‘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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4 thoughts on “Álvaro Restrepo: ‘Education is useless’

  1. Thanking you once more for sharing… it is good to understand how differently we operate in other places on this planet and not only good but supportive for us parents who try -despite incredible pressures from all and every well intentioned family member or friend- that it is worth fighting to give your special children the education you dream for them and understand they need, not the sad platter they are usually given!

    1. It is very inspiring work: I met some of the young people in 1998 and have watched them become remarkable adults, many now teaching the next generation in El Colegio del Cuerpo. They are the embodiment – the living proof – of the value of Àlvaro and Marie-France’s work.

  2. Thank you Francois for this… I have shared with my friends. It reminds me of the work of Thorrald Coade, Headteacher at Cheltenham in the 1940s & 50’s & Kurt Hahn through the outward bound movt and my own Headteacher John Bradfield, all of whom were interested in how to enable the young person to find whatever it was that made their heart sing. It came out of the suffering and the extraordinary camarederie of the First World War, in spite of the desperately poor education of an officer class educated in the pre war public school system that not only failed them, but many of the people they were subsequently to lead into battle in the trenches. Coade & Hahn had fought in the war and recognised that only through changing how young people are educated might these attitudes and character failures change. This approach is no longer in fashion but a book called ‘The Burning Bow’ by Coade describes his work and philosophy very well.

    1. Thanks Richard; it’s good to be reminded of that context. I guess the struggle to help people make the most of who they are rather than conform to a socially-approved norm will always continue in education policy.

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