Paulo Freire and the Politics of Literacy:
The Struggle for a Revolutionary Praxis of Adult Education
Antonia Darder
Loyola Marymount University
To acquire literacy is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques. It is to dominate those techniques in terms of consciousness; to understand what one reads and to write what one understands: it is to communicate graphically. Acquiring literacy does not involve memorizing sentences, words or syllables - lifeless objects unconnected to an existential universe - but rather an attitude of creation and re-creation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one's [world].
—Paulo Freire  (1973)
Education for Critical Consciousness
True to Paulo Freire’s recognition of literacy as a question of consciousness, this presentation seeks to embody and put forth a revolutionary vision of adult education. This discussion encompasses unapologetically a critical view of literacy grounded upon Paulo Freire’s axiom of literacy as a political process of reading the word and the world. Accordingly, it expresses an unwavering faith in the capacity of people to experience and make meaning of their world. It is these values that most must inform our praxis as adult educators, as well as our political ideas of education for liberation.  At the very core of the thesis that informs this discussion lies a profound experiential understanding of literacy as a means by which human beings come to reflect and express an understanding of their lives and, through this process, discover the power within themselves and each other to rewrite the world. Central to Freire’s critical pedagogy of literacy, honed through his work in the outskirts of Brazil, is a process “of taking history into our own hands, since this entails “rewriting” of our society (Freire and Macedo, 1986).
The discussion encompasses then a deeply political view of language and its cultural relationship to the world. It is a view of literacy that is fundamentally rooted in the Freirian recognition that language is not a thing to be deposited into adults, but rather a creative force of human expression, born out of our intimate relationship with the world.  And, as such, language is inextricably tied to the cultural worldviews and power relations that impact both personal and collective identities, as well as the material conditions that shape human survival.  So, just as the bodies of human beings are indelibly marked by the material conditions in which we exist, so is the manner we read our world and make meaning is explicitly tied to how we navigate these conditions. Hence, literacy education in the interest of freedom can never make marginal what adult learners already understand about their world. On the contrary, this must serve as the site of departure, in this intense critical journey toward not only learning to communicating graphically, but becoming more deeply conscious of life conditions that stifle freedom and the right to be.    
Literacy as Productive Human Labor
The new man and the new woman… cannot be created except by participation in productive labor that serves the common good. It is this labor that is the source of knowledge about this new creation, through which it unfolds and to which it refers.        
—Paulo Freire (1978)
Pedagogy in Process: The Letters to Guinea Bissau
A significant underlying message that echoes loudly throughout this emancipatory discourse is an intimate understanding of literacy as liberatory praxis, which can only unfold critically through the on-going communal labor of women and men, involved in the process of reflection, dialogue, and action. Hence, if adult educators are indeed committed to an emancipatory process of literacy, it require us to approach our work within oppressed communities with a clear purpose and commitment beyond simply the goal of learning to read and write as a functional activity. Rather the critical spirit of pedagogy here must work with them in solidarity, in order to enter unobstructed into rewriting the longstanding inequalities and injustices that persist in their lives and in the larger society.
It is only in light of such a humanizing political commitment to life that adult educators working within impoverished communities can genuinely advance with students their fundamental language rights and liberatory potential as subjects of histories. This is to say that adult educators must not only be armed with effective techniques or methods for teaching literacy, but also much be acutely cognizant of the historical, political, and economic conditions that negatively impact the social and political formation of oppressed communities. Inherent to this examination is a political critique of the alienating modes of production of capitalism and the resulting hegemonic processes of banking education, which ultimately reproduce unequal class formations and conditions of estrangement within both schools and most sites of labor.
As is so well illustrated historically in the United States, Latin America, Europe and elsewhere, the traditional instrumentalizing process of adult education functions to distance the adult learners and workers not only from their own labor but also from awareness that they too are subjects of histories and creators of their world. It is a hegemonic strategy of the wealthy and powerful, carried out by well-meaning educators; which, wittingly or unwittingly, is meant to shackle the social agency and collective power of thinking, albeit illiterate and impoverished, working populations—populations betrayed by a political and economic system that deems them powerless, exploitable, and disposable. The outcome is a pedagogically effective gatekeeping function of false generosity, as Freire argued. Such a hegemonic pedagogy ensures an instrumentalized adult education process that effectively serves to protect and perpetuate the deeply racialized and hierarchical class structure of capitalism—a structure that benefits the few, at the expense of the many.
In contrast, the liberatory vision for adult education that will be presented in this discussion is founded on the belief that education and the process of literacy formation must function for the democratization of society and the evolution of social movements for the making of a truly just world. Moreover, common stories of literacy formation, whether generated from emancipatory practices in Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, or the United States, all suggest that adult education must create the pedagogical conditions so that the lived histories and cultural wisdom of the oppressed sits squarely at the center of their educational process. In this way, adult education is enacted as a living praxis, from which the oppressed can not only discover their voice and social agency, but also enter into the collective restoration of their human dignity and political self-determination, as not only valuable but also necessary cultural citizens of the world.
The Oppressed as Their Own Example
No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.
—Paulo Freire (1970)
Pedagogy of the Oppressed
To exist as examples of our own redemption is to understand that who we are and how we have been conditioned to see ourselves is not necessarily a product of our own making.  This is to say, that who we are—with respect to our abilities and access to opportunities as both individuals and communities—is fundamentally tied to an intricate system of racialized, gendered, class formations grounded upon a deeply unequal and hierarchical economic structure. Hence, an emancipatory process of adult education and literacy formation requires opportunities to interrogate why certain sectors of the population are rendered economically marginal, politically powerless, and pedagogically abandoned; while a very small sector has access to the lion share of social and economic power and privilege.  In essence, as Paulo Freire insisted until his death, to restore a sense of personal and communal dignity among the most oppressed requires the political transformation of consciousness—but a transformation that must be rooted in their lived histories and cultural expression.
This entails an emancipatory praxis of adult education that opens the cultural field of pedagogical engagement to an understanding and recognition of educational success or failure as inseparably linked to the social and material conditions of communal survival, rather than to the intellectual inferiority or cultural deficit of a people, as traditionally presumed.  This then must involve the creation of opportunities within the process of literacy formation that support adult education learners and workers to critically interrogate oppressive myths and unexamined historical circumstances, which are directly linked to their educational adversities or deprivations of schooling. Through such a process of critical awareness of literacy formation, learners can break away from false assumptions often internalized about their intellectual inferiority and inabilities to learn. Such a liberatory pedagogical process, guides students to work together, in order to recapture the power of epistemological curiosity nurtured by reflection, the social imagination rooted in dialogue, the conviction anchored in their own voices, the social agency to act upon their lives, and the political solidarity and grace necessary for the transformation of their communities and the world.