A walk with Florestan Fernandes

Image: Elyeser Szturm


Both those who teach and those who learn need to take the other into maximum consideration.

“Who benefits from contradictions?” (Florestan Fernandes).

Occasionally, I receive messages from students who intend to discuss an author, due to their popularity among the readership. Last week, a curious email arrived. The text did not identify me as its recipient; on the other hand, the sender – first and last name, course of origin – invited me to “participate” in “his” podcast to “discuss” the work of a writer. Perhaps in another less troubled moment I would accept the task, although I suspect that I was only the first (or the thousandth) on a list of teachers, to whom the creature shot the message, hunting for servants-useful-in-the-ends -semester.

In order not to sound haughty, disinterested or arrogant, I adopted an intermediary approach: I politely responded to the subject's invitation, referring to him (recipient with name and surname) as I should: “Dear Fulano de Tal, thank you, but…”. Reveal the attitude: it must be one of the consequences of acting as a teacher and giving too much credit to Brazilian education. Since I started teaching, I adopted the habit of responding politely to students, imbued with the pretentious mania of trying to set an example of how to address each other with more respect and solidarity. After twenty years of teaching, I suppose the gesture had no greater effect...

This simple episode, among many others, confirms the impression that a considerable part of our student body has introjected what we could call, for lack of a better term, the “spirit of the student-client-entrepreneur”. We, teachers, in an anti-intellectual, neoliberal and memoryless country, were almost always subject to this; but when the clientelistic attitude goes beyond the scope of private institutions and contaminates the public university, I suppose that something more serious is happening in the sphere in which we operate.

Now, sending an invitation that sounds like a summons can be a symptom that part of the students no longer see themselves as members of the student body. They see themselves in a so-only competitive living circle in which it is naturally compulsory to clash with their classmates, course or college, applying the platitudes that “the market is competitive”. That is why “his” course (in theory, of a “higher” level) teaches, “in practice”, how to prepare for the “world” in which “a lion is killed a day”.

Fortunately, we can compensate for messages of this type and nature with the work of humbler and wiser people. This morning, I took Florestan Fernandes to his usual café. I was able to read and reread the “Explanatory Note” to the book From Guerrilla to Socialism: The Cuban Revolution, published in 1979. Its text draws attention for several reasons. To illustrate this comment, I transcribe three excerpts from it: (1) “The suggestion to edit the notes came directly from the students, who worked with them through xerox copies or mimeographed reproduction. I had no intention of publishing the notes, as I think that Cuba and the Cuban revolution are far above a modest and relatively improvised work”. (2) “I did not modify the scripts: I left them in their original form, as a tribute to my students and also as evidence that classrooms still constitute a frontier in the struggle for freedom and cultural autonomy”. (3) “I received a touching spontaneous contribution from many people […] This solidarity shows that we are not alone and that intellectual work can also take on the features of a guerrilla”.[1]

The “note” occupies a page and a half of the book, but it says so much. It is evident that the master maintained a relationship of friendship with the students, and of solidarity with his colleagues in thought, militancy and craft. An attentive reader would immediately notice that Florestan's text does not sound self-referential. We don't see him mentioning HIS thesis, HIS essay, HIS ideas. On the contrary, the possessive pronouns emphasize not HIS deeds, but the way he related to others. The second aspect to be observed is that the teacher saw the classroom as a privileged place for reflection, capable of contesting the conception of a neoliberal, selfish and dependent country. Third observation: acknowledgments occupy practically half of the text, suggesting that the course and the resulting book were born not as a result of the author's competence, but due to the fact that he had access to materials he received from generous friends.

I am one of those who defend plastic language and spontaneous modes, with a view to maintaining a non-vertical relationship with the students. But will it be up to the teacher to abdicate his role in stimulating critical thinking, and his place in the training process? It is desirable that the teacher-student / student-teacher relationship be an adventure capable of fostering libertarian thinking and solidarity. For this very reason, both those who teach and those who learn need to take the other into maximum consideration. What would they say if we re-adopted a professorial posture, apparently oblivious to what is happening in our society, as anti-clientelist therapy?

Jean-Pierre Chauvin Professor at the School of Communication and Arts at USP.


[1] Florestan Fernandes. From guerrilla warfare to socialism: the Cuban Revolution. São Paulo, TA Queiroz, 1979, p. 1 and 2. The epigraph is on page 35


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