Paulo Freire Re-invented by H.P.Gerhardt


The “Paulo Freire system” in action: The literacy campaign in Brasília 1963/4


The construction of a new capital of Brazil, named Brasília, has been discussed since the revolutionary movement struggled for full independence from Portuguese colonial power and creation of a Brazilian republic. The capital of Rio de Janeiro was a symbol of Portuguese rule and exploitation. The construction of this new metropolis attracted a tremendous workforce flow from all parts of the country, living in tent, board and clay barracks. The squalid living conditions and the unbridled exploitation of the construction workers in Brasília were covered up by intensive government propaganda that trumpeted nationalist ideas of development. It was there and at that time, that Paulo Freire and his collaborators first investigated their concept of the “vocabulary universe” (universo vocabular). The pilot campaign in Brasília was the only finished practical experience of the famed National Plan for Alphabetization having been put forward by the reformist government of João Goulart. Paulo Freire was personally involved in the management of the pilot where his system and methods were to be employed the first-time on a national scale. This ex-post analysis is able to highlight the political and pedagogical challenges and dilemmas Freire, his then wife Elza, and his team from Recife, encountered in their innovative approach to overcome illiteracy. Keywords: Paulo Freire, Literacy, Brasilia – Pilot Campain, Praxis, Critical Theory, Liberation.


La costruzione di una nuova capitale, chiamata Brasilia, è stata discussa fin da quando il movimento rivoluzionario ha intrapreso la lotta per la piena indipendenza dal potere coloniale portoghese e per la creazione di una repubblica brasiliana. La capitale Rio de Janeiro era un simbolo del dominio e dello sfruttamento portoghese. La costruzione di questa nuova metropoli ha attirato un enorme flusso di forza lavoro da tutte le parti del Paese, che viveva in tende e baracche di legno e fango. Le squallide condizioni di vita e lo sfruttamento sfrenato dei lavoratori edili a Brasilia sono stati insabbiati dall’intensa propaganda governativa che ha strombazzato le idee nazionaliste di sviluppo. Fu lì e in quel momento che Paulo Freire e i suoi collaboratori indagarono per la prima volta sul loro concetto di “universo lessicale” (universo vocabular). La campagna pilota a Brasilia è stata l’unica esperienza pratica conclusa del famoso Piano nazionale per l’alfabetizzazione avanzata dal governo riformista di João Goulart. Paulo Freire è stato personalmente coinvolto nella gestione del pilota, in cui il suo sistema e i suoi metodi sono stati impiegati per la prima volta su scala THE “PAULO FREIRE SYSTEM” IN ACTION: THE LITERACY CAMPAIGN IN BRASÍLIA 1963-64 di Heinz-Peter Gerhardt 12 Que viva Freire! nazionale. Questa analisi ex-post è in grado di evidenziare le sfide e i dilemmi politici e pedagogici che Freire, sua moglie Elza e il suo team di Recife hanno affrontato nel loro approccio innovativo per superare l’analfabetismo. Parole chiave: Paulo Freire, Literacy, Brasilia – Pilot Campain, Praxis, Critical Theory, Liberation.

      1. The new capital and its builders 

The construction of a new capital in the sparsely populated interior of  the country had been discussed in Brazil since the days of Tiradentes1. For  those national insurgents, the capital of Rio de Janeiro was a symbol of Por tuguese rule and exploitation. Its relocation to the interior of the country also  promised to boost development in Brazil’s hinterlands.

Throughout the country’s history, various nationalist movements adopted  this plan. The various republican constitutions adopted after 1890 all includ ed a promise to build a new capital. Already at that time, the preferred loca tion was the high central plateau (Planalto central) of the country’s Midwest.

Following this nationalist tradition, Juscelino Kubitschek and the coali tion of groups that supported him in 1954/55 planned to fulfil this consti tutional promise, making it the main plank of their manifesto leading up to  the 1955 presidential election. Kubitschek himself was surprised at the reso nance his proposal found throughout the nation, and once elected president,  he immediately introduced a bill in Congress to relocate the capital. It was  passed by an overwhelming majority. In a record time of just 3.5 years, the  buildings housing the federal government and the offices of the president  were erected. On April 21st, 1960, the National Day of Commemoration for  Tiradentes’ attempted revolution, the government and the president solemn ly took up residence in the new capital, Brasília.

1 Tiradentes (1746-1792) was the leader of a failed conspiracy against the Portuguese  colonial rule in the late 18th century.

The construction of this new metropolis attracted workforce from all  parts of the country. Most of these migrant workers came from the north east and were dubbed Candangos after a Brazilian migratory bird2. They trav elled by land to this grand construction site by highly adventurous routes  – the roads to the north-east and south were still under construction – often  crammed together into trucks. When the planning process began in 1955,  barely 6,000 people lived in the 5,850 km² area of the Federal District. By  May 1959, the government had not yet been established in Brasília, yet 65,288  people already lived there (Ibge, 1960: 355f). On average, 2,400 workers ar rived in Brasília each month during these years. The urban planners in the  Development Company for the New Capital (port: Companhia urbanizadora  da Nova Capital or Novacap) had not reckoned with a migration flow of this  magnitude, at its height 800,000 people, mainly men from the northeastern  states of Brazil. Although they had planned and partially built satellite towns  (e.g., Planaltina, Tagnatinga, Brazlândia) and temporary barrack settlements for  the builders of Brasília, the satellite towns were unaffordable for most of the  construction workers and located too far away – as an example, Tagnatinga was situated 28 km away from the construction site. It was the profession al employees of Novacap and the construction companies that moved into  these houses. The Candangos had to live in barracks. The Núcleo Bandeirante district was an exception; it was planned and constructed as a satellite city  since it lay only 13 km from the “Plano Piloto” government building sites, it  was a suitable settlement area for the migrants of the north. This enabled  residents to take advantage of existing infrastructure facilities such as water  and electricity supply. As the simple wooden board and tent dwellings of  the construction workers expanded, Bandeirante soon became the largest res idential area in the new Federal District with a population of 12,000 by 1959  (Ibge, 1960, p. 365).

Whereas Bandeirante boasted a semblance of urban planning and small town infrastructure (5 primary schools, 6 butcher’s shops, 1 bus station, 15  pharmacies, 6 medical practices, 1 cinema), the tent, board and clay barracks  of Candangolândia (= City of the Candangos) situated 6-7 km away from the  Plano Piloto, were unfit for human habitation. The people living there were  regarded as effectively homeless (p. 363).

In 1959 Candangolândia had a population of 3,000 people living in 483  separate living quarters, with 6-8 people on average crowded together into  each. A single water point had to supply four barracks, and the sanitary facili

2 Today, the inhabitants of the suburbs of Brasília are still collectively known as “Can dangos”. In 2020 a “Day of the Candango” Dia do Candango (Galvão, 2020) was declared in  the Federal District of Brasilia. Some scholars maintain that the name originates in Africa,  where there exists a tribe with this name (Videsott, 2008).

ties were grossly inadequate (p. 366). Electricity was available but due to their  low wages, most of the residents could not afford to pay for it. The minimum wage at the time for an unskilled laborer in Brasília was 15  cruzeiros a day (Ibge, 1960, p. 364)3. It was not surprising to see most of the  “builders of Brasília” working overtime. The “normal” working day – people  worked in shifts around the clock – totaled 14-20 hours. There was no limit  to the number of overtime hours a person could work.

The squalid living conditions and the unbridled exploitation of the con struction workers in Brasília were covered up by intensive government prop aganda that trumpeted nationalist ideas of development. The Brazilian press,  radio and television paid almost daily tribute to those building the new capital  and visiting delegations from home and abroad lent a touch of historical  grandeur to the often freezing and exhausted Candangos.

By 1963, Brasília entered its third year as the official capital of the nation,  yet the city still resembled a huge building site. During the week feverish  building activity continued day and night. On Sundays it suddenly became a  ghost town devoid of people, as the government officials returned to their  families in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo and the workers hunkered down in  the suburbs4. It was there, in Candangolândia, Gama, Bandeirante, Sobradinho and  Limpeza Publica, that Paulo Freire and his collaborators from Sec/UR (Serviço  de Extensão Cultural/Universidade de Recife), Cultural Extension Service  within Recife University in Pernambuco, a North-eastern State of Brazil be gan their literacy work, using the method they had successfully developed in  the North-east. The literacy campaign in Brasilia was part of an experimental  pilot project, prior to the implementation of the National Literacy Plan of  1964 by the Ministry of Education.

The Pna (National Literacy Plan) was instituted on 21 January 1964, thus  legitimating the adoption of the method developed by Paulo Freire through  his work in various states of the Northeast: in Pernambuco, in Angicos, in  initial experiences with the Sec, and in the municipality of São Lourenço  da Mata near Recife. Soon after its creation, the team from the University’s  Cultural Expansion Service selected a team of young people from Paraíba  to apply the method in the Ceplar Campaign in Paraíba. Contemporaneously with the experience of Angicos, Paulo Freire agreed with Mayor Djalma  Maranhão of Natal on the creation of cultural circles in the context of the

3 A carpenter earned 30 cr., a mechanic 50 cr. and a metal fitter 60 cr. (= daily wages).  In November 1961 the exchange rate between the then cruzeiro and the then West Ger man mark was 1:87. In today’s (2021) money this would be 0,50 Euro for 87 of the then  cruzeiro (cr.).

4 This description of Brasília in 1963 was provided by Jomard Muniz de Brito (1976),  member of Freire’s Sec (Serviço de Extensão Cultural, Cultural Extension Service) team  from the University of Recife.

campaign entitled “pé no chão se aprende a ler” (“learning to read barefoot”). In  other states of the south, the Uee of São Paulo designed and initiated liter acy pilots in Vila Helena Maria (Osasco, São Paulo). This was followed by  a pilot project in Brasília. The launching of the National Literacy Program  was accelerated and, with it, the generalized use of the method throughout  the country.

It was planned to set up 60,870 cultural circles from 1964 onwards to  teach 1,834,200 adults to read and write, thus reaching 8.9% of the illiterate  population of Brazil (aged between 15 and 45), which in 1963 numbered  20,442,000 people, about 30% of the total population of 66,302,271 (Ibge),  who were thus prevented from participating in the selection of their leaders5.

      1. The organization of the Pilot Project of Brasilia 

2.1.The National and Regional Commission for Popular Culture 

On 28th of June 1963, the Comissão de Cultura Popular (i.e., Commis sion for Popular Culture) was founded at the Ministry of Education6 on the  federal level7. Due to former contacts with the Sec/UR team and due to the  extensive publicity that Freire’s literacy method had gained following his cam paign in Angicos (Gerhardt, 1983), the then Minister of Education Paulo de  Tarso entrusted the Sec/UR team8 with the organizational and educational  leadership of the commission. Paulo Freire was appointed chairman on the  national level.

The federal commission’s task was to develop a national literacy plan  based on Freire’s system. This was to be done in cooperation with trade  unions and student organizations, groups that had already been involved in  mobilizing and implementing literacy projects, particularly as part of popu

lar cultural movements. National, regional and local committees on popular  culture were to exercise control over the management of the courses. These

5 Beisiegel (1974, p. 169). On the 21 of January 1964 the plan was ready: The presiden tial executive order no 53.465 created the Programa Nacional de Alfabetização (Pna) men tioning explicitly the Paulo Freire System as methodology to be employed. The plan foresaw  the creation of 60.870 cultural circles in order to turn literate 1.834.200 adult illiterates (15 to  45 years old) still in 1964, cf. Tribuna do Norte (2013).

6 Universidade de Recife (1963). Boletim Informativo, 11, pp. 19 e 14, 22. Cf. tb. Silvia  Maria Manfredi (1976) e Araújo Freire (2006, pp. 143-151).

7 Paulo Freire had made several lecture tours to Brasília in the course already of 1962.  In his capacity as Director of Sec/UR, he advised the University of Brasília on the establi shment of a “Department for Cultural Continuing Education” (Departamento de Extensão  Cultural). Cf. Boletim do Sec/UR (1962), No. 3-4, Set.-Dec., p. 23.

8 The Agreement was signed in Brasília on 30 July 1963. Cf. Gonçalves (1964b, p. 84).

committees were to be composed of equal numbers of representatives from  trade unions, student organizations, popular culture movements, and officials  from the Ministry of Education.

The plan was to carry out an initial pilot project in the Federal District:  as a model and demonstration course for the “National Plan”: A “Regional  Commission for Popular Culture” was constituted at the Ministry of Ed ucation in cooperation with the city government of Brasília9 (official title:  Comissão Regional de Cultura Popular de Brasília do Ministério da Educação  e Cultura). Jomard Muniz de Brito from the Sec/UR team was appointed as  its chairman (Brito, 1976).

The student and trade unions, as well as popular cultural organizations  of the Federal District were still in their infancy and the “Regional Com mission” was mainly composed of officials from the Ministry of Education  (Barreto, 1963, p. 1; Paiva, 1973, p. 255). Likewise, it was Ministry officials  who were recruited to help conducting the research on local vocabulary  and urging problems of the suburbs. We have no reports about the way  in which this research was conducted. We can assume, however, that it  followed the same twin-tracked approach that has already been applied in  Angicos and Quintas (Gerhardt, 1978, pp. 151-204): first the anthropolog

ical sequence of the literacy course, then the literacy sequence (Cf. 3.2 and  3.3 of this article).

2.2.The selection and training of coordinators 

Since secondary and tertiary education institutions were only now being  established, it was not possible to recruit the required coordinators in Brasília  from secondary schools or universities. For this reason, the Sec/UR group10 thought it necessary and feasible for the coordinating function to be carried  out by more or less literate residents of the suburbs who had previously  been recruited to research the universo vocabular. Moreover, in areas with only  few secondary schools and universities, which would later be covered by the  National Literacy Plan (Plano Nacional de Alfabetização) the recruitment of

such staff was an absolute necessity. It was thought that Brasília could also  be a pilot project in this respect. Alongside the promotional campaign to en courage participation in the literacy course, primary school graduates living  in the suburbs were invited to apply for the well-paid coordinator positions.

9 The city government assumed responsibility for funding the project. Kirkendall (2010,  pp. 9, 82) confirms Beisiegel’s and my findings with “already” access to materials of the Su perior Tribunal Militar in Brasilia.

10 The group consisted of J.M. Brito, A. Paes de Andrade and for a short time also A.  Monteiro Costa. Paulo Freire helped in preparing the project but was not involved in its  implementation (Paes de Andrade 2.11.1976).

In June 1963, cars carrying loudspeakers11 drove through the suburbs pro moting the ways of participating in the course, be it as literacy teacher and/ or coordinator of a cultural circle, or as a student/course participant. Public  demonstrations were provided to show how a cultural circle worked e. g. in  Sobradinho: Would-be “coordinators” showed the entire slide sequence of the  chosen generative words (literacy sequence, cf. 3.2). By trying to start a dis cussion with passers-by about the importance of knowing how to read and  write, they informed them about the methodology that would be employed  in the upcoming Brasilia campaign (Barreto, 1963).

About 50 people were selected for the advertised coordinator positions  in accordance with to the pre-registrations for the literacy course. They sub sequently took part in the 20-hour training course conducted by Jomard Mu niz de Brito and Astrogilda Paes de Andrade. Paes de Andrade assumed the  task of designing the literacy process (i.e., sociological situations, generative  words and discovery cards). Muniz de Brito was responsible for the “an thropological concept of culture”12 and for how debate and group dynamics  were managed in the cultural circles. During the training, which included  trial lessons based on the anthropological concept and the decoding phase,  Paes de Andrade and Muniz Brito did not find any difference between the  learning behavior of candidate coordinators recruited from the suburbs and  those from the student milieu13. Paes reported an increase in spontaneous  comprehension, eagerness to learn, interest in the content and an intensive,

11 Slogans like “Povo analfabeto é povo escravo. Matriculam-se no Círculo de Cultura mais próximo.  Aprenda a ler e escrever” (An illiterate people is an enslaved people. Join your nearest Cultural  Circle. Learn to read and write) blared from loudspeakers on top of these cars reports Mau ricio Goldemberg, at the time one of the supervisors on the Comissão Regional da Cultura  Popular and Head of the Department for the Mobilization of Popular Culture (Departa mento de Mobilização da Cultura Popular), cf. depoimento 8 em Documento “Anexo 1 –  Depoimentos” s. d., s. l.: This document contains short reports about interviews conducted  mainly by telephone with people who were supposedly able to inform others about the pilot  project with the Paulo Freire System in Brazil’s new capital. I reckon that it was the “Annex  1” of a summarized report about the project drafted by an entity of the Brazilian military  after its coup d’état in 1964. As my assignment 1976 as researcher and from 1980-86 as Vi siting Professor at the Ufrn is mentioned in “depoimento 42” – I personally was never “in terviewed”, yet – the “interviews” may have been conducted at any time between 1964 and  1980. original-b6b486849127c1a69623a2b75dd5d3ce.pdf ( [12.2.2021].

12 Fávero O. (2012). As fichas de cultura do Sistema de Alfabetização Paulo Freire: Um  Ovo de Colombo. Revista Linhas Críticas, 37(38), 465-483.

13 Brito (1976) and Paes de Andrade (Oct 1976 and Nov. 1976). Cf. also Filho (1962/1963,  p. 77) very vividly: «Coordenadores, assistidos direta e diuturnamente por supervisores, to dos eles selecionados e preparados pela equipe do professor Paulo Freire, trabalham todas as  noites num expediente de quatro horas, muitos em suas próprias casas ou em salas e barracos  cedidos por terceiros. O aparelhamento das salas é o mais sumario. Alguns bancos rústicos  de madeira, um projetor de strip-film, o quadro-tela e as fichas-roteiro».

friendly approach to communication among the applicants from the sub urbs. However, this was accompanied by a striking anxiety with regard to  their future job as coordinators. At the end of the introductory course, a  final test was administered. There are no reports if participants were reject ed because of the results. This way-oriented coordinator guided the cultural  circles that were being set up in selected suburbs of Brasília, each involving  up to 30 participants. The campaign thus initially covered around 3000 illit erate people organized in up to 300 círculos de cultura14 and started in July 1963  (Kirkendall, 2010, pp. 85-86).

      1. Stages in the Literacy Method 

3.1.Researching the vocabulary universe 

Once the coordinators of the cultural circles had been selected, they en gaged in a process of approaching and getting to know the cultural and lin guistic universe of the literacy students through on-site research work. This  first contact aimed to bring the coordinators closer to the socio-cultural and  linguistic realities of the future members of the cultural circles.

The notes and sentenças (= sayings)15 from this period offer hints on how  the residents of these suburbs of the Federal District lived and thought: Be cause of the general objectives of the project «alfabetizar politizando cinco

14 Each coordinator had to teach two cultural circles each night. On Saturdays there  were scheduled meetings for the coordinators together with their supervisors «in order to  critically examine their own work and seek solutions to the various problems encountered in  each sector» («para fazer sua auto-critica e procurar solução para os diversos problemas de cada setor»).  Cf. Filho, J.L. (1962/1963, p. 77). Cf. also Freire enthusiastically (Freire, Betto, 2001, p. 22):  «Posso te confessar que as vezes Elza e eu, em Brasília, não conseguíamos dormir, a não ser  as quatro de manhã, falando-nos de nossos espantos em face do que ouvíamos nos Círculos.  Sim, Brasília, durante a implementação de trezentos Círculos de Cultura, na época, nas cida des satélites». In this episodical way Freire refers to the Brasilia pilot experiment in various  publications cf. (Freire, 1976b).

15 As in Angicos/ RN (in January 1963) and Quintas/ Natal/ RN (in July 1963), those  sentences and parts of conversations that represented typical opinions of the interviewees  (cf. Gerhardt 1978, pp. 113-204), both numerically and in terms of content, were noted as  sentenças in the preliminary studies. The Sec team took a similar approach to words from the  “vocabulary universe”: cf. Sentenças from Plano Piloto, 1 p., n. l., n.d. or publisher, hectograph  copy, Gerhardt archives. Sentenças from Limpeza Pública, 1 p, n.d., n. l. or publisher, hecto

graph copy, Gerhardt archives. Sentenças from Plano Piloto, 2 pgs, n.d., n. l. or publisher, hec tograph copy, Gerhardt archives. Sentenças from Candangolândia, 1 p., n.d. n. l. or publisher,  hectograph copy, Gerhardt archives. Brazilian Ministry of Education and Culture, Sentenças  from Gama, 2 pages, n.d., hectograph copy, Gerhardt archives. The following analysis is ba sed on 103 “sentenças” from the above-mentioned geographical areas.

milhões de adultos» (Cf. Araújo Freire, 2006, p. 145), the issue of one’s ability  to read and write was central. The respondents spoke only in approving terms  of literacy, which was desirable for family (i.e., so that they could teach some thing to their children), social and economic reasons. A general improvement  of one’s own situation in life, as well as the benefit of national development,  was regarded as a certain consequence of the new skill.

The respondents by no means regarded their own living conditions as  dreary. Just four of the 103 statements collected were concrete criticisms  made of the working and living conditions. More frequently, there were re marks about a misguided government policy in matters of administration,  administrative expenditure, and transparency regarding the former, the high  cost of living and low minimum wages, the sell-out of national resources to  foreign countries, and the promised but as yet unrealized agricultural reforms.  In general, the respondents criticized the lack of cohesion and inertia of the  government apparatus. With a few exceptions, the president was exempted  from this criticism. He is seen as the protector of the people, who would be  slowed down in his “good” intentions, e.g. increase of the minimum wage or  agrarian reform, by the machinations of his staff of advisors or by senators  and deputie (15) Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the widely expressed admira

tion for strong leadership and partial advocacy of authoritarian solutions in  the style of Getúlio Vargas, democratic institutions (i.e., parliament, courts)  and processes (i.e., constitution, elections) were scarcely mentioned16. In fact,  as the above examples show, these were often seen as slowing down national  progress and staying the hand of the president.

The respondents expressed confidence in the power not only of the pres ident but also of the Brazilian nation, which was mentioned eleven times.  Many of the respondents appear to have gained a powerful sense of purpose  from participating in the economic and social development of the nation.  They did not, however, consider the possibility of forming independent or ganizational structures, either for this purpose or to represent their own in terests17. Their confidence in a leader was undiminished. Despite this obvious  limitation, Sec/UR and collaborators gathered sentenças reveal in very few  instances a religious fatalism. Rather, the prevailing mood expressed in the  statements is of euphoria for development, as part of which the proposed  literacy course also met with enthusiastic approval18.

16 Elections and suffrage are mentioned six times.

17 The collection of vocabulary from all the settlements of the research project includes  words that indicate political and union activities by those surveyed. However, these words,  concepts and contexts do not appear in the sentenças. We may assume that the interviewers  and/or supervisors inserted these words into the universo vocabular and gave them the status  of important terms for the proposed experimental literacy campaign in Brasilia.

18 32 sentences reveal agreement.

20 Que viva Freire! 3.2.The selection of generative words and cultural slides 

Based on the sentenças and the universo vocabular from the Federal District,  fifteen generative words were selected in the Sec/UR. As in the previous  campaigns, detailed discussion guides and didactic material were produced  for the individual words to help orient the coordinators.

As for the cultural slides, which constituted the initial work of the literacy  process in the circles, 10 slides relating to the anthropological concept of  culture resemble those used in Angicos and Quintas (Lima, 1965, p. 175)19.  Slide 1: Man in nature and culture. Simple line drawing: A couple, their backs  to the viewer, look at various objects and creatures. Two houses, a bicycle, a  streetlamp, an airplane, birds, a tree and ducks.

What is striking about this slide is the inclusion of objects of industrial  production (i.e., airplane, bicycle, streetlamp), without abandoning the rural  milieu (i.e., ducks, the type of buildings).

In the discussion of the cat’s hunting behavior compared to that of hu mans, the transparency of these distinctions within the anthropological con cept was also apparent in Brasília: Humans created culture before hunting.  The cat does not do so either before or after hunting. Man is thus a hunter  in the true sense of the word. The cat is a mere pursuer of its prey. It is its  innate instinctive behavior.

The fifth slide (author’s note: I will comment only on those slides that  deviate from previously known slides or that address new issues) shows a  woman sitting under a thatched roof making a clay pot. The following sixth  slide shows line drawings that depict other vessels made by her with decora

tions on the sides. It is surprising that the anthropological sequence should  also deal with artisanal production methods and their output among the con struction workers of the nascent city of Brasília.

Jomard Muniz de Brito yet considers the anthropological concept and  especially these two projections (slides 5 and 6) to be important in the context  of Brasília: The Candangos were not particularly concerned with developing  self-consciousness or giving value to their own creativity. They were yet re

sourceful people, evidenced by their arduous journey to Brasília and their  quick adaptation to new living conditions. Rather, they were more concerned  with understanding their position vis à vis modern technology, which threat ens to make humans a mere appendage of machines. It is important to bear  in mind though that it was human creativity that gave rise to the vast array of

19 Lima (1965, pp. 175-202) participated as an observer in the pilot of Brasília. At the  time he worked in the Federal Ministry of Education in Brasília. His book contains an ap pendix on the campaign. Unless other sources are mentioned, the following description of the  slides’ images are based the slides reproduced in the appendix of Lima’s book. There is no avai lable field report on the campaign in Brasília (Freire, 1978, p. 28).

heavy machinery at work in Brasília in the first place. The woman’s pottery  can be suitably associated with the construction site, while simultaneously  representing a technical expression of human creativity. The aim of the dis cussion was to get the circle participants to list their own skills and arts and  to present these to their fellow students (Brito, 1976):

The seventh slide shows two guitar players and a radio. This is likewise a cul tural scene. In the case of a singer or guitarist, this performance has the potential  to reach millions of other people if broadcast over the radio (Lima, 1965, p. 190).  This drawing is intended to stimulate a discussion about mass media (i.e., radio  and newspapers), both as means of disseminating culture – hence the impor tance of literacy – and as a means of falsifying it. The tenth slide20 represents the  cultural circles themselves. Six students seated on wooden benches listen to a co ordinator discussing a poster showing a gaúcho (eng: skilled Brazilian horseman).

The 10th slide was intended to represent the unity of the people. The  cultural circle presented a variety of opinions during discussion, but what all  participants had in common was the desire for literacy. The coordinator sug gested that each person look out for the other in terms of learning progress  and regular attendance. This approach would help to ensure that everyone  was able to complete the course successfully (Brito, 1976).

The available documents provide little information about the actual con tent of the discussion within the cultural circles during the anthropological  sequence of the literacy course. My past interviews with Brito and Freire, gave  me yet the impression that the slides provoked intense discussion21. There  was a discernible homogenization of views in the cultural circles, with indi vidual members experiencing a kind of “catharsis” of consciousness (Meb,  1963, p. 8). Conversely, the use of such sophisticated terms in the documents  may suggest that they were used to describe the organizers’ expectations and  the observers’ hopes rather than the actual progression of the debates.

3.3.Working with generative words in cultural circles 

Regarding the generative words, of which there were ten, let us look at  the materials linked to the first generative word: tijolo (= brick)22.

20 Slide 8 shows a cowherd from the northeast (“vaqueiro”), slide 9 one from the south  (“gaúcho”).

21 «A street sweeper in Brasília said: Tomorrow I will do my work with my head held  high», narrates Paulo Freire (1974, p. 42), three years later (1967 was edited the first edition  in Portuguese), as a participant’s statement during the Brasilia pilot project during the anthro pological concept of culture. As was mentioned before in his work Freire gives likewise  episodical hints in relation to the results of the literacy campaigns under his coordination.

22 A list of generative words and sociological situations can be found in the following paper:  Mec e Sec/UR (1963) 1 ff. Besides “tijolo” there were fourteen other generative words: voto (=vote),  feira (=market), máquina (=machine), chão (=ground, meaning here the red loess soil that dominates

22 Que viva Freire! 

The corresponding slide depicts a “sociological situation”, which was typ ical of the building site for the nation’s new capital: two construction workers  build the foundation walls of a building. An arm in the foreground clasps a  stone brick. The word tijolo can be seen in the background.

The coordinators were instructed to hold a 15-minute discussion of the  problem of human labor at the beginning of the circle meeting, led by the  types of questions already described above23. The aim of all human economic  activity was posited as the manipulation of nature to meet human needs.  Both entrepreneurs and workers follow this basic principle to satisfy their  personal needs. Economic activity is generally divided into four sub-areas:  production, circulation, distribution, and consumption.

The coordinators’ guides include a few examples, which are intended to  demonstrate the indispensability and creative power of the ordinary worker  in each of the four areas. The sectors mentioned above are in turn influenced  by social and geographical factors (i.e., the brick producer will locate his fac

tory in a region rich in sand and clay). Following this, the social factors are  dealt with in detail (i.e., wages, trade union organization, schools, medical  care, accident prevention and unemployment). It is striking that these issues  were discussed more in connection with the Northeast and its problems than  being “associated” with the situation in Brasília and its Midwest region. The  coordinators’ guidelines about the generative word tijolo come to their close  with a description of the economically precarious conditions in the North

east, also mentioning the migration of workers from the region. It empha sizes that if the federal government did not intervene soon, social tensions  would arise, with unforeseeable consequences.

This condensed economics class that based itself on the generative word  tijolo was mainly aimed at labor migrants from the Northeast, whose regional  problems are to be discussed in detail. The focus on north-eastern problems  makes clear how the “Regional Commission” had difficulties in determining  the starting point for the topics to be debated.

around Brasília and which, in dry conditions, is transformed by the wind into a red veil that hangs  over the city), barracos (=barracks), açougue (=butcher’s shop), negócio (= shop), Sobradinho (= name of  one suburb. The expression alludes to the mansions of the large landowners in the northeast and  could be translated as “little manor house”), passagens (=travel tickets), pobreza (=poverty), planalto  (=plateau), trabalho (= work), Eixo (= axis, a popular meeting place in the centre of Brasília, near the  bus terminal), and Brasília.

23 There were two papers to guide the coordinators in the literacy sequence. One con tained questions for the coordinators and time guidelines for each slide related to the re spective generative word. A second gave a detailed account of possible discussion points  in connection with the generative word: Sistema Paulo Freire, Debate sobre a primeira situação  sociológica e aula inicial de alfabetização, no author or publisher, n.d., n. l., pp. 1-3, hectograph  copy, Gerhardt Archive and “Tijolo”, no author, n.d., n. l., p. 1-3 (= coordinator guidelines)  hectograph copy, Gerhardt Archives.

If the generative words seem to settle the “home” and thus the back ground of the debate in Brasília, the coordinators’ instructions, though, os cillate between the problems of Brasília and those of the North-East, the  birthplace of most of the participants in the cultural circles. This did not  make the work of the coordinators any easier. They were forced to carefully  consider the most effective way to frame and initiate the discussions regard ing the dichotomy of the subjects.

The following 15 minutes of the first literacy lesson were to be used to  introduce the word ti – jo – lo, in block letters on a 2nd slide, syllable by sylla ble (Sistema Paulo Freire, 1963, p. 1). This is followed by the familiar Freirean  literacy process: The “phonetic families” of t, j and l are projected in three  slides. The t and the j should be given 10 minutes each, the l just 5 minutes.  A sixth slide brings all “phonetic families” together on the screen. The “pro duction” of new words begins, taking up 10 minutes (Sistema Paulo Freire,  1963, p. 1). Lauro Lima reports on the production of the first, although still  grammatically incorrect, sentences “Tu já lê(s)” (= you already read) and com ments on the methodical meaning of the “discovery card”: «If the illiterate  person has understood this discovery card and can form words with it, he is  already literate in technical terms» (Lima, 1965, p. 194).

For the following 5 minutes, vowels are studied in isolation. They are con tained on a seventh slide. As a phonetic support, a new image was added to  the series in Brasília. On it, the positions of the mouth during pronunciation  of the individual vowels are shown. Again, the students are asked to form  new words and sentences. This request also serves as homework for the next  lesson.

Based on the timing guidelines in the instructions, “literacy through  awareness” should have taken seventy minutes for successful assimilation of  the first generative word (Sistema Paulo Freire, 1963, p. 1).

There are no reports on whether the time and content guidelines were  fulfilled for tijolo and the other generative words in the individual cultural  circles beyond what has been discussed so far. Even the people interviewed  about the Brasília Campaign24 could not remember further details from the  literacy sequence.

      1. Results 

I was not able to track down either relative or absolute figures on the  success rate of the pilot project in Brasília. In 1967, Muniz de Brito acted as  supervisor of the Brasilia campaign, but could not recall any numerical values

24 Paulo Freire, J. Brito, A. Paes de Andrade, A. Monteiro Costa (Lyra, 1976).

24 Que viva Freire! 

for its success25. Overall, he described the campaign as not well succeeded.  The strict way the ideas of popular culture were understood in the Brasilia  pilot, was in his opinion partly responsible for this: Because it was on this  ideological basis that the coordinators from the suburbs were recruited for  the course, coordinators who in the end could not fulfil this key function us

ing the “Paulo Freire method”, incentivize and maintain the dialogue among  the participants of a culture circle, the dialogue about the generative theme at  stake. A 20-hours training had apparently not been enough to command the  technique of leading debates dialogically. And there was an understandable  difficulty to answer simple grammatical and semantic questions when e. g.  the so-called “dead or thinking words” appeared after the presentation of the  discovery cards).

They handled the materials provided in a very tense and anxious way. Out  of a general sense of uncertainty, they more easily fell into the role of story tellers and film projectionists: the trap of teacher-centered “talk and chalk”  teaching. Although stripfilms, slides and stories led to a good atmosphere of  communication and to a reduction in hierarchical barriers, these favorable  conditions were not successfully translated into literacy or politicization out comes.

The coordinators were neither able to draw upon an arsenal of mo tivational teaching methods nor were they flexible enough to integrate  procedural suggestions from the circle into the debates. In 1976, Mu niz de Brito and Carlos Lyra unanimously reported on stolid cramming  methods such as memorization and repetition26. Whenever the students  grew bored, the coordinators showed them slides. In some circles, the  participants were familiar with the entire slide series after just a few hours.  The potential of the visualization technique to provoke discussion was

25 Brito also doubted that a written report on the project was prepared. Nor is Freire  (1978, p. 28) aware of a summary report on the campaign. Yet Freire questions the infor mation provided by J. Brito, A. Paes de Andrade und A. Monteiro Costa about the use of  “coordinators chosen from among the people”. As Freire recalls it, the majority of them  were trained teachers. However, I decided to follow the statements of Freire’s collaborators  in this presentation, as Freire himself was not involved in the implementation of the Brasília  campaign due to his commitment to the National Literacy Plan.

26 Carlos Lyra paid a fact-finding visit to Brasília during the campaign (Lyra, 1976). He  reported that the campaign was closely followed by many deputies, senators and visitors to  Brasília. Every day observers attended the cultural circles. They wanted – whether out of  approval or concern – to learn the method by which one could quickly multiply the elec torate of one’s constituency. This pedagogically and politically motivated “tourism” on the  one hand hindered like in Angicos the learning situation in the circles on the other hand  highlighted the political controversy Freire’s System caused then (Cavalcanti, 15.3.1964) and  once again today (e. g. Cardim, 13.3.2020). In the history of education, it is unique that an  educational proposal and its practice causes so much hate and even the intervention of mi litary forces.

thus squandered. Therefore, it is not surprising that after a short time the  number of participants decreased rapidly and by about the twentieth class  in some cultural circles only half of the course participants attended. In  the end, high rates of dropouts led to a low number of literate and newly  politicized people.

The chairman of the “Regional Commission” pointed out another rea son for the relative failure of the Brasília campaign: The participants of the  cultural circles had come from all parts of Brazil to work on this massive  construction project. The implicit basis for successful work with the Freirean  method, namely the homogeneity of the social, economic, and cultural back ground of the literacy students was missing (Brito, 1976).

The experiences accumulated over a short period of time in Brasília, on  which the generative words and the sociological situations were based, were  apparently insufficient to replace the concept of “home” and the sense  of embeddedness in common problems that had been so self-evident for  Angicos and Quintas participants. In this respect, it is in my view a tech

nological illusion when Lauro Lima (1965, p. 175) states that the anthro pological concept alone leads to a “homogenization” of the cultural circle.  Clearly, it needed to be accompanied by an acceptance of the particularities  of a region or a community, mediated by a coordinator using the anthro pological theorems. The anthropological concept of culture together with  the situatedness of topics and its generative words can generate sufficient  motivational force to support successful literacy and politicization. My and  others ex-post evaluations of the campaigns in Angicos and Quintas evi denced this.

Following the completion of the course, in October 1963, there was nei ther a reported attempt to organize the circle participants into a district or  labor organization, nor did the participants initiate any form of association  with one another.

The Regional Commission for Popular Culture quietly ended the pilot  project, avoiding publicity. They were anxious not to jeopardize the Na tional Literacy Plan based on the Paulo Freire method, which was then in  its development phase. Other “Regional Commissions”, e.g. in Sergipe and  Rio de Janeiro, selected mainly students and teacher as “trainees” for the  task of a coordinator in the cultural circles (e. g. Bouças Coimbra, 2000,  pp. 1-22)27.

27 Celia Maria Bouças Coimbra was a student of history at the time. She was selected  and trained as would-be coordinator for her home state: Guanabara. The coup d’état of  Brazil’s generals ended her experience violently with tanks on the street on the 1st of April  1964, “juridically” fourteen days later by executive order #53.886. «Perseguido, Paulo (Freire)  precisou, para preservar a sua vida, partir para um exilio de mais de quinze anos» (Araújo  Freire, 2006, p. 151).

26 Que viva Freire! 5. Summary 

In terms of organization, the Brasília experiment is characterized by two  innovations:

– It was mainly managed by staff from the Ministry of Education. – The coordinators were recruited from the same neighborhoods and dis tricts in which the literacy courses took place.

In general, a lower level of social political commitment can be assumed  for both groups of people in comparison to the radical Christian student body  of Natal, who were the main agents of the Angicos and Quintas campaigns.  In addition, a certain amount of bureaucratic thinking cannot be ruled out  among the staff used in Brasília. For the ministerial staff, the campaign repre

sented a relatively varied activity alongside other tasks. The coordinators, on  the other hand, could expect a physically easy and well-paid job, which was  preferable to physical labor on a construction site28.

Thus, if the starting conditions were unfavorable in terms of personnel,  the opposite was observed in the analysis of structures of consciousness. Un like in Angicos and Quintas, the participants in Brasília expressed optimism  and confidence regarding their own opportunities in life. Both basic attitudes  seem to have derived from the experience of working on the construction of  the new capital. This nationalist perspective was supplemented by a high level  of information on current political issues and by uninhibited criticism of  the government’s work. However, these promising tendencies in the thought  processes of the builders of Brasília (in Freire’s system of categories they  would have to be placed in a transitional stage from naive-transitive to criti cal-transitive consciousness) were not tapped on in the literacy course itself.

Regarding the structures of consciousness and the industrial-technical  work of the Brasília project, the anthropological concept was reframed as a  protective barrier against the dehumanizing tendencies of technologization;  a humanist foundational principle which we have already identified as be

ing central to Paulo Freire’s Christian worldview (Gerhardt, 1978, pp. 53-59).  Freire held this idea in common with his team colleagues in the Sec/UR. He  maintained the anthropological sequence in the Brasília campaign. The extent  to which the anthropological discussions were able to act as a counterweight  to the consumerist “transistor radio culture” (Wolfe, 1995, p. 171) that was

28 In addition to that A. Monteiro Costa (1976) refers to the problem of primary school  graduates in the suburbs assuming capataz and cabo de eito roles (capataz = farm overseer;  cabo de eito = literally: manager of the defeated). The reference is to people who, because of  their school education, exercise dominating and oppressive roles in their social environment,  whether as moneylenders, small traders, letter writers, ecc. If such persons are entrusted with  coordinating functions in the cultural circle, they are unlikely to conduct the debates openly  and freely.

becoming so prevalent in the suburbs could not be investigated based on the  available material.

In the literacy sequence, difficulties arose in determining how and to what  extent to grapple with the social and political realities of Brazil. The result  was a fluctuating focus on the problems in the Federal District and those in  the Northeast, the home of many Candangos. A collective processing of ex

periences within a common historical-social context had not been possible  in Brasília.

The progressive schematization and regulation of the literacy process as  was already observed in Quintas. It also occurred in Brasília. Both reach their  climax with two and a half pages of instructions for the coordinator of the  cultural circles, detailing constraints on time and guiding the discussions of

generative words in the cultural circle debates. As a result, the uncertainty of  the coordinators and the temptation to lecture were further exacerbated, as  the curricular measures were often neither compatible nor achievable in the  prescribed time with the debating and associative style of the method. This  contradiction between the aspiration of the “method” to stimulate autono mous thought processes through relaxed group discussions and the political  necessity to quickly increase the electoral base of groups and parties oriented

towards national development, became clearly apparent in Brasília. The coordinators’ scope had been narrowed so as not to leave the struc turing of content to political and ideological chance. Yet the end result was  an implicit refusal by the group of coordinators not socialized in an intellec tual milieu to apply the content and method word-for-word out of a fear of  impropriety. The coordinators sought refuge in what they knew: the mere  recounting of stories and drilling teaching content into their students. Their  recourse to the use of visualization in the method whenever their students  became restless is hardly surprising in this context. Even though the coordi nators deviated far from the code of conduct developed in the Quintas ex periment, which had already modified Freire’s original approach, the Brasília  campaign should not lead us to conclude that only secondary school and  university students could assume the function of a coordinator according to  the “Paulo Freire Method or System”.

The Brasília experience rather underlines the importance of thorough  preparation and on-site feedback of and for coordinators, as they play a key  role in the Paulo Freire method. The social-revolutionary commitment and  a general historical-political awareness are the characteristics that ought to  guide the selection of coordinators (Lyra, 1976).

The coordinators’ instructions in Brasília were far less focused on the  social and economic contrasts in Brazilian society than they were, for exam ple, in Quintas. Rather, the workers and small business owners are depicted  as taking part in a joint engagement with nature. Only in passing were in-

28 Que viva Freire! 

dependent forms of workers’ organization mentioned. The term “people”,  povo, which can be considered almost programmatic in the discussion of pop ular cultural movements, hardly appears. On the other hand, in the treatment  of underdevelopment in north-eastern Brazil the emphasis is on demands

for the government to expedite attempts to solve socially vexing problems. What the cultural circle participants’ own contribution to eliminating un derdevelopment might be is not discussed. No efforts were made during the  course to inform the course participants about the where and how of partic ipation in political or municipal associations.

In the Paulo Freire method, the main interest lies in the problem-formu lating dialogue around a sociological situation and the generative word. The  content of the coordinators’ guidelines should not necessarily determine the  course of the dialogues in the cultural circle: Thus, we can assume that there  was a certain overoptimism of how narrowly defined contents together with  the employed recruitment and qualification measures might prejudice the de bates in the circles. The organizers of the campaign did at times not resist the  temptation to turn the cultural circles into organs of acclamation detailed,  even carefully scheduled discussion guidelines. The “Regional Commission”  and its representatives on the staff of the Sec/UR appear to have been too  confident about the inherent force of the anthropological sequence and the  problem-formulating dialogue themselves.

Although there was a nationwide effort by Freire and collaborators na tionwide to correct this setback in the other training venues for the “National  Literacy Program” it is impossible for us nowadays to do any other ex-post  evaluations. The achievements of Freire and collaborators, of the Popular  Culture Movement in general were, at the end of March 1964, already dan gerous enough for the Brazilian military forces to intervene with its tanks  and brunt force. And the bloodiest incidents happened exactly in Freire’s  hometown, at the same time cradle and epicenter of Brazil’s Popular Culture  Movement: Recife. Paulo Freire, Jomard Brito and many others were impris oned. Freire was finally able to flee. He began his 15 years long exile.


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