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 3   real video file

Paulo Freire: There's a similarity between us until a certain point in the road. At a determined moment I tell him, "Good bye, I am going this way." And he goes the other way. And what's worse is that we both want the same thing.… The turning point that separates us is that his analysis seems to be metaphysical and mine is politico-historical. I think that is the difference.

This doesn't imply the least decrease in the perspective of his analysis. I am not diminishing his work. I am only explaining why I disagree. Here is an example of my difference. It's the same difference between me and Ivan Illich, for example. I remember the times I was in Cuernavaca. It was with him and the author of Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro School Children in the Boston Public Schools, Jonathan Kozol. There we were, Kozol, a group of American intellectuals, Latin Americans and me. At first, Ivan Illich was against the schools. In a second moment he considered the schools bad in themselves, a bad institution which should be eliminated. Then he was against education. That was during an education seminar in Geneva back in 1974. To the European philosophers, he said, "A few years ago I was against school and now I come here to say that I'm against education."

We were and still are good friends. I used to tell him that the difference between us is that you are against education and I'm against one type of education. I am not against education because I consider it a great phenomenon, and one of our historical inventions. Therefore I might be naïve. Maybe I am naοve. Logically I am naïve. Maybe I don't become angry because if you said to me, "It's naiveté," I'd say, "Thank you very much."

Then again, it is possible that I am naïve, but I'd rather fall in the hopeful naiveté category, with the hope of one day being able to change, than to cross my arms today in fatalist yielding and give up all possibility of change.

Seymour Papert: I think maybe this is not a real issue. I mean the question is, What is changing school? And some good models that I see some places where there are a few school districts … For example, in some school districts in New York City they will allow a group of teachers who have a proposal to start a small school with a different philosophy of education, provided that they win an argument and that parents are prepared to let their children attend.

They can set it up within the school system, so it's still school. I mean it's even in the same buildings and ultimately it's controlled by the same people that control other schools. The same people pay the janitor, but what is happening in some of these is very different from the defining structure … of what I'd call school with a capital S, which is about curriculum and classes and all - that, we agree, is a bad thing. So I think it's possible that there will be a shift that within school, within schools alternatives can grow up. I think also we'll see alternatives growing up outside of the school. I think we've seen in the United States recently a tremendous increase in the home-schooling movement. People are just keeping their children out of school.

So I think this change is coming about in all sorts of places, and we must work for it. And I seem to be taking a harder position, that school is bad, that I think that there's a kind of, we call it "narrow liberalism" of discourse inside education that talks about curriculum reform, strains of school management but that has a general flavor of conservatism, and it ignores historical features too….

This bureaucracy has it's own interest; this bureaucracy is not … open to argument about what's in the best interest of the children. I mean, I'm not saying bureaucrats are all bad people, but they've also got their own culture that they live in and I don't think we can appeal to them or try and persuade them or argue with them.

I'd like to add one more example to this discussion. I have a chapter in my last book, which just got translated into Portuguese, that I think is an example of taking a historical approach on a minor scale -- it's not on the big scale of history of society.

So if you go into schools nowadays, you see a lot of computers, and almost everybody agrees that computers are not being very well used. Now the liberal discourse says, "The schools don't know how to use the computers. Let's do research and find out the best way to use the computers, and then they'll be used well and we will have all sorts of good results." Now, I think it's exactly the other way around.

The school bureaucracies know very well how to use the computer … in order to reinforce their own concept of school. And I find it very interesting that … in the 1970s the first times I saw any microcomputers in schools, it was always through the efforts of a visionary and rebellious teacher who didn't like what he or she -- often she -- was supposed to be doing and saw the computer as the way of doing something different. And often … this is a bit romantic … they felt the potential of this thing and they wanted change.… So it was an instrument of radical change -- that's what they thought it was. And then around about the middle of the 1980s … this computer got into the hands of school administrations and the ministries and the commissioners of education, state education departments.

And now look what they did with them: no longer are there computers in the hands of visionary teachers in the classrooms. The establishment pulls together and now they've got a computer classroom, there's a computer curriculum, and there's a special computer teacher. In other words, the computer has been thoroughly assimilated to the way you do things in school.

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