UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Andrew J. Kirkendall

Andrew J. Kirkendall is an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas and the author of Class Mates: Male Student Culture and the Making of a Political Class in Nineteenth-Century Brazil. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002).

He is currently working on a book on Paulo Freire and the politics of mass literacy campaigns during the Cold War era. Two articles based on research for this project have already appeared: “Entering History: Paulo Freire and the Politics of the Brazilian Northeast, 1958-1964,” Luso- Brazilian Review 41: 1 (Summer 2004): 168-189 and “Paulo Freire, Eduardo Frei, Literacy Training and the Politics of Consciousness Raising in Chile, 1964 to 1970,” Journal of Latin American Studies 36: 4 (November 2004): 687-717
“UNESCO, Paulo Freire, and the Politics of Adult Illiteracy in a Cold War World.”

From the 1960s through the 1980s, no single person was more central to the discussion of education issues in what was then called the Third World than the Brazilian Paulo Freire. From his beginnings working with newly urban adults in the impoverished northeast of his native land, Freire, as a result of national and global political circumstances, became a world figure who helped design mass literacy campaigns for a wide variety of governments. Like so many South Americans during the harsh years of military rule, he was forced to go into exile following a military coup, but in losing his homeland he gained the world. His work with the government of Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei from late 1964 to early 1969 helped him gain a Latin American perspective, and his ideas and techniques began to spread throughout the hemisphere. His work with the World Council of Churches in Geneva in the 1970s led him to even greater international renown, particularly through his work in newly independent African countries. He frequently served as a consultant for UNESCO over the years and received the UNESCO Prize for Education for Peace in 1986.
Oddly, for someone who so regularly asserted his belief in the fundamentally political nature of education, the political contexts in which he operated during the course of his career have often been slighted and misrepresented. He himself rarely spoke in any concrete way about the nature of the regimes which employed him, and too many books and articles written about him seem confused about when he worked for whom and for how long. Not surprisingly, the best books about him so far have been written in Portuguese, but they have tended to neglect his work in exile after 1964. Moreover, the larger international context which made his career possible also has been little studied by historians. My brief comments, drawn from a book I am writing on the subject and based on research in archives and libraries on three continents, will try to begin to address these issues.
Freire became an adult in a country which was changing dramatically, industrializing significantly if unevenly, and urbanizing rapidly. The Brazil of his early twenties to early forties was more democratic than it ever had been, but it still suffered from its oligarchical and authoritarian past. Illiterates were denied the right to vote in a country in which the ostentatious display of control over language had long been a marker of those with political power. Brazil in the 1950s and early 1960s was driven by a dream of economic growth. Freire’s own understanding of the world was heavily influenced by thinkers promoting what has been called developmental nationalism, as well as by his own deeply felt Catholic humanist faith. His emphasis on consciousness raising, and indeed much of the terminology which the world would come to call Freirean, had its roots in the writings of contemporary Brazilian social scientists and philosophers. During this era a problematic and paternalistic urban populism represented the dominant progressive trend. Freire began to work with adult illiterates in local community groups inspired by Catholic social action teachings. As part of the Popular Culture Movement of his native Recife, he began to develop his literacy training and consciousness raising methods.

Although he was working with local groups in a particular regional and national political context, his world was transformed by a larger international conjuncture of competing visions and interests. The Cold War was an era in which many countries sought to prove the superiority of their particular model of economic, social, political, and cultural organization. Adult illiteracy became a focus of international energies. The United Nations proclaimed the 1960s to be the decade of development. Moving beyond its focus on fundamental education and the training of elite teachers and administrators, UNESCO began making plans to address the issue of illiteracy directly. Cuba’s Fidel Castro promised to eliminate illiteracy, and, through a mass campaign which employed the volunteer labor of a large portion of the population, seemed to have largely succeeded in 1961. The US government, for its part, believed that an Alliance for Progress with the rest of Latin America would help eliminate the problem in the region by 1970.
In Brazil, Freire became a national figure when his techniques which allegedly could teach people to read and write in forty hours were adopted in a program funded by the US in a state governed by a US ally. Freire then was asked to organize a national campaign for a government which, on the other hand, was not supported by the US. João Goulart, a strange blend of ward heeler and populist president, hoped that the rapid addition of newly literate people to the electorate would create strong support for political and social reform. The military, supported by more traditional Brazilian politicians, saw a threat in Goulart, as well as in Freire, and overthrew the former and briefly imprisoned the latter.

For the next decade and a half, Freire worked in exile for both reformist and revolutionary governments. Adult literacy campaigns became a key component in state projects, but the question remained, what was literacy for? Some governments saw adult literacy programs as a means to promote economic modernization and an overall increase in agricultural and industrial production. The UNESCO emphasis in the 1960s on “functional literacy” suited their needs. While Freire frequently employed UNESCO language when it suited his purposes, his goals were often considered more political than economic. Freire worked for the better part of the 1960s for a reformist government in Chile whose Catholic humanism Freire found congenial and which was actively seeking to expand civil society and to promote rural unionization and agrarian reform. Chile’s pluralist political system in the 1960s was far removed, however, from the types of one-party states in Africa and Central America Freire advised while with the World Council of Churches. For them literacy was linked to political mobilization. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua were trying to establish the hegemony of their party through their intensive campaign, although many of the young people who took part (and many bourgeois supporters of the campaign, if not the government) thought they were building a nation out of what had been the Somozas’ “finca.” The relationship between the establishment of partisan hegemony and the idea of education as liberation, which the World Council of Churches and UNESCO (its own consciousness having been raised) promoted by the mid-1970s, was problematic, to say the least. Those who charged the Sandinistas with trying to domesticate the Nicaraguan population might have thought they had Freire on their side.

As both UNESCO and the World Council of Churches increasingly defined themselves as Third World institutions during the second “decade of development,” the complexities of international relations often got obscured. Freire’s projects for the Council often received the largest portion of their funding from liberal churches, which he disdained. The US, the “enemy of humanity,” provided more funding for the Sandinista literacy campaign than any other foreign country, even though the Nicaraguan’s model for the campaign was Cuba. Moreover, Freire’s projects often had contradictory results. Literacy campaigns failed in multi-lingual countries like Guinea Bissau which, politically, Freire considered ideally suited for his kind of campaign. The impact of Freire’s programs on students themselves often was unclear (and, in Nicaragua’s case, seemingly short-lived), but the middle-class urbanites who went into the countryside to teach, whether in Chile or Nicaragua, often had their own consciousness transformed.

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