The Road not Taken, the Road Still Open

Sitting down to ponder again the impact of Paulo Freire’s work in Britain in the more than forty years since we first encountered it raises a storm of memories and emotions.

To begin with, it would be churlish to deny that the allied victory over Fascism in the second world war, alongside Labour’s triumph at the polls in 1945, opened the door to a certain kind of golden age in British society which lasted until the middle 1970s. We remember with gratitude ration books, slum clearance, council housing, the NHS, full employment, nationalization and the direction of industry, family allowances, social work, and the expansion and reorientation of some aspects of education, including student grants. In short, we remember the welfare state.

Equally significant changes were happening in one part of the wider environment, until very recently called the British Empire, then rapidly being repackaged as Our British Commonwealth of Nations.

With hindsight, it is clear to anyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see that there was a lot more to be done. The phrase “half way there” was used by Brian Simon and Caroline Benn to characterize the situation in education. Conflicting cultural trends were much in evidence. The atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s was a mixture of authoritarian echoes from the past, and libertarian noises-off disguised as prophecy. Pop music was bidding to replace religion as the national wallpaper (astonishingly, 50 years later, some versions of social science continue to punt this proposition).

From an existential and more reflective point of view, much was uncertain, and much that had previously been unspoken was more loudly silent than ever. In Britain as a whole, think of Samuel Becket’s plays, novels and tapes. Of Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Of John Macmurray’s The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation. Of Ronnie Laing’s The Divided Self. Of Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized. Of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Of Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom. Of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch.

That reading list from those days is offered as a kind of intellectual backcloth to the arrival of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in English in 1972. The existential backcloth is poverty, above all in the Third World, as experienced directly by Paulo and his family in North-east Brazil, but more widely and variously throughout the world as a whole, in the aftermath of not one but two insane world wars, followed immediately by an equally crazy cold war. And accompanied by the gradual reawakening of the capitalist dragon.

I first began to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed around 1975, when the British Labour Government was secretly preparing to apply for a massive bail-out, from the International Monetary Fund. Up until that point Labour’s social contract with the British people meant in practice rising prices combined with an annual programme of strikes aimed at keeping wages and salaries ahead of price inflation. This economistic version of class struggle was led by the trade union movement, organized nationally by the TUC, the Union HQs and conferences, and locally by the shop stewards movement.

In public, in Britain, radical politics still took the form of Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist – and then also Maoist – sects, ever multiplying in number, ever shriller in sloganeering. Half-hidden behind all this, there was what I considered a decent left, active in the Westminster Parliament in the voices of “good left” Labour MPs, in parts of the Trade Union movement, and in the best parts of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) which were to be found mainly in the minefields and above all in Glasgow.

What was new in Britain was community action, and there were new trends also in religion, in Catholicism associated with the name of Pope John 23rd (Christianity and Social Progress), in Latin America with Personalism and Liberation Theology, in France with Personalism and Worker Priests, in Scotland with the Iona Community and the Gorbals Group, and in Northern Ireland with the Corymeela Community.

Gerri and I and many others had been active in community action and adult education in Staveley in north-east Derbyshire, and then in the Barrowfield and Castlemilk housing schemes in Glasgow, and it was while we were living in Castlemilk that we first came across Freire’s work.

We should identify also at this point a significant feature of British intellectual, political and cultural life. A great split had developed between the sciences on the one hand and the arts, religion and some versions of philosophy on the other. This is not an attempt to explain why, or explain it away, simply to insert this reality into the conversation. One result was that some British science and social science had become intellectually impoverished. Careful examination of fundamental assumptions, purposes and values had become suspect in certain quarters. In my view, thinking that is not ethically, imaginatively and personally grounded is itself suspect. The research bandwagon was beginning to roll, which as time has gone on has led to some University-based academics becoming mere tools of government and private sector funding. Another feature of the split was the overvaluation of crude (pleasure/pain) utilitarianism. These features fused with a much older tendency of the British elites to perceive the general population as rude mechanicals, to be dismissed as “these people” or disparaged as the great unwashed.

The overarching resultant was that British socialism became something that was done to the population, however benignly, by powerful centralised elites. The people were not involved significantly as human beings, as persons with human relationships, with intelligent perspectives, values, opinions and creative contributions to offer. These trends had disastrous effects in housing, other aspects of building, planning, the media and in society as a whole. Their wider effect was to undergird the centralism of British political, institutional and cultural life, and intensify the “success of the few” dynamic. They prevented genuine decentralization and stopped the emergence of a genuinely popular politics. Fortunately, Paulo Freire did not share these prejudices.

Freire was born in 1921 into a middle class family in Recife in north-east Brazil. In the great world economic crash of 1929, his family’s precarious stability collapsed. He experienced hunger, and fell behind at school. His father died. For a time he shared the plight of the poor. These experiences underpinned the development of many of his concepts such as “the culture of silence” and “submergence”, his decision to work in the field of adult education, and his understanding that educational failure is not a technical problem capable of technological solutions, but derives from the whole situation of economic, social and political domination, and from paternalism (Richard Shaull, in the Foreword to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin, 1972).

When you read Pedagogy of the Oppressed for yourself, as I urge you to do, it will take you by surprise. You may even be astonished. It is not British at all. It is not about heaping up huge mounds of data, labelling it “research” and spending 300 pages analyzing it statistically, with diagrams, and proving that technique X rather than technique Y has been demonstrated to produce more rapid advance to outcome Z by more 5 year olds who have all consumed exactly the same amount of Weetabix.

Instead, Freire starts by asserting that the central problem of human beings has always been the problem of humanization. He makes this assertion from what he calls an axiological point of view, which, he goes on to explain, involves ethical, aesthetic and religious concerns. He moves on immediately to consider the recognition of dehumanization, “not only as an ontological possibility but as a historical reality”.

Guess what? Paulo Freire is a real philosopher of education, something which is very rare nowadays. He thinks, here and now, in front of your eyes, in your mind. And he makes you think. His own approach is to think in terms of the assumptions with which he confronts education and living in society as it actually is. That in turn challenges you, his reader, to examine your own fundamental assumptions. You will get used to this. Either you will stop reading Freire very quickly, like Harold Wilson did with Marx. (Wilson claimed that he stopped reading Marx at the end of the first footnote.) Or, if you keep going, it will keep you awake. It will keep you thinking. It will keep you problematizing.

I don’t want to diminish the happiness and the challenges you will experience if you read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It is quite short: only 153 pages long. It has four chapters, which range – as many such thinking-from-first-principles books do – from basic assumptions to approaches to practice. By the end, if you keep going, you will understand what Paulo Freire means by oppression, oppressors and oppressed, and liberation as a mutual process; by the conflicting banking and problem-posing concepts of education; by the teacher-student contradiction and how it can be overcome; by seeing persons as consciously incomplete beings who are attempting to become more fully human; by the word, by dialogue and its two dimensions of reflection and action; and you will understand his affirmation that to speak a true word is to transform the world. You will meet and struggle to understand the idea of generative themes, of creating the programme content of education, and the idea of critical consciousness. And finally you will come to grips with the theory of anti-dialogical action, which he summarises as conquest, divide and rule, manipulation and cultural invasion. And his counter-theory of dialogical action: cooperation, unity, organization and cultural synthesis.

By now, you may have got hold of the idea that Paulo Freire is a kind of personalist, a Christian socialist, a Christian Marxist, a Christian communist, but not one who subordinates means to ends. I think that view of Freire is substantially correct. He sees human beings as subjects who know and act, not objects which are known and acted upon. He identifies the dialogical educator with the revolutionary leader, though he makes it plain that he has never been a revolutionary leader. Does this mean that he is naïve? Well, on more than one occasion, he says that he has been, and is, naïve. But that does not mean that he takes a negatively critical view of his own naivete. I don’t think he does, but you will have to decide for yourself what to make of this question.

One of the most striking and original insights in Freire’s work, which I think grows out of the particular processes involved in the historical dynamics of human culture in Latin America, as a result of the invasion of that continent by “Christian” imperialism in the form of Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors with the sword in one hand and the bible in the other, is his understanding of human consciousness or consciousness-language, with its phases of magical, naïve, with possible backward deflection to fanatical and possible forward development to critical consciousness. This closely connects with his understanding of the process he calls conscientisation, a key ground of encounter and dialogue between Freirean and feminist thinking from the 1970s onwards.

Paulo Freire is not the only thinker to have devoted attention to these understandings, which grow out of this distinctively Latin American inheritance. His work has significant connections with the innovative work of Enrique Pichon-Riviere and that of our contemporary Juan Tubert-Oklander, both group analysts and psychoanalysts. And I emphasise, as I have always done, that this inheritance is for the whole world and not for the third world only. As Paulo Freire said to an Australian religious, Sister Margaret Costigan: “You have the third world inside you”. And as he remarked on another occasion: “the Paulo Freire method is not a third world extravaganza”.

We turn now to the most difficult and in some respects disheartening part of this paper: how has Freire’s work been received in Britain? When his early books arrived (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Cultural Action for Freedom, Education: the Practice of Freedom), they were welcomed with enthusiasm by significant numbers of people. In the 1970s, Gerri and I met and communicated and in some cases worked with radical Christians from Scotland, England and Chile. We also knew and collaborated with working class activists within the broad labour and trade union movement, in the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party and many with no political affiliation. We both came from Christian backgrounds, one catholic, the other protestant, but had at that time turned away from the institutional churches and their rigid dogmas and practices. While many working class CP activists – themselves sometimes from religious backgrounds – were admirable figures, almost like early Christians in their sincerity and altruism, it was clear that their party would never gain popular political support, because of its perceived hostility to religion and its loyalty to the Soviet Union and the other countries of the eastern bloc.

Yet society was crying out for a new way, and Freire’s ideas and practices, for us, held out great hope. After the deaths of Bevan and Gaitskell, Labour seemed to lose the radicalism of its vision and turn away from ordinary people towards large-scale technocratic solutions embodied in the development of what were perceived as “good policies”. The Labour Party became what Harold Wilson labelled “a machine for electing Labour MPs”. Locally, their slogan was “leave it to us”. John P Mackintosh’ s book The Devolution of Power actually proposes decisive moves away from local democracy towards large-scale regional frameworks. Direct popular democracy was held to be irrelevant; the majority of Labour MPs were known to be hostile to it.

As the 1970s advanced the priority of balancing the books rose. Failing industries were to be allowed to go to the wall. (Thank God for Jimmy Reid, Jimmy Airlie, Sammy Barr and their fellow workers in the Upper Clyde Shipyards!) Free school milk was withdrawn. On the left, hardline centralist thinking was growing in strength, at the very time when popular deference to the old ruling class was in decline. People were turning away from Labour, as Labour was turning away from people, and in 1979, exasperated with the endless strikes yet habituated to economistic solutions, the British people as a whole voted for Thatcherism for the first time. Greed and jingoism became popular themes. The decent left lost ground to anti-democratic thuggery. There was a swing to Trotskyism in the form of Militant, and when that was headed off, a kind of centre-right version of Thatcherite social democracy within Labour proclaimed itself intensely relaxed about people becoming extremely rich. Greed and self-interest had become the new good. The Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall collapsed, and the cause of the good society was lost for a generation. In a sense it still is lost.

As I argued in Vulgar Eloquence in 1990, the new wine had voluntarily poured itself into the old bottles of Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism and Maoism, and the new right revelled in its freedom to do whatever it liked. A utilitarian conception of socialism as state-provided, centralized and bureaucratized had shunted aside the original visions of Jesus of Nazareth, Francis of Assisi, the Levellers and the Diggers, William Blake, Robert Burns, William Morris and millions of women throughout human history. As John McDonnell, Labour’s current shadow chancellor, has recently acknowledged, Labour had become far too statist and far too centralist. You cannot create the good society without the direct engagement of the people, and without a movement based on fundamental values of friendship, relationship, community and personal agency, and the just distribution of resources, roles and responsibilities: without vision, fundamental democratization, and good strong leadership at local, regional and national levels. That is what Paulo Freire’s thinking and his approach to adult education embodied when we first encountered it. It still does.

In the autumn of 1976, I began to work for the WEA in South-east Scotland, and immediately began a house reading group on Pedagogy of the Oppressed. We went on to run a weekly course entitled Community Action and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, attended by Community Educators, Area Officers of the Community Education Service, Social Workers and Community Development Workers. After initial close reading work, focused on understanding Freire’s key concepts and how they might translate from Portuguese into English, and from Latin America and Africa into Scotland, England and Ireland, I invited course members to prepare and present proposals to adapt these ideas and methods in a Scottish context. Among others, two course members, Fraser Patrick and Douglas Shannon, did so. Their proposal was further developed and submitted by Lothian Regional Council to the Scottish Office for funding: Labour was still in power in Westminster at this point. Their proposal was accepted and the Adult Learning Project (ALP) was launched as an Urban Aid Project in the Gorgie Dalry area of Edinburgh. It was launched in the autumn of 1979, ironically at the same time as the first Thatcherite Conservative Government came into power. It ran and flourished until 2016 when the City of Edinburgh Council finally discontinued its financial support.

This is not the place to tell the story of ALP, nor to critique it. The reader is referred to Living Adult Education: Freire in Scotland (1st edition)(Open University Press, 1989), by Gerri and Colin Kirkwood. The Paulo Freire Institute in Spain arranged for it to be translated into Castilian and Valencian, and published it in 2005, with a new Introduction by Jim Crowther and Ian Martin, and a new chapter by Vernon Galloway, Stan Reeves and Nancy Somerville entitled “ALP since 1990: A Flowering of Cultural Action”. This version was published in English as the ALP book’s second edition by Sense Publishers (now Brill/Sense) in 2011.

The ideas and methods of Freire were taught widely by myself and others, throughout Scotland, during the late 1970s, the 1980s and early 1990s. Gerri addressed national conferences on the work of ALP in Nottingham and Dublin, and together we ran a workshop on Freire’s method of codification and decoding at the International Conference held in New York in 1991 in honour of his 70th birthday. Paulo’s ideas also significantly influenced the lifelong work of Tom Lovett in Liverpool, Derry and Belfast. Lalage Bown, Emeritus Professor of Adult Education at the University of Glasgow, has been a supporter of Freire’s work throughout the world and throughout her career, and a consistent friend of ALP.

It is nevertheless sad to have to say that very few prominent University-based academics in the field of Adult Education in Britain have shown much interest in Freire’s thought. The two exceptions known to us are Paula Allman and Peter Jarvis, both of whom have treated his work seriously. I particularly admire Jarvis’s chapter, entitled “Paulo Freire”, in his edited book Twentieth Century Thinkers in Adult Education (Croom Helm, 1987). Sadder still is the reality that some academic adult educators have bodyswerved both Freire and ALP altogether, failing to reference either in their published work.

But the final note is a positive one. Freire’s work is prophetic and will be of lasting importance throughout the world. The Freirean road, not yet taken in Britain, remains open and full of hope. It indicates a way of moving forward educationally, socially, culturally and politically, it shows that good, strong leadership can ally itself with ordinary people treated as subjects who know and act, not objects which are known and acted upon, and move together effectively towards fundamental democratization and social justice.

The main reason I have spent my life in the fields of adult and community education, counselling and psychotherapy is that I wanted to challenge and help to change the “success of the few” culture, which more than ever dominates British society, into a “learning, brilliance and contributions of the many” culture. Not success, but the flourishing of all.

Colin Kirkwood, with Gerri Kirkwood. July 2018.


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This article was first published by the University of Edinburgh Journal, Concept, in December 2018, and is reproduced here with kind permission of the editor.

Comments (15)

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  1. Dougie Strang says:

    Thanks for this. I have a good few people whose lives were enriched by the ALP

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    I remember the publication well. I was engaged on a Masters in Education at the time and the concept of ‘conscientization’ struck me as a key strategy. I had a colleague who taught English who adopted it as his main way of encouraging young people to write. Interestingly, he had, himself left school early and trained as a printer before going to University.

    Around that time Mr Ken Livingstone took over the Greater London Council in what the right wing press described as a ‘coup’. Amongst the many progressive and liberating measures the GLC introduced was funding for literacy programmes, particularly for women and particularly for black women. They were taught by Freireian methods and have reflected upon their condition began to write and began to articulate how they were oppressed and how they might empower themselves.

    Initiatives like this were too much for Mrs Thatcher and, with the help of a mendacious media and a bit of ‘Black Paper’ intellectual input and the events at William Tyndale Primary School, she had a pretext for abolishing the GLC and the Inner London Educational Authority.
    She did not want a plausible and empowering alternative conceptual framework when she was seeking to change the hegemony to her brand of ‘free’ markets and the shift from the public to the private.

    Sadly, she did establish the hegemony which exists today, but which I hope, with Brexit and Trump is beginning to collapse under its own contradictions. I hope not too many of us get buried under the rubble!

  3. James Ritchie says:

    The British people as a whole voted for Thatcherism for the first time? I read this statement several times as I was sure my eyes must be deceiving me. Just as reminder, in the 1979 election in Scotland the Labour vote increased and Labour won 44 seats compared to 22 seats to the Conservatives. I am surprised that someone from the BC editorial team didn’t spot this clanger. As Neil Postman might say, my bullshit detector went off at full blast on reading it.

  4. Fay Kennedy says:

    Great to be reminded of Friere’s work which has so many benefits for making a more humane society.

  5. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Thank you for this thought – and hope – provoking writing.

  6. Elaine Fraser says:

    I have never heard of Freire. Very interesting and thought provoking .Will read more. Many thanks.

    Have just finished ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ where we can see what happens to critical thinking when the student becomes the ‘customer’. Also true on our campuses. Women needless to say come off the worse.

  7. 2012nancy says:

    Thank you for this, Colin, and thanks to Bella for spreading the word more widely. I know from experience how Freire’s ideas and the Adult Learning Project in Edinburgh transformed hundreds, if not thousands of lives, including mine. Sadly, the City of Edinburgh Council didn’t know what a jewel of education it had and gradually withdrew support and funding. The seeds were sown though and some continue to flourish. If you haven’t read ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed I urge you to do so. It will help you to make sense of the world and, through understanding, change it.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      2012nancy, projects like the one which you have described, no matter how successful they have been are always susceptible to eliminating whenever budgets are being cut or ‘rearranged’ because they are not part of the statutory provision – such as primary and secondary education. Unlike the statutory provision, they do not serve a huge section of the population ( although the section is usually much greater than estimated) and so does not cause the kind of political stushie that the stature parts do, especially those parts like post 16 education, which,in the main are a subsidy to the more affluent. The education trade unions will always support the largest part of their membership’s interests. ( I do not intend that as condemnatory, more a statement of fact, but, it does have downsides.)

      There is also the opposition which Friere himself faced that ‘if the wretched become too well educated they will threaten the privileged.’ It might not be displayed in ways that happened in Brazil, such as murders, but those in power can find ‘plausible’ arguments and laws that strife or make difficult transformative change

  8. JimR says:

    I left a comment questioning a piece of historical innacuracy in this piece. Why wasn’t it published?

  9. Jim Bennett says:

    One of the most important aspects of Freire’s philosophy is that you can’t use the methods of domestication for liberation. Genuine, widespread depth of engagement in politics is necessary for radical change to take place.

    Good article, Colin. Thank you! We’ll hopefully catch up sometime.

  10. florian albert says:

    Reading this article involved a bit of a trip down memory lane for me. I bought Pedagogy of the Oppressed and The Wretched of the Earth; also, Deschooling Society.
    I am not sure if I finished reading any of them. Only the last impressed me. (Looking back, I should have spent my money on Penguin shares rather than Penguin paperbacks.)
    This article fails to convince me that Paulo Freire is as significant as the author believes him to be.
    As the article describes, Scotland’s industrial economy collapsed around 1980. However, the writing had been on the wall for much of the ‘golden era’ before then.
    In Glasgow alone, over 60,00 manufacturing jobs were lost in the decade till 1971. People wanted work and security. I see little evidence that Freire’s ideas would have had much to offer those who were looking for a lifeboat in grim times.
    Perhaps the most compelling evidence for me is that nearly all those I knew at that time, who viewed themselves as radicals, opted for the security of public sector employment. (I went down that route.) 30-40 years on, these people mostly retired at 60, much less common for the working class than the middle class.
    This created a new pattern of inequality which has become entrenched.
    Life for those who failed to get into expanded middle class public sector has been much tougher materially and psychologically.
    I would like to see the ‘flourishing of all’ but I see an unequal society, where those who have done ‘more than OK’ are not that concerned with the rest.

    PS If the project in Gorgie/Dalry ran for 36 years and was successful, what reason/excuse was given when funding stopped ?

    1. I love the idea of such a meritocracy, where good projects are funded endlessly and bad ones are shut down : )

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        Hear! Hear!

      2. florian albert says:

        The obvious question is who decides which projects are good and which are bad ?

        Realistically, at a time of cuts to local government finance, the choice may be between very good and good projects.

        Since they are providing the (taxpayers’) money, it is logical that the council should make this decision.

        That said, the thought of Edinburgh Council making such decisions is utterly disheartening.

  11. SleepingDog says:

    “Paulo Freire is a kind of personalist, a Christian socialist, a Christian Marxist, a Christian communist, but not one who subordinates means to ends”
    What does this mean? Did Freire have not have a fixed end, an objective in mind? A democrat may subordinate ends to means (as long as a valid popular decision was made, that is the main thing, no matter what the consequences), even though that could undermine human rights or destroy the environment we and other lifeforms depend on for survival.

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