Many of the critical pedagogists whose ideas currently inform theory and practice in the field of education acknowledge the influence of Paulo Freire on their thinking. Those whose thinking show traces of a Freirean influence include Peter McLaren, Henry Giroux, Joe Kincheloe, Shirley Steinberg, bell hooks, Ira Shor, Stanley Aronowitz, Michael Apple and Jonathan Kozol. Critical pedagogy is a philosophy of education that was first described by Freire and further developed by Giroux. Freire encouraged students to think critically about their own educational situation and to recognise connections between their individual problems and experiences and the social contexts in which they are embedded. Such consciousness is the first step towards praxis, which is defined as the power and know-how to take action against oppression while stressing the importance of liberating education. Praxis involves engaging in a cycle of theory, application, evaluation, reflection and then back to theory. Social transformation is the product of praxis at a collective level.
What inspired Freire to explore concepts such as poverty, oppression and critical thinking? He appears to have been strongly influenced by the liberation theology movement that had spread throughout Central and South America during the 60s and 70s. Three of the more widely-known theologians are Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino. Gutiérrez is regarded as the founder of liberation theology and published a book entitled ‘A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation’, which appeared in Spanish in 1971 and in English two years later.
Gutiérrez was born in Lima in 1928. He initially studied medicine, with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist. While at university, he became interested in the Catholic Action movement and as a result began studying theology. He also studied philosophy and psychology, and was ordained a priest in 1959. Liberation theology developed as a Christian response to the conditions in which many Latin American people live. Gutiérrez had grown up in a world of injustice and oppression against the poor: hence his lifelong preoccupation with themes such as unjust social structures and the dignity of the poor. He named two states of poverty in the lives of christians in Latin America – hunger for God, that he hoped would remain, and hunger for bread, that he hoped would be satisfied. He coined the phrase ‘preferential option for the poor’, which epitomises his unceasing campaign for social justice for the poor and for recognition of their human dignity. He also spoke out on behalf of women, whom he regarded as being doubly oppressed.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Freire and other critical pedagogists with a social conscience were influenced by Gutiérrez and the liberation theologians of Latin America. All were involved in a common struggle against social injustice, poverty and oppression in all its forms.