The Future of School

The following discussion between Seymour Papert and the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paolo Freire took place in Brazil during the late 1980s. It was sponsored by Pontifícia Universidade Católica, the Catholic University of São Paulo; and the Afternoon Journal TV show. It was broadcast in Brazil by TV PUC São Paulo and KTV Solucoes.

The following text is an adaptation of a transcript of the discussion, which was conducted in simultaneously translated English and Portuguese.


  Part 2   real video file

Paulo Freire: His speech is profoundly stimulating and, hence, challenging. First I'd like to make a sort of list of themes -- the generative themes, closely related to my own terminology -- that I have heard in his speech.

For example, the "historical dimension", "history and technology", "history generation and technology", "culture". Talking about culture, I immediately include the culture of classes. My 23-year-old grandson beats any specialist in this Internet thing. He's keen on it. And I have a 6-year-old granddaughter who works on the computer. But they are a minority in the Brazilian society. What do we say about the 33 million Brazilian children who at this moment are dying of starvation? What is the repercussion of technology in the majority of the lives of these Brazilian children today? And 20 or 30 years from now these millions of Brazilian children will be even farther removed from the current technology.

I agree with Papert's analysis of the three stages, the three moments he established in the experience of the production of knowledge. I find this division very lucid, and I agree with his criticism of the second stage, which is the school stage. But I don't accept his proposal that this isn't really a proposal. He does not propose. He says that the ending of school is inevitable. It's the end that is not proposing.

Seymour Papert: And it's very hard to get educators to see that distinction.

Paulo Freire: Yes. Absolutely. To me this is not a statement yet. I state that school is bad, but I don't state that school is disappearing and will disappear. That's why I am appealing to all of us who have escaped cognitive death by school -- who are the survivors here -- to work on modifying it. For me, the challenge is not to end school, but to change it completely and radically and to help it to give birth from a body that doesn't correspond anymore to the technological truth of the world to a new being as actual as technology itself.

So I keep fighting in the hope of putting school on the level of its time. That doesn't mean to bury it, but to remake it. And I explain: I'm quite sure that if we go back in time some millenniums ago, when men and women were eating an apple or banana It doesn't matter now. There is new research that claims that the sin was committed because of the banana. It doesn't mater whether it's an apple or a banana.

Men and women, while experiencing themselves socially, while confronting challenges, ended up discovering that they were doing something, they didn't know exactly what it was yet. Very probably there wasn't yet any word in their vocabulary indicating the thing they were doing. They probably knew, but the verb didn't exist yet or, perhaps, the language was only created millenniums after men and women were already changing the world.

The first thing we did was make change. Giving a name to change came later with language. We began to know a long time before saying that we know. We learned before teaching. And it was precisely the realization that we've learned without teaching that taught us to teach. It was the experience of learning, the experience of the last and first stages, that invented the second one.

To me, the problem we face today is the correction of the mistakes of the second stage that are not all didactic and not methodological mistakes but, indeed, ideological and political ones. Thus, what we must do is to change the world politically. It's the power that ought to be changed. In order to do this we shouldn't say that history is dead or that the classes have disappeared. All this is just talking in order not to change the second stage. All these speeches of the new liberal perspective ideology are trying to preserve the second stage. Nevertheless, in order for us to change the second stage we have to change the liberal speech.

Seymour Papert: But I just want to say something.

Paulo Freire: Yes?

Seymour Papert: Will there be school? I'm not saying that school is going to go away. It depends what we mean by school, but I think that what we need to note and very clearly and this is something else I learned from you, actually - is that we must be conscious and critical of what it's about fundamentally.

And now what's wrong with schools is not details. What's wrong with school is absolutely fundamental. It is so fundamental that to say you're going to correct that is not very far from saying we don't have school.

And I just have to make a list of problems with school because I think there are some we haven't even touched on I mean I know you concentrate on the political, which is there, but and I agree but let's take something else. How ridiculous is this? First of all, the idea that school is a place where you say now you are learning, not living. [That these actions are somehow distinct.] Then there's the fact that we segregate people by age.

Paulo Freire: Well, look, I agree with you but my main question is this: Is this an ontological problem or a political problem? It's political, not ontological.

Seymour Papert: No, no! It is all these things.

Paulo Freire: I want to say that the school is not burying itself.

Seymour Papert: Yes, it is. If school means a place where children are segregated from society and segregated among themselves by age and put through a curriculum. Now, go and ask any school administrator in the world, "What are you doing?"

Paulo Freire: It is being done like this. But it does not necessary hold true.

Seymour Papert: Well, we could have something else that you can call school if you would like to.

Paulo Freire: Yes. Look Do you know what my question is? For example, I also don't accept that men and women were born to be dominated, that the blacks are inferior to whites. I cannot accept this. That is what I consider a fact of metaphysical thinking, not the scientific thinking. School is not bad in itself, but it has been bad.

Seymour Papert: Let me look at this from another angle. Here's another side of the politics and a quarrel with another statement: that we, who went through school and survived it, should change it.

I don't think that we are the force that will change school. I think that in the past there have been many people who've proposed more or less radical changes in school. Like Dewey. He said many things and of course he's in many ways he's he made himself impotent by neglecting the power of the political. But basically he had a philosophy, and he said, "Agree with my philosophy and you will change school."

And I think Ivan Illich also thought that schooling is a good idea, and I think I'm not saying that it's a good idea to change school. I'm saying that it is inconceivable that school as we've known it will continue. Inconceivable. And the reason why it's inconceivable is that little glimmer with my grandson who is used to finding knowledge when he wants to and can get it when he needs it, and can get in touch with other people and teachers, not because they are appointed by the state, but because he can contact them in some network somewhere. These children will not sit quietly in school and listen to a teacher give them predigested knowledge. I think that they will revolt.

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