Lei Griô
Griô law flag. Official launching of Public Politics Laboratory – Griô University ECO/UFRJ. 2012. (CC BY-SA) Fora do Eixo

Free Universities

Sergio Cohn

On July 24, 1904, the People’s University of Free Education (UPdEL) was created in Rio de Janeiro. With a libertarian pedagogic proposal and seeking to expand the scope of national education beyond the upper classes, the UPdEL brought together an impressive faculty team. The doctor and militant anarchist Fábio Luz spoke at the opening ceremony. A text about the University was reproduced in Kultur magazine, published by the Symbolist poet and future modernist agitator Elysio de Carvalho. In addition, the likes of Jose Verissimo, Evaristo de Moraes and Silvio Romero were part of the first academic semester. The university was endowed with a library, as well as a medical clinic, bookstore, legal office, and a social museum. Courses included philosophy, natural history, hygiene, geography, language, arithmetic, decorative arts, and mechanics, among others.

The UPdEL aimed, according to the text of Kultur, to offer a “top rate and positive instruction and, above all, an instruction of those that the bourgeoisie ostracized. The plan of U.P is very broad and covers all forms of knowledge capable of contributing to the education of feelings and culture of human intelligence. Its goals are: organization of a course of higher education in accordance with modern science, creation of a library and a social museum, holding public lectures on the most important social issues, organization of social art representations, scientific, artistic and cultural excursions, concerts, festive countryside outings, etc., creation of a magazine that functions as the mouthpiece of the university, in short, the foundation of a popular center that has as an end goal pleasure and education – and moral unity among its co-workers. The U.P. will be deeply tolerant: it will exclude no one from its midst, because it desires to establish a necessary union between those who think and those who work.”

The emergence of a People’s University at that time in the country with such a “free” profile was not accidental. According to the researcher Silvio Gallo, “there were countless experiences of libertarian pedagogy in Brazil, concentrated mainly in the decades between the 1890s and 1920s, in many cities, especially in major urban centers that were the most industrialized and had labor and trade union movements organized. I list here just a few of these experiences together with the dates they came about, for example: Workers Union School (Rio Grande do Sul, 1895); International School Society (Santos, 1904); Libertarian School Germinal (São Paulo, 1903); Free School of the Workers League (Campinas, 1904); Modern School No. 1 and No. 2 (São Paulo, 1909); School Workers Union of France (1910); May Day Worker School (Rio de Janeiro, 1912); Modern School of Petropolis (1913); Worker School of Pernambuco (1914).”

And what is libertarian pedagogy? According to Gallo, “We can characterize libertarian pedagogy, very generally, in two ways. On the one hand, its grounding in anarchist educational thought, in various aspects: ranging from the discourse affirming that the school as an institution needs to be rethought to the discourse that negates even the possibility of making a libertarian educational practice happen in school, and to proposals for an education outside of the formal ambit of school, through the press, theater, etc. On the other hand, libertarian pedagogy can be seen to identify with key pedagogical experiments carried out by individuals or anarchist collectives; historical examples that we can highlight are: Paul Robin’s experience directing the Orphanage in Prévost Cempuis, France, between 1880 and 1894; the creation of the La Ruche school-community by Sébastien Faure, also in France, which was in operation between 1904 and 1917; the Modern School of Barcelona, created by Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, in operation from 1901 to 1905. For a contemporary example, we can mention the Paideia Educational Center, in operation in the city of Mérida, Spain, since 1978.

Clearly we cannot separate what I mentioned earlier as ‘anarchist educational thought’ from libertarian pedagogical experiences, to the extent that each of these areas is only made possible through the other. For example, it is quite interesting to read the story written by Robin of his years in administering the orphanage in Cempuis: he draws on concepts and theories of a ‘comprehensive education’ formulated and defended at the Workers Congresses organized by the International Workers Association, but as far as putting into practice an education that is grounded in these concepts and principles, the very concepts find themselves modified and consolidated through everyday practice. Libertarian pedagogy is thus necessarily a thought-action in the field of education.

Anarchism is a field that is plural and multiple and in this respect, it is more appropriate to speak of ‘anarchisms,’ always in the plural. And this extends itself to pedagogy: it’s more interesting to speak of ‘libertarian pedagogies’ and the perspectives and trends we find here are diverse. To understand libertarian pedagogy, I think it is necessary to examine the collectivist perspective of anarchism, strongly inspired by Mikhail Bakunin, who will uncompromisingly defend freedom as a social factor, a collective construction, not as a natural characteristic of the individual. From the perspective of an education guided by freedom as a natural characteristic of the individual, we have what Rousseau called, in Emile or Education, a ‘negative education’: the less you interfere, the better for the child’s education. In our case, from a libertarian pedagogy collectivist orientation, the process is different. We do not understand the child as free by nature, but as someone who needs to learn to be free, who needs to collectively achieve this freedom that is not only yours, but also of each one of your colleagues.

Anarchist schools that guided – or guide – from that perspective, sought to build what Robin called a ‘moral education,’ that is, the organization of collective school experience oriented to the construction of freedom and solidarity, fundamental principles for anarchists. So there was great care and attention paid to the relationships between students and other members of the school community (teachers and other professionals) and among students themselves. In collective games, solidarity was privileged. The conflicts that occurred in daily life were discussed collectively, seeking to build ways to cope with and overcome them. In this practice it was common to hold periodic assemblies with the participation of the entire school community.”

It is interesting to think that, in Brazil, century changes seem to offer a propitious period for free initiatives in pedagogy. After the effervescence of the early 20th century, the country experienced a period less inclined to embrace alternative initiatives in the educational field. In part due to the political context and in part due to it being a time of consolidation of our major universities. Although there were some valuable proposals developed, such as the creation of the University of Brasilia by Darcy Ribeiro in 1962 and the beautiful period of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) between the late 1950s and early 1960s in the hands of the rector Edgard Santos, despite this, there were few that managed to combine with traditional teaching projects that were being consecrated nationally.

The University of Brasilia sought the creation of a repertoire and methods more in tune with our reality, targeting the country’s autonomy. According to Darcy Ribeiro, “For many years we have been in the condition of the Xavante Indians, who, by learning to use steel axes, could no longer do without them and found themselves tied to their suppliers. Now that we produce steel, telephones, penicillin, and, with this we add to a lot our autonomy, we run the new risk of subordination, represented by overreliance on standards and technical knowledge. We will only be truly independent when the renovation of factories installed here is done with our know-how, according to procedures arising from the study of our raw materials and our peculiar conditions of production and consumption.”

Similar to the University of Brasilia, Edgard Santos’ UFBA sought renewal within traditional academic structures. In Salvador, Santos managed to put together a pluralist team of teachers and collaborators who deeply influenced the emergence of some of the great revitalization movements of Brazilian culture of the time, such as New Cinema and Tropicalia. In its heyday, the UFBA brought together the likes of the Italian architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi (director of the Bahia Museum of Modern Art, but who worked closely with the University), the theater director Martim Gonçalves, the musician and Swiss visual artist Walter Smetak, the German musician Hans J. Koellreuter, the Polish contemporary dance teacher Yanka Rudzka, and the Portuguese historian Agostinho da Silva.

The project at the University of Brasilia was never fully completed and was abruptly ended by the Miltary Coup in 1964. The UFBA would also end up being a short period of brilliance within Brazilian university projects, beautifully portrayed in the book Avant-garde na Bahia (Avant-garde in Bahia) by Antonio Risério. During the 20th century a growing bureaucratization of Brazilian academia occurred that, in turn, also proved incapable of absorbing broader public participation, ensuring that higher education was restricted, with few exceptions, to the people who come from the upper classes.

Thus, almost a century after the creation of UPdEL when a new independent educational proposal emerges in the country, it concerns itself with very similar issues. The Universidade Nômade (Nomadic University), created by teachers from Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro – UFRJ) in 2003, was one of the first proposals of free education in the 21st century, and it remains intensely active. Initially, UniNômade was a “network of movements composed of nucleuses [a term often used for organized collective study, research, actions in Brazil], research groups, activists from popular preparatory-college exam courses, cultural movements, magazines, artists, etc.”

According to Giuseppe Cocco, one of the creators of UniNômade, “The Deleuzian term nomadism became operative in a very concrete and material way because of the fact that we perceived that it was not possible to think of a university agenda unless it was constructed via a connection between those inside the university and those outside who wanted to enter. And, consequently, the movement to create community college preparatory courses became a vital expressive critique of neoliberalism. In this way, UniNômade formed initially as a network of UFRJ teachers, with very few students, to create community college preparatory courses for blacks and the poor.”

“Our proposal was to bring another dimension to the traditional platform, which was the desire for a free public university of quality. For us, the university had to be, above all, democratic. Because the government often uses the term ‘public’ to mean ‘of the state’. The university was state-run, but it was not public, because it was not democratic; it was elitist. So that was our discussion, that it’s necessary to create something that is neither private nor state, but really public,” added Tatiana Roque.

This fight is explicit in the founding manifesto of the university, signed, along with Cocco and Roque, by the likes of Ivana Bentes and Francisco Guimarães: “To universalize the right to University means today, to rethink and re-found its public base (the Universitas), to bring the outside community inside, that is, including the excluded multitude that struggle just to survive. But at the same time, to re-found the social bases of the University (make it effectively public) implies transforming the nature of the processes of production and dissemination of knowledge: to produce a nomadic knowledge, or in other words a counter knowledge of struggles that, in coming together, do not reduce their resources but leverage their multiple dynamics.”

If some of these initial concerns were minimized with the university expansion policies during the Lula government, which allowed broader sections of the population access to higher education, others remained or were radicalized during this period. The latter was a reaction to the trend towards bureaucratization of academic work, forms of control and ratings of productivity that mirror market rules and the ever more extreme isolation of the university in relation to society.

In response to these changes, the UniNômade has adapted over time to become, as the manifesto written in celebration of its 10 years of existence describes, “a space of research and militancy, to think about (and with) the gaps and interstices where the struggles that determine the limits of capital emerge and open up to the possible, such as: the recognition of the productive dimensions of life through universal income; democratic radicalization through the production of new institutions of the common; going beyond the dialectic between public and private; the resurgence of nature as the production of difference amidst the struggle and bio-politics of the manufacturing of post-economic bodies. Bodies crisscrossed by the anthropophagy of the modernists, Amerindian cosmologies, the Quilombo [Afro-Brazilian community and former slave enclaves] exoduses, the struggles of the homeless, landless, poor, Indians, blacks, women, and hackers: for those trying out other ways of living, that are more powerful, more alive.”

In the course of the first decade of the new millennium other proposals for free universities have emerged in Brazil. Even more radically, they aimed at the creation of spaces and new methods for the sharing of knowledge. Instead of fixed spaces, the new proposals seek the flow of knowledge and convivial experience.

Examples of such university projects include: the University of Free Culture, or UniCult, the University Fora do Eixo [Literally Off Axis/Outside the Mainstream] or UFdE, and the University Griô. According to Ivana Bentes, one of the coordinators and voices behind UniCult, “There is a growing realization that the traditional university can no longer account for education, with its closed disciplinary Fordist structure, held on campus, that I joke is a ‘concentration campus’. Within this perspective, the university assumes that there is a field of reality. So then there’s this space division: the library, the classroom, the concentration campus, separated from the city and all the tools and methodologies found in society at large. This is an isolation created by the model that we need to go to a place to be educated. A model that ended up closing the university to certain interfaces with the rest of society. But now we are in a context where society as a whole is constantly learning. In addition to this, today, with new technological tools, education cannot be restricted to a specific moment of one’s life.”

As Carol Tokuyo, coordinator of UFdE, points out, the growing gap between the traditional university and new societal processes ends up generating conflicts and dropouts among young people, and we need to create new methodologies: “We started to think about the design of UFdE when we understood that the Network Fora do Eixo is composed mostly by university students (and former students). And in 2010 we realized that, as these young people started to get involved with the Network, they were discouraged from attending university. Many people left their courses in the middle. The feeling was that the university did not have any value or meaning for them, because they were not actually learning something that they could not learn elsewhere, or that they had a real interest in knowing. And they were realizing that the Network was giving them more opportunities to gain knowledge and the encouragement to learn more. As we work with culture, where the diploma ends up meaning little, in relation to other professions, this becomes even more frequent. Today, in the area of culture, freelance work prevails; it is rare for someone to have a formal contract.

But that does not mean that [cultural workers] are not interested in learning. So we started thinking about education projects, ones that have stimulated learning, which in the beginning were the Observatories. And when we thought about restructuring them, we began to understand that in fact, we had many other [kinds of] education projects that were based on the constant encouragement of debate, radical sharing and real-time experiences and happenings developed with our own forms of mobilization and organization. In the end, this learning was going on already, in our events. Except that none of it was systematized. So, we came to recognize that these projects were our education processes and we systematized the exchange of knowledge that was already happening naturally in the Network in project formats, into education programs.”

The creation of new educational spaces has to undergo bureaucratic challenges, including institutional validation: “There has always been this exchange of information with society, but now it has greatly increased in intensity. There are a number of professional activities that are educational, but these have not yet been absorbed by the public education system. Today society as a whole is engaged in acquiring new skills and learning, but who certifies this knowledge? There is a market drive for the certification of certain university courses, master titles, doctorates, which is already a problem within the university, because it cannot manage to incorporate artists or more popular forms of knowledge. Culture universities are a way of trying to create a transit between different forms of knowledge”, says Ivana Bentes.

In order for this type of transit to be possible and to target the renewal of university structures, free proposals seek to dialogue with traditional universities: “The Free Culture University’s project is to work in synergy with universities. We want the university to recognize this alternative training. If the university is a key place for the market and for certification, it is vital that UniCult has a way-in within the university through extension projects, so that we use the resources available today on campus, and in this way can put pressure on its structures. There is a huge infrastructure installed today on campus that is underutilized and is not used by society. So why not use the labs, classrooms, equipment on weekends, and inactive times?” concludes Ivana.

Carol Tokuyo also underscores the need for this dialogue with the formal structures of education, but without losing the independence of the proposals: “This is a controversial issue. More than formalizing, we want to open dialogues so that we can be recognized as a legitimate education project. There has been dialogue with the Ministry of Culture, with universities, Culture Points [Community cultural centers throughout Brazil], and other collectives; from the formal to the informal. We have already started to offer our own certificates; we have some local partnerships that support and certify some activities, and some collectives that are related to the university have readily managed to establish a partnership. There is always the risk, often debated within the Network, of the certificate and formalization forcing a standardization of the UFdE process. But as a social movement that disputes society, the certificate is important. It’s just that it must always be seen as a tactic and not as an end. Certification is to give value to the actions we do, but by no means will we follow the models of the Ministry of Education. We have other criteria, more symbolic, intangible, less engrained.”

And what are these criteria? According to Ivana Bentes, free universities seek “continuing education by modulation, and not by mold. The university that exists today was conceived in the 20th century; it has stagnated. The idea of flow within the university does not function. The free universities think in flux: the students there will engage with their own agency, modulating their interests, aggregating what is dispersed and creating their own trajectory.”

She concludes: “The discussion is no longer about separating theory and practice. The free university thinks of formative practices. There is a debate now within the university that goes back and forth between theory-activism or the tedium of erudition. The university today is a reproduction machine of knowledge, literature reviews, rituals of titles. It does not feel compelled to intervene in anything. People do masters and doctorates to present papers at conferences, to circulate within a group of academic discussants that have no commitment to any transformation. This is very disturbing. We need theory-activism. Not only theories engaged in actions, but the awareness that actions also produce concepts. Because if we detach one from the other, the university becomes empty and weak with researchers who only think about their resumes.”

Of all the free university methodologies the most innovative, perhaps, is the University Griô [Griot – master of oral traditions]. In its practices of lived formative experiences, the convivial as a teaching method, recognizing that the transmission of the knowledge and popular know-how and wisdom of the masters is not separated from life, and in seeking to mine the local as a formative principle, the University Griô somehow recalls the principle of the medieval universities, where students went in search of masters in European cities.

“The University Griô is not made up of courses, but pathways. It is a place to walk. This notion of the walker has a lot to do with the idea of Griô and the learner/apprentice”, says Alexandre Santini, one of the organizers of UniGriô. “The exchange of knowledge with the know-how of popular masters is always done through lived experiences. It is a learning transmitted through experience and creating bonds. This point cannot be lost even when we create exchanges with formal education and have to deal with all its obligations. Because it’s there that we create tension and question how the transmission of knowledge is structured within the academy and the school. So when we do work with a school or a university, usually our approach is not via conventional formats, via a collegiate or professional council. It is through the bond we establish with an educator, with a specific teacher that is more open to these matters.”

The Griô University emerged as a result of Griô Action, created by the Ministry of Culture in 2006, within the Free Culture Program of the Culture Points. Griô Action was launched within the context of the South American Popular Culture Meeting, as an incentive aimed at offering grants for Culture Points with popular culture masters to engage in projects connected to public schools and universities. This grant drew on the methodology created by the Culture Point, Grão de Luz and Griô, of Chapada Diamantina, in Bahia. The project was born based on Grão de Luz and Griô’s proposal made in the first year of the Culture Point grants. The organizers at the Ministry of Culture realized that their proposal had the potential to not just be a local project, but also to organize a national network.

According to Santini, “The University comes at a time of regression in the whole story. The Griô Action underwent a great expansion supported by the Ministry of Culture between 2006 and 2010, reaching the point of having within its network 700 articulated initiatives in all regions of the country. There was even a proposed law, which became known as Griô Law, at the National Conference on Culture, where the cultural and economic importance of these masters of oral traditions was recognized and its dialogue with formal education. But since Dilma came to power, a new political configuration has emerged. There was a big falling off in these initiatives. At the same time we were left with a repository, a memory, and continuing projects. Even without the government’s economic stimulus, there was a great wealth of experience to be systematized. This set of experiences and methodologies that were inspired by Griô Action is what we have been calling Griô University. What we are doing is to create environments that circulate and exchange methodologies, such as traditional knowledge.”

The term “griô” [Griot] comes from storytellers in the sub-Saharan region of Central Africa, eventually spreading worldwide, and describes masters of oral traditions and popular knowledge. The Griô University, as well as other contemporary proposals of free culture, plays an important part in creating permeability amidst diverse knowledge, integrating the masters of Amerindian and Afro-Brazilian culture within the academy. And it creates forms of sharing and circulation of knowledge that, even though paralleling more archaic methods, is better adjusted to contemporary demands.

How to deepen the dialogue between these initiatives of free pedagogy and official institutions is a matter still to be worked on, and which demands openness on the part of public officials. In this regard, if in Brazil the advancement in this direction is timid, other countries have demonstrated the ability to develop courageous actions. In 2012, the Government of Cape Verde recognized the University Fora do Eixo as a Scientific Cultural and Educational Institution, validating their education programs, degrees, titles, and knowledge transfer as technical and scientific qualification for the cultural area.

The proliferation of independent initiatives of free pedagogy in Brazil today is something to be celebrated. What we hope and fight for together is that they are able to deepen and broaden other dimensions and modes of teaching, especially considering that the last renewal initiatives of civic society for basic and secondary teaching are already more than 30 years old, and they do not respond to the major changes made in society since then. The construction of new initiatives will certainly help education to renew itself and become more free and open to contemporary challenges.

This article was originally published in Cultura Pensamento. No 5, December, 2013. Special thanks to Sergio Cohn for allowing Revista MESA to translate and republish it.