The article that Ian Gilbert wrote for the November edition of the Chilean newspaper I Love Chile:

The British statesman Winston Churchill was once voted the ‘Greatest Briton of the 21st Century’ for his central, indefatigable role in helping Great Britain and the Allies overcome Hitler’s invading armies.  He was also the man behind the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in World War One that resulted in nearly 400,000 dead and wounded and, according to UK government records, he was ‘strongly in favour of letting Gandhi starve to death’.

Coming from a wealthy, privileged and historical family he knew a thing or two about power and is once quoted as saying ‘It is more agreeable to have the power to give than to receive’. In other words, giving and power are nicely linked for the giver. All the received can do is receive and be grateful.

In Chile there are many educational charities doing great work with vulnerable children from vulnerable families in vulnerable schools in vulnerable areas. Many of these are set up and run by people who genuinely want to make a difference to a situation they feel is wrong. Children from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ are failed by the system in Chile, a system that is the world’s most economically segregated according to Universidad de Chile researchers. There are government attempts to put things right but, as Einstein once said, ‘You can’t solve the problems using the same kind of thinking you used when you created them’.

So, it is down to charitable people often drawing on (pre-tax) money from big business to try and do their bit. The question is, taking on board Churchill’s point, does it actually change anything fundamental or does it just maintain the status quo and keep the receivers poor and grateful and the givers in power, their conscience (and tax liability) clear? 

One of the leading educationalists to come out of Latin American in the past fifty years has a view on this which is to say the least, controversial. Or at least challenging enough to ensure he was exiled from his home country, Brazil, during the military government there in the 1960s.

(As an aside it’s worth pointing out how he describes his feelings arriving in Chile in November 1964 as an ex-pat:

‘I arrived in Chile with my whole self: passion, longing, sadness, hope desire, dreams in smithereens but not abandoned, offenses, knowledge stored in the countless fabrics of living experience, availability for life, fears and terrors, doubts, a will to live and love. Hope especially.’

I’m sure he’s not the only one before or since to arrive in Chile feeling the same way.)

Freire’s take on education and charity grew out of his work in the countryside villages of Chile where he was trying to help the agricultural workers adapt new practices and ideas under the auspices of Christian Democratic Agrarian Reform Movement and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. One of the things that had caught the unwelcome eyes of the authorities in Brazil was that under the previous regime his educational innovations had involved teaching illiterate sugar cane workers to read and write in a less than a couple of months. He was, in other words, dangerous.

The ruling classes have worried throughout time that they will have to endure all sorts of inconveniences if the poor are taught to read and write and, heaven forefend, think for themselves. However, far from fermenting revolt and civil unrest, Freire was adamant that educating the poor has the opposite effect. In his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed he tells of a previously uneducated factory worker who pointed out that ‘ When I began this course I was naïve and when I found out how naïve I was, I started to get critical. But this discovery hasn’t made me a fanatic’.

Indeed, the demonstrations and unrest on the streets of Santiago and elsewhere across Chile in recent months that see little sign of abating are not as a result of having educated people but of not educating them adequately.

For Freire, the only way to help those who need help is to be part of them, to be at one with their struggle. Simply receiving from privileged others just serves to maintain the status quo, as Churchill knew. Therefore, the only one who has the power really to change things is not the giver but the receiver.

I’ll come back to what Freire calls disdainfully the ‘banking concept of education’ at another time as it is a fascinating view of an invidious educational model, one that is still prevalent in Chilean schools today as well as elsewhere around the world. It is a model to be seen wherever classrooms are arranged with individuals desks in rows with the teacher only ever at front. However, what would Freire – who died in 1997 after an illustrious career that saw him win many honours and positions worldwide including the 1986 UNESCO prize for Education for Peace – make of Chile’s current reliance on charity to edcuate some of the country’s hardest to reach but most needy children? 

To answer this question we could do worse than take a look at the work of Desafio Levantemos Chile. This charity was set up in the aftermath of Chile’s terrible 2010 8.8 Richter Scale earthquake and ensuing tsunami that devastated many communities in the south of Chile.  Its founder was the Chilean businessman and yachtsman Phillip Cubillos who was tragically killed in a military plane crash off the coast of Juan Fernandez Islands in September this year. Cubillos’ initial response to the earthquake was to build hostels for the people who had lost their homes and who were sleeping in makeshift shelters. However, when he stopped to actually ask them what it was they wanted they said they could survive with basic shelter for now but not without a school for the children. He learned quickly to work with – and not for – those who would most benefit from his help.

An off-shoot from his charity’s work in education has been the work of one of his closest colleagues, Chilean businessman and entrepreneur Robert Bravo. Roberto sees that many of the problems in Chilean state schools could be addressed not by pouring money into the system (although some extra cash in some of Chile’s run-down schools wouldn’t do any harm) but by changing the thinking of those leading the schools, in particular its headteachers. The key is to move the school leaders to what could be called an ‘opportunity mindset’ one where challenges are not seen as insurmountable obstacles that someone else needs to remove but as challenges that can be overcome with more of a ‘can do’ approach. 

To achieve this the charity is not running a series of conferences and inviting key academics from top universities to speak to grateful Chilean educationalists, something that masquerades as an attempt to change things but that changes nothing, ever. Rather they are using local people with exactly the right sort of mindset that Roberto knows helps schools help themselves – Chilean entrepreneurs.

Desafio Levantemos Chile matches willing school principals from the state system with local volunteer mentors who run their own businesses, not for the entrepreneur to tell the educationalist what to do but to help change their thinking. ‘Things are bad, when is the government goi
ng to sort this?’ then becomes ‘What can I, my team and community do now to make things better?’ With success in schools in the South of Chile and a new tranche of Santiago schools coming online this term, the charity knows that there is no fixed answer to this question. Each community is different and will address its problems in different ways. But what ensues is local people taking things into their own hands and making things better by helping themselves. I feel Freire would be happy with this.

Afterword: Freire’s last words were an optimistic call for his doctors to keep him alive long enough to see the changes he had helped instigate come to fruition. Churchill’s last words were, ‘I am so bored with this’. Perhaps that power thing is overrated.

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