Education of the Countryside: 25 years of political-pedagogical legacy

We continue to fight hard against the closure of schools in the countryside and for decent conditions to work in them; in addition to facing the transport business and combating the EAD business

By Roseli Salete Caldart*
From MST’s website
Translated by the Friends of the MST

I want a school of the countryside/that has no fences and no walls/ where we will learn to be builders of the future”.

– Song “Builders of the future”, by Gilvan Santos, Piauí, 2005

2023 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1st National Conference “For Basic Education of the Countryside”, held from July 27 to 31, 1998, in Luziânia, Goiás[1]. An event to be commemorated, celebrated while remembering, with joy, historical responsibility and the zeal inherent to those who work with human formation. It is not the event itself that we celebrate, but the process of struggle and construction that the Conference demarcated: the accumulation that allowed us to get there and what has been done since then. And that needs to move forward based on the critical examination of what we have built and the collective analysis of the demands of the current moment.

In the process of preparing that Conference, we started by surveying the reality, the country, the countryside, education, schools, and we analyzed the gravity of the situation. However, in that first meeting between different social subjects from the countryside to discuss education, we did not focus only on the problems, because we had practices, struggles, values, symbols, dreams and objectives to share. There were those who called us at the time romantics or “idealists.” Maybe to some extent we were. But this attitude towards what we were and had in common encouraged us to fight together against what prevented us from advancing in the construction we were already doing in our organizations, popular movements and schools. We acted on a living materiality, which moved against us, but which was full of contradictions and possibilities to be grasped.

Today, 25 years later, we have the challenge of further polishing our method of collective analysis of the current situation. Because it is necessary to “cross the river, feeling the stones,” as Chinese wisdom tells us. The historical reality with which we work is more complex. It is necessary to understand the structural determinations of the social crisis that the world is going through along with the contradictions that need to be worked on so that reality moves in favor of the human needs of the majority.

We have the challenge of converting this political “breath” that we have gained into fighting and organizing strength for a new creative impulse that strengthens us for the broader social struggles in which we are already part of and need to delve deeper.

In 2023 we will also celebrate 25 years of the National Agrarian Reform Education Program (Pronera), achieved in the struggle for collectively organized land. A program that needs to be revitalized as a public policy, now relying on the strength of its organic relationship with the whole of Education of the Countryside.

There are, therefore, several dimensions of the 25-year legacy to be addressed. And the analysis of our political-organizational legacy will certainly have special emphasis to identify the needs for resumption and advancement posed by the platform of struggles decided by the National Education of the Countryside Forum (FONEC), our national organization, in November 2022, in the face of new political moment in the country.

This exhibition was organized thinking about the dimension of the political-pedagogical legacy of these 25 years. Collective, diverse, contradictory and fruitful construction. Discussing and systematizing this legacy, putting it in dialogue with current demands and our collective self-criticism about everything we did or didn’t do, can be one of the forms of projective celebration. It’s not about celebrating to focus on the past, but to better plan and carry out our actions in the present, putting our hands on the future.

Our focus here will be to systematize some aspects of the political-pedagogical legacy that refer to rural schools[2]. The choice of this focus has to do with the objectives of this seminar, but also with the primary purpose of the struggles and construction of Education of the Countryside, which was to guarantee access for peasant communities to public schools in their territories. And effectively built as part of them.

The starting point is: 25 years later, we continue to have to fight hard against the closure of rural schools and for decent conditions to work in them. In a context where this fight became necessary for all public schools. And in addition to tackling the transport business, it is necessary to combat the Distance Education with Digital Technologies (EAD) business, which has allowed disguised closures.

But the fact that rural schools went from being a “residue” of the system to a pedagogical reference and beyond the countryside deserves equal attention. At the time of the 1998 Conference, “rural schools” were classified as “waste” because they would soon all disappear and therefore there was no need to have a policy for them, and even less a specific pedagogical elaboration. We achieved this social recognition through our struggle and construction. Politics and pedagogy. We have strong root practices that have created branches that reach the world. From a specific reality, we take on the challenge of helping to build a larger educational project.

This achievement, however, becomes another reason for the system to try to close our schools: to prevent them from advancing in what they already do, to break the school’s organic link with processes of reconstitution of the social function of peasant communities that can transform them into material laboratories for a new way of living and educating capable of confronting capitalist social relations at their foundations.

It is about the political-pedagogical legacy of the work of rural schools that became a pedagogical reference that we challenge ourselves to think about here. Just an open essay that aims to motivate collective reflections throughout 2023, especially in our training processes. We are aware that this legacy is at the same time a challenge because our practices and struggles still do not make it sufficiently comprehensive and hegemonic, not even among us.

The question we asked ourselves to think about this exhibition: what aspects of the political-pedagogical construction in countryside schools can we offer to those who are arriving now, and to those who will come later? Legacy of diverse practices, of different subjects that constitute Education of the Countryside today, but unitary in purposes and principles that are constituted in the struggles and training activities that we carry out in common.

Here we highlight aspects that dialogue with social and training demands of the current moment. Because this highlights the challenges of advancement: in which direction to amplify and give more pedagogical radicality to what we do; and, above all, it shows us what we cannot give up: in our struggles, in our training as educators. We arrived at seven aspects for this beginning of discussion.

1. We defend and treat public schools as a common good

In these 25 years we have fought to guarantee public schools in rural areas. Schools that, as a common social good, must belong to everyone and serve the good of all.

We understand that just as natural goods, land, water, air, must be treated as common goods, there are social goods, with the social function of guaranteeing human rights, which also need to be treated as common goods. This means that they should not be sold and, therefore, should not be privatized. Because when they become commodities, they always aim first for the “good” of their owners, of those who sell them.

School is a public good that everyone should have access to on equal terms. In forms of society still based on substantive social inequality, this access can only be guaranteed by State action, without private outsourcing of any kind. No partial or full privatizations, not even disguised as “public-private partnerships.” And the State only acts in this direction when pressured by the people.

We have shown with our fight in defense of rural public schools and with the pedagogical creation from this specificity that yes, public schools are compatible with respect to diversity, collective management, territorial insertion, pedagogical autonomy of collectives. As a common good, the public school is not the property of the State, of governments: it belongs to the people, and can be a social and pedagogical construction of the different subjects who carry it out on a daily basis, as long as this construction is carried out in the direction of the common good. And this principle is not compatible with pedagogical standardization, evaluation for external regulation, ranking among students, teachers, schools.

The current moment in capitalist societies is one of destruction of public schools, as well as of all public goods that become private for the purposes of profit for business owners and/or ideological domination of groups or classes. The system needs this mercantile movement to face the deep structural crisis it is going through, but it is very far from being, or even intending to be, for the good of all.

Today we have the political challenge of massifying the unconditional defense of public education. And our immediate fight is for some inflection that puts barriers to the privatization avalanche and the precariousness of public action in schools. In all of them: countryside and city.

Our specific struggle continues: no fewer public schools and many more public schools in our peasant territories. It is always necessary to emphasize: face-to-face schools with real social relationships, life pulsing from the outside and from the inside.

2. We collectively discuss the social and educational purposes of the school

We learn from the legacy of those who came before that the construction or pedagogical reconstruction of a school at the service of the common good begins with the collective and systematic discussion of its social and educational purposes.

The purposes are the conscious direction that guides the training of students. Throughout the school and in each process or action that takes place there. They are not given as they try to make us believe and should not be the decision of each educator, the management or anyone outside the school. They are not absolute and are not valid forever. They need to consider the movement of history and human formation that takes place within it.

There are different levels of educational purposes whose discussion may involve different circles of subjects. There are general purposes that refer to the assumed conception of education and the social project to which they correspond. There are specific purposes for a given reality – in our case, thought from the reality of the countryside and its history. And there are purposes specific to each school that embody the general movement in the concrete life of its surroundings and the formative needs of the real, particular subjects it serves. The discussion of each school needs to consider these different levels, modulated by the analysis of current affairs and their training requirements and possibilities.

In Education of the Countryside, this discussion was based on the need for collective defense of the specificity of rural schools, from the point of view of public policies and pedagogical construction. Answering why we should fight for schools in the countryside and what is the meaning of affirming that they are rural schools required us to think collectively about the social action intended for our children and young people, who they are, what training they need and what insertion the school can have in the environment in which they live. And already at the beginning of our common struggles we had to answer why a remote learning school is not enough for us and why it is necessary to overcome the “metabolic rupture” between school and life?

These questions need to systematically return to our discussions. Because reality changes and the understanding we have about it and the work we do also changes. At the beginning of each school year, each collective that is formed needs to re-discuss the purposes of our educational work in light of the current situation and its training requirements. What human traits does the transformation of current reality require? What can the defense of diverse peasant territories rely on the educational work of schools? To think about whether what we are doing, whether the educational content, whether the form of school we have meets the collectively defined purposes and what we need to transform.

3. We reconstitute the social function of schools in the countryside

Function that is interconnected with the ongoing processes of reconstitution of the social and environmental function of different peasant territories.

The permanent struggle for the construction and against the closure of schools in the countryside showed us in practice that they cannot maintain themselves. It is the communities that maintain their schools and have the pressure to guarantee their effectively public character. They do this with their struggles and from understanding the place of the school in their processes of active resistance, built on discussions that the school itself, if it already exists there, can lead.

It was, in turn, the collective discussion of the educational purposes of schools that led us to understand that a school is considered rural when it takes part in the production processes of rural life. For social work and all its connections. And we learned that it is possible to transform the school environment into the environment for carrying out specific educational work in order to connect it with life’s issues, for understanding and action on them.

Various initiatives to achieve the so-called “school-community relationship” have allowed us to understand that our schools cannot remain oblivious to the contradictions that drive the reality of the countryside. Its social function involves taking a political and practical position in the confrontation of agricultural logics that are at the center of this movement. And it is he who closes or can open schools in the countryside and places certain demands on educational work.

Today, it is this movement of contradictions in the reality of the countryside and in the whole of social life that makes the challenge of inserting schools into the movement of massive construction of peasant agriculture with an agroecological productive matrix unavoidable. This social construction is part of the confrontation with the capital system and its increasingly destructive impulse of life, in all its forms, natural and social.

We already have a legacy to honor from diverse experiences that seek to reconstitute the social function of public schools through their organic link with processes of restoring the socio-environmental function of land and peasant work[3]. Today requires strengthening this bond as part of the struggle in defense of peasant territories (in the rich diversity of their forms), which can maintain and multiply schools in and around the countryside. Just as the schools that exist have the challenge of transforming them into pedagogical forces, struggles that are the result of and help in the collective appropriation of the foundations of this new way of producing life and knowledge that allow us to understand why its construction is necessary and its advancement is structurally incompatible with capitalist relations of production.

4. We organize the school as a place of belonging and human formation

We learned together that the school can be pedagogically constructed as a place where the our human nature can be shown and that disposes us to transformations that make our humanity more complete. A place where we feel like we belong and that we do belong.

The Guarani indigenous language has a word that tells us about this belonging: tekoha (or tekoá) which is the name given to the Guarani village as the place of the Guarani way of being. And for the Guarani, school is part of their tekoha.

This indigenous wisdom, present in the legacy of Education of the Countryside, leads us to think about a school that welcomes the human being who enters the school in a way that each person feels that they can say their word there, tell about their origin and be what they want, without any kind of shame, embarrassment or guilt. And the school is faced with the educational task of knowing the environment in which this human being lives and the relationships that his way of being expresses and takes part in, making this material for planning and pedagogical action.

This reception, therefore, does not aim at an accommodation that fixes people in what they already are. Welcoming is a necessary educational task for each person (student, educator, father, mother…) to open themselves to the educational processes that can lead them to reaffirm or transform what they are being. As long as you need it, without standardization or competition that disrespects you. When the school is organized as a place for human beings, questions from different dimensions of human formation are posed for its pedagogical work. Hence it needs to be multilateral and always open to new questions and possibilities.

Within the scope of Education of the Countryside, we have rich and diverse practices on how to make the school a place for the indigenous, quilombola, landless, riverside, peasant way of being, without ceasing to form a human being who reaches the world. And we developed valuable lessons on how to confront dehumanizing relationships and how to establish formative traits typical of participation in collectively organized struggles and work. A legacy to honor and enrich.

The current moment of increasing dehumanization and at the same time of contradictions that tend to drive popular social struggles, challenges us to think with special care about the pedagogical intentions of the school as an environment of humanization, a place of affirmation and human transformation. A place for training fighters and builders, humanized by the historical mission of building a new way of producing life, a new form of society.

5. We build schools connected to life

Let us understand that the complexity of life is our greatest object. Real life, which pulsates with its relationships, contradictions and possibilities. Natural and social life, which needs to be understood to be better cared for, developed in all its dimensions. Life that places demands on us of knowledge and also of values and wisdom so that it can be fulfilled to the fullest extent humanly possible.

The rupture between the educational work of the school and the real, concrete life that happens around it was instituted based on certain social purposes that do not aim at the common good. We have practices that materially criticize this form of school.

We learned that a “teaching school” imprisoned in the classroom cannot overcome this rupture and be able to educate to understand and act on the complexity of life. Because this totality needs to be addressed in multiple dimensions and pedagogical intentions and in the educational environment of the different times and spaces of the school. We learned that what exists and happens around the school can be transformed into an environment that generates the social life of the school, becoming a real mediation between educational work and the issues of concrete life.

Many schools in the countryside have challenged themselves to build themselves as a school of life, in which the pedagogical construction moves through the organic link with living work processes that are the basis of the production of life to be understood in its relationships and in a historical perspective. In these relationships, the school helps to build parameters to address the different issues of life. Teaching and learning to understand and act on them.

We have built different pedagogical ways to connect school and life and designed our way of working school. It is a challenge to advance in systematization and collective discussions about common purposes and learning. We need to identify and more widely socialize experiences of subversion of the discipline of knowledge that disregards the relationships inherent to a living reality that need to be understood. Experiences that seek to reorganize work with knowledge aiming at the whole of human formation and its different dimensions, based on new forms of curricular organization and how the school’s study plan is conceived.

Given today’s training demands, it is necessary to move forward. We have a fundamental challenge of facing, in our pedagogical collectives and training processes, the debate on the conception of knowledge and methods of studying living reality, overcoming fragmentations and invented divisions to leave the understanding of reality halfway or not at all. We need to consolidate a way of studying that effectively leads to an understanding of the complexity of life, in its relationships and transformations.

It deserves our special commitment to advance our pedagogical work methods with science and the arts, the two great forms of knowledge produced by humanity and which need to have a priority place in school. To achieve this, a critical approach to socially produced accumulation is necessary in order to reestablish the lost unity between different forms of knowledge and to overcome the split still present in schools between natural sciences and social sciences. We already understand that this task can be facilitated if we take living processes of social work as a privileged object of study at school.

A question that can guide us considering emancipatory educational purposes that we have in common: what knowledge about natural and social reality do new generations need so that they understand, are willing and able to take on, in a collectively organized way, their historical mission to build a new form of social life, before the capitalist order makes our humanity incapable of this construction?

6. We build cooperative and democratic social relationships

We learn from the different ways of community life in the countryside and from the collective organization typical of the popular movements that take part in the construction of Education of the Countryside, that the school does not need to be a place of hierarchical, authoritarian, discriminatory social relations. It doesn’t even need to feed individualism, inequality and insane competition between students, between teachers, between families, between schools.

This form of social relations is what ideologically sustains capitalist society and therefore also came to dominate school culture. But these relationships are not typical of education that aims for the common good and the fulfillment of human beings. On the contrary, they are leading humanity to lose itself and therefore need to be confronted in each practice until they can be overcome in social life as a whole.

We have schools in in the countryside with rich experiences of new social relations to share. Schools that seek to exercise democratic management, ensuring equal participation of the community, educators and students in decision-making; that develop student self-organization experiences so that children and young people have experiences of collective life and political participation; who challenge themselves in the patient and persistent cultivation of effectively egalitarian gender and interracial relationships, overcoming on a daily basis the prejudices that even children sometimes carry. And we are collectively learning to face the tensions and conflicts that new relationships always bring before they are consolidated as a culture.

The current moment presents us with an urgent challenge. We are going through a historical moment of increasing dehumanization and the breakdown of basic standards of human sociability. We need to help reestablish parameters of social relations that the logic of “anything goes” and individualism has been, dangerously, deteriorating. We are all frightened by the examples of dehumanization, cruelty, and violence we see in everyday life and, sometimes, among ourselves.

The school does not have the material strength necessary to overcome the structural nature of this social and human deterioration. Because it is the product of a certain logic of social life. But the school can assume a critical position and take part in the practical confrontation with the state of barbarism to which this logic is leading us. The least that educators (individuals and groups) with some form of awareness of the human and social disaster that is plaguing our society should do is to intentionally create experiences that lead, especially the new generations, to feel and understand that everything can be different from what seems inevitable to them.

Reality is always contradictory and that is why it is historical, it changes. There are forms of non-alienated life within the alienating society. There are practices of solidarity within social life that induce blind individualism. There are formative processes that already show us the direction of another form of relationship between human beings among themselves and with the whole of nature and society. And it is these processes that need to be exposed, made aware, experienced, strengthened.

Let us bear in mind: a broader overcoming of the still dominant dehumanizing social relations will not fall from the sky but will come from humanizing relations that already exist, even if they are still prevented from their full development. Some of the practices we have already carried out may seem simple to us, but when appropriately and collectively intentional they become real strength for this construction. They can help prepare fighters and builders of a form of society based on substantive social equality, cooperative work and democratic participation on a popular basis, with real collective involvement in making decisions that affect society as a whole.

The practice of new social relationships generates new learning needs and introduces new educational content, which in turn requires transformations in the school form as a whole so that they are effectively developed in daily pedagogical work. We have the challenge of advancing socialization and more systematic discussion on how to guarantee the conditions to carry out and advance these practices, from educational purposes that put us on the path to a social life organized for the good of all.

7. We link practices of political-pedagogical reconstruction of the school to educator training processes

This link is organizational and has educational content that supports and strengthens these practices and their subjects.

The appreciation of educators, as people and as professionals, was a principle established in that first National Conference that we held in 1998. And this appreciation was understood as having guaranteed basic material working conditions and as the right to participate in training processes of educators who create political-pedagogical conditions for the conscious exercise of educational work. Agenda of struggle and construction, collectively organized.

We learned that among the working conditions that need to be achieved is the free creation of pedagogical collectives in schools, involving their different subjects and including the group of education professionals who work there and under their responsibility for coordination and animation. Without strong pedagogical collectives, no consequent transformation of the school can take place or be consolidated.

We have rich experiences of how to organically link practices of social and pedagogical reconstruction of schools with processes of training educators, which feed and support them. They include the political-pedagogical occupation of institutional processes of the so-called “initial training” aiming at professionalization that does not fail to meet our specific educational needs. And the constitution of spaces and times of autonomous collective self-formation in each school, between schools, and with activities mediated by organizations and popular movements in the countryside, enhancing their political, organizational and training accumulation.

This self-education is achieved through struggle, but also through discipline and availability of personal time to participate in collective study, debate and, mainly, cooperative pedagogical planning.

Practices of political-pedagogical transformation that have become a reference beyond them and within Education of the Countryside itself are those that have achieved an organic connection between the creation of pedagogical collectives and processes of self-education. And that include participation in broader political activities that give access to more general and systematic analyzes of the current moment and allow us to see the work that each school carries out in a historical perspective.

Some of our training courses have become living laboratories for practical experimentation of these political-pedagogical aspects that we highlight here as a legacy. These are diverse experiences, but with the common principle of guaranteeing a multilateral training matrix such as that advocated for schools, with the difference that they need to include preparation on how to intentionally, in schools, make the dimensions and processes that compose this matrix, and to rigorously treat the foundations of social and pedagogical theory.

In this moment of exacerbated worship of the individual and ideological denial of social life organized in collectives, it becomes a challenge to help our educators also not fall into the traps of the system and understand that individualized solutions, no matter how good the intentions they may have, will not make our struggle for life is neither effective nor more comfortable.

We need to advance in the achievement and practical construction of processes of formation of collectives of educators that dialogue with the legacy we have already built, moving forward based on today’s demands. And organize spaces for dialogue between the subjects of our diverse practices, based on the necessary effort to systematize them.

Finally, let us remember that celebrating our journey, making our legacy and the legacy of those who came before us more alive, will make even more sense if done in the direction of advancing collectively in the awareness of our strategic objectives of social transformation, maintaining them even under adverse conditions. And to pave the way for achieving these objectives in order to give us back or strengthen the personal joy of working with education, with human formation, which includes the formation of the human being of ourselves.

For the entirety of our pedagogical construction, the current situation makes the challenge of seeking universality even stronger: thinking from within ourselves, seeing well beyond ourselves, as learning and as collective construction. Strong roots and branches that reach the world.

*From the MST Education Sector and the National Education of the Countryside Forum (FONEC)

January 5, 2023

*Edited by Solange Engelmann


[1]Prepared from an exhibition at the “I Seminário Piauíense Híbrido de Educação do Campo”, held on December 19, 2022. Participation at the invitation of the Coordination of Rural Education of the Department of Education of the State of Piauí. Seminar theme: “Education of the Countryside: renewed challenges and possible horizons.” Speakers coordinated by Ivonete Vitor and shared with Lucineide Barros. Text completed on January 4, 2023.

[2]To resume the analysis of other dimensions, cf. the text “Education of the Countryside 20 years: an assessment of the political-training construction,” made for exhibition at the National Meeting – 20 years Education of the Countryside and Pronera, held in June 2018. Published in: GUEDES, C. G., SANTOS, C. A., ROCHA, E. N.. ANJOS, M. P. and MOLINA, M. C. (organizers). Memory of 20 years of Education of the Countryside and PRONERA. Brasília: Editora da UnB, 2018, p. 118-132.

[3]Check out a more detailed discussion on this issue in the text “Social function of rural schools and educational challenges of our time,” available electronically in March 2020.