In Dewey and Freire, We Trust!

Butet with the children of jungle tibe


There was not anything in this school. There was no large building with a lot of classes. There was no blackboard, nor chalks, no chairs nor tables where students sit and put their bags and equipment to learn. In this school there was not even a teacher nor any disciples. In this school, there was only a strong spirit to learn something from nature without any barriers or limitation.
I do not want to talk about international standard schools that sporadically sprouted up in my country. I do not want to talk about schools with teachers who come from foreign countries. I do not want to talk about a school with a great curriculum which prepares students to become wealthy and successful in the world community. I just want to talk about a jungle school that I saw on the edge of the jungle in Sumatra Island, Indonesia.
In this island, the rainforest is the mother of the universe where people live among the animals. This forest is a home for many communities that still maintain their traditions. They try to preserve their culture and close the connection to the outside world that has been tainted by modernism. Unfortunately, the policy of the Indonesian government that gave permission to a number of corporations to cut down the trees began to threaten these living organisms and also the communities who live in this forest.
Maybe in the future, the tribal children will become extinct just like their community. Maybe in the future, they will lose the knowledge they inherited from their ancestors. For a thousand years, this knowledge became very powerful to make their communities still exist. Today, they are threatened and might lose everything including their lives. But, they still have a hope that spread from this school.
If you consider a school as a place where all the students sit in a large building, this jungle school was very different. The jungle school had no building. This school was a place that all of the tribal people came and shared their experiences together. They came with the same spirit to share, not just knowledge about the forest, but also their experiences about life.
Several years ago, with two journalists, I went to this school. We wanted to compile an investigative report about alternative schools in various parts of Indonesia. This school was very unique in our radar. This school did not have a permanent building. There was only one small wooden house on the edge of the forest. There was only one adult female who was willing to share her experiences. She learned from the children about several ways to hunt in the forest. She also learned about how to survive and how to flow with the trees and animals in the forest. Joined with the children, they do not want to conquer nature. They just want to learn something from nature, and live together in a holistic community.
Her name is Butet Manurung. She has two masters and one doctoral degree from a famous university in Australia. When I met her, she wore a long cloth to cover her body. She dressed in the indigenous people clothes. When I asked why she dressed like that, she replied that she wanted to be a part of that community. She did not want to be a teacher. She just wanted to learn a lot with the kids.
In this school, children learn about knowledge that they need and how to love and protect the wild forests where they live. This school is a vehicle for sharing knowledge, which provides an opportunity for tribal people to share experiences with their children. In last five years, Butet also thought some modern skills such as reading and writing in order to help the children to maintain their rights to the forest when negotiating with the State or corporations.
Butet did not teach in the air-conditioned rooms like the other teachers. She also did not sit in comfortable chairs in front of a complete or high-tech computer that was already connected with an internet. She just sat on a fallen tree trunk or on the rocks like a comfortable jet black marble, with breezy wind and freshness of nature. She only used the many books that were thrown away in the big cities.
Since her first coming to the forest, Butet started learning and knowing the habits of the tribe. She diligently observed and followed their daily lives. She lived with them, slept in the same place, ate what they ate, went barefoot and felt the amusement of mud and dirt stuck to the soles of the feet and between her toes. Butet tried to understand how to become part of the Jungle Tribe. Butet was amazed at those who are able to follow the river and the woods without getting lost. She was amazed at the swift kids that climb trees without any fear of falling. She was amazed at the friendliness of nature.
When I talked with her, I noticed something strange. She showed me a notebook. On the front page, it says, "Only in Freire and Dewey, I trust!" I was shocked. How could the thought of Dewey and Freire inspire an alternative school that was established away from the United States (U.S.) and Brazil?

"What do you mean with the sentence ‘in Freire and Dewey we trust?’"
"I was inspired by these two figures. They are a light that gives me direction to build this school, "she said.
"What inspiration did you get from them? Why did you not learn from the many other educational leaders? I believed that their theories were also based on particular social settings. If Freire and Dewey are not from here, how come their theory is applicable to understand our society, especially the tribal people here? "

She was silent for a moment. Then she saw the kids in the distance that were climbing a tree and laughing. At that time, there were also children who bathed a buffalo near the river. She was smiling when she saw the children being so very happy. After that, she turned to me and said:
"You're right. The theory was born in a particular social setting. As Marx put forward his theory in his book Das Kapital, he wanted to explain the social setting of German society and other socialist societies at the time when he was alive. I believe that every theory has a philosophy as well as general aspects to explain something universal. I saw it in the theory of Dewey and Freire. They wanted to explain the problems of humanity in general, and education as the liberator of human imprisonment, "she said.
Then, our discussion was ended. I saw the sunset in the top of the tree. I decided to go home after promising that I will come back again the next day.

*** 

After arriving home, I looked for some literature. I wanted to compare the two figures that were mentioned by Butet. I was very familiar with the idea of ​​Paolo Freire especially about education for the oppressed. Paulo Freiré is the Brazilian philosopher of education, born in 1921 in Recife, who devoted his life's work to the liberation pedagogy for the oppressed, also the title of his most widely read work. As citizen of the nation with one of the most inequitable distributions of income in the world, Freire became concerned with the plight of the desperately poor (70%) of Brazil's 80 million people who usually receive little or no formal education.
For his efforts, he was first jailed and then sent into a long exile by the military dictatorship which seized power in Brazil in 1965. But this only challenged Freiré to deepen his commitment and write more about his dual goal of literacy and conscientizafào (conscience raising) for the oppressed. Since his exile, he has lived and worked in Chile, in the U.S. at Harvard, in Geneva, and died at the age of 75 after returning to Brazil.
I read some literatures about Dewey. He is an important figure who was the father of Freirean thought. He is internationally known as a professor in philosophy and education. He is often considered the foremost American educational philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century and founder of Wilmington College in Ohio.
Dewey believed that democratic movements for human liberation were necessary to achieve a fair distribution of political power and an “equitable system of human liberties.” However, criticisms have been raised about limitations in Deweyian approaches to education, especially the way they are practiced in many elite private schools. Frequently, these schools are racially, ethnically, and economically segregated, and therefore efforts to develop classroom community often ignored the spectrum of human differences and the continuing impact of society’s attitudes about race, class, ethnicity, gender, social conflict, and inequality on both teachers and students.
In addition, because of pressure on students to achieve high academic scores, teachers maintain an undemocratic level of control over the classroom. Both of these issues are addressed by Freire and Dewey who call on educators to aggressively challenge both injustice and unequal power arrangements in the classroom and society.
After reading some literature about their background, I find the fact that their thoughts are closely related. Fron Dewey, Freire learned the concepts about how to integrate the educational experience of the social reality. In some books, Freire often cited Dewey’s thought. I think there is a great similarity between Dewey and Freire. One of the similarities was the idea that the individual and community are not separate concepts in the education of the individual. Rather, they are linked to one another and have to be seen as reciprocal concepts. They do not exist in isolation, as if one has to make a choice between them.
Instead, one has to see them in conjunction with one another. Freire's idea that education is a tool for social policy and to express political reality is an important idea in his work.  He does not see the education of the individual as separate from the social condition in which one lives.  Both are using education as a tool to remedy social inequality.
To this extent, the individual and their social condition are strongly linked.  In terms of Dewey, his critique of Rousseau as being too individualistic in his beliefs of education as well as Plato for being too socially driven reflects how Dewey himself believed that education involves a process whereby the individual is taught to see themselves as part of a larger community.  The development of the mind was a part of "the communal process" by which individuals do not have to be separate from society, but rather seek to develop education of the individual within it to build a world community.
Like Freire, this construct of education is one where the traditional philosophical dualistic division between individual and society is not as apparent. Essentially, there is a convergence of educational ideas between both thinkers in seeking to make the education of the individual a process of social construction, whereby elitism and oppression is replaced in a notion of community enhancement of the individual.
But I still have some questions. What are the differences between Dewey and Freire? Both of them came from different social settings. Does the social setting affect their thinking about education and emancipation of society? Then, how come their ideas are implemented in Indonesian context?  And why is this woman living in the jungle?

***

The sun light became very hot when I go back into the jungle where Butet lives. She was sitting and reading some fairy tales with the children when I arrived. She told a fable about animals that live in harmony. She happily greeted me when she saw my coming, and then asked for me to sit down and to listen. Her story was very interesting. I saw the kids were very excited and enthusiastic to hear.
After talking, she invited the children to play some games. Then, she met with me to discuss about her experience.
"I began to live with the tribal population in this forest since 2003. They lived in the forest that was designated as Bukit 30 National Park. This forest had approximately 60,000 acres. Although this forest became a national park, the government gave the permission to some companies to cut and to sell timber forests, " she said.
She also explained that there are 1,300 people who live and hunt in this forest. They call themselves Anak Dalam Tribe. There were about five to 10 children in every community. She tried to introduce an alternative form of teaching in the school that named SOKOLA.

Then I asked a question:

"You have not answered my question yesterday. What is the influence of Dewey and Freire on the material that is taught to the children here, " I asked.
"Dewey is an inspiring figure. He said that the best education that was expected by parents for their children is in accordance with what is desired by the community. Only by knowing what is required of an individual, then we can find out what the community needs, "she replied.
“How come Dewey inspired you. Does he come from the different society like your society now?”
"I feel you're right. I believe that his principle in education can be applied everywhere. I agree with Dewey that the purpose of education is creating social change and reform. I also like his idea that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction. The challenge in this community is how to determine the right direction for this community. That should be answer by all of the people in here,”
"How do you draw up the curriculum?
"I follow the path that was highlighted by Dewey. In order for education to be most effective, content must be presented in a way that allows the student to relate the information to prior experiences, thus deepening the connection with this new knowledge. "


To Be Continued….
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