In Dewey and Freire, We Trust!

(Atas permintaan sahabatku Sandra Prasetyo,  
kisah ini saya lanjutkan hingga tuntas. Thanks)

There was not anything in this school. There was no large building with a lot of classes. There was no blackboard, nor chalk, 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’s 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 the last five years, Butet also taught 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 the 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 a 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. 

Paolo Freire

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 setback only challenged Freire 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 also 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 the 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 an Indonesian context?  And why is this woman living in the jungle?


The sun light became very hot when I went 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 the story.

John Dewey

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 5 to 10 children in every community. She tried to introduce an alternative form of teaching in the school that was named SOKOLA.

Then I asked a question:

"You have not answered my question from 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 a 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 is how to determine the right direction for this community. That should be answered by all of the people in here,”
"But I still think Dewey could not be compared with Freire. They are different. "
“What do you mean?”
"Freire taught in Latin American society, in which most of the population lives in poverty. The comparison of Latin America and the United States is like earth and sky. Have you heard the term Monroe Doctrine and anti-communist policy, which is believed to be the beginning of a lot of misery in some parts of Latin America? Did Dewey have a contribution to the birth of the way of thinking that caused oppression in Latin America through the aid scheme and foreign debt relief? "
"I think you have to look over some of the concepts that were discussed by Dewey. I think the Monroe doctrine appeared on December 2, 1823, during the administration of President James Monroe. The Doctrine was issued at a time when nearly all Latin American colonies of Spain and Portugal had achieved independence from the Spanish Empire, (except Cuba and Puerto Rico,) and the Portuguese Empire. The United States, working in agreement with Britain, wanted to guarantee no European power would move in. But Dewey was not living at that time. He was born in 1859. He faced the era of the Great Depression and the era of poverty in the U.S, so he was challenged to create a progressive education. He thought that education must address issues that are faced by people and communities.”
“How about Freire”
"Freire was not alive in the same era with Dewey. I find him saying many things reminiscent of Dewey, and indeed, he studied Dewey somewhat in taking graduate studies in education and while living in the U.S.. But a study of Freire's life, works and thought lists the major Influences on him -- personalism, existentialism, phenomenology, Marxism, Christianity, and also Dewey's pragmatism, "
"Can we say that Freire learned from Dewey?"
"Sure! Freire learned much from Dewey. Freire tried to apply Dewey’s idea in the context of developing countries. I believe that an idea is not born in a vacuum. An idea is born through intense dialogue with other ideas. Only in this way, can we develop knowledge. Only in this way, can we learn a lot from others. This is the essence of a dialogue!"

Our discussion was suspended for a while. The children came to meet Butet. They sat near the tree trunk. They talked about their own experiences. Butet often asked the children about their experience. They talked about a lot of things. The atmosphere was full of excitement. I didn’t see any social distance between Butet and children. There was no teacher and student relationship. Both of them were learning from each other’s experiences.
In education, social classes become one of the important issues. This issue constantly appears all over the place. Some say, education is only owned by those who have a high economic stratum while the poor often do not have access to education. In Indonesia, many children do not have a chance to go to school. Many children quit from schools because school teach many things that are contrary to their daily lives. Schools teach subjects that are far from the reality of their daily life.
When watching Butet and children, I immediately imagined how Dewey taught in the United States. I also imagined how Freire taught in Latin America. I see there was a similarity between them. They were equally opposed to the concept of education which only gives an opportunity to those who are rich.
For Dewey, as well as for Freire, class membership is a threat to genuine education. Society cannot help but to educate its young to their customs, but if Dewey's democratic society is to exist, it must institutionalize in education the habit of criticizing customs, of modifying them in the direction of a peaceful progressive society, one constantly seeking to extend the benefits of community living to all its members. For Freire, there are only two classes, the oppressors and the oppressed. "The violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human." Freire also spoke of these classes as the rich and the poor, the rulers or dominant elites and the people, the bourgeoisie and those who labor.

But when thinking about their thought, I found similarity when discussing educational purposes. Dewey’s goal is a democratic society and an individual whose powers and capacities, especially in their social bearings, are developed to the utmost. These two goals are mutually related, for democracy is the system of governance in which "those who are affected by social institutions.. have share in producing and managing them." And it is only individuals who share in determining the values which guide the community who experience that pattern of doings and undergoings which results in the fullest development of potentialities. Since Dewey holds that individuals are in society in the same way that organisms are in their environment or plants are rooted in their soil, he holds that individual development is a thoroughly social affair.
The goal of education for Freire is similar to the goal for Dewey, an empowered individual in a democratic society, though the relevant vocabulary is much different. To begin with, those to be educated, the oppressed, are completely dominated, completely "submerged in reality", in a social order not the least of their making. The oppressors made it for them and forced it on them. The goal is liberation in a continuing revolution. The goal is to create humanity, freedom, and personhood status as subject. A subject is an agent and not a passive, an agent whose action will transform the world and reconstruct social reality in the interests of all. The goal is dignity in a new world which sustains the new world we now inhabit. The goal overcomes the duality of oppressor and oppressed, to overcome the individual's separation from the other members of the oppressed class, to expel the intrusion from within one's own breast, to become one in heart and mind.


After playing with the children, Butet came to see me. Unfortunately, I must leave the forest and back to the city. Then I said my many thanks to her. At that time, I did not ask about the methods when she is teaching. What I have witnessed over the past two days was more than enough to understand what she had done and was still doing.
For me, she is a true hero who dedicated her life to teach the children in the middle of jungle. Her method might be criticized by many education experts, but she got something out of the ordinary in my eyes. She showed that knowledge does not always put someone in the ivory tower. Knowledge could be a powerful weapon for everyone. Knowledge could be a force when someone uses it for social transformation. Perhaps this power is the result that was expected by Dewey and Freire to change the society.
Butet understands the thoughts of Dewey and Freire. Her understanding led her to do something for the community. She didn’t want to be a new bourgeois who defined the others as remote and marginalized communities. She showed me that knowledge is a light that can direct a person to a prophetic way. She also pointed out that knowledge can be an energy that transforms communities, put out the fire of oppression, and creates people to be new agents who drive the social change.       
            I must have learned lot from her. Not only learning about Freire or Dewey, but also learning about life, learning about emancipation, learning about how to understand the universe, to be a single global community, we find our individuality in the diversity and plurality of the one world we live together on.(*)


  1. Memmy2:54 PM

    Thanks for the useful article, Yos! I am currently writing a paper about Freire because of your article. It really inspired me. Now I am the one who is learning from you. :)

    PS: I am very proud of how much your English has improved. Well-done! Send my best regards to your family. I am sure they help motivate you as you study in the U.S.

  2. Anonymous8:39 PM

    usefull article especially for me who tryng learn english ...


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