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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Walter Kohan about his book – Paulo Freire: A Philosophical Biography – and the role of childhood in politicizing education

Our member, Professor Walter Kohan (Rio de Janeiro State University, Brazil) talks about his book, Paulo Freire: A Philosophical Biography (Bloomsbury, 2021), with a focus on the role of childhood in politicizing education


Q: What is this book about?

This book is a philosophical biography of Paulo Freire (1921–1997), a Brazilian educator famous mainly for his Pedagogy of the Oppressed – a book translated into more than twenty languages and one of the main foundations of Critical Pedagogy. There, he developed a strong critique of what he called the “banking model” in pedagogical relationships. For him, education is always political, in the sense that it either liberates from the oppression fostered by our capitalist societies or it reinforces this oppression (even when it is perceived as neutral or non-political).

I think Paulo Freire continues to be invaluable for thinking the relations between education and politics. He unveils the fallacy of negating the political dimension of pedagogical work and proposes a specific way of affirming the relation between the two. Inspired by this connection, I have recreated another form in which to think with Paulo Freire’s work and life.

I accept Freire’s claim about the impossibility of political neutrality in education, and unfold from this “politicization” of education five principles: Life, Equality, Love, Errantry, and Childhood. Each of these principles constitutes a chapter of the book.

Let’s consider childhood, associated with the life of Freire. Childhood is a principle of beginnings, a beginning of beginnings that opens the possibility of another politics of education. It is a principle that does not form, but transforms, reforms, listens, makes hospitable and takes care. Childhood as a principle is a form of experiencing time, of inhabiting the present in a way that makes the present curious, puts it in doubt, makes us more attentive, disquiets us, inspires questioning and expectations. It is a principle that involves a dimension of caring found in the educator. It is within the person and in the world. A childlike or infantile education is not an education of childhood, but rather a becoming child of education, another education, a childlike education born with doubt, curiosity, and the absence of certainties.

Q: What made you write this book?

Several things. One is the special political moment in Brazil, where the Bolsonaro administration declared Freire an enemy of the Brazilian education. This needs to be thought about: how can it be that this government declares as enemy one of the most recognized and well-known Brazilian educators? A related motivation behind the book is that writing with Freire may help us rethink our presented. 

Usually, people try to interpret what Freire means in terms of a topic, a problem, a question, even a book, or they try to apply his ideas. In comparison, what I have tried to do in Paulo Freire: A Philosophical Biography is have a real dialogue with Freire about how his life and thinking might inspire our educational practices, how we can begin or re-begin (in a non-chronological sense) to be educators, by thinking with Freire.

In this sense, the five principles work as starting points for education and educators. In other words, I would love readers of the book to ask questions such as: from this principle (whether life, errantry, childhood, etc.), what new educational life can I begin? This is also related to the idea of infancy or childhood and how we can be reborn as educators or re-begin a new life of education.

The chapter on Childhood was so prominent, and attracted so much attention, that I more recently wrote another book on Freire’s relationship to childhood. It has been published in Portuguese as Paulo Freire: um menino de 100 anos (“Paulo Freire: A Boy of 100 Years”) and is freely available to download here.

Excerpts from the book:

“Childhood, for Freire, is something that goes beyond his own biography; it includes it, of course, but it does not exhaust itself in it. In this sense, the place that Freire from Pernambuco gives to childhood helps us to see that childhood crosses the chronos of our lives — our past, our present, our future — and also crosses other times that we experience according to different logics. In a less anthropomorphizing vision, we can also perceive that there is childhood in others, in otherness, in plants, in animals, in school, in the world. There is a childlike life waiting to be felt, heard, and fed. There is a childhood of school to recover and reinvent. There is much childhood in the world waiting to be awakened, relived, by conjunctive and connective children.” (page 149)

“The weight of questioning in educational practice reveals and unfolds its meaning. Putting the world into question and exposing it for what it is, for Freire, to show how it can be otherwise. This is the primary force of Paulo Freire’s educational thought: history is not finished. Seeing the world in this way, as he did, he saw that the world could be radically different. His wandering life contributes to our perception of this political dimension. By putting us in touch with other worlds, we perceive its precise character; the contingency of our world becomes an inspiration so that the world turns itself into other possible worlds.” (pages 111-112)

“(…) for Freire the philosopher, the priority of life is the beginning of not only his conception of philosophy but also of education and, in a more general way, of his intellectual militance. This makes him adopt a critical posture in relation with educational reality. To say it with Freire, in his own words, in the school and in philosophy there exists a growing disassociation between the reading of words and the reading of the world (Freire, Shor, 1986). The words that are read in school are words that do not speak of the world, they are separated from the lived world from those who are inside the school. The double consequence of this is that learn to read a world of schooling that is not the one we live outside of the school and we do not learn to read the world we live in. What we read in the school does not help us to read the world; with the letters of school we cannot read the world. Who knows, reading Freire, his works but also his life, might teach us not only the possibilities of another school and another education, but also another way of life.” (page 42)

“Freire’s ideas on education can be read as an affirmation of the philosophical education just presented: one who is taught with the knowledge of feelings, and the wisdom of feelings that makes up philosophy. In Chapter One, I argued that Freire belongs to the philosophical tradition in which philosophy is much more than just a theory or system of ideas. The lines traced above reinforce this idea. It was not only his ideas, but also the way of life that Freire lived that created a school (schole) of feelings. A school which lovingly affirms an education in feeling and a search for time in which everyone and anyone can have their own time to be who they are, rather than have time imposed on them to meet the conditions of social and economic existence. In other words, Paulo Freire dedicated his life to those who no one else listened to, so that they could hear their own voices and express their own words with their own voices.” (page 80)

“Let’s try a good-natured experiment then. There are five days in the working week, and we have five principles to work with. What if we tried to practice one principle per day? On Monday, we could enter our schools without leaving our lives behind. We could try and perceive whether or not what we did in the classroom was connected to how we live outside of it, and whether or not what we did in the classroom could transform how we live outside of it. On Tuesday, we would enter our schools full of trust and confidence in our student’s equal ability to teach and learn, to live dignified lives. We wouldn’t be looking for learning outcomes, which could occur for a variety of reasons. Instead, we would see what happens when we don’t under or overestimate the capacity of anyone. Wednesday’s would dedicated ourselves to attending more closely to love, our affective and amorous relationships in the classroom, the webs of affect generated with our students, our colleagues, knowledge, the rooms we are in. Thursdays would be days of errantry. We would prepare ourselves to carefully travel the thread of thoughts wherever they might take us within the collective fabric of the classroom. On this day, we would not seek to guide students to any predetermined place, instead we would open ourselves up to a shared journey. To end the week, we would return to childhood. Fridays we would be a child, a curious, questioning one who does not allow age to determine their childhood. On this day, we would only ask questions.” (page 157)



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