Becoming Fully Human: Education as Transformation in the Writings of C. S. Lewis and Paulo Freire

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Recently, two cultural analysts have written books that talk about the future of humanity. Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, in his book The World is Flat, explains many of the consequences of globalization on our world. In a recent meeting of the National Governor’s Association, he discussed advances in technology so powerful that anyone with a computer in Beijing or Bangalore can plug in and compete with anyone else in the world, and what will happen if we grow complacent in our education of today’s young people. Joel Garreau, a Washington Post Editor and cultural analyst, in Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing our Minds, Our Bodies, and What it means to be Human gives an overview of the implication of four technologies that are growing exponentially. He calls these technologies GRIN: Genetics, Robotics, Information, and Nanotechnology. He explains that these technologies are bringing the ability to enhance memory with pills or bioengineer our children or have robots fight our battles; outcomes of which can be what he describes as Heaven, Hell, or Prevail. What both these recent books bring to light as they define these incredible paradigm shifts is the need for a view of humanity that is rooted in ethics and values. In addition they pose questions about what we are doing in education to give the next generation the resources and stronghold of values they need to make sure that the growth in power of technology and science does not overwhelm our humanity.

Two authors of the 20th Century, Paulo Freire (Brazilian educator and educational philosopher) and C.S. Lewis (Oxford professor and Christian apologist), offer thoughtful answers to the question of how education must prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st Century by transforming their values. Paolo Freire is best known for his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is required reading in most schools of education both across America and internationally. The more I read and reread Freire, the more I have begun to see how his vision of education and Lewis’ view of education inform one another, challenge each other, and make each other more relevant and meaningful. My goal is to share with you a vision of education validated by C. S. Lewis and Paulo Freire, and to encourage all of us in the academy to live out that vision.

I will begin with an introduction to Paolo Freire’s life and work. Although in 1921 Paulo Freire was born into a middle class Brazilian family, due to unfortunate events, his family later became very poor. Because he was so hungry, he did not do well in school. He felt that he did poorly in school because of his relentless hunger, as he knew that he was not slow or uninterested in academics. Even at a young age, he realized that his social condition did not allow him to have an education and that other students who had more resources did better in school because they did not have the debilitating situation of daily hunger. Freire’s experience with extreme poverty, hunger, and need caused him to vow at a young age to try to make a difference in his country of Brazil so that others would not lose an education due to hunger.

As an adult educator, Freire earned respect for his revolutionary pedagogy. At the age of twenty-five, he was appointed to be Director of Education for a Brazilian company. In this role, he began to see that education in Brazil favored the rich and the elite, and ignored the needs of the working class and the poor. In fact, the poor were regularly cheated of their land and labor because they could not read or write. Freire therefore conceived a curriculum that would have the teachers enter the community where the workers lived, and invite them to participate in “cultural circles.” In these circles, everyone would discuss issues and problems in their communities. The teacher, in dialogue with the workers, would help the workers to identify problems that the people wanted to solve. Thus, a vocabulary would be developed—one that was essential to solving the problems and building an understanding between the workers and the major businesses. The development of this vocabulary would require the teachers to learn from the students as well as the students to learn from the teachers. Once the problems were codified and the vocabulary established, the people in the community would be motivated to learn these words in order to solve their problems. Freire’s plan was very successful: in one instance, three hundred farm workers were taught to read and write in just forty-five days. Cultural circles were being established throughout Brazil.

However, the empowerment of these formerly passive workers was ultimately too threatening to those in power. Following a political coup in 1964, Freire was not only ousted from his job, but also imprisoned for seventy days. When he was finally released from jail, he went into exile. Working in Chile, he published a book about his theories, and was invited to be a visiting professor at Harvard in 1969. As a way to encapsulate his ideas about education, Freire wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was published in 1970. This book brought Freire international acclaim, and he worked for educational reform for the World Council of Churches, in Guinea-Bissau, and in other places.

Eventually, fifteen years after his imprisonment, Freire returned to Brazil, where he was appointed the Minister of Education for San Paulo. This position evolved into the Paulo Friere Institute, which champions educational reform around the world to this day. He died in 1997, but is seen as a wise champion of education for all. His work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is often viewed as a neo-Marxist text, but its powerful convergences with Lewis’ view of education, especially as presented in The Abolition of Man, has been generally overlooked or ignored.