Friday 17 June 2011

Participation and Education in the Landless People’s Movement of Brazil (SECOND PART)

by Tristan McCowan

Laboratory of Public Policy, University of Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil







Understandings of participation in the MST

If it is to be part of the movement, a school must have the involvement of all, in an organised, participative and democratic way.

MST understandings of participation in education go beyond the involvement of parents in the schooling of their child, or pupil choice in curriculum matters (though these elements are also present). Participation in the MST is based on the movement’s ideal of radical democracy.

For us democracy is not just a detail, a word. It is one of the fundamental pillars of our pedagogical framework and our plan of social transformation.
To consider democracy a pedagogical principle means, according to our educational framework, that it is not enough for students to study or discuss it; they need also, and most importantly, to experience an arena of democratic participation, educating themselves for social democracy.
In other words in order to prepare people for democracy and participation through education, the educational system itself must be run on the democratic principles it is trying to promote.

The MST believes that socialism is only possible with grassroots participative bodies, rather than a centralized decision-making structure. For this end, each camp or settlement has elaborate systems of democratic representation, feeding information up to local, state and national levels who are intended to act as co-ordinating and not directing entities.

The relationship between the participative groups is that of ascending and descending democracy. That is to say the issues are discussed in the grassroots nuclei and then approved in the general co-ordinating body. They are then implemented with a distribution of responsibilities.
The co-ordination has a part, but decisions in the MST are really taken by the people.
Participation is seen here to be closely linked to the idea of the collective, a fundamental principle of the movement. Firstly, the educational work itself must be carried out collectively:

The big and even the little activities of day-to-day life in the school must be planned collectively…. Where the planning is concentrated in a few heads (from top to bottom) there is no democracy….
The document is clear to point out that collective planning does not mean the involvement of all people in all decisions: there must be a combination of participation and division of tasks.
Education must then prepare people for living collectively. Effective participation is usually seen as occurring via a group or collective, rather than as isolated individuals. This has implications in terms of the ability of members of the MST to participate in society outside of the movement, an important issue that will be discussed further below. Nevertheless, despite the emphasis on collectivism and rejection of the cultural legacy of individualism, the MST stops short of discarding the individual altogether:

However, this does not mean sidelining the person: on the contrary all the pedagogical principles that we are dealing with here have the person as their central focus; not the isolated individual, but the subject of relationships, with other people, with collectives and with a particular social and historical context.
The individual that the MST theory of participation is built around, therefore, is not the homo economicus of neo-liberal development programmes, but one who exists in a particular historical and political context and as part of a collective identity.

Education must aim to promote amongst students the idea of participation itself. The values transmitted must be concerned with:

the collective production and appropriation of the material and spiritual goods of humanity, justice in the distribution of these goods and equality of participation in all these processes.
The concept of citizenship was raised a number of times by the teachers and co-ordinators without prompting by the interviewer. This suggests that despite being part of a social movement with strong boundaries, they consider participation as something that must extend to society in general. While criticising the present government and politico-economic system they do not reject the idea of the state and the need to be a citizen within it. The comments on citizenship must be seen in the light of the fact that many people in Brazil, while nominally citizens, are not able to claim their rights and fulfil their duties, and therefore have been denied true membership of society.

Our schools work directly with the idea of the citizen…. We need the idea of a citizen so people don’t feel inferior to others. They have to learn their rights and respect those of others.
With education a person becomes a citizen, becomes human…. People leave school and they say, ‘Look I’m a person too, I’m a citizen’. After that they have no difficulty with learning. The people in the settlements come from a complex poor background. Without school they can’t really be part of society on an equal footing.
It is interesting to observe here that as well as citizenship being enabled by education, it is seen to facilitate further learning.

Firstly, children need to have their constitutional rights to schooling met.

The movement…also needs a legalized school, so that the children of this struggle can exercise their rights as citizens….
This educational citizenship is by no means guaranteed in Brazil. Official figures show net primary enrolment to be 96%, although nearly half of these will repeat at least one year. Only 25% go on to secondary school, and 11% to university. Illiteracy nation-wide runs at 12.8%, with the figure much higher in rural areas, and there are many more who are only semi-literate (IBGE 2001). The first aim of the movement, therefore, is to obtain basic access to education for the landless. The practice of demanding government funding for their schools rather than seeking independent sources is an indication of the movement’s desire to claim for its members their rights as citizens of the state.

Yet these basic rights are not enough: participation must be taken to deeper levels. In Escola Itinerante: uma Prática Pedagógica em Acampamentos (2001) one of the stated aims of education is:

To awaken the organizational consciousness and spirit of leadership of the children, adolescents, educators and community, with political clarity in order to exercise citizenship. (MST 2001b: 72)
This suggests that true citizenship requires an element of conscientization, an idea that will be developed further below.

Citizenship is therefore seen to be an essential pre-requisite for effective participation. There are two stages: claiming one’s fundamental rights and then extending one’s own capabilities for exercising those rights.

There also appear to be two aims of participation in the MST. The first is organizational, contributing to the effective running of the community and the movement; the second is the conscientizing effect that the process can have on the participant. The ‘organizational consciousness’ described above is a bridge between the two, allowing the conscientizing process to feed into more effective organization. Ideally the organizing and conscientizing elements - both essential for a social movement - can co-exist, although they may be in conflict.

This, therefore, is the theoretical framework of participation in the MST; the implementation in practice will now be discussed. It is important to note that the movement freely admits that its ideals have not all been realised, and that their achievement is a long, slow process.

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