find ways to
preserve their gains in the face of U.S.-backed threats.  Freire and
his allies may have abandoned the goal of “pluralistic democracy,”
but so did U.S. foreign policy.  This was part of the reality to
which Freire and his work were forced to respond.

Kirkendall’s argument also raises the question of just how central
“pluralistic democracy” was to Freire’s utopian vision of social
change, and thus how significant the apparent contradiction was
between Freire’s commitment to democracy and his practice of
supporting third world revolutionary states.  As a reading of _The
Pedagogy of the Oppressed_ makes clear, Freire ultimately hoped that
his pedagogical model would give the marginalized and exploited
classes the tools they needed to enter the historical process,
transform their realities, and overcome their oppression.  His goal
was, above all else, “humanization” and social justice, a small “d”
“democratic” vision concerned with empowering the impoverished
majority of Latin America rather than protecting the privilege of the
minority elite.  Thus, while Freire’s literacy programs could operate
within a pluralistic democratic political framework, it is unlikely,
based on his work in the 1970s, that Freire believed they had to.  At
the same time, Kirkendall dismissively characterizes Freire’s
“lifelong engagement with the poor” as “admirable” (p. 167).  This
commitment to the most marginalized members of Latin American society
and of the world, however, was not just admirable, but central to
Freire’s life and work.  To criticize Freire for not pledging himself
as fully to “pluralistic democracy” as he did to justice for the poor
requires imposing a value structure onto his life that he did not
necessarily ascribe to, and assigning more primacy to a goal than he
was willing to do himself.

Nevertheless, on many levels, _Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics
of Literacy_ is an impressive work of scholarship that sheds
important light on the practice and significance of Freire’s career.
Kirkendall utilizes an extraordinary range of primary
sources–including Brazilian, Chilean, and Nicaraguan manuscript
collections; archival material from the World Council of Churches in
Geneva, Switzerland; U.S. government documents; and textbooks and
primers from Freire’s various literacy campaigns–and secondary
literature in order to place Freire’s transnational efforts within a
carefully delineated global historical context.  Kirkendall’s
analysis of the impact of global forces on local and regional
politics in post-World War II Brazil and Chile in the 1960s is
particularly strong, as is his nuanced portrayal of the development
and practice of the Freire method in both of these nations.
Kirkendall’s attention to Freire’s international work in the 1970s
under the auspices of the World Council of Churches also deserves
praise: it covers important new ground and allows an honest
assessment of the limits of Freire’s pedagogical praxis as it moved
to unfamiliar terrain.  For readers interested in the politics of
literacy, Latin American history over the “long sixties,” the local
and regional impact of international politics, or the movement of
ideas across the globe, this volume has much to offer even as it
raises important questions and concerns.

Citation: Marian B. Mollin. Review of Kirkendall, Andrew J., _Paulo
Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy_. H-LatAm, H-Net
Reviews. March, 2012.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


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