Words are fascinating. Maybe even more than numbers. Numbers stay the same, though we continue learning more about them. But proofs are proofs. 8 is still 2 cubed, and the numerical function of a straight line, y = mx + b, is as true now as it ever was. By contrast, the meaning and/or connotation of words (eg. dope, condescension, propaganda, species, sorry) alter as time passes. “University”, with roots of universal and a community of educators and researchers, has changed as well.
CIDECI (translated to English roughly as Comprehensive Indigenous Training Center) is certainly a place of education. Run without state support by indigenous people, CIDECI is located on the side of a hill in the middle of the Mexican state of Chiapas, and students can study a broad range of topics. Since opening in 1989, people have learned about philosophy, history, organic waste management, auto-repair, agriculture, carpentry, water purification, sewing, architecture, accounting, music, tortilla-making, and much more. Because the place has been producing knowledge as well as disseminating it, the title of university has come to be used. The university is not recognized by the Mexican state (nor does it want to be), and it has an explicitly-stated social mandate and position (Zapatismo / post-colonialism).
This idea of a public university is different than what we have in much of the rest of the Americas, where social purpose is usually stated in seemingly apolitical terms (eg. excellent teaching and research), and some learning happens in what are called “vocational” institutions and some happens in universities (academic colleges). At CIDECI, everyone comes together to discuss the state of things, the news, politics, their community. In Canada, with the development of different capabilities happening in different locations, there is little space for everyone to get together and discuss the questions of the day. This is a lack that continues beyond the boundaries of official institutions.
But CIDECI is not perfect, and glorifying this school is to do it a disservice. Replicating its organization in the rest of the continent will not solve all the world’s problems. However, it does provide good contrast to think about a couple things.
First, it raises the question “what is education for?”. In my work at McGill, we loved asking this question. It comes up again and again around the world, including in the massive 2012 student movement in Quebec. I won’t try to give a definitive answer, except to say it is an important question for people to ask, and to compare current realities with their ideals.
The second thought that comes to mind in all this is “where does education happen?”. Does it happen only in educational institutions? Obviously not, it happens everywhere. We are always learning, in every location. We are learning how the world works, how tools like words and numbers and wheels work, who is in the world, what is right, how to behave, and much more. Some say parents are the most important part of a child’s education. What is the most important part of an adult’s (eg. your) continual education? The news, their friends, advertisements, a few blogs they read? In the grand scheme of one’s life, the proportion of learning that happens in official educational institutions must normally be quite small, and the rest all adds together.
The author of The Corporation (also a film), Joel Bakan, released a book in 2011 called Childhood Under Seige which draws attention to the power that marketing and product-pushing have on influencing education and behavior of children. Given some of the techniques used, it is quite the struggle for teachers and parents to resist the power of the information directed strategically at kids to get them to consume various products. How much easier does it get to resist such forces once one is an adult?
Walking around CIDECI, listening in on a seminar, attending a conference, and hearing about resistance to mega-projects (mostly dams and mines) on and near peoples’ lands brought some of these questions up for me. What have universities become? What is the generally understood goal of education, formal and informal as a whole, in English North America? Where are the leaders on this issue, and why are they not coming from formal political offices, or if they are, why are they not heard/respected in the mainstream? How have our understandings of these concepts, these words, changed?