Reviews of Paulo Freire's Books

This website, dedicated to Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997), consists of a collection of reviews of his books and links to other pages on Freire. The books are listed in chronological order. When the book has been translated into English, the first date refers to the original publication. 

The website was created by Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).

Freire, Paulo (1998). Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Review by Peter Kipp (UCLA)

In the foreword by Donaldo Macedo and Ana Maria Araujo Freire, Freire's work is historicized as a revolutionary pedagogy that spread around the world. This is a good explanation for those unfamiliar with Freire's work. The Editors' Preface becomes a bit more esoteric in addressing the modern educational fancy for critical thinking skills and warning agaisnt the laundering of the politics from Freire's work: his was a revolutionary (and quite directive) task. During the rest of the book (an introduction and ten letters to teachers), Freire is in some ways summarizing a life time of work in the area of education as the practice of freedom from the very important point of view of the teacher. In this book, he focuses on the issues that teachers face in their classrooms, between colleagues, with parents, and in relation to their administration. Teachers efforts to do more than simply communicate information. In a rare moment in the book, Freire gives an explicit direction about an activity for teachers to become culture workers: taking notes about their classes. This ethnographic work sets the teacher up as the learner who constructs curriculum with the students. Similarly, the teacher can involve the entire community. In so doing, the teacher becomes more than a "coddling mother," a definition that Freire hates; the teacher becomes a cultural worker--taking in all of the activities of the community--that creates an educational plan with the community that will help all involved to unveil and know their community and the larger world.


The preface is a chance for Freire to set the scene in which to play out his drama about teachers. He immediately establishes the axiological understanding of knowlege and language as social constructions. This is a requirement for understanding Freire's use of literacy as a revolutionary opportunity. According to Freire, when people learn language, they construct the meanings found in symbols, symbols that represent and define the world. Will they take on the definitions of the oppressor? This is a question and an answer (they do not have to--not if they follow a Freirean pedagogy of reading the world) that Freire has been posing since Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the late 1960s.

It is rather appropriate that the first chapter is called "First Words," as it is the first written words that people learn that begins the process by which they name the world, and are either enslaved by it or challenged by it. This chapter begins with an understanding of praxis that is exemplified in Freire's own example about writing the book: he is thinking about writing even when he is acting in the world, and his actions inform his theory so that he may theorize based on this action. Freire seeks to show us the teacher who is also a learner: a position one must "dare" to be in. This harkens to Giroux's notions of teachers as intellectuals as well as Gramsci's concept of the intellectual who is in the political world teaching and constructing a counter-hegemony. Again Freire returns to the razor's edge with the notion that techers must be rooted in love, but must not become coddling of thier students, always remaining on the edge that is held by the rigor of teaching and learning, acting and reflecting. Freire also touchess on the notion that teachers often find themselves either dutiful servants of an authoritarian administration, or undisciplined radicals under a democratic administration. Freire challenges teachers to become creators of a new understanding of the school in which creativity is mixed with responsibility so the teacher can stand astride the view of both the teacher and the administator. It is thorugh these polemics that Freire argues for a professionalization of the teaching profession through permanent and ongoing teacher preparation. It is through the commitment to such a preparatory process that teachers will be able to maintain praxis in their professional lives. There is a major section on pre-packaged teaching lessons against which Freire fights vehemously. The creativity and autonomy of the teacher is at stake.

In presenting his notion of the teacher as a role model "setting forth the values of democracy," Freire gives three basic requirements to establish teachers in this position: the project of democracy can never be seen as a personal struggle of one or a few teachers, similarly, teachers must stick together, and finally teachers must fight for ongoing preparation that is a dialectical interchange between theory and practice (7). Freire sees the dialectic as one in which teachers "think about practice in terms of developing more effective means of practice... and begin to recognize the theory inherent in [this practice]" (7). This evaluation of practice is vital in the teacher education process, but in typical teacher training programs, it is the teacher who is evaluated personally rather than her practice. This type of evaluation is a punishment rather than a source of education to better the teacher's practice. It is the importance Freire places on teachers' need to evaluate and be evaluated that flies in the face of prepared and "teacher proof" lesson packages from textbook companies. When these companies produce detailed materials that even state that the authors want teachers to become more critical, daring, and creative, the irony of the expressed aim and the teachers' passive behavior in using these materials as they are meant to be used is overwhelming (9). thus the evaluation process must occur in order for teachers and students not to fall into the prepared dialogue of a packaged lesson. From practice, evaluation, and practice, the cycle can create a true dialogue from which students and teacher can truly become creative.

The notion of the democratic school is based on people understanding their participatory role. Sectarian authoritarians run from this participation because of its tensions between knowing and being unsure but having a process of knowing in which many are involved (10). Like the State, the school administration performs important functions that affect all members of the school community. It is therefore the social, political, and pedagogical responsibility of all members of the community to keep a watchful eye on this administration so that it reflects all voices in the democracy. Many of these ideas can be seen reflected in Freire's work as the Secretary of Education in Sao Paulo (see O'Cadiz, Torres, & Wong (1998) Education and Democracy).

Information on Selected Letters:

In Freire's first letter, he focuses on breaching the gap in contemporary education between the sensory experience and the schooling experience. Freire sees education as starting with impressions that the students feels an ontological need to make sense of. Education is the process of making sense of these needs. To do so the students uses writing (to describe the phenomenon), dialogue (to understand others understanding of the phenomenon), and reading (to further understand the ways that the phenomenon has been observered and theorized). Neither the language describing the phenomenon, nor the first hand experience of the students should be ranked as superior; each is vital to the educational process of coming to know something and unveil its meaning.

It is interesting that after Freire has set the scene with his groundwork of revolutionary literacy that promotes a reading of the world as well as the word, he sets his pen immediately to the subject of fear: fear of not understanding a text. Two places Freire makes a direct hit on the potential fears and opportunities of the educational process are:

1) that "allowing the fear of not successfully accomplishing the process of text comprehension to immobilize us evades the first battle... and from there, it is just one step to accusing the author of being incomprehensible" (29); and

2) that "the reading of a text is a transaction between the reader and the text, which mediates the encounter between reader and writer. It is a composition between the reader and the writer in which the reader "rewrites" the text making a determined effort not to betray the author's spirit. And it is not possible to do that without critical comprehension of the text, which in turn requires overcoming the fear of reading, which gradually takes place within the process of developing the discipline that I spoke of. Let us insist on that discipline. It has to do with reading and, for that reason, with writing as well. It is not possible to read without writing or to write without reading" (30).

If this is the case, then the student/teacher need have no fear of not understanding. It is a process of coming to know more about my position as a teacher that I am going through here in graduate school. If I don't understand something, then it is a matter of time and diligence, reading, writing, and dialogue until I will. Similarly, without the active attempt to "rewrite" the author, the understand will not come either. For it is in the active reconstruction that I begin to understand what the author meant.

Freire's third letter is a strong condemnation of the current state of the teaching profession as far as salaries, respect, and the actions needed to demand change in this area. He is pleading for teachers to take their profession seriously and to make the world notice that they are underrespected and paid. He argues against the resigned belief that teachers must be coddling mothers, incapable of making decisions or being seen as professionals, there only to take care of the children while others make decisions. He writes that this is a holdover from the colonial mentality that turns administators into oppressors and teachers into docile caretakers. I believe it is this letter where Freire waxes most revolutionary, and we see the fire behind his belief in the dignity of the teaching profession.

Freire paints a picture of the goal of critical pedagogy as trying to "transform learners into strong presences in the world" (33). This transformation is made for both teachers and students as they politicize each other as they share their culture. Freire's notion of reading the word and the world and his adult culture circles are evident here in his reflections on the formal school. This notion of the teacher as a culture worker make sthe teacher's role much more important. Here is a fundamental difference between standard teacher training and emancipatory teacher education: Freire sees the teacher and student as the primary subject of the course. Their versions of the world, exchanged and lifted to critical understandings undermine the colonial heritage of baking education that reinforces oppressive cycles. In these ways, we see Freire return again to the importance of the social construction of knowledge and power found in knowing.

The fourth letter discusses the indispensable qualities of progressive educators. These qualities are humility, lovingness, courage, tolerance, experience of the tension between patience and impatience, and joy of living. By maintaining these attributes, the progressive educator becomes both a directive/democratic educator and a students of the world. She always remains excited about the educational possibilities of a situation and realizes that each situation is different so "burnout" is impossible. Freire returns to thediscussion of fear by looking at the courage to change traditional teaching practices. To fear is reasonable in the new ground that Freire is traversing, but as teachers we fear what might happen, a myth, and by walking together into the myths and unveiling them, we can socially construct our understanding and give one another courage.

The fifth letter approaches the first day of school especially for novice teachers and begins with an important point by Freire. "[If I thought] I might have the whole truth about the various topics addressed, I would be betraying my own understanding of the process of knowledge production as social, as open-ended, as unfolding" (47). Here again we see the importance of the groundwork Freire lays at the beginning of the book on the social construction of knowledge. Freire spends quite a bit of time on the novice teacher entering a classroom for the first time. He encourages teacher education programs to teach teachers how to understand their fears and to overcome them by immersing themselves in the cultural identity of their specific class. He sees teachers as ethnographers, diligently finding the cultural identity of the specific group with which they are working and trying to become a community of learners together as they address the topics of their world that provide phenomenon they need to understand. The final pages of the chapter hit on the possibilities of encouraging students to use their imagination, be open to the responses of their body and mind and read them as one would a text, overcoming alienation, and Vygotsky's theories addressing discovery and learning.

In the sixth letter, Freire makes the case for both teacher and student: both must come to the table of dialogue with their questions and be respected to discuss equally. The educator must not be afraid of making mistakes, he is human. Similarly, the student is trying to learn how to be human and what to do when they will inevitable make mistakes. The key to this type of honest dialogue is that democracy is not undermined. As long as students can question in earnest and expect an honest answer (and vice versa), then the possibilities of working together to make a better school, community, and world are possible.

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