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bell hooks & Herb Kohl on the Life & Legacy of Paulo Freire, Visionary Brazilian Education Activist

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Paulo Freire was a Brazilian education activist and author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” He died last week, but his legacy of education reform will live on. We speak with bell hooks, who had a personal relationship with Freire and has studied, criticized, applauded and been heavily influenced by him. She speaks about teachings of Freire and the lessons his life can teach. We also speak with Herb Kohl, who studied the life and teachings of Freire.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian education activist, died last week in Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo, Brazil. He was 75 years old. It would be hard to overemphasize the impact of Paulo Freire’s work. His best-selling book Pedagogy of the Oppressed influenced activists and educators worldwide. In teaching, Paulo Freire sought to generate among students critical thinking. He believed that students should be active participants and not passive consumers in the education process. He refined his education methods beginning in the late 1950s during literacy campaigns among peasants in the poverty-stricken northeast of Brazil. In teaching literacy, he wanted to generate in his students a critical comprehension of reality, as he called it. In applying his techniques, he and his many disciples made use of terms like “land” and “hunger,” which they selected because the words related to the students’ political and social setting, when they taught reading and writing to workers and peasants.

His philosophy has been used throughout Africa. He spent a lot of time in particularly the Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa. His literacy ideas were used in Nicaragua during the time of the Sandinistas during the literacy campaigns, as well as in Cuba, and also throughout the United States.

Right now we’re going to hear just an excerpt, a couple of sentences, of Paulo Freire, just a few years ago. He was speaking at the Harvard Graduate School of Education,

PAULO FREIRE: We have to be much more demanding concerning what means to learn and what means to teach. And if it seems like it is gone, in some time we will have a small elite commanding science and technology, and a fantastic multitude of ignorant people.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Paulo Freire, just a few years ago, in Boston, Massachusetts, at Harvard Graduate School of Education. And his effect is really hard to calculate right now, except that all over the world he is known.

Yesterday I had a chance to go over to the apartment of bell hooks in Greenwich Village. She is an author, cultural critic and feminist, and she was deeply moved by and influenced by Paulo Freire. I talked to her about her remembrance of him.

bell hooks: Well, like many people who have studied Paulo Freire, I first came to his work through reading his books. And then, when I was in graduate school, he came to the University of California, Santa Cruz. And I was — at that time, I just published my first book, Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism. And people actually tried to keep me out of what was going to be a small group of 25 people meeting Paulo Freire, because they didn’t want feminist issues to intrude upon this man of — this, you know, great educator coming from another country. And someone said, “This is just absurd. This is what education is all about.” And they gave me their slot.

And sure enough, you know, I wanted to ask Paulo about all of those, you know, comments about liberation being about men coming into their humanity and manhood. And when I did, people immediately tried to silence me. And he won my heart forever, because he said, you know, “Stop, what are you trying to do? You shouldn’t — she’s absolutely right to question. That’s what I am saying in my work.” And for that moment, I mean, he was such an incredible embodiment of who he was as a teacher and as a human being in the world, that he said, “Look, I’m writing about openness and interrogation and the fact that people should be able to ask questions. That’s what learning is about. So I don’t want anybody keeping someone from asking me difficult questions about my work.”

And that was the beginning of my personal relationship with Paulo Freire, which continued, and — you know, over the years that we talked about the way I was trying to bring a feminist component to education for critical consciousness, because so many of the men that have been influenced by Paulo’s thinking have not wanted to move it forward, even though he has championed the notion of moving in a more progressive direction around language, in relation to gender, around how we think about liberation.

AMY GOODMAN: He talks about being a man and manhood and realizing that. How did he respond to you that first time?

bell hooks: He responded by saying this was his beliefs at a particular point in time, that he had considered, you know, rewriting some of the early work, but that he decided that the best gesture for him to make would be to honor the critiques of that and to change. And so, when you read later works, like Pedagogy of the City and, you know, the sort of books that are much more recent, you see a complete change in how he uses examples that he uses, and not that sort of upholding of a kind of patriarchal masculinity that is so there in the early work.

AMY GOODMAN: How did he influence your teaching, your beliefs in education?

bell hooks: Well, the most wonderful gift that Paulo ever gave to me was seeing him embody the beliefs in his books, because I think that in our culture, so often, people teach beliefs, values, ideas, that have no relationship to how they live their lives. And each of the many times that I saw Paulo, I saw him exemplify again and again a unity between theory and praxis. And that has inspired me both as an intellectual and as a teacher to want to have that kind of unity, to believe and to know that it’s not a dream or a fantasy, but that you can teach by being in the world as much as you can by the books you write, and what have you, if not more so.

AMY GOODMAN: Everyone talks about Pedagogy of the Oppressed, talking about how he believed that education and learning to read and write was for liberation. But what was the technique he actually taught?

bell hooks: Well, I mean, one of the big messages of Paulo Freire is that the techniques have to vary depending on the circumstance. I mean, one of the books of Paulo Freire that people don’t read a lot are The Letters to Guinea-Bissau, where he goes there to be a part of the liberation struggle to encourage literacy. And he is so insistent that people have to begin their strategizing for education where — for liberation where they are, in the specificity of their nation, their tribe, their country, their what have you. And I think that that is a misunderstanding that many people have about Freire, because they don’t — they only read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and they don’t look at all the other things that he did that show his own growth and development.

AMY GOODMAN: I see you have Pedagogy of the City with you, one of Paulo Freire’s later books. How does this differ from his first, Pedagogy of the Oppressed?

bell hooks: Well, I think that one particular aspect that is throughout his later works is Paulo began to talk a great deal more about the place of love in liberation struggle, and pleasure. And, in fact, I had this book here because I was reading this great quote from him where he says, “I think that the task of liberty, the task of liberation, the history as possibility, the understanding of the conscious and sensual body, full of life, necessarily demands a pedagogy of contentment.” So that I think part of how he underwent a certain kind of feminist transformation as a thinker was that he began to really value and write about, in his later work, much more the kind of values of affirmation and nurturance that he felt in his life had come from women and that he, as a man, needed to learn and embody, and that his sons needed to embody. And we see so much more of talking about domesticity and the value of domesticity and intellectual exchange. Paulo had two wives: his longtime wife Elza and then the later wife Nita. And one of the things that he did in both of those choices was to talk about, in his later books, what it means to have a comrade. He talks about death and dying more, because the loss of Elza was a very, very devastating loss in his life. And I think all of those things make him unique among male intellectuals globally, that we see him bringing into the work itself aspects of the personal that is political, that so many male intellectuals never do.

AMY GOODMAN: bell hooks, in your book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, you use a quote of Paulo Freire. What was that quote?

bell hooks: In the introduction to Teaching to Transgress, there’s a quote that precedes the entire book. And it says that this capacity “to begin always anew, to make, to reconstruct, and to not spoil, to refuse to bureaucratize the mind, to understand and to live life as a process — live to become” is something that always accompanied me throughout life.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you met him first at University of California, Santa Cruz, when you made your way into this session you were not supposed to be a part of. When else did you actually meet with him?

bell hooks: Well, because we began a friendship then, I met with him different times that he came to the States, but I was also at different conferences that Paulo Freire was at. I felt like one of the reasons my relationship with Paulo was important to me was that it was so intergenerational and that I could accept aspects of him that came both from the different cultural milieus — like I used to, you know — I used to ask Paulo, “Well, you know, do you consider yourself white, or are you a Brown person?” And, you know, he was always willing to, like, rise and also be truthful. I think one of the major lessons he also taught me is to claim one’s class privilege, one’s positionality, as it truly is, and not to feel that somehow if you have privilege, as he had throughout his later life, that you can also be progressive and be radical, but that you have to be honest about the nature of that privilege. That’s why I think The Letters to Guinea-Bissau are so crucial as as a way that he maps out how people who may have certain privilege go into a context of so-called underdevelopment and use their resources to educate people whose experiences of life may be radically different from their own.

AMY GOODMAN: How did his years in exile, years not being able to be in Brazil because of a military coup, how did that affect him?

bell hooks: I think part of what exile did with Paulo was deepen his compassion and deepen his sense of himself as being part of a world culture. I think that it’s awesome, really, when you think about how much his work has affected so many different people around the world. And that capacity to speak across boundaries seems to me — and he and I often talked about this — to be something that came from those years spent in displacement, in exile, in a kind of classic, postmodern sort of space of constant change and fragmentation and a sense of loss.

AMY GOODMAN: bell hooks, author, cultural critic and feminist, deeply influenced by Paulo Freire, as she remembers the great Brazilian education activist. And in these last few moments that we have left, we wanted to turn to Herb Kohl, who is now in San Francisco, also an educator and an author of more than 30 books on education, including the books 36 Children and I Won’t Learn from You.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Herb. You’ve just heard the conversation with bell hooks. Your final thoughts on your friend, Paulo Freire?

HERBERT KOHL: Well, I think the one thing that hasn’t been spoken enough — well, two things — is that Paulo was both a very, very spiritual person and that a lot of his work has had an enormous effect upon the radical church, in particular the radical Catholic Church throughout the world, because Paulo’s reverence was very much an important part of his work. But the other thing was that he was also a revolutionary. And it’s very important to understand that most of his life and work was done in the context of trying to change the world, with risk. And one of the things that Paulo talks about all the time is that you can’t do education of the people unless you yourself, as an educator, is going to take risks with the people. So I think that’s really one of the central parts of his way of looking at the world. The other way is that he talks about problem-posing education, that the goal is not to answer the questions but to be able to really help people raise the questions which they will answer themselves, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: You did a piece, Herb Kohl, in Rethinking Education, a magazine.

HERBERT KOHL: It’s Rethinking Schools, actually.

AMY GOODMAN: Rethinking Schools, called “Nurturing One’s Dreams.” It was a review of Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of Hope. Is that his last book? I know it was out in 1994.

HERBERT KOHL: It’s the last published book. I believe he was writing until he died. But it’s a book in which he tries to reconsider what is going to happen as an educator who really is for people who are poor and oppressed, in the context of soft democracy throughout the world, in the context of the pretense — I just heard it on the news this morning. Isn’t it nice? We have democracy throughout Latin America. No, we have poverty throughout Latin America. So the struggle goes on. And so, what Paulo was doing right before he died is rethinking how education and the struggle can be reconceptualized in very, very changed circumstances. And I think that, in a way, he ended up his life in enormous amount of pain because of the defeats that a lot of movements for fundamental justice suffered over the past 15 years, over the past five years in particular. So, what was most devastating to me about losing Paulo is that at this particular moment we need his thinking more than ever.

AMY GOODMAN: Last note, and we just have, oh, about a minute for you to answer it. And that is, President Clinton prides himself on being an education president, as did President Bush before him. President Clinton talks a lot about linking schools up around this country to the internet. What do you think Paulo Freire would have to say to Bill Clinton?

HERBERT KOHL: Well, he’d just as soon — I’m not sure he’d have much to say to Bill Clinton. I certainly know that anything Paulo would have to say, Bill Clinton wouldn’t listen to. Nevertheless, I think that Paulo would say that education is not for world-class standards, it’s for world-class children, and that Paulo — the beauty of Paulo’s work is that it is rooted in people, not in process. And it is not getting people to serve the needs of corporate and larger interests; it’s trying to find a way for people to build their own communities and, in the course of that, build a life that’s decent from them. And I think Clinton might look at him with a great big question mark on his face.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Herb Kohl, I want to thank you very much for joining us, again, educator and author for many years in this country.

Well, that brings us to the end of the show. Tomorrow we’re going to be speaking about tobacco with Ralph Nader and then go to the Green Party candidate who is running for Bill Richardson’s seat in New Mexico. We also hope to speak with the Democrat and Republican. We’ll see if we can get them on board. If you’d like a copy of today’s show and to order a copy, you can call 1-800-735-0230. That’s 1-800-735-0230. Democracy Now! is produced by Dan Coughlin. Our engineer and assistant producer is Errol Maitland. Julie Drizin is our executive producer. And thanks to Samori Marksman. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening to another edition of Democracy Now!

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