A first as sculpture of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire is installed in Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education
The University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education has become the first institution outside Brazil to install one of a series of iconic sculptures of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher whose ideas have been under attack from ‘populist’ politicians in South America.
The bronze bust depicting Freire is a gift from the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and was arranged by CLAREC (Cambridge Latin American Research in Education Collective), a group of Latin American students based at the University of Cambridge.
The statue, installed last month in the foyer of the Hills Road institution, provided a backdrop to a fortnight of activities at the faculty celebrating Freire’s centenary, which saw hundreds of scholars – including many from Latin America – meeting online to discuss his life and work.
Elisa de Padua, a founder member of CLAREC, says that the installation has uplifted many Latin American students in the city – her original experience of arriving in Cambridge in 2010 having been that “South America was not on the map”.
A psychologist focusing on educational assessment, she recently received her doctorate in education. Speaking with her CLAREC colleague Rocío Fernández, she shared the joy felt by the group when one of its researchers, Alexandre da Trindade (‘Alex’), organised for the sculpture to be shipped to the UK for installation as a permanent feature of the Faculty of Education.
“I first heard of Paulo Freire when I was in school in Chile,” said the Santiago-born Cambridge PhD, “but it was only when I was at university [the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile] that one of my professors said I should read him.”
Paulo Freire, 1921-1997, was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy. His main work is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which has sold a million copies since publication in 1968 and continues to influence educators all over the world who believe in education as a way of liberating the poor.
“For Freire, education is not a neutral thing, it’s about being critical of the facts you’re learning,” says Elisa. “It’s teaching you how to read in a very critical way, connecting the text with life as it is, in the field. It’s education as a tool of empowerment, for making lives better.”
Setting up CLAREC in 2019 was clearly a game-changer for Latin American students in the city, she adds. The organisation was born out of the 2019 social protest movement that started in Chile and spread worldwide through the ‘A rapist in your path’ song and dance anthem.
“Alex, Rocío and I, along with 20 other students, are part of this collective at the university,” says Elisa. “Its purpose is to bring the Latin American perspective into the UK. We feel the perspective hasn’t been fully explored. Some researchers still talk of America as being North America! We wanted to bring in the Latin American perspective, and we wanted to celebrate the birth of Paulo Freire and, as part of that, Alex brought the sculpture to the celebration.”
Rocío, a Chilean doctoral researcher at Wolfson College in the third year of a four-year course, adds: “The MST asked a renowned artist in Brazil, Murilo Sá Toledo, for a sculpture, to make 20, and Alex was in Brazil when Covid came, he’s connected to social movements there, working on how to connect academia with education...”
It all sounds perfectly good-natured, but politics in South America isn’t. On his campaign trail, Brazil’s current president Jair Bolsonaro boasted to his supporters that he would “enter the education ministry with a flamethrower to remove Paulo Freire”. In speeches and interviews, Bolsonaro and his allies represent Freire as a kind of leftist bogeyman whose influence needs to be purged from the Brazilian education system.
Elisa says: “We’ve seen the rise of the far right and that’s threatening to Latin America and Paulo Freire’s ideas. In Brazil, the Parliament has asked to control what is studied in university, and wants to defund studies in sociology and humanities. Academics feel very threatened, and in Chile it is the same – far right parties are asking for a list of academics teaching or researching gender ideology.
“The teachings of Paolo Freire are more relevant than ever – it’s education as a tool of emancipation.”
This month the situation in Chile improved. The second round of the presidential election, on December 19, saw 35-year-old Gabriel Boris beat his far-right opponent José Antonio Kast to become president-elect.
“My family and friends are so happy with our elected president,” said a delighted Elisa.
So, after the reprieve, the work goes on: indeed, there are oppressive instincts on display in Europe as well as South America. Was there surprise about abortion rights being rolled back in Poland, the right to protest being under threat in the UK, and the attacks on the judiciary in Hungary?
“It has been a surprise, yes,” says Rocío (pronounced ‘Rosio’). “I was not an expert on English politics! Some rights are very fragile and you can see that in politics in Europe and in terms of women’s reproductive rights. But the message about solidarity is just the same, about how we can build a society only collectively. We cannot liberate ourselves in isolation.”
“I arrived in Cambridge in 2010 and it would have been very different for me if I saw a statue of Paulo Freire when I arrived,” Elisa says. “I felt at that time that South America was not on the map. Sometimes I still feel that actually.”
Rocío adds: “That’s why we started the collective.”
Prof Susan Robertson, head of the Faculty of Education, said: “Around the world, academic communities are facing challenges to their freedom that they never expected to have to defend. Freire offers a way forward for educators striving to resist this.
“Everything he talked about: ideas about living, loving, trying to know, being tolerant, being curious – these are resources that enable us to confront those challenges, and to live well with each other and our planet.”