The following essay was published in the Memories of Paulo in 2010
My first introduction to Paulo Freire was through my reading of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I had just returned from a year of teaching in southern India, where the exaggeration of wealth and poverty left me questioning my place in the world. Freire’s perennially insightful text supplied me with categories for analyzing my economic privilege, as well as my ignorance about which social groups really understood the world. I felt lucky that my graduate school supported my desire to focus my doctoral studies on Freire’s philosophy of education. In the summer of 1982, when I was eight months pregnant, I attended a two-week course with Paulo at Boston College. He was kind enough to read a chapter of my dissertation, and even declared my work original. I explained my desire to understand what his method looked like on Brazilian ground. Less than a year later, our family of four left on a six-month sojourn to develop our best critical consciousness.
When I wasn’t in the favelas of Sao Paulo, I spent my time in the Learning Center arguing with Paulo about the epistemological privilege of the poor. He insisted that the middle class was fechada (closed) to the pedagogy of the poor. I was steadfast in my resolve that the middle class was more than capable of understanding class privilege, and wasn’t I an example of this?
I lost the argument one day towards the end of my time with Paulo. He had invited me to give a lecture on the subject of my thesis–moral imagination in the thought of Paulo Freire–to his graduate students at Catholic University. After an elaborate explanation of the intersections between Freire’s thought, Plato, Immanuel Kant, and Martin Heidegger, Paulo came to the front of the class and thanked me for my eloquent philosophical exposition. Then he pointed to my charts on the wall, and said, “But I don’t think you have taken into account the role of the system.” I remember the eyes of all his graduate students darting in my direction, watching for my response. I pretended to have difficulty understanding the Portuguese flying around the room. But the truth was that I was shriveling inside from the mortification of my error. After three years of serious intellectual work on the philosophy of Paulo Freire, I had missed his central point. And it all happened in front of the master teacher and his prized graduate students.
After class that day, I returned to Paulo’s Learning Center to rewrite the last chapter of my dissertation. I worked night and day to find the missing pieces of my consciousness. Like so many North Americans, I had failed to see the importance of critiquing international capitalism and its accompanying social class structures. On our last night, we were invited to dinner at Paulo and Elza’s home so that we could discuss my revisions. Over bourbon and brandy, we read my work aloud. I will never forget his final words to me, “I love this. You have understood.”
My time in Brazil was life changing, not only because of the rare privilege to study alongside Paulo Freire himself, but also because I learned to see my own country from the point of view of critically conscious Brazilians. The view from the South was, and continues to be, a painful sight to behold. All the books and economic analysis had not rooted me in a strong understanding of how the world functions for the oppressed majority. It was the realization of my class privilege in the United States, and its accompanying exploitation, that tempted me to stay and work in Brazil. After all, people there, by Freirean definition, lived so much closer to the truth. But Paulo encouraged me to return home to the “belly of the beast” where the real work of the world needs to be addressed.
I returned to Appalachia with renewed vigor. The commitment of Berea College to low income students provided the perfect classroom to pursue teacher education, in the manner of Paulo Freire. I initiated study programs in Eastern Kentucky where future teachers could see for themselves that the war on poverty was lost in Appalachia. We read Pedagogy of the Oppressed so that students would learn to celebrate their cultural capital. After six years of joyous teaching, I received a letter refusing me tenure in the department of education. My best Freirean colleagues, Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren, supported me, but the real strength came from a second lesson that I learned from Paulo. I can hear those words echoing across the lecture hall at Boston College, as if it were yesterday: “Teachers enter their university positions full of critical consciousness about the system. But during the six year probationary period for tenure, they become domesticated. By the time they receive tenure, the teacher has forgotten his or her promise to change the system.” As I sat in my misery and tears, I was consoled by the understanding that I had walked my Freirean talk in the classroom. This time I stood in the spiritual presence of my mentor and had not failed.
In those difficult days, I also remembered a third lesson articulated by Paulo in summer of 1985, again at Boston College: “Teachers must fight for their rights.” Crushed by my defeat around tenure, I knew that I had to summon the courage to struggle for relocation at Berea College. The dean’s letter had an unusual clause, promising me an alternative appointment because my teaching evaluations were a full standard deviation point above my colleagues. I accepted a part-time position in women’s studies. Two years later, I won a Fulbright senior lectureship at the University of Zimbabwe where I offered graduate courses in Freirean philosophy and worked with Africa’s finest Freirean grassroots activists. I returned to Berea as a full-time associate professor. Four years later I was awarded tenure in women’s studies, followed by full professorship in the spring of 2006. In all these pivotal moments of my professional life, I remained studiously present to the teachings of Paulo Freire. In his words, the painful moments in our professional lives are really opportunities for “making Easter,” that is, of letting go of the trappings of prestige and privilege, in favor of struggling for social justice.
Peggy Rivage-Seul, Director of Women’s Studies Berea College Berea, Kentucky