Learning hope in difficult times: On Paulo Freire’s reflections on struggle

This reflection on Paulo Freire’s call for an education in hope was first published in 2013 in the CUSLAR Newsletter. Freire wrote from exile after a fascist military takeover of his native Brazil 50 years ago. Today, as the world comes to grips with the election of an imminently dangerous individual as president of the United States, may we renew our commitment to care for each other, to reject the mistreatment of all human beings and the earth, to speak out, to learn, to fight — and yes, to hope.

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by Tim Shenk
Coordinator, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

Paulo Freire begins his 1992 book, Pedagogy of Hope, with a comment from a friend who asks how he could write about hope “in the shameless hellhole of corruption like the one strangling us in Brazil today?”

Freire, a pioneer in pedagogical thought, argues that the educator’s role is to prepare students to think critically and solve problems collectively. The Brazilian educator penned his most famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, while in exile in Chile in the 1960s, and he spent his life teaching and working for liberation.

By the time he writes Pedagogy of Hope, Freire has surely seen his share of hopelessness. He answers his friend:

“I do not understand human existence, and the struggle needed to improve it, apart from hope and dream…. I am hopeful, not out of mere stubbornness, but out of an existential, concrete imperative.”

He continues: “Without a minimum of hope, we cannot so much as start the struggle. But without struggle, hope, as an ontological need, dissipates, loses its bearings, and turns into hopelessness. Hence the need for a kind of education in hope.”

More and more people are sensing that our society has lost its bearings, that the current economic model isn’t serving their needs.

While U.S. student debt has topped $1 trillion, roughly half of recent graduates are unemployed or under-employed. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. workers are in poverty-wage jobs, according to Forbes, and there are 40 percent more temp jobs now than there were in 2009.

As economic crisis deepens here and around the world, it becomes clear that we need an education in hope.

To learn how to hope! The suggestion at first seems absurd. But this isn’t just any sort of hope. In fact, Freire says somewhat playfully, “there is no hope in sheer hopefulness. The hoped-for is not attained by dint of raw hoping.”

A lasting and robust hope, then, must be learned and cultivated, anchored in the daily practice of working toward a transformed, hoped-for reality.

As CUSLAR launches the Paulo Freire Engaged Practitioners Program this fall, hosting dialogues and study with a representative of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil, we will continue to develop what “an education in hope” means. To open the conversation, here are a few elements of an education in hope.

A first element is its content. An education in hope is grounded in both a critique
of inequality and injustice, as well as the practice of studying and developing more just alternatives.

CUSLAR is excited to share the experience of the MST. Founded in 1984, the MST claims nearly two million members and is a globally renowned champion of agrarian reform and peasants’ rights. Its practice of political and technical education known broadly as formação in Portuguese is the backbone of its leadership development and is a model for organizations and educators everywhere.

A second element of an education in hope is its method – that is, how and where it is taught.

Understanding the complexity and scale of the problems to be solved, an education in hope is both interdisciplinary and rigorous. It respects and incorporates participant knowledge while falling neither into authoritarianism nor permissiveness.

In this respect, Freire challenges those who say he endorses a “dumbed down” version of education: “To defend a thesis…rigorously, but passionately, as well, and at the same time to stimulate the contrary discourse, and respect the right to utter that discourse, is the best way to teach, first, the right to have our own ideas, even our duty to ‘quarrel’ for them, for our dreams.”

An education in hope goes beyond formal schooling, drawing lessons from current and historical efforts for social change. In their 2011 book, Pedagogy of the Poor, Willie Baptist
and Jan Rehmann argue that “the struggle is a school,” and that “every sound theory that relates to social realities needs to contain condensed life experience as well.”

A third element of an education in hope is its collectivity. One person can’t change the world – for a task such as this, we need a social movement that draws from all sectors of society.

When people learn together, we can begin to develop a common language, a common assessment of problems and common hopes and dreams. Breaking the silence about injustice and breaking through the discouragement of isolation are key products of building knowledge collectively.

CUSLAR attempts to practice an education in hope through our internship program, speaker series, study groups and newsletter review process. One student recently noted, “CUSLAR is unique in that we don’t only study oppression – we also work toward liberation!”

May this publication, as all of our products of collective intelligence, be a contribution to an education in hope.

Read the full Summer/Fall 2013 CUSLAR Newsletter

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