Freire and Macedo on Emancipatory Literacy

Freire responding to a question from Macedo: The consciousness of the world is constituted in relation to the world; it is not a part of the self. The world enables me to constitute the self in relation to “you,” the world. The transformation of objective reality (what I call the “writing” of reality) represents precisely the starting point where the animal that became human began to write history. It started when these animals started to use their hands differently. As this transformation was taking place, the consciousness of the “touched” world was constituting itself. It is precisely this world consciousness, touched and transformed, that bred the consciousness of the self.

For a long time these beings, who were making themselves, wrote the world much more than they spoke the world. They directly touched and affected the world before they talked about it. Sometime later, though, these beings began to speak about the transformed world. And they began to speak about this transformation. After another long period of time, these beings began to register graphically the talk about the transformation. For this reason, I always say that before learners attempt to learn how to read and write they need to read and write the world. They need to comprehend the world that involves talk about the world.

Literacy’s oral dimension is important even if it takes place in a culture like that of the United States, whose memory is preponderantly written, not oral like that of Africa, for example. Considering these different moments, which took place over millennia, and also considering the modern experience, it is not viable to separate the literacy process from general educational processes. It is not viable to separate literacy from the productive process of society. The ideal is a concomitant approach in which literacy evolves in various environments, such as the workplace. But even when literacy cannot take place in various environments, I think it is impossible to dichotomize what takes place in the economic process of the world from the process of discourse.

As to your question of whether economic discourse is an act of production relative to acts of literacy, I would say that a critical pedagogy would have to stimulate students to reflect. Since this reflection by its very nature should be critical, learners will begin to comprehend the relationship among many different discourses. In the final analysis, these discourses are interrelated. Productive discourse and discourse about or accompanying productive discourse always intersect at some level. The problem of understanding the culture in which education takes place cannot negate the presence and influence of economic production. …

Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world. As I suggested earlier, this movement from the word to the world is always present; even the spoken word flows from our reading of the world. In a way, however, we can go further and say that reading the word is not preceded merely by reading the world, but by a certain form of writing it or rewriting it, that is, of transforming it by means of conscious, practical work. For me, this dynamic movement is central to the literacy process.

For this reason I have always insisted that words used in organizing a literacy program come from what I call the “word universe” of people who are learning, expressing their actual language, their anxieties, fears, demands, and dreams. Words should be laden with the meaning of the people’s existential experience, and not of the teacher’s experience. Surveying the word universe thus gives us the people’s words, pregnant with the world, words from the people’s reading of the world. We then give the words back to the people inserted in what I call [36] “codifications”, pictures representing real situations. The word brick for example, might be inserted in a pictorial representation of a group of bricklayers constructing a house.

Before giving a written form to the popular word, however, we customarily challenge the learners with a group of codified situations, so they will apprehend the word rather than mechanically memorize it. Decodifying or reading the situations pictured leads them to a critical perception of the meaning of culture by leading them to understand how human practice or work transforms the world. Basically, the pictures of concrete situations enable the people to reflect on their former interpretation of the world before going on to read the word. This more critical reading of the prior, less critical reading of the world enables them to understand their indigence differently from the fatalistic way they sometimes view injustice.

In this way, a critical reading of reality, whether it takes place in the literacy process or not, and associated above all with the clearly political practices of mobilization and organization, constitutes an instrument of what Antonio Gramsci calls “counterhegemony.” To sum up, reading always involves critical perception, interpretation, and rewriting of what is read. …

Macedo: It is ironic that in the United States, a country that prides itself on being the first and most advanced within the so-called “first world,” over 60 million people are illiterate or functionally illiterate. According to Jonathon Kozol’s book Illiterate America, the United States is in forty-ninth place among the 128 countries of the United Nations in terms of literacy rate. How can a country that considers itself a model of democracy tolerate an educational system that contributes to such a high level of illiteracy?

Freire: The first reaction to these data should be one of shock. How can this be possible? But this would still be a reaction at the affective level. Let us think a bit about this phenomenon. The first question might be, did this huge sector of the population, the illiterate or functionally illiterate, ever go to school? In Latin America you have a number of people who are illiterate because they were socially forbidden to go to school. And you have another large population of illiterates who went to school. If this large illiterate sector of the population never went to school, the shock that I mentioned before is exacerbated by the immense contradiction this implies, given the United States’ high level of modernization. Further, we have to consider whether illiterates did go to school and whether they were untouched by the school to the extent that they remained illiterate (apparently they were not touched, but, actually, they were touched), and whether they left school or they were left by the school.

I am inclined to think that this large population of illiterates in the United States went to school and then were expelled from school. How were they expelled? Were they thrown out by decree because they did not learn how to read and write? I believe that the school did not operate in this overt a manner. This brings us to a point that is once again political and ideological in nature. And let us not forget the question of power, which is always associated with education. Our speculations should provoke those who are in the school systems to react to the following notion as absurd, nonrigorous, and purely ideological. The notion is: this large number of people who do not read or write and who were expelled from school do not represent a failure of the schooling class; their expulsion reveals the triumph of the schooling class. In fact, this misreading of responsibility reflects the schools’ hidden curriculum.

Curriculum in the broadest sense involves not only the programmatic contents of the school system, but also the scheduling, discipline, and day-to-day tasks required from students in schools. In this curriculum, then, there is a quality that is hidden and that gradually incites rebelliousness on the part of children and adolescents. Their defiance corresponds to the aggressive elements in the curriculum that work against the students and their interests.

School authorities who repress these students might argue that they are only responding to the students’ aggressiveness. In fact, students are reacting to a curriculum and other material conditions in schools that negate their histories, cultures, and day-to-day experiences. School values work counter to the interests of these students and tend to precipitate their expulsion from school. It is as if the system were put in place to ensure that these students pass through school and leave it as illiterates.

This type of thinking typifies many well-intentioned educators who are not yet able to comprehend the internal mechanisms of the dominant ideology that so influences the school atmosphere. Because of the rebelliousness of children and adolescents who leave school or who are truants and refuse to engage in the intellectual activity predetermined by the curriculum, these students end up refusing to comprehend the word (not their own word, of course, but the word of the curriculum). They thus remain distant from the practice of reading.

Macedo: Let’s clarify what you refer to as intellectual activity from the dominant point of view, so as not to preclude other intellectual activities that are generated and sustained by these students. We should emphasize that these students can, and in fact do, engage in frequent intellectual activities, but these are activities generated from their own perspective. That is, they define their own activities.

Freire: It is difficult to understand these issues outside of an analysis of power relations. Only those who have power, for example, can define what is correct or incorrect. Only those who have power can decide what constitutes intellectualism. Once the intellectual parameters are set, those who want to be considered intellectuals must meet the requirements of the profile dictated by the elite class. To be intellectual one must do exactly what those with the power to define intellectualism do.

The intellectual activity of those without power is always characterized as nonintellectual. I think this issue should be underscored, not just as a dimension of pedagogy, but a dimension of politics, as well. This is difficult to do in a society like that of the United States, where the political nature of pedagogy is negated ideologically. It is necessary to negate the political nature of pedagogy to give the superficial appearance that education serves everyone, thus assuring that it continues to function in the interest of the dominant class.

This mythical universality of education to better serve humanity leads many to blame the students themselves for dropping out. It is their decision if they want to remain and succeed in school.

Once you accept the political dimension of education, it becomes difficult to accept the education, it becomes difficult to accept the dominant class’s conclusion: that the dropouts are to blame. The more you deny the political dimension of education, the more you assume the moral potential to blame the victims. This is somewhat paradoxical. The many people who pass through school and come out illiterate because they resisted and refused to read the dominant word are representative of self-affirmation. This self-affirmation is, from another point of view, a process of literacy in the normal, global sense of the term. That is, the refusal to read the word chosen by the teacher is the realization on the part of the student that he or she is making a decision not to accept what is perceived as violating his or her world. …

Approaches to Literacy

Almost without exception, traditional approaches to literacy have been deeply ingrained in a positivistic method of inquiry. In effect, this has resulted in an epistemological stance in which scientific rigor and methodological refinement are celebrated, while “theory and knowledge are subordinated to the imperatives of efficiency and technical mastery, and history is reduced to a minor footnote in the priorities of ‘empirical’ scientific inquiry.” In general, this approach abstracts methodological issues from their ideological contexts and consequently ignores the interrelationship between the sociopolitical structures of a society and the act of reading. In part, the exclusion of social and political dimensions from the practice of reading gives rise to an ideology of cultural reproduction, one that views readers as “objects.” It is as though their conscious bodies were simply empty, waiting to be filled by that word from the teacher. Although it is important to analyze how ideologies inform various reading traditions, … we will limit our discussion to a brief analysis of the most important approaches to literacy, linking them to either cultural reproduction or cultural production.

The Academic Approach to Reading

The purpose assigned to reading in the academic tradition is twofold. First, the rationale for this approach “derives from classical definitions of the well-educated man — thoroughly grounded in the classics, articulate in spoken and written expression, actively engaged in intellectual pursuits.” This approach to reading has primarily served the interests of the elite classes. In this case, reading is viewed as the acquisition of predefined forms of knowledge and is organized around the study of Latin and Greek and the mastery of the great classical works. Second, since it would be unrealistic to expect the vast majority of society to meet such high standards, reading was redefined as the acquisition of reading skills, decoding skills, vocabulary development, and so on. This second rationale served to legitimize a dual approach to reading: one level for the ruling class and another for the dispossessed majority. …

This twofold academic approach to reading is inherently alienating in nature. On the one hand, it ignores the life experience, the history, and the language practice of students. On the other, it overemphasizes the mastery and understanding of classical literature and the use of literary materials as “vehicles for exercises in comprehension (literal and interpretative), vocabulary development, and word identification skills.” Thus, literacy in this sense is stripped of its sociopolitical dimensions; it functions, in fact, to reproduce dominant values and meaning. It does not contribute in any meaningful way to the appropriation of working-class history, culture, and language.

The Utilitarian Approach to Reading

The major goal of the utilitarian approach is to produce readers who meet the basic reading requirements of contemporary society. In spite of its progressive appeal, such an approach emphasizes the mechanical learning of reading skills while sacrificing the critical analysis of the social and political order that generates the need for reading in the first place. This position has led to the development of “functional literates,” groomed primarily to meet the requirements of our ever more complex technological society. Such a view is not simply characteristic of the advanced industrialized countries of the West; even within the Third World, utilitarian literacy has been championed as a vehicle for economic betterment, access to jobs, and increase of the productivity level. As it is clearly stated by UNESCO, “Literacy programs should preferably be linked with economic priorities. [They] must impart not only reading and writing, but also professional and technical knowledge, thereby leading to a fuller participation of adults in economic life.”

This notion of literacy has been enthusiastically incorporated as a major goal by the back-to-basics proponents of reading. It has also contributed to the development of neatly packaged reading programs that are presented as the solution to difficulties students experience in reading job application forms, tax forms, advertisement literature, sales catalogs, labels, and the like. In general, the utilitarian approach views literacy as meeting the basic reading demand of an industrialized society. …

Cognitive Development Approach to Reading

While the academic and utilitarian approaches to reading emphasize the mastery of reading skills and view the readers as “objects,” the cognitive development model stresses the construction of meaning whereby readers engage in a dialectical interaction between themselves and the objective world. Although the acquisition of literacy skills is viewed as an important task in this approach, the salient feature is how people construct meaning through problem-solving processes. Comprehension of the text is relegated to a position of lesser importance in favor of the development of new cognitive structures that can enable students to move from simple to highly complex reading tasks. This reading process is highly influenced by the early work of John Dewey and has been shaped in terms of the development of Piagetian cognitive structures. Under the cognitive development model, reading is seen as an intellectual process, “through a series of fixed, value-free, and universal stages of development.”

The cognitive development model thus avoids criticism of the academic and utilitarian views of reading and fails to consider the content of what is read. Instead, it emphasizes a process that allows students to analyze and critique issues raised in the text with an increasing level of complexity. This approach, however, is rarely concerned with questions of cultural reproduction. Since students’ cultural capital — i.e., their life experience, history, and language — is ignored, they are rarely able to engage in thorough critical reflection, regarding their own practical experience and the ends that motivate them in order, in the end, to organize the findings and thus replace mere opinion about facts with an increasingly rigorous understanding of their significance.

The Romantic Approach to Reading

Like the cognitive development model, the romantic approach is based on an interactionist approach with a major focus on the construction of meaning; however, the romantic approach views meaning as being generated by the reader and not occurring in the interaction between reader and author via text. The romantic mode greatly emphasizes the affective and sees reading as the fulfillment of self and a joyful experience. One writer praised “the intimate reliving of fresh views of personality and life implicit in the work (of literature); the pleasure and release of tensions that may flow from such an experience . . . the deepening and broadening of sensitivity to the sensuous quality and emotional impact of day-to-day living.”

In essence, the romantic approach to reading presents a counterpoint to the authoritarian modes of pedagogy which view readers as “objects.” However, this seemingly liberal approach to literacy fails to make problematic class conflict, gender, or racial inequalities. Furthermore, the romantic model completely ignores the cultural capital of subordinate groups and assumes that all people have the same access to reading, or that reading is part of the cultural capital of all people. This failure to address questions of cultural capital or various structural inequalities means that the romantic model tends to reproduce the cultural capital of the dominant class, to which reading is intimately tied. It is presumptuous and naive to expect a student from the working class, confronted and victimized by myriad disadvantages, to find joy and self-affirmation through reading alone. But more important is the failure of the romantic tradition to link reading to the asymmetrical relations of power within the dominant society, relations of power that not only define and legitimate certain approaches to reading but also disempower certain groups by excluding them from such a process.

We have argued thus far that all of these approaches to literacy have failed to provide a theoretical model for empowering historical agents with the logic of individual and collective self-determination. While these approaches may differ in their basic assumptions about literacy, they all share one common feature: they all ignore the role of language as a major force in the construction of human subjectivities. That is, they ignore the way language may either confirm or deny the life histories and experiences of the people who use it. This becomes clearer in our analysis of the role of language in the literacy programs. …

Emancipatory Literacy

In maintaining a certain coherence with the revolutionary plan to reconstruct new and more democratic societies, educators and political leaders need to create a new school grounded in a new educational praxis, expressing different concepts of education consonant with the plan for the society as a whole. In order for this to happen, the first step is to identify the objectives of the inherited dominant education. Next, it is necessary to analyze how the methods used by the dominant schools function, legitimize the dominant values and meanings, and at the same time negate the history, culture, and language practices of the majority of subordinate students. The new school, so it is argued, must also be informed by a radical pedagogy, which would make concrete such values as solidarity, social responsibility, creativity, discipline in the service of the common good, vigilance, and critical spirit. An important feature of a new educational plan is the development of literacy programs rooted in an emancipatory ideology, where readers become “subjects” rather than mere “objects.” The new literacy program needs to move away from traditional approaches, which emphasize the acquisition of mechanical skills while divorcing reading from its ideological and historical contexts. In attempting to meet this goal, it purposely must reject the conservative principles embedded in the approaches to literacy we have discussed earlier. Unfortunately, many new literacy programs sometimes unknowingly reproduce one common feature of those approaches by ignoring the important relationship between language and the cultural capital of the people at whom the literacy program was aimed. The result is the development of a literacy campaign whose basic assumptions are at odds with the revolutionary spirit that launched it.

The new literacy programs must be largely based on the notion of emancipatory literacy, in which literacy is viewed “as one of the major vehicles by which ‘oppressed’ people are able to participate in the sociohistorical transformation of their society.” In this view, literacy programs should be tied not only to mechanical learning of reading skills but, additionally, to a critical understanding of the overall goals for national reconstruction. Thus, the reader’s development of a critical comprehension of the text, and the sociohistorical context to which it refers, becomes an important factor in our notion of literacy. The act of learning to read and write, in this instance, is a creative act that involves a critical comprehension of reality. The knowledge of earlier knowledge, gained by the learners as a result of analyzing praxis in its social context, opens to them the possibility of a new knowledge. The new knowledge reveals the reason for being that is behind the facts, thus demythologizing the false interpretations of these same facts. Thus, there is no longer any separation between thought-language and objective reality. The reading of a text now demands a reading within the social context to which it refers.

Literacy, in this sense, is grounded in a critical reflection on the cultural capital of the oppressed. It becomes a vehicle by which the oppressed are equipped with the necessary tools to reappropriate their history, culture, and language practices. It is, thus, a way to enable the oppressed to reclaim “those historical and existential experiences that are devalued in everyday life by the dominant culture in order to be both validated and critically understood.” …

[P]rogressive educators sometimes not only fail to recognize the positive promise of the students’ language, but they systematically undermine the principles of an emancipatory literacy by conducting literacy programs in the standard language of the dominant class. The result is that the learning of reading skills in the dominant standard language will not enable subordinate students to acquire the critical tools “to awaken and liberate them from their mystified and distorted view of themselves and their world.” Educators must understand the all-encompassing role the dominant language has played in this mystification and distortion process. They must also recognize the antagonistic nature of the subordinate language and its potential challenge to the mystification of the dominant language superiority. Finally, they must develop a literacy program based on the theory of cultural production. In other words, subordinate students must become actors in the reconstruction process of a new society.

Literacy can only be emancipatory and critical to the extant that it is conducted in the language of the people. It is through the native language that students “name their world” and begin to establish a dialectical relationship with the dominant class in the process of transforming the social and political structures that imprison them in their “culture of silence.” Thus, a person is literate to the extent that he or she is able to use language for social and political reconstruction. The use of the dominant language only in literacy programs weakens the possibilities for subordinate students to engage in dialectical encounters with the dominant class. Literacy conducted in the dominant standard language empowers the ruling class by sustaining the status quo. It supports the maintenance of the elitist model of education. This elite model of education creates intellectualists and technocrats rather then intellectuals and technicians. In short, literacy conducted in the dominant language is alienating to subordinate students, since it denies them the fundamental tools for reflection, critical thinking, and social interaction. Without the cultivation of their native language, and robbed of the opportunity for reflection and critical thinking, subordinate students find themselves unable to re-create their culture and history. Without the reappropriation of their cultural capital, the reconstruction of the new society envisioned by progressive educators and leaders can hardly be a reality.


Freire, Paulo and Donaldo Macedo. 1987. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, pp.50-51, 35, 120-123, 145-149, 156-159. || Amazon || WorldCat


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