5. The Social Justice (Radical) Approach

5. The Social Justice (Radical) Approach

Paulo Freire is often considered the most influential adult educator of the 20th century. His work has been called “radical” by some, “liberating” or “liberatory” by others. His adult literacy work has influenced professions from ministry to social services world-wide. Freire worked exclusively in adult literacy but has been hugely influential across all sectors of what might be thought of as education.

"If the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must change."
- Paulo Freire

Paulo FreireFreire began his literacy work in northeastern Brazil during the Popular Education movement of the 1960s as sponsored by the Brazilian government. Popular education is the term often used for the literacy outreach campaigns in, especially, Latin America whereby puppetry, folk music, street theatre and informal literacy teaching is used to teach and encourage literacy learning in villages and many urban centres.

As part of that movement, Freire helped organize what were called Cultural Circles. He used the term “conscientization” in his writing to describe the goal of raising awareness of social injustice and oppression through literacy and dialogue. This dialogical approach often meant empowering learners to question social assumptions and become aware of their own circumstances. Through guided dialogue, learners come to see that their “lot in life” was not ordained. Poverty and servitude, for example, were not “inevitable.” The Cultural Circles led to greater equity for thousands of the disenfranchised as they gained a stronger political voice—both locally and regionally. But Freire came to be seen as a threat to political power.

Circle facilitators met with community groups in villages and urban areas across the country. Then came a governmental coup d’etat that lead to Freire’s imprisonment for political subversion. He was exiled to Chile in 1969. However, due to his influential writing and activism, he was invited by Harvard University to be a visiting professor through the 1970s. He later worked with the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Returning to Brazil in 1979, he was appointed as Sao Paulo’s Secretary of Education. His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is considered a classic in the field of adult education and adult literacy.

The Freirean social justice approach became extremely popular through the 1960s and 1970s across North America (Pratt, 1998; Quigley, 2006). It flourished in places such as the famous Highlander Research and Education Centre in Tennessee and the Universidad Popular in Chicago’s City Colleges (operated by and for Hispanic adult students). Many have named Canada’s iconic Antigonish Movement that took place in the Maritime provinces in the early years of the 20th century as one of our most significant examples of social justice adult education (Quigley, 2006).

Interest in this “radical” approach faded through the 1980s and 1990s, but there is now an apparent resurgence in this perspective both in Canada and the U.S. For example, the press release for A Different Way: Reorienting Adult Education toward Democracy and Social Justice, prepared by Dr. Paul Jurmo (2021), states:

Underscoring the relevance of adult education to our democracy, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that more than 43 million adults in the United States cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third-grade level. USDOE research states that lower skilled adults have less confidence in their ability to affect government actions and, therefore, have a potentially lower rate of civic engagement. (PRWeb, 2021)

A chapter I co-authored for the Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education puts a focus on literacy classism in the context of social class and working class (Zacharakis, Patterson, & Quigley, 2021). We made the following point: “Social class shapes goals and beliefs, defines power, and determines access to resources required to make basic decisions and frame choices” (p. 421). Adding, “social structures can become personal barriers” (p. 424), we argued for “more politically based curricula to help adult learners understand and access the political system, to help them identify their rights as adult citizens, and build their capacities to see and challenge literacy classism into the 21st century” (p. 424).

In 2019, Canada’s Frontier College—an iconic literacy program discussed in Section Two—held a national conference dedicated to discussing adult literacy as a human right (@newswire, 2019). This was a position taken by UNESCO as early as 1966, at which time September 8 was declared world-wide as International Literacy Day. UNESCO’s stated purpose for this declaration was to “actively mobilize the international community and promote literacy as an instrument to empower individuals, communities and societies” (cited in Quigley, 2020, p. 16).

That world-call for “mobilization” has largely been lost over the years. However, recent renewed interest in adult literacy in North America, as seen in the previous examples, echoes the Freirean social justice approach that still seeks to empower and destigmatize adults with low literacy, many of whom are hidden in our society. What I have termed the “invisible minority” of the 21st century.