Obituary: Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educationist, was one of the most influential philosophers of his generation.

He was born into a middle-class Catholic family in Recife in north-eastern Brazil in 1921. Despite the relative wealth of his family, he experienced poverty during the Depression of the 1930s, but unlike most children was able to complete secondary school and go on to study law at Recife University. There he met Elza, a teacher, whom he married in 1944.

He became a teacher of Portuguese and under the influence of his mother, got involved in church organisations as a means of addressing the injustices he saw around him. However, he rapidly became aware of the limits of charitable work and the need to move from working "for the people" to working "with the people".

In the 1950s Freire lived and worked in the slum areas of Recife and increasingly focused his efforts on tackling the problem of adult literacy: "It seemed to me profoundly unjust that men and women were not able to read and write". Equally he recognised illiteracy as "just one of the concrete expressions of an unjust social reality". As a result he developed a new approach to literacy which linked "learning to read the word with learning to read the world".

In 1959 Freire wrote a doctoral thesis on his experiences of teaching literacy which was so well received that he was appointed Chair of the Philosophy of Education in Recife University. In 1962 he became coordinator of a large literacy programme in Recife and the next year was appointed head of the Brazilian National Literacy Programme. He planned to establish 20,000 literacy groups known as "culture circles".

However, following a military coup in 1964, the Brazilian Literacy programme was terminated. Freire was imprisoned, accused of subversion, and subsequently exiled to Bolivia and then Chile. He took these developments as confirmation of his theory that "no education is neutral" commenting: "I was jailed precisely because of the political nature of education".

In the following years, whilst working on adult education with the Institute of Agrarian Reform in Chile, Freire's ideas matured and he started writing what would become his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). Through this radical pedagogy, he hoped, adults would learn to perceive social, political and economic contradictions and would take action against the opressive elements of reality (a process that Freire called "conscientisation").

In the book, Freire condemned traditional education systems, which he called "banking systems", where students are passive recipients of deposits from an "all-knowing" teacher. In contrast he proposed an education based on dialogue, generating a permanent process of reflection and action:

If learning to read and write is to constitute an act of knowing, the learners must assume from the beginning the role of creative subjects. It is not a matter of memorising and repeating given syllables, words and phrases, but rather, of reflecting critically on the process of reading and writing itself and the profound significance of language.

Although Freire's writings are theoretically complex and often difficult to read, it is a testament to their power that he is, to this day, the most widely quoted education thinker in Latin America, Africa and Asia - helped by the fact that his work is available in 35 languages.

By the time Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published in English in 1972, Freire was already being acclaimed internationally as "the authentic voice of the Third World". He became a visiting professor at Harvard University and later a special consultant to the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he travelled widely, attending conferences and seminars, and supporting radical education programmes, in countries as diverse as Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, India, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Nicaragua and El Salvador. He first visited London in 1973, returning to Britain in 1987 when he helped review the Edinburgh Adult Learning Programme. He was most recently in London in October 1993, when he attracted large crowds at the Institute of Education.

As democracy returned to Brazil in the 1980s, Freire was able to return to his homeland, where he became closely involved in the Workers' Party, which won control of the state of Sao Paulo and nearly won presidential elections in 1989. He became Secretary for Education in Sao Paulo for a short period before retiring in order to dedicate himself to writing. The most recent of his 25 major publications, Pedagogy of Hope (1992), started off as a new preface to Pedagogy of the Oppressed but evolved into a book in its own right.

In March 1996, as Guest of Honour at the World Conference on Literacy in Philadelphia, Freire was as charismatic, absorbing and radical as ever. He succeeded in reaching a new generation of educationists who, with his inspiration, continue to work for an empowering and liberating approach to education around the world.

Paulo Freire, educationist; born Recife, Brazil 19 September 1921; married 1944 (first wife died 1986), 1988 Ana Marie Araujo; died Sao Paulo 2 May 1997.