L Is for Looting
Teaching Brazilians to read, one socially-charged flashcard at a time.
In 1962, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire implemented a radical method for teaching people how to read. Instead of using textbooks, Freire encouraged his pupils—300 adult sugar-cane cutters—to learn more from one another by sharing their life experiences. Freire then used the students' working vocabulary as the building blocks for language lessons. The pedagogy, which rejected the normal hierarchies of the student-teacher relationship, worked. His pupils were literate within weeks, and the initiative soon became a federal program. It didn't last long, though. When the military took power in 1964, Freire was exiled and his program was dismantled.
Among the literacy programs that emerged in its place during the junta years was something much more controlled: commercially published language posters. Sold at newsstands, the prints displayed popular concepts, such as food and money. This new approach, however, ultimately denied prospective students at the agency at the heart of Freire's mission.
It is this history that undergirds Jonathas de Andrade's “Educação para Adultos” (“Education for adults”), a series of 60 educational posters that combines the science of linguistics and the art of interpretation in Brazil over the past five decades. In 2010, de Andrade worked with a group of illiterate seamstresses to choose 40 words to be displayed on the prints, co-opting the graphics-based teaching tradition from the military years but imbuing it with Freire's methods. By carefully juxtaposing 20 government vintage posters into the work, he not only introduced unique and, at times, provocative word combinations to unpack Brazil's recent history—he also provided a sobering commentary on an aspirational pedagogy that had been forgotten.