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Transformation through education
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Experts debate an educational model for building a new society.

"Someone once asked me why students are so undisciplined and unable to pay attention dur ing a 50-minute class. I answered, ‘Because they can’t take the remote control and change the teacher,’" the Rev. Carlos Livánio Christo, a Brazilian Dominican priest better known as Frei Betto, said during a seminar on ethics and education at the World Social Forum, held Jan. 31 to Feb. 5 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

"We live in a culture of the ephemeral, of fast food, of the disposable, and it’s time to go to work in the classroom to build a sense of life with lasting values aimed at the future," he said.

Education was a key issue in a number of seminars and workshops during the forum.

"Popular education has taken hold in Latin America in recent years, and we find teachers, students, grassroots activists and community workers eager to return to the concepts and methodology that swept the continent during the 1970s," said Claudia Korol, coordinator of the Popular Education Seminar of the University of Struggle and Resistance founded by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires (LP, June 26, 2000).

The Paulo Freire Institute, named for the man who is considered the father of popular education in Latin America, organized several activities, including the seminar in which Frei Betto participated.

He was joined by Moema Viezzer, founder of the Women’s Network for Education in Brazil, and Angela Miles, of the Transformative Learning Center in Toronto, Canada. Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff and Edmond O’Sullivan, also of the Toronto center, sent speeches to be read at the session.

The need for a new style of education became clear during the nearly four hours of discussion.

According to Frei Betto, neoliberal thinking has created a model of thinking that denies history.

"In this colonized world, importance has been placed on the culture of image, in order to create the idea that everything is instantaneous," he said.

He added that television fuses the past, present and future in a single image, cutting off the historical sequence.

"When there is no history, planning for the future is impossible," he said. "We must reclaim a sense of time and history, reconstructing the memory of the people and affirming the identity of nations."

The Brazilian theologian said that when plans have a historical basis, difficulties become part of a growth process and are seen as opportunities for learning, not as failures. He added that if the school is to be an arena for forming citizens, the educational system must address such issues as pain, death, racism, failure, emotions and gender relations, as well as the value of spirituality and the meaning of God.

That idea has taken hold in Buenos Aires, where teachers have been talking with students about Argentina’s political and economic crisis. The country’s problems reached a critical point in December, when there were five presidents in two weeks, and social protests have continued (LP, Jan. 14, 2002).

As teachers allowed children and adolescents to talk about the situation, classes turned into forums for debate, where students discussed everything from politicians’ behavior to family problems.

Teachers emphasized the importance of democratic participation and the right to peacefully petition authorities, and called on students to aid children whose families were more seriously affected by the crisis. Solidarity became an educational practice, they said, rather than just a subject for class.

Viezzer called for a new model of globalization based on sustainable societies in which education is a catalyst and learning is an ongoing process. She said that the ideological model being spread throughout the world is no longer sustainable and that students must gain a new understanding of the world.

In Viezzer’s view, students must learn to communicate with the earth as a living being, keeping in mind the basics of bioethics and biological diversity. She added that values of "slow food" should be taught, in contrast to the concept of "fast food" that is prevalent in a consumer society. Her idea, which stresses organic foods, involves non-violent production that does not harm the environment.

The Manuel Belgrano School in the Buenos Aires community of Llavallol, once a key part of the capital’s industrial belt, is already implementing some of these ideas in a search for solutions to the community’s massive unemployment problem.

Parents and students have turned the school grounds into an organic garden and school farm, and students take seedlings home to plant family gardens. As part of their studies, they also survey their neighbors, monitoring and disseminating the prices of staple food and household items.

School principal Ana Orozco said that the program was based on two key ethical concepts, "the culture of effort and the possibility of reclaiming the dignity of cooperative work."

Viezzer also called for education that would put an end to gender discrimination. She agreed that students must learn to relate to a higher being, but without falling into fundamentalism.

According to Boff, domination is based on a culture of fear and violence. He said that the communications media magnify violence and do not leave room to build a culture of peace. He added that violence against women is part of a culture of domination and depredation that sees war and confrontation as the only means of resolving conflicts.

Boff urged listeners to join forces and reinstill cooperative social values.

"Humans are creative beings and we have the resources to put an end to violence and avoid the destruction of life," he said. "The essence of the human being should be based on a loving relationship with creation that allows life to go on."



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