Paulo Freire’s Philosophy of Education and the ‘Politics of Capoeira’. 1/2

“I have had enough of Capoeira politics!” In 20 years of practice I have lost count of how many nice, talented and devoted-to-the-art friends I have seen leaving  Capoeira for this reason. Only that they gave up because of ‘politicking’ not ‘politics'; an important distinction.

Sometimes the background explanation for these withdrawals is, indeed, the cultural shock; the clash of philosophies and ideologies forged under opposite socio-cultural contexts; the tension between westernisation and those opposing it. However, frequently the underlying story attempts to justify various forms of oppression (exploitation, authoritarianism, sexual harassment, diversity intolerance, etc.) through these cultural shocks; the so called ‘politics'; and even through distorted and/or invented traditions.

These situations, ironically, cause oppression within a cultural practice forged as a libertarian and revolutionary art-form; this is the reason why I believe the discussion and promotion of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy and educational philosophy within Capoeira suits our current context.

The efficacy of Paulo Freire’s libertarian pedagogy led him into 16 years of exile after the 1964 military coup in Brazil. During this period he wrote Education as the Practice of Freedom and Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Both books carry the core of his emancipatory educational practice and were later developed into several other books and articles. The cornerstone of his educational philosophy states that:

There is no neutral process of education. Education either works as an instrument fostering the generations’ integration in the actual ruling system’s logic assimilating conformism, or transform itself in the practice of freedom, the way to men and women critically deal with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” (Paulo Freire; 1921-1997)

What follows next is a list of Paulo Freire’s philosophy core concepts that I would like to discuss in relation to Capoeira: a) the human beings’ capacity to educate themselves as subjects of History, and also as capable of interfering in it; b) the idea that a progressive education departs from the students’ ‘practical experience knowledge’, but it is not limited by such an approach; c) the principle that the educator, in his practice, must learn how to talk with the students and not to them, stressing the idea of an exchange process rather than a top-down teaching/learning system; d) Freire’s discussion of neutrality within educational practices; and finally e) the concept that learning literacy and/or contents of any kind without learning how to read the context or how to relate such knowledge to the mechanisms of oppression one is inserted in is mere training, but not education.

Capoeira has taken many forms throughout history. It was first known as an attitude of resistance against slavery, very similar to guerillaism. Then it evolved into an urban criminalised culture; still empowering minorities opposing the establishment. During this epoch in some states of Brazil it was connected to mobs and outfits, whilst in others it already displayed a playful nature. Finally, it became an intercultural and interdisciplinary art-form cohesively woven into the unique cultural system of the Brazilian people.

These attitudes of resistance seem to be the linkage that has promoted and strengthened the understanding of the art-form as one single phenomena throughout changes and time. If we accept this rationale Capoeira can be seen, then, as a political, libertarian and inclusive practice since its beginning; for it brought people from diverse ethnic backgrounds together and wove their cultures and knowledge into a unique system of empowerment and expression opposing slavery, acculturation, and other forms of oppression.

When seen through these lenses, Capoeira closely resembles Freire’s educational practice. Although today’s fundamentalist and corporative approaches to the art are hindering a broader cultural and progressive grasp of Capoeira and sharpening competition, “tolerance… is the revolutionary virtue that consists in the coexistence with different people so that they can better fight the antagonist” (Freire; 1992: 39).

The so called ‘minorities’”, in Freire’s opinion, “need to recognise that, deep down, they are the majority. The path to assume themselves as majority lies in working the mutual similarities and not differences only, and in this way creating unity within diversity …”(Freire; 1992: 154; italics in the original).

I believe tolerance, inclusiveness, adaptability, empowerment and socio-cultural engagement are core principles of Capoeira, set as strategies to overcome various forms of oppression (slavery, exploitation, acculturation, etc.) since its foundation. These primal philosophical concepts, in my opinion, should guide our practice addressing our communities’ problems, and be upheld above groups, lineages, and politicking.

In the next post I will address these concepts in relation to our actual problems within the worldwide community of Capoeira.

Note (25/05/2011): Browsing through the administration of the blog I was happy to see that this post became the most visited post ever around here. The second part of it however, did not get the same number of visitors. As both parts were written together and separated only for readability’s sake, I’m pasting it below, hopefully making it easier for readers to reach the whole content of this post.

Paulo Freire’s Philosophy of Education and the Politics of Capoeira. 2/2
posted on 04/02/2010 – for comments on the original post please access it here.

Politicking is a power and money-driven practice of a few, which causes the withdrawal of many devoted students and young instructors in Capoeira. Conversely, politics can be a way to engage and take action against politicking and other unhealthy practices within the art. A way of re-organising Capoeira towards more noble values and purposes within our communities. Freire’s argument for a libertarian process of education helps demystify the discussion of a ‘neutral’ versus a politicised approach to the art.

Having outlined Paulo Freire’s core concepts in the previous post, I will discuss how these ideas challenge the general discourse of resistance within the art. Freire’s argument for a libertarian process of education also helps demystify the discussion of a ‘neutral’ versus a politicised approach to the art.

Again, it is important to distinguish politics and politicking. The latter is a power and money-driven practice of a few, which causes the withdrawal of many devoted students and young instructors. Conversely, politics can be a way to engage and take action against politicking and other unhealthy practices within the art. A way of re-organising Capoeira towards more noble values and purposes within our communities. From this point of view, I believe Freire’s ideas can be useful to debate the socio-cultural and educational role of Capoeira, as well as the problem of politics versus politicking within the Art.

Freire explains that by transforming practical knowledge into ‘critical consciousness’ one will be better equipped to engage with her/his socio-cultural environment and to fight oppressive forces. The belief that these structures have always been like that and that that is nothing one can do about it, suggests a blind pragmatism an alienated adaptability. Conversely, the understanding of Capoeira sounded in its history as a rebel attitude against the oppressive establishment, will foster ‘critical consciousness’ leading to politics and action transcending this rebel attitude into a progressive practice.

The knowledge, questions and arguments of devoted students in Capoeira attempting to bring change and/or to discuss the establishment are very often turned down by group leaders. Usually the rationale is that their arguments were founded on alien concepts coming from other cultures or areas of knowledge. In fact there is a trend to discriminate against academic knowledge and its contributions to Capoeira. The denial of the complementarity amongst different areas of knowledge renders any discourse of resistance within Capoeira futile.

Whether in formal education or in Capoeira:

“The classroom must be, above all, a learning place of crossed arguments, of the necessary rules for discussion, of the conscious uptake of the needs and the procedures to understanding one another, and of the listening and the respect to the voices of the minorities and marginalised. This is why learning of understanding ought to play a capital role in democratic learning”. (Morin; 2001: 112-3)

Again, sometimes the above mentioned factors, are related to the shock of cultures forged under different circumstances. But too often it is a strategy to disrupt the students’ path towards a free form of practice. A way of preventing them to relate their cultural background, and complementary forms of knowledge acquired elsewhere to ways of fighting oppressive mechanisms within their groups.

That’s why Freire stresses that a libertarian educator must learn how to talk with his/her students and no to them; this way there is an exchange of ideas in which everyone learns, instead of a one-way teaching system of impositions. Freire calls this kind of approach ‘banking-system of education’ referring to how teachers are supposedly ‘depositing’ whatever students must learn, and how the latter ones are expected to be passive in regards to both content and methods. This concept raises strong questions about the rigid top-down hierarchy implemented in Capoeira today and how it is hindering cooperation and community development. Often what the jargon “give respect to be respected!” really means is that the youngsters should cope with such situations until they climb hierarchical positions and earn the right to do what they want later.

There are at least two major problems here. First, if everyone was indeed respected on egalitarian basis, there would be no need to stress a hierarchical approach. Second, after coping with this system for years practitioners are more likely to absorb and reproduce it later on than to try other forms of expression and organisation of their institutions; therefore reinforcing authoritarian structures. Freire explains this process through his oppressed-oppressor dialectics. Both oppressed and oppressor are trapped within this relationship, within which, not fully aware of the structures and agenda in play, one mirrors the other and vice versa perpetuating oppressive relations without never overcoming the system that inflicts them.

When students and/or young teachers begin to question such structures, and when there is no real cultural and/or pedagogic foundation underpinning them, the rationale used by mestres is that these students and instructors do not understand the reason why these rules exists, that they should wait more, stay out of ‘politics’, and leave such matters to be discussed by Mestres only.

There are many concepts and lessons that students will only understand with time. This is true for instance of students who are very critical about the way things are run in a school without never having the responsibility of guiding other peoples’ learning journey and/or of holding a group together to fulfill its aims. However, in some of these situations, given the established structures and the lack of political engagement when discussing how to overcome them, time will only transform today’s oppressed students into tomorrow’s oppressive instructors.

This is one of the reasons why everyone in Capoeira should engage with the real politics (not politicking) of education in order to enable the rebel instinct of the art to transcend into a progressive practice. As Freire puts it, a neutral take on educational processes can only foster conformism to the actual situation. From this viewpoint those arguing for a non-political practice of Capoeira are, in fact, defending the established structures in that group/school.

Taking Freire’s concepts of literacy, that enables one to read text and context, the word and the world around it, one must reflect upon today’s obsessive behavior towards mastering movements; history; rhythms; different styles; and every Mestre’s biography. For all these knowledge without relation to the art’s libertarian and empowering role is mere training, but not education.

Training can hone our skills and prepare us to meet demands presented in any context, but it will not equip us to transform it. On the other hand, a progressive educational approach will bring awareness of oppressive structures through the practice and discussion of the art’s purposes and foundational principles, leading us to take action and transform their worldwide community of Capoeira.


Morin, Edgar. (2001). Os Sete Saberes Necessários à Educação do Futuro [Les sept savoirs nécessaires à l’éducacion du futur]. Brasília, DF, Brazil: Unesco

Paulo Freire on wikipedia –

Freire, Paulo (1992). Pedagogia da Esperança: Um Encontro com a Pedagogia do Oprimido. Paz e Terra; Rio de Janeiro.

Freire, Paulo (2005). Pedagogia do Oprimido. Paz e Terra; Rio de Janeiro.

Note to References:
Pedagogy of the Oppressed was translated into many languages. The English version is from Penguin Books, and it can be easily found in libraries or ordered from book shops.

10 thoughts on “Paulo Freire’s Philosophy of Education and the ‘Politics of Capoeira’. 1/2”

  1. Hi,

    It’s interesting that you talk about the politics of capoeira and I look forward to seeing the next post! Thank you for your work and interesting articles published on this site

  2. very interensting,
    1st time i see “sexual harassment” in a list. a very good observatin that i did not think about. I know a couple of girls who quit because they had to much crap with brazillian boyfriends. i know this is not “sexual harassment” but it still made me think about that.

    some of tyhe principles you will be talking about sound very familiar.
    b) the idea that a progressive education departs from the students’ ‘practical experience knowledge’, but it is not limited by such an approach

    c) the principle that the educator, in his practice, must learn how to talk with the students and not to them, stressing the idea of an exchange process rather than a top-down teaching/learning system

    if that means that
    b) we need more hands on expirience in our education
    c) we need more of a “proof” based education system in stead of just accepting so we can better understand what it is for and so better aply it.
    are things i heard Jaqued Fresco talk about.

    curious about part 2 :)

    1. Hey Espada,

      Very often in Capoeira sexual harassment happens between men with a high title and a much less experienced women. Usually, when it happens it causes these women to quit from Capoeira; that’s one of the reasons why we don’t hear about it very often. The other reason is hierarchy; as usually students learn such concept in a twisted way and believe they should respect Mestres and Teachers even when they don’t respect themselves or others. Of course not all relationships between teachers and students begins from this situation. There many true relationships around. As there are young students (male and female) who deliberately hook up with Mestres (male and female) for they’re considered ‘celebrities’.

      As for your comments, Paulo Freire calls what you mentioned ‘educação bancária’ (banking education) in the sense that, in this system, the role of the teacher is to deposit contents, and the role of the students is to receive them passively. He criticise this logic and say that teachers should build content according to the student’s context and reality, in a way to overcome their knowledge bringing awareness of the mechanisms of oppression around them. So, yes, we do need to engage with our education, and in my view, this goes to our Capoeira education as well.


  3. Hi Eurico,

    The “sexual harassment” issue is really interesting. Most of the students I’ve been training with are female. Two different students came to me with complains about sexual harassment. Ironically, one of them told me she did not react angrily because her harasser “was a professor”. The other girl didn’t tell me so, however, she highlighted her harasser “was a mestre”.

    About the educação bancária, from my perspective that’s the way we learn Capoeira. I’m not totally sure but I still think there is way for one to learn Capoeira in a way that s/he can be a subject in the learning process. In the other hand I’ve noticing that some people are used to follow directions, and they have problems if they don’t get them. That means it can be hard for some people when you invite them to think with you, they’d rather prefer to get and follow directions.

    1. Hi Guilherme,

      Sexual harasment is a major issue in Capoeira. The only reason why it’s not properly addressed (As your student’s experience showed you)is because it’s usually perpetrated by the men in power in a community in which wisdom and knowledge often are replaced by hierarchy and obedience.

      I agree with you that because learning Capoeira implies embodying movements and concepts the teacher does need to ‘deliver’, at least, a basic set of knowledge before the students can even begin to question the philosophy and agenda behind those moments. Having said that, if the purpose behind each movement/sequence is discussed from the beginning the students will, then, be able to have a voice in what the content should be.

      When I began training, before I could even do a proper bananeira I was drilling 500 ponteiras, 500 martelos every class. If I have been given the opportunity to reflect about that context (groups fighting for market in my home city), and why I was being told to train that sort of skill, most likely I would have been chosen other kinds of fundamentals to be mastering (as well as other kind of environment to be learning and playing). But you are right again when you point out that some people feel much more comfortable not having to think about their practice and are happy just to reproduce whatever they were told from the beginning.

      Thanks for your comment! Abrcs,

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