Transcription of the episode “The People’s Education: Freire, dialogue, and democracy”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. We continue our conversation with Dr. Carlos Alberto Torres. Dr. Torres is Distinguished Professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, Founding Director of the UCLA Paulo Freire Institute and UNESCO Chair in Global Learning and Global Citizenship Education. This is Part Two of a two-part interview. If you haven’t listened to Part One, you might want to now. Welcome back, Dr. Torres.

 This is, of course, the hundredth anniversary of Freire’s birth, and he’s obviously talking about– Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a pedagogy of liberation. And what you were just describing in terms of what people achieved in Arizona, which certainly is far from a state of liberation, is very exciting. How do you see the struggle, I mean, one of the things that we talk to a lot of the people that we interview about is what can that struggle look like at this point, particularly in the United States, in schools? I know you’ve talked, for example, about the importance of public schools as sites of social justice education or popular education. And at the same time, of course, we have the contradiction that these are instruments of the state, which is clearly not interested in schools being instruments of liberation. How do we resolve that? And how can people apply Freire’s thinking to these issues? 

[00:01:48] Carlos T: That’s a difficult question, Jon. And, in fact, all the questions you are posing are difficult questions. I was an advisor to Paulo Freire when he was Secretary of Education in the City of San Paolo, so I traveled to San Paolo and spent some time occasionally with him and his chief of cabinet, who is the main Freire biographer. My sense is that what Freire did in that experience needs to be studied very carefully. And we wrote a book with Pilar O’Cadiz and Pia Wong on this experience of Freire, it is so powerful. 

And the answer, I think, is very simple. On the one hand, you need to have social movements, pressuring the state. Of course, Freire was the ideal Secretary of Education because of his philosophy. But he was not really somebody with a team that could in three years fully modify a bureaucratic system of very low quality. So what he did, he appealed to the social movements and created ways in which the social movements will interact with the school system. And that is the first answer. The social movements, you have one foot inside the state and one foot outside the state, and in that way push and pull constantly in changing models of source of information. 

The second argument that helped us use at the time is the Freirean model of identifying what are the key concepts or the generic themes inside the community. Because Freire, if you really look at the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, it is a model of participatory action research, particularly the third chapter. And if you really look at that model of participatory action research, the whole arguments is let’s engage in dialogue with the different members of communities, any community, and see to what extent that community think that their curriculum address their needs. There’s an added thing. Well, if at the moment that Freiri was doing this work in San Paolo, he offered his schools to choose, to create a tentative curriculum through generative models and about 20% of them chose to do that. So at that moment, the teachers and the curricular administrators and the people that were working with teacher training doubledup the amount of work.

And we brought many professors from the universities, engaging in conversation with the social formations on Saturdays. And I emphasize this, the connection between university and the school system is a must in order to really make an impact. And why? Only because when people in university study, they are supposed to have access to the most elaborate theories, et cetera. But because the people in the schools need to be heard. And in these Saturday meetings, everyone was kind of dumping their frustrations, dumping this moment that they didn’t feel represented, respected. They didn’t feel helped. They requested specific things to continue their own work. And that connection, university and, in this case, elementary and middle school, were fundamental. 

Finally, the other aspect of this conversation is how the communities, I think, define the work that happens in the schools. In a bureaucratic model, in a model that has been dominated by neo-liberalism and, cuidado, because neoliberalism has been in place since the 1980s. One of the advantages of me coming to the US in 1980 to do my PhD at Stanford University, without learning one word of English, I’d have to learn English when I was doing my first my first semester. And Stanford was to observe the change between the previous democratic and quite decent model for governance to the movement that created simultaneously first neoconservatism and then neoliberalism.

And neoliberalism took off, took off globally. Thatcher, Mulroney, Reagan, et cetera. So from that moment on, the schools were heavily impacted by neoliberalism. And what is the principle of neo-liberalism? Possessive individualism. This is not original. This is the principle of most of the central values of capitalism [inaudible]. But the possessive model that neoliberalism has articulated then becomes, at the school level, into competition, not collaboration, into the idea that you study to pass exams, et cetera. And the US continues to look with extraordinary interest, the experiences of South Korea, the experiences of Shanghai, recently incorporated in the last three or four years into PISA. These kids in the Korean and Chinese schools have no way to enjoy life because not only do they study like crazy in the schools, then they go to the shadow education and do the same.

I have a student of mine doing an analysis of Taiwan with this argument that will conclude the argument. And he told me, I want to study the use of time in the school. They said, but that is is not very appealing to me because, you know, you’ll have 45 minutes for one particular topic, 45 minutes for the number. He said, no, let’s see. So he did a study. You know what we discovered? We discovered that the teacher knew that the kids were three or four or five chapters in the textbooks advanced because they had been studying that in the evening school, paid by the parents. So the teacher did not make any effort and improve upon what the students already knew. What happened with the students in the same classroom? They were studying for the next class. So it was all a farce. It was all an extraordinary show that everybody put. Everybody pretend that it’s studying. Everybody pretend that it’s teaching. And there is no actual learning. The learning is a process. They whole life world of these kids has been destroyed. You know what, finally the Koreans have themselves got to recognize. And I spoke about 2019 with a minister for education in Korea. And I asked him why you have this new semester without testing, because testing is the tool, if you put, the weapon of choice of neoliberalism and the argument that he gave me, it was a fantastic argument. But in fact, it was very clear to me that they have recognized that they couldn’t have so many suicides at the age of 13, 14, 15, 16 in the class. Period. So they need to give them the possibility to have breathing space. And that breathing space created an entire new formula inside the classroom. And the teachers enjoy it. The students enjoy it. And that happened one year before the year where they have to define themselves in, would you call it university? That was one tentative approach, but I like it very much. 

[00:10:21] Amy H-L: Carlos, I’d like to return to this concept of community. So especially in the US, and I’m going to use an example, Stanford, or Palo Alto, where you and I both attended school in the eighties. School districts or educational communities, for the most part, are defined by financial socioeconomic communities. So we have these communities with certain interests. Obviously the people, the kids who attend Paly, the Palo Alto high school, those communities have very different concerns than that the people attending high school in East Palo Alto. Correct? And that doesn’t seem to me to be a very healthy way for students to have diversity, which you explained as essential for democracy and for absorbing democratic principles in education, 

[00:11:19] Carlos T: Community is a complicated concept. First, because a certain topic. In a way we live through desires, adult desires are projected to utopias and those utopias create new options. Now, there is a new utopia by Marc Lore, putting $4 billion to create a whole new city — sustainable food, sustainable city — in one of the deserts in the US, which will start with 25,000 people and will reach 5 million people, and assuming that that will be a sustainable community. So community is such a complicated example. I am a Latin. My family, some part of that came from Latin America, some part of that came from Europe. I am a Latino, I speak Spanish. That’s my link, my, my natural language, and so on. But do you think that all the Latinos in the US are part of the same community? Of course not, because you have fragmentations like the Latino evangelical churches, which are highly traditional. And I would say even conservative. Then you have some groups that come from specific parts, Cubans that tend to be highly critical of socialism for the reason that they escape socialism. Then the indigenous groups of Latin America, that people that come from Mexico, from one of the 25, 26 different groups, and they speak not even Spanish, [inaudible] et cetera. These people work in construction. Are they the same community that the typical Latino? So you can keep going and going? 

The word “community” is fascinating because not what could we accomplish, but the difficulty is to accomplish community. In a way, we have idea communities. And I like that. We need to have idea communities. But in order for communities to play a major role inside the schools, now we have to have communities that are well-educated and work with a model of dialogue. Freire used dialogue as the center element in the constitutional democracy. The whole argument of Freire was fascinating, because one day he said to me, “You know, Carlos, when I started working, I defended democracy.” He was talking about liberal democracy at the beginning of his career. He was really a liberal democratic scholar, “but I never gave up on the question of class, because class is one of the main issues to differentiate fragment communities. Then when I was in Chile in the middle of a model of socialism that will obtain power by elections — it was the first experience in Latin America at that level, people said, okay, Paulo, talking about class is very good because we all are against class. We want to socialize, et cetera. But democracy. Democracy is not working. Twenty years later he passed through Chile, and the same people that interview him were saying “Paulo, okay, you talk about democracy all the time. That’s good. But class, that is obsolete.'” So in a way, people see the question of democracy and class as different ways to engage in the community. And my argument is that Freire was already thinking of dialogue as a way to communicate the different views that are always perpetually separating individuals. 

The final element is school meetings were boring. They’re not boring anymore in the US. They are battlegrounds. You have all these MAGA groups coming, fighting everything. But in a way, MAGA is making a great contribution here, because it’s so irrational that when this process subsides, we’ll have great examples. Plus the majority of them are getting sick and dying. So I’m not wishing that to happen to them, but if you don’t vaccinate and if you don’t have way to protect yourself with a mask, then you can get sick and die. My point being, the arguments in the school system now aren’t exactly of the level of discussions. Democracy, the question of demos, Kratos, the way in which the people, the demos, debate the arguments, the Kratos, and that is making now the USA a fascinating and dangerous country, because what is at stake here is not about the winning. What is the stake here is democracy surviving. 

[00:16:27] Jon M: Speaking of dialogue and of democracy, comparisons and contrasts are often made between Freire and John Dewey. What are the commonalities and the differences between Freire’s work and Dewey’s work? 

[00:16:40] Carlos T: I have written an article on Freire and Dewey. First of all, there are four Deweys, right. Somebody could live a very long life and you can parse out some of his analysis throughout life, at least in four different ways to see and represent his own views of the world. There are three Freires, in a way, because the first Freire was a democratic, liberal scholar, but heavy connected with post colonialism, and the whole argument of Freire had evaded, beginning of the conversation. For him, liberal democracy was a way to confirm colonialism, not a way to incorporate colonialists. 

Then there was another Freire, the one that began to read and be more skillful managing the technical component of Marxism, which was his exile, particularly in Chile and the impact of recovering his own language working in Africa and Amilcar Cabral, a very brilliant Marxist from Guinea-Bissau. He was dead by the time Freire was arriving in Guinea-Bissau, but could really get a whole set of premises that Freire appreciated. One interesting premise of Amilcar Cabral and the PAIGC, the liberation movement, was the only legacy of the colonial power was a language, which is Portuguese. Freire was not very satisfied with the arguments and his question was why we cannot have a Creole alphabet in which we can incorporate things and so on. And the leadership said no to both of these. And in a way, Portugal situates the Portuguese speaking African former colonies into two sets of global powers, Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world and certainly the largest Portuguese speaking society, and Portugal. I see Portugal today is almost a hundred percent vaccinated, right? So it put some parts of Africa in dialogue with two very important [inaudible]. So Freire used language as a way to understand first, identity and second, citizenship. If you really look at what Freire was doing in literacy training the first more liberal period, it was to create citizenship. Because in Brazil, people who could not read and write could not vote. Literacy was an exclusionary device. And when he was so successful with the Angicos project and people don’t know this, but the money for the Angicos project in 1963 came from the Alliance for Progress, and Kennedy was very happy to go into the celebration of the end of this experience, three months of teaching and learning in which about 600 patients in an area of very oppressive ways and impressively oppressive environment, including the weather. I was there with Paulo Freire three years later. They were learning to read and write, but also running for [inaudible]. And this model was pretty much working. If Kennedy would not have been assassinated in that year, he would have gone to celebrate with with the government of Brazil and with Freire, this new model of literacy training.

So that’s one element that requires attention. But what happened with the last phase? The last phase was essentially as a social democratic, fairly radical scholar in the Workers Party. It was an alliance of 14 to 16 different groups. It was a large tent that had from very radical socialists and communists to even more radical anarchists and anything in between. So that model was important because Freire was one of the founders of this party that achieved success., First in the municipality San Paolo, when they got the election and Freire became Secretary of Education, and then Lula, winning the election. 

So there are three Freires and there are four Deweys. Let me then give a very generic answer to the question.

Number one, both of them have a connection between democracy and education. There’s no question about it. Were they the same model of democracy? Were they the same model of education? I’m not so sure. I doubt it. Freire, in a way, picked up on the liberal democratic model of citizenship that was started in the 19th century by Sarmiento, an Argentinian, and who became president of Argentina at some point, who searched all over the world for a model that he called popular education, and then discovered that the concept popular education was very radical. It was a concept that came from Spain, from Italy, and the concept was the creation of an alternative for Germany through education. And that was the idea of the workers parties. So then we changed that to public education. What Freire did was creating the concept of public, popular education. And that concept itself allowed for the idea of community, allowed for the idea of dialogue to be incorporated. 

My other point is that Dewey wanted to focus on children’s education, but he wanted the teacher to be well represented in the classroom, that is, to be somebody who has an ability to fully engage with the students through different techniques. For Freire, he never talked about a teacher that had engaged through different techniques. Freire did engage through dialogue and dialogue become a model of research and method of teaching and a method of political deliberation. And those elements put into the extreme create the argument that I mentioned before on participatory budgeting, which was created originally in Brazil by social movements at the turn of the 1990s. So my sense is that Freire was very specific about the politicization of education, because he could not assume that education was apolitical. Dewey was a little bit more cautious, but he was also very strong in arguing that the progressives of this era have to help the welfare state by working around the model of education that needs to promote this idea of the welfare state. 

And finally, one could talk about the state in general, but look, the model that has been now projected in Build Back Better is a new, more, I would say systematic welfare state than the one that existed in the US until now. And if this model succeeds, then the people that are the subordinate social sectors, the people that are the children and youth and adults that are poor. Even in the state of California, the richest state, we got 30% of the children who are below the poverty level. We’ll have a very different take in the future. So, the welfare state, when it’s a good model that works, is not the typical, as put by some lecture readings of Marx, the typical committee of direction of the bourgeoisie. There are elements of the bourgeoisie. Obviously, they’re acting because, in a way, the political parties in the US are not going to undermine capitalism that has been particularly for the powerful, the rich and famous so successful in the US. We have seen that with the new deliberation on the question of external debt. But leaving aside that fact that it is impossible to contest, when you have a system closer to Northern European societies, you have much more humane model. .When you have a model of neo-populism and neo-Nazism, you have a very crazy evil model. So if you have to choose, for me, the situation is very simple. 

[00:26:16] Amy H-L: Carlos, you said that people are not born small d democrats. Could you expand on it?

[00:26:23] Carlos T: Yes, in a way, you know, children are wonderful, right? I love children. In a way, when I saw my children growing up, one of my children, one day, I live in Patagonia. So one day I said, oh, I’m going to get a rabbit. The children seem to be very [inaudible]. Right. So I got a nice white rabbit with yellow eyes, kind of a yellow, red eyes. And I took it to home and I put the rabbit, the rabbit was substantively flabbergasted he didn’t understand what’s happening, put the rabbit on the ground. And I showed my two year old son. Here is a rabbit for you. I think the one that was flabbergasted was my son too, because he took two steps, hit the rabbit, the rabbit hit the door and disappeared. We never saw the rabbit again. Was an act in which a kid will react because was not well-educated, it’s my fault, that the rabbit was a friend and not an enemy. So we have this idea in the Freirean tradition. People people don’t naturally prepare to act democratically, in part, because ideology I spoke about, neo-liberalism, and in part, because they are not really individuals that come to school, like being a tabula rasa. No, but on the other hand, they have also the right to discuss, understand, elaborate, congregate. And those are the principles of dialogue in a classroom. In that context, then the idea of creating a dialogue about democracy is the democratic way to be democratic, and respecting the student is the democratic way to respect the other.

The great problem we have in the US is that the minorities don’t respect the majorities. Period. And democracy is our rule of the majority. Now, the question is if the majorities oppress, then that role needs to be challenged. But if the majority is really work around some notion of common good, then you can debate what are the principles of that common good. That’s fine. But as long as the debate is about the common good, I will be satisfied. The problem that we are having in the US is that the debate is not about the principles of the common good. It’s about the principle that my little MAGA group supports. Well, fortunately I live in California and I don’t have to see that video because California really is out of this world. But still, you have very radical MAGA people. There are not that many. They are not, I don’t presume that they are hidden. I don’t think there are that many. In fact, even the way in which the registration in the parties is very clear how it is. But I think California has one element that I perceived so much. It goes around sustainability as a premium for life. And if you really do that, climate change is important. I live in an area that we are constantly under the risk of a fire, constantly. I left my home three days ago to come to Germany. And the next day two things which never happened, one of them never happened. And the person that is looking after my dogs and the house called me and said, Dr. Torres, you won’t believe what happened. First, we had a fire, only six miles from here. That was a stop. And then we have torrential rain, and I said, torrential rain in California? Are you sure you are in California? Said, yes, torrential rain was very good because we have a fire. So we live in an area in which things are so precarious. But we are really looking to ways in which we can make these conditions more favorable for human habitat and for the habitat of the planet. So in a way, global citizenship education and sustainability are sister twins. And these sister twins articulate the principles of a new model of dialogical democracy and should be the central areas of the dialogue inside the school system. 

One of my plans for next year is to get engaged in conversation with the scientists at UCLA. Why do I say this? Look, I have the best intentions, but I’m not an ecologist, I am not a geographer, et cetera, et cetera. So in order to think of a curricular instruction that will make a difference in the life of people, I have to stop to the specialists and make them aware of our need in the schools of education to have them coming to terms with us. If we are successful, we will be able to create a new model of civics or civism, which is not only about democracy, but it’s about protection of the environment. It’s not only about democracy, but it’s about citizenship. It’s not only about national citizen, but also global citizenship. Global citizenship has to give choices, has to give options to national citizenship. That’s more or less where we are in some of these analyses with the people in the Freire Institute at UCLA.

[00:32:30] Amy H-L: That very much ties in with our concept of expanding the universe of obligation.

[00:32:37] Carlos T: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s, you know, it’s not easy. Of course it’s not easy. Let me put an example. Some time in my life, I have chicken, right? Not everybody can have chicken, okay. other than a rural area where I live. You know what? I didn’t put any garbage in the garbage because the chicken eats everything. So if people have chicken, they can take advantage of what the chicken produce, the eggs, et cetera. If you eat chicken, then you have eat your own chicken, then you know exactly where they come from. But they were an extraordinary level of sustainability for my own life. So in a way, there are techniques, constantly techniques that you have to incorporate in your daily life to make your life more sustainable.

Of course, if you live in an apartment you cannot have chicken, right. But you can have all the things, like five different levels of way to dispose of your residue. So what is required? Discipline is required. Knowledge. They require a sense of obligation, a perception of this earth that has been so deeply affected by all of us.

A celebration of diversity is required, ways to cross the line of difference. All of those things in your own apartment, in the middle of a city, all of those things cannot be eliminated because it’s not a rural area. It has to be, and it has to be incorporateddaily. And it’s got to be part of the conversation at dinner.

[00:34:18] Jon M: I have a question that I think relates to sustainability and also to global ethics. We recently posted an interview with Walter Mignolo that he had given our sister podcast, acorrection podcast, in which he argues for the importance of decoloniality, shifting from a Western mindset to teach differently about the development of the modern world and what it means to be modern. What’s your perspective? 

[00:34:42] Carlos T: I don’t disagree with the question of post coloniality. After all, decoloniality, which is not the same as post coloniality, was one of the elements that impacted Freire and Orlando [inaudible] across the border in Latin America when they created participatory action research, chapter three, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. My point being however that you grow up in a specific environment. And I have to argue that, in terms of the classics of philosophy and social sciences, most of them, at least in my own education, have been connected with Western philosophy. One could learn more on moving away from that, but I will argue that, perfectly unpacked and deconstructed, some of the classics of philosophy will be very helpful today in the argument that we’re making today. There are multiple civilizations coming from Latin America, Buen Vivir is a model of the good life. So the good life that is being developed in some parts of Latin America, which is part of the idea of decolonialism or decolonial, is a different way to engage in dialogue among ourselves as a community and ourselves with environment. The planet. Look up many other options for this new idea of the good life. The Ubuntu in South Africa. Ubuntu is I am because you are. And the question of I am because you are, it’s also because we are all part of this environment. So the traditional indigenous philosophies are extremely valuable for us to understand fully and engage in this idea of the current modernity, but we have to be careful as well because the modern, it is not our desire of the modern, but is the way in which modernity has been implemented daily by this element that capitalism has demonstrated to be so powerful, which is consumption. And in a way, the way in which we consume is not very [inaudible].

 In synthesis, I will endorse the decolonial model. I will use the idea of postcolonial to argue that many of the national bourgeoisies in the colonial countries were the ones that benefited the most by the former colonial countries to leave. I will argue that the social movements and indigenous groups that are fighting, all these traditions of post coloniality, have a great deal of reason to defend themselves. And I would argue that we need to create a law in which the environment, the rivers have rights. So I would say the rights of nature, all of those elements, are more complicated and one could argue, but at the moment, you have Ecuador and you have Bolivia, multi plural nations. Another thing that we have to recognize, the multi plurality in the US is a good example. We never recognize that, how many nations we have inside this nation. And also the idea that the good life is not about consumption. It’s also our production and it’s about production in solidarity, it’s about production that will give everybody the possibility to live an honest dignifying life. And all of those elements are multiple causes of conversation and so on. 

In Europe now the conversation is very important, the idea of giving every person that lives in a particular nation a basic sum of money for survival. Is that good? It would have to be discussed. The welfare state can do much better by simply expanding the networks of solidarity. But at least if you give about a thousand dollars every month to every family or every working person, they do have a basic premise of sustainability. We cannot have, like we have in California, over a quarter million of homeless. But in order to answer the question of homeless, you need to have more places which are built. And we have this model in California, Not In My Neighborhood. So all of this passes, in my opinion, to public voice. Unless you have a very democratic public policy, all of these other arguments about decoloniality are very good in principle, but require serious public policy to implement.

[00:39:58] Amy H-L: Which of your many articles and books would you suggest as most important for teachers to read right now?

[00:40:07] Carlos T: I honestly, I will never be able to give you an answer to that because there are different things, right? It depends on my humor. One day I was on a plane and said, How about if I put together all my hours of conversation with people in Latin America, and I write an article on the plane about dialogue with teachers about power and personal biography, and I create fictional characters who I document with data. And that, in a way, could be an eye opener for many teachers, because it was published in a, not in a journal. So I’m not so sure if I can, it may take an opportunity to think about it and I send you a note later on, because it has to be for teachers. And I don’t know if I’m good at writing for teachers. I think, in a way, I write what I think I should say, but maybe the way I say may not be as equivalent of a good pedagogical approach.

[00:41:14] Jon M: Yes. Please do send something. And also other suggestions, perhaps by other people that you think would be useful for our audience to read and we’ll be very happy to post that. And we want to thank you, Dr. Carlos Alberto Torres of UCLA. 

[00:41:31] Carlos T: Thank you very much. Very nice to talk to you. 

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