Paulo Freire: The Man from Recife
reviewed by Isaac Gottesman - December 08, 2011
In the introduction to his book Paulo Freire: The Man from Recife James D. Kirylo notes: the purpose of this book is to celebrate the life and work of Paulo Freire (p. xxiii). Celebration is both the books strength and its weakness. Readers seeking a solid overview of Freires life and ideas written by an author with a clear passion for his subject and interesting insights on Freires thought will be rewarded. Readers searching for a critical engagement of Freires life and ideas are likely to be disappointed.
Kirylos biographical portrait of Freire, which occupies the first third of the book, is a welcome contribution to the literature. Grounded in a synthesis of Freires writings and secondary source material, the portrait skillfully synthesizes Freires autobiographical reflections, which are scattered throughout his writings. It also incorporates the rarely referenced work of Cynthia Brown (1978) to illuminate the development of Freires ideas about literacy. For readers already familiar with Freires autobiographical commentaries, older biographical overviews (e.g. Gadotti, 1994), and some of the more recent historical scholarship on Freire (e.g. Gottesman, 2010; Holst, 2006; Kirkendall, 2010), Kirylos portrait may offer new insights but is unlikely to offer substantially new biographical information. For readers with a budding interest in Freire, however, Kirylos portrait should replace Moacir Gadottis frequently cited 1994 book Reading Paulo Freire as the standard introductory overview of Freires life.
The final eight chapters, two of which are in the books first section following the biographical sketch, build off of the biography to offer additional perspective on Freire. Five of these chapters are essays, two are publications of interview transcripts, and one is a publication of email responses. In all of these chapters, Kirylo is at his most insightful when he is covering Freires relationship with Catholicism, a topic deserving of more sustained scholarly attention and one that Kirylo seems particularly attuned to. Unfortunately, while often insightful, these chapters are not well threaded or clearly organized, making it difficult to see the formation of an argument. Furthermore, each of these chapters feels unfinished.
Chapter 7, Liberation Theology and Paulo Freire, is particularly illustrative of how Kirylo falls short of developing his insights into sustained arguments. The chapter begins with recent provocative assertions by Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, and James Cone that Freire was central to the development of liberation theology in Latin America and the U.S. As each of these thinkers were central to the development of liberation theology, these opening comments leave the reader with the exciting prospect that Kirylos chapter will attempt to locate Freire in formative conversations about liberation theology in Latin American and the U.S., including in the 1970s and 80s work of Gutierrez, Boff, and Cone. Such work would be a substantial contribution to scholarship on Freire.
Unfortunately, this is not what follows. Kirylo proceeds to offer a jumbled overview of liberation theology that includes a few comments (no evidence) about how Freires ideas influenced the development of liberation theology. Kirylo does not describe or explain where and how Friere is located in foundational conversations about liberation theology nor does he construct an argument about why it is illuminating and potentially significant to locate Freire in these conversations. Furthermore, in an interview transcript with Cone published as chapter 8, Kirylo fails to dig into Freires influence on liberation theology, and particularly the influence of Freire on black theologies of liberation in the U.S. Kirylo also offers no post-interview analysis about how Cones comments connect with claims made in the previous chapter. This leaves far too much work for the reader.
Kirylos lack of critical examination is particularly frustrating because careful readers will see that the raw material for these insights exists. For example, Kirylo quotes Gutierrezs foundational 1971 book Theology of Liberation in his description of liberation theology, but when he discusses Freires relationship to liberation theology he fails to even mention, much less examine, Gutierrezs notably substantive discussion of Freires ideas. This type of engagement is crucial if Kirylo is to construct a persuasive argument about Freires influence on liberation theology. Kirylo needs to engage the vast liberation theology literature, explicitly locate Freires ideas within its development, and explain how scholars may have been, or better yet, were influenced by Freire. Kirylo could be on the edge of new and insightful scholarship about Freires relationship to liberation theology but he does not follow through.
The failures with follow through are not confined to the chapter on liberation theology. Throughout the book Kirylo fails to fully examine and contextualize the interesting ideas he puts forth. Kirylo is good at identifying issues of significancehe is clearly immersed in Freires work but he is not successful at using evidence to construct sustained arguments. Chapter 10 on Freires influence on other thinkers, for instance, is simply a printing of short emails Kirylo received from scholars about Freires influence. Kirylo offers no analysis of their comments. He does not communicate to the reader how these emails shift our understanding of Freires ideas and the reception of these ideas in the field. We are left to infer. Kirylo similarly offers no analysis in chapter 11, which offers an interview transcript with Freires second wife, Anna Maria (Nita) Araujo Freire. Even the chapters that do attempt to locate Freires thought within broader intellectual traditions and within the field, such as chapter 5 Influences: An Overview and chapter 9 An Overview of Critical Pedagogy offer thin historical and theoretical analysis that feels rushed.
Kirylos work has many positive qualities, especially its biographical portrait of Freire. However, Kirylos greatest insights never mature. Ultimately, Kirylo seems so focused on celebrating Freire that he neglects to offer a deep, critical, and sustained examination of Freires ideas and the contexts in which Freire engaged. There is nothing wrong with celebration there is much about Freire to celebrate but celebration should not substitute for examination.
Brown, C. (1978). Literacy in 30 hours: Paulo Freires process in north east Brazil. Chicago: Alternative Schools Network.
Gadotti, M. (1994). Reading Paulo Freire: His life and work (J. Milton, Trans.). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Gottesman, I. (2010). Sitting in the waiting room: Paulo Freire and the critical turn in the field of education. Educational Studies, 46 (4), 376-399.
Gutierrez, G. (1973). A theology of liberation: History, politics, and salvation (C. Inda and J. Eagleson, Trans.). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. (Original work published 1971).
Holst, J.D. (2006). Paulo Freire in Chile, 1964-1969: Pedagogy of the Oppressed in its sociopolitical economic context. Harvard Educational Review, 76 (2), 243-270.
Kirkendall, A. J. (2010). Paulo Freire & the cold war of literacy. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.