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Ribeiro's New Social Sculpture

Brazilian Minister of Education Renato Janine Ribeiro

By Gian Spina

I said, if they come with tanks I still will keep on teaching.

-Joseph Beuys, 1972 (in front of the Arts Academy in Düsseldorfas—the police tried to expel him)

Educate yourself more and more, never pause the learning. Educate the others, educate the society.

-Brazillian Minister of Education Renato Janine Ribeiro 

In the last days of March, Brazil named Renato Janine Ribeiro as the new Minster of Education. A professor of ethics and political philosophy at the University of São Paulo, Ribeiro has a calm voice, serene eyes, and reassuring didactics. He has written several books, won awards, and fostered a strong commitment to public education. Above all, he finds himself now immerse in politics with the same task entrenched in the etymology of education as expressed by Francis Edward Jackson Valpy: “Educo: as I bring forward, bring up, nurture.”

In an unofficial yet televised interview, the minister spoke about the necessity of change in the educational model to focus on the person who is learning—on apprenticeship instead of knowledge, on a rather processual project, and not merely setting lofty goals.

“Socrates had something very special and that is, primarily, he never wrote one book, and secondly, he did everything for the dialogue, therefore he was a professor,” Ribeiro mentioned during the interview. In this reference to the Socratic method, he reinforces the importance of dialogue and its necessity for the construction of the being, to bring the student and professor closer, and to create a less hierarchical educational system. The same idea can be found in the method of one of Brazil’s most esteemed educators and philosophers, Paulo Freire. For him, dialogue was one of the principle tools of any education that produces the action/reaction chain, or as Freire himself pointed out:  “… In order to put the dialogue into practice, the educator should not put himself in the naïve position of someone who is the proprietor of knowledge, he should, primarily, put himself in the humble position of someone who knows that he does not know everything…”

Joseph Beuys, one of the most important German artists of the second half of the 20th century, was a professor at the Arts Academy in Düsseldorf in the 1960s, where he mentored such esteemed artists such as Blinky Palermo and Anselm Kiefer. His pedagogical method was an experiment in and of itself. Up to 300 students attended his classes where they would sit in a large circle and discuss processes, politics, forms of creating, and forms of living. Beuys was strongly influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s thoughts and writings on the art of education, and was focused on the openness of the “process of becoming” rather than on more rigid systems. His classes did not have any grades or tests other than participating and being present, and he composed a volatile hierarchy with a revolving professor-student relationship.

“The professor-student relationship is oscillating. The person who is talking is in all cases the professor and the person who is listening the student,” Beuys once said in a 1971 documentary about his teaching methods. His use of dialogue as a mechanism of social change became stronger, not only in his work as an educator, but also in his artistic output. A high point of his career included a Homeric 100-day performance during the Dokumanta 5 at what he called the Bureau of the Organization for Direct Democracy through Public Referendum. During the performance, Beuys stayed in the exhibition’s room in Kassel, Germany for 100 days, discussing politics and new formats to achieve and improve democracy.

In the same interview mentioned before, Minister Renato talked about his idea of an extension of the educational field, where concepts of learning and teaching would be combined with cultural studies. In other words, like Beuys, Renato envisions a much more liberated and creative educational environment, less regulated through notes and grades, and one pedagogically more hybrid. Such extension of the educational field can be compared to what Beuys called “extension of the concept of art,” in which he points that every person has an impact, an influence in the composition of society.

Joseph Beuys "Demokratie ist lustig" 1973

A similar change was accomplished not only in the political and artistic realms of German society but in arts education as well. At the same time, entrenched within the “extension of the concept of art was what Beuys later called—and was famous for—the “Social Sculpture,” or the idea of a society-changing form of art which combines social, cultural, and political characteristics, allowing each human being to contribute creatively.

The idea of treating education and culture as a single concept, rather than two individual realms of society, and allowing one to affect the other as an experiment in itself, is both an important and progressive attitude. As the minister himself pointed out in the televised interview: “I believe in an education as a liberation, not as a transmission of content, not as standardization of persons, and a very important aspect is how can we bring together the world of culture and the world of education.”

Such a statement arrives at a time when pedagogical transformations in Brazil are badly needed and when the blind pragmatism that has dictated the confines of education thus far has also proven thoroughly unsatisfactory. Such pragmatism created the historically low salaries of public schools professors, which in March of this year, materialized in a crippling strike and a direct confrontation with the state police.

The principal task of the minister’s premier term consists of accomplishing targets set in the National Plan of Education—such as Goal 17, which is set to raise the salaries of professors from the basic public school systems. To accomplish these measures in an unusual but rather logical manner, the minister pushed for large cross sections of Brazilian society to engage with the government to establish these goals, emphasizing the necessity of dialogue when it comes to an institution as vital as education.

Beuys and Ribeiro both emphasize how art and education are liberation apparatuses that should work together, and that creativity should not be taken as the practice of mere artists hermetically working in their studios. Art and education are mediums for the empowerment of human beings, allowing them to compose themselves as individual works of art, without fixed borders. As citizens, we are indeed responsible for working together—as the minister requested—in the education of our communal life.

*****

*****

Gian Spina is a São Paulo based artist and assistant professor at the Escola da Cidade in São Paulo. His work can be seen at http://gianspina.com.

[Photos courtesy of Minister Ribeiro's Facebook page and Gian Spina]

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