The Power of an idea

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who died last spring in Sao Paulo at 76, proved again the enormous power of an idea. Beginning with the conviction that there is no such thing as neutral education, he taught reading and writing to illiterate Brazilian peasants using a method he called conscientizacao, which poorly translated means consciousness raising.

Trying to explain Freire’s pedagogy in abstract terms is in some ways a violation of its basic principle. Only concrete examples bring to life the power of his breakthrough concept.

Picture, then, the classroom of a quality parochial school in a Third World city. Poor parents, who sacrifice to place their children in the school, gather for an evening session of conscientizacao. They are presented with a real life case study: What do they think of a worker who rejected a promotion to the management side of his factory because the new position would have removed him from his working-class roots?

The parents understand the stakes involved in the case—for that worker, loyalty to class meant giving up individual advancement. For these parents, who have sacrificed to keep their children in this fine school, their first instinct is to consider the worker foolish for returning to the factory floor.

Gradually, however, without prompting from the "instructor," second thoughts creep over the group as they ponder the merits of class loyalty. Finally, one of the parents timidly suggests that the worker who abandoned advancement was a "hero to their class." The rest slowly agree. A new grasp of reality has taken hold in their minds; they have "conscientized" themselves. The teacher served as catalyst, posing the question but never imposing the answer. The process is quintessentially Freirian.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1997
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