Some 60 years ago, Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire had a bold idea: teach 300 people in a poor, remote town in Brazil to read in just 40 hours of classes.
His literacy experiment was not only successful — it was hugely influential around the world.
Freire is best known for his groundbreaking book, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," first written in Portuguese in 1968. The book was later translated into multiple languages and continues to get cited frequently in education and social justice circles.
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Freire, who died in 1997, was one of the founders of critical pedagogy, a movement that promotes the "emancipation" of students in the classroom and emphasizes the political nature of education. This year marks his centenary.
Now, a new documentary looks back at the pioneering work of Freire called "A is for Angicos," made by Catherine Murphy.
The 26-minute documentary tracks Freire's early literacy experiments in the town of Angicos, in northeastern Brazil, where Freire worked with college-aged volunteers to mobilize illiterate villagers to learn to read and write and apply that knowledge to heighten their political consciousness.
His early work in Angicos helped launch Freire's lifelong career as an educator focused on liberatory pedagogy.
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Murphy joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about the making of her film and Freire's profound influence in the fields of education and social justice around the globe.
Marco Werman: How did Paulo Freire go about his work in that first experiment in northeast Brazil? This was the early 60s, right?
Yes. Paulo Freire mobilized a group of college students to be sort of co-creators with him of a technique to teach literacy in 40 hours to illiterate, mostly rural adults. And they went about designing a vocabulary system together with the people they would teach and choosing what they called "generative words," which were words in common usage in that region and held night classes to use these words to spark deeper discussion about the state of their lives and the world.
There was a college near Angicos where the literacy teachers were drawn from?
Paulo Freire was teaching at the time at the University of Recife and mobilized about 30 students from the University of Recife in northeastern Brazil in a variety of disciplines to work together with him in the creation of what they called "cultural circles." And the young teachers were called "coordinators," so it's interesting how they avoided the terms "teacher," "professor" or "literacy classes" and were really using this core issue of teaching people the skills of reading and writing to also mobilize them to exercise their vote — which was prohibited for illiterate people at the time — and to be engaged in improving the world around them in a multitude of ways.
How different was that approach from previous approaches to literacy in Brazil?
Well, they emphatically rejected earlier adult literacy materials that used children's books, a children's vocabulary. They created a methodology that used words that were in common usage, a common vocabulary that was co-created with the students and that honored their knowledge and wisdom. They had words like tijolo ["brick"] or ladrillo ["tile"], which are construction materials, but they also used words like povo and voto, which means "people" and "vote." So, they were raising issues with people about: "Can you vote?" "Do you have an identification card?" "Why not?" "Where do you work?" "Who else works there?" "Who owns the land?" And really connecting them to these sort of larger questions about their lives and sort of social justice issues and trying to involve them in becoming protagonists in their own lives and in the world around them.
At one point in your documentary, Catherine, we hear Paulo Freire himself talk about how he thinks of education and literacy, giving people power as change agents. Freire's famous book about teaching the poor is called "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." What is the essence of his philosophy, Catherine?
Freire talks about education as a tool for transformation. He rejects what he calls the "banking system" of education, which is that you're basically just depositing information in a person. He promotes what he calls learning to read the word and the world and to create what he also calls critical consciousness and to bring people into being change agents and agents for positive transformation in the world around them.
In 1964, a year after the literacy experiment in Angicos. The military came to power in Brazil and it came down hard on Paulo Freire and his methods. What happened?
The experience in Angicos was in full course that had the potential to become a national program. When the coup d'état happened, while the coup happened on April 1, and Paulo Freire was taken prisoner the very next day, he was arrested in his home on April 2, 1964, went to jail for about 70 days and was then sent into exile and lived for many years in exile before returning to Brazil. He became a global figure, of course, in terms of empowerment education and published many, many books, including his most famous work, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." But the fact that he was on that early, early list of the first people that they arrested is not a coincidence. At one of the previous graduations of the newly literate adults, there were some military figures present that were involved in the coup that would then happen. And seeing this, you know, upsetting of the traditional then sort of largely feudal system in Brazil in which landless peasants were learning how to read and write, registering to vote and taking an active role in changing the world around them, well, that was exactly what the coup was trying to prevent.
And people in Angicos were also persecuted by the military government. What happened to them?
Well, it's very sad. When people have gone back to interview the former students they all heard, you know, "Freire has been arrested. The project is stopped. If you have any materials, hide them, bury them, burn them." So, none of the former students have any of their workbooks, papers, materials. A small amount of things do survive, [including] an amazing documentary, a black and white film that we use in our film, created by a man named Luis Lobo, who's still alive — he's in his 90s. He was a close adviser to us and gave us access to this incredible film. He took the 16-millimeter film reel and went outside of the city to a friend in the countryside and buried it in a trunk in their backyard — and it miraculously survived.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.