Álvaro Restrepo: ‘Education is useless’

‘If education does not strengthen us, if it does not reveal us our vocation, our inner voice, and if it does not help us to get rid of frustration and the fear of failure, then what is the bloody purpose of education?’

Álvaro Restrepo is a Colombian artist, choreographer and educator who has run an extraordinary youth dance organisation in Cartagena-de-Indias for the past 20 years. El Colegio del Cuerpo is not just about teaching young often vulnerable people about movement and creativity. It is a holistic educational programme that changes lives because its vision of child development is so profound. Children learn about dance and self-expression in a school of the body that also addresses nutrition, biology, narcotics, violence and sexual health. The effects of Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict are the inescapable background for artists working so that children can ‘be as happy as [they] can humanly be in the midst of this terrible and wonderful world‘.

I first met Álvaro, his co-director Marie-France Delieuvin, and the rest of the team in 1998 when they invited me to Cartagena and I’ve watched their evolution with huge admiration. Ten years ago, I was able to help in bringing the company to Yorkshire for an unforgettable week (some of the photos here are from that visit). A few days ago, Álvaro published an article in El Espectador, Colombia’s leading newspaper under the title ‘La educación no sirve para nada’ (‘Education is useless’). reading it I understood for the first time some of the roots of his thinking about education. I’m very happy to be able to share an English translation of that article, with Álvaro’s permission, here. His inspiring vision has a universal resonance.

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Álvaro Restrepo – ‘Education is useless’

Several months ago, I received a call from Pedro Medina, a self-described ‘business man, educator and catalyzer’ and an alumnus of the same Catholic private school for boys where I studied—and suffered—many years ago: the elite Colegio San Carlos in Bogotá. Pedro is an interesting and complex character. He successfully introduced McDonalds into Colombia and during 7 years served as CEO of the operation. He is also a university teacher with a lot of titles and degrees and directs a foundation called I Believe in Colombia. I had never met Pedro until recently but found him to be a high-speed motor of optimism and ideas. I once heard a talk he delivered at a conference and had to really concentrate in order to follow his fast-paced rhythm. Pedro is also the vice president of the board of alumni of Colegio San Carlos, my alma mater.

Here’s why Pedro reached out. In the year 2007, I wrote a long and painful article about the eleven years I spent at Colegio San Carlos entitled, ‘Llora et Labora’ (‘Weep and Work: Memories of the Flesh’). It was published in one of Colombia’s main newspapers El Espectador and in Número Magazine. I indeed wrote the piece with genuine tears and blood and maybe because of this, it made a great impact on people. That year, the article earned me the  Simón Bolívar National Prize for Journalism.  The process of writing ‘Weep and Work’ served as both a catharsis and an exorcism for me. In this chronicle I related, year by year, the physical and psychological ordeals and abuses I suffered at this very prestigious training ground for high-class kids in Colombia which has groomed the likes of President Juan Manuel Santos, former  President Andres Pastrana, former Vice President Francisco Santos, Minister of Finance Mauricio Cárdenas, the President of the Inter-American Development Bank Luis Alberto Moreno, the President of one of Colombia’s leading universities, Universidad de Los Andes, Pablo Navas, and many other successful men. In my case, I always knew I was in the wrong place. However, eleven years had to pass before I could gather the necessary courage to turn on my heels and walk towards Liceo Boston, the school that saved my life in a moment in which I had been convinced by the guardians of my education that I was a good-for-nothing.

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The article ‘Weep and Work’ fell like an atomic bomb on Colombian society. It was published at the same moment when the Colegio San Carlos was celebrating its 45th anniversary and its  headmaster was receiving the most important award my country bestows upon its citizens: the Cross of Boyacá. My intention was not to ruin the party. However, I did consider that it was important that a voice, my voice, could speak out to give its version of what had happened in this strange, and for me, sordid place.

Most interesting and revealing to me after the publication of my article were the different and very acid reactions that were sent to the mailboxes of El Espectador, Número Magazine and to my own mailbox: alumni, teachers, writers, journalists, young students of San Carlos and ordinary people wrote very polemic reflections. Some alumni insulted me and classified me as mentally weak; other people expressed their solidarity and thanked me for my courage; yet others said that my story was a pale reflection of what they had lived or were living at the moment at the institution. In response, the school decided to maintain a total and very mysterious silence. I had been expecting—indeed,  I was almost hoping—that the school would sue me for defamation. That would have helped to cast some light over a serious debate on the very sad matters I was denouncing. Yet apparently, the decision was to let matters be and to wait until the storm passed.

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Several years later, Father Francis Wheri, the school’s headmaster for more than 45 years, declared in an interview for Semana Magazine  at the time of his resignation, that the most difficult moment in his career had had to do with my case: a talented and misplaced artist, whom the school had not been able to deal with because he (I) didn’t fit in one of the school’s accepted ‘boxes’. In his interview, he recognized that my failure at San Carlos, had also been a failure for the institution. It was a vindication, of sorts.

But let’s go back to Pedro Medina and the alumni association. A recent series of suicides and deep depressions of students and alumni of San Carlos students had raised serious alarm bells at the school. Pedro wanted to have my opinion. He had read my article and had closely identified with it. In a recent conversation he had had with Father Francis about this crisis, the former headmaster recognized that the school prepared the students very well for traditional success, but not for failure, nor to be artist, nor even just an average professional-citizen, anonymous or even mediocre. I remember that while I still was part of the school’s pack, the message was very clear:  the world is divided in two types of ‘hombres’ (a very North American classification and very much in the line of the present ‘Trumpian’ sensitivity): winners and losers. Success and most importantly, economic success, were the only means of measuring achievement and fulfillment. I rejected and still reject this premise.

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Very often I say that my decision to establish my socially-oriented dance centre El Colegio del Cuerpo (The School of the Body) was an act of resilience, a loving way to come into terms with my own educational process and with education in general. In recent times, I have been giving talks about what I consider should be the main and most important goal of education: to help us discover who we are and why we came into this world. I’m convinced that education is useless —absolutely useless—if it does not help us in this discovery to find our mission, to enhance our talents and our gifts. I’m convinced that we are all geniuses for or at something—and that our education should help us to be as happy as we can humanly be in the midst of this terrible and wonderful world. If education does not strengthen us, if it does not reveal us our vocation, our inner voice, and if it does not help us to get rid of frustration and the fear of failure, then what is the bloody purpose of education?

There are no tests, no evaluations that can measure our degree of realization and fulfillment when are doing and being what we love. This is a new notion of wealth and of success that a good (new) education should instill in us. I will never tire of quoting Gabriel García Márquez’s magical formula for happiness: ‘work in what you love, and only in that’.

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Mathematics, science and language are the three main axes education is based upon today, a very rationalist and square education that we are consumed with delivering and measuring. The arts, humanities, creativity, intuition, imagination, perception are considered minor, ornamental and accessory dimensions. We are preoccupied, indeed obsessed, by quantity indicators of an education that is concerned in over-developing just one of our mental hemispheres, as well as just one type of intelligence, as if our mind was solely confined to our poor brain and not as if our body, our whole body (physical, mental, spiritual body) was not the channel and the vehicle to incorporate knowledge, as a whole. When we speak today about educating a ‘complete child’, we should be speaking about a thinking/feeling individual who is able to deal not only with concepts, but also, to use the term of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, with ’percepts’.

Are success, failure, fulfilment and/or or frustration related to a short-sighted education that only contemplates and respects only one type of human being? Today, rational intelligence (related to the studies of mathematics and to science, serious and ‘virile’ subjects) is considered more important than felt or sensed intelligence (related to the arts, humanities, creative imagination and to those subjects that are regarded as ornamental, or effeminate). This can’t continue.

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At the time when I was studying at San Carlos, artistic careers were reserved for women and sissies.  Engineering and hard sciences were made for real men, true machos. Education for financial and political success, the one Colegio San Carlos has been adept at delivering for nearly half a century, is surely not answering the questions of those beings that are looking for other notions of fulfilment, of happiness and self-respect: what I consider real wealth and plenitude. It is very likely that  had I not had the courage and the clairvoyance at my 17 years to give myself another chance on earth, I would today be one of those sad cases Pedro Medina came to talk to me about, with authentic preoccupation and compassion.

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In defence of universalism

A text written for a workshop under the title  ‘Beyond Us versus Them: The Role of Culture in a Divided Europe‘ held at the Representation of the State of Baden-Württemberg to the European Union, Brussels on 2 May 2017. All the images in this post are by Bill Ming and taken from ‘Bread and Salt: Stories of Art and Migration‘, by François Matarasso (Vrede van Utrecht 2013).

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In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo asked ‘Civil war? What does that mean? Is there a foreign war? Is not every war between men war between brothers?’

Perhaps Hugo is saying that the way to go beyond us versus them is to reject the concept altogether. This is not a matter of piety or semantics. If we lose sight of the indivisibility of humankind, how can we defend concepts like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? The crucial importance of that text, however often we fail to meet its obligations, is to make no distinction between human beings.

The effort to establish universal rights was dearly bought. I am a child of those who suffered the massive exercise in self-harm we call the Second World War, the globalisation of violence before the term. My parents’ generation were the victims and perpetrators of unprecedented crimes. This was a civil war between people who had to persuade themselves of their differences in order to kill one another. I regret bringing such sombre reflections into a discussion of culture and its potential for healing, but it is necessary because that conflict is the origin of the post-war settlement that is now falling apart. And the foundation of that settlement is the concept of universal human rights established in the UN Declaration of 1948 and the European Convention of 1950.

The present rise of nationalism is ugly and frightening. But the assault on the idea of universal human rights is worse. The signs are everywhere. Sometimes the attack is formal and legalistic, as in the UK Government’s proposal to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights – not universal, by definition. Elsewhere, it is criminal and chaotic, as in the extrajudicial killings taking place in the Philippines since the election of President Duterte. David Armitage, the American historian, writes that ‘around the world, democratic politics now looks ever more like civil war by other means’. In such a context, is that really an over-statement?

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There’s no need to itemise the current attacks on democracy, the rule of law and, above all, the foundational concept of human rights. It is a global phenomenon that is all too familiar. Its causes are multiple but, insofar as it exploits democracy itself, the fear provoked by very rapid social and economic change is a decisive and a divisive factor. Many millions of Europeans now believe, not just that their lives have got worse, but that their leaders consider their suffering an acceptable price for prosperity. That is interpreted, not unreasonably, as making them less valuable than other people. Where then is the universalism of the human rights convention?

What is most striking about recent votes – whether you look at Brexit, the American Presidential election or the Turkish Referendum – is how close the results are and how much people’s choice can be mapped on socio-economic conditions such as location, class, education and age. That sharp division makes thinking in terms of ‘us and them’ not just morally and legally wrong but dangerous as well. To say it again, you cannot defend universal rights by dividing citizens into groups. I’m with Martin Luther King here. We must be judged for our acts, not our ethnicity, religion, culture or beliefs. Only our acts are a legitimate basis for distinction.

So how can we act well in such a divided world? And does culture, which concerns us here today, have a particular role to play? Let me say at once that I don’t believe it’s culture’s task – or within its power – to solve such problems. But it does have a valuable role as a space of encounter, dialogue and – perhaps – better understanding. So I will share some examples of how artists – professional and non-professional – are searching for and often finding ways of reaching across those divisions today. 

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In Friesland, the agricultural heart of the northern Netherlands, Titia Bouwmeester worked with farmers to create an interactive theatre performance that celebrates their knowledge and labour in dairy farming as they coped with the abolition of EU milk quotas. ‘Lab Molke’ took place on a farm and the process of researching, creating, rehearsing and performing together was an open dialogue about different lives between people from urban and rural communities.

In Porto, Hugo Cruz and Maria João work in theatre with people from different parts of the city, including workers in the cork industry, the deaf community, old people, the gypsy community, refugees and children. After creating several productions with and for each group, they brought five of them together in MAPA, a spectacular community play about the city’s past and future in which their different perspectives were presented at the Teatro Nacional in the city centre.

In Alexandria, Hatem Hassan Salama, brought intimate performances to neighbourhood cafes in working class parts of the city. Working with a storyteller, a photographer, a dancer and a musician, he created impromptu events in places whose traditional and masculine culture was unused to such modern art. But the result was to open such rich conversations art, politics and morality that they went on for two or three hours after the show itself.

In Stoke on Trent, Anna Francis has been using her visual art practice to talk with her neighbours in the run down area where she lives. Last summer, she created a temporary community centre in a derelict pub and about 600 people came to fifty different activities in the month: plans are now under way to make this a permanent facility. It will signal new possibilities in a very disadvantaged place that is not much heard.

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These projects,  and hundreds of others in and beyond Europe, all see art as a place to begin conversations about where we are and what we might do about it. But they are art activities, not political or even social interventions. They nurture trust, skills, knowledge, confidence and networks because they do not try to produce those things. They happen without effort when people are engaged in and by a shared artistic project that speaks to their lives.

Art is a space where we can still meet, especially when the other platforms for dialogue, such as politics, the media and the online world, have become so polarised that we can no longer hear – or tolerate – each other there. Art can be safe because it does not check our identity papers on entry. It does not separate us from them. Indeed, as these examples show, art welcomes difference, complexity, even conflict – within the protective licence of character, symbol, metaphor and non-reality. Art allows us to enact our unspoken, even unconscious feelings and encounter other people, including the feared foreigner or despised neighbour. It encourages and enables reflection. Art has room for us all, and it can put up with all that we feel, think and want to say – not because it’s all good or even acceptable, but because it’s there and art knows that denying our feelings is more dangerous than doing something creative with them.

But this is just one vision of art. I know that.  It is neither inevitable nor uncontested. I respect but I do not share the fears artists sometimes express about instrumentalisation. Art is not self-sufficient. I believe in art for people’s sake because without people art has no meaning. It ceases to exist. But the trap of propaganda – especially well-meaning propaganda – is dangerous. It attracts those who strip art of precisely the complex ambiguities I value and enslave it to their vision. The risk is real and best avoided by listening, really listening, to those whose voices we find most uncomfortable.

If art is to reach across the divisions in our fragmenting world, it will do so only by being democratic, diverse and tolerant – a culture that lives up to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’ That would be a truly universal culture.

Europe is not a place. It is not a government or an administration. It is a culture, whose greatest values have been forged in response to its greatest traumas. We needed it in 1945; we need it today.

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