We sometimes mistake the way things are for the way they have to be. Even when our institutions and structures fail to meet our needs we often continue with outmoded structures and practices. But occasionally people with vision are able to see clearly enough to change reality.
In the 1970s, a group of academics and professionals in Columbia looked outside their ivory tower and saw that the people around them needed help. Gustavo Correa, a former mathematics professor, describes it thus -
“The economic indicators were saying that things were getting better, but you could see that the conditions of the poor people were not improving.” (1)
Although urban areas were prospering, the rural people were being pressurized into selling their land to the huge sugar and coffee companies. Selling the land did give them an initial injection of cash but destroyed their futures as they were transformed from self-sufficient farmers to vulnerable contract labourers.
In an effort to deal with this situation they set up FUNDAEC – an acronym for Fundación par la Applicacion y Ensenanza de las Ciencias, (the Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences).
The founders of FUNDAEC wanted a new type of development. Rather than trying to superimpose a model of development they let the needs of the people dictate the provision of services. The primary need identified was knowledge.
“…they need access to scientific knowledge so as to be able to produce new knowledge that is applicable to their own situation, knowledge that works within cultural and technological restrictions that exist at the starting point of development.”(2)
So they started a rural university. This university would not only work on generating and applying the knowledge the rural Columbians needed, it would also involve them in the gathering and production of this knowledge.
“The idea of a rural university is not so much a physical place as a space of learning, a social place, where people can get together and produce and then distribute the kinds of knowledge needed for rural life.” (3)
One of the outcomes of the establishment of this rural university was the development of the “Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial” (SAT). This programme is a formal but flexible system of secondary education. SAT – now recognised and certified by the governments of Columbia, Honduras and Guatemala – which makes it possible for any individual – even those who live in the most remote rural areas – to have access to a full secondary education.
“If people don’t have access to knowledge, and in today’s world that means scientific knowledge in particular, then you can have all of the ‘participatory’ meetings you want but you won’t really have participation. Because the people won’t really understand.” (4)
This is a great example of a group of people who made the institutions fit the needs of the people rather than insisting that the people fit the needs of the institutions.
- Science on a Mission: Engineering a Sustainable Future for Haitians without Homes (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- Training on value-based education (thehindu.com)
- Levels of participation in citizen science and scientific knowledge production (povesham.wordpress.com)
(1) Gustave Correa – Fundaec: Not a typical development foundation - http://www.onecountry.org/oc74/oc7413as.html