Professors integrate study of education and Latin American social movements

Abby Fortin
September 19, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — John Holst and Rebecca Tarlau are exploring social movements, education and sociology with their work in South America and the United States. Their work is both international and interdisciplinary; it is inspired by Italian philosophers and Brazilian educators and made possible through collaboration of colleagues from multiple disciplines.

Holst and Tarlau, who work together within the Department of Learning and Performance Systems in the Lifelong Learning and Adult Education program, have focuses in adult education and both have ties to South America. Before they even knew each other, the two contributed to the same book.

Inspired by the work of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, the book “Antonio Gramsci: A Pedagogy to Change the World” includes chapters from an international group of scholars in education, linguistics, political science and philosophy, including Holst and Tarlau.

Gramsci, whose work is used across many disciplines, isn’t necessarily considered an educator, although many in the field of adult education consider him to be one.

“Whenever we work on topics related to Gramsci or use any of his concepts, we end up running into, or working with, people from multiple disciplines,” Holst said, “I think that book is a good example of folks in education, particularly in adult education, working in an interdisciplinary manner.”

The book, according to Holst, is interdisciplinary in the sense that a number of educators worked on it, alongside people working in linguistics, philosophy, political science and sociology.

“Working with co-editor Nico Pizzolato we brought together these chapters from multiple disciplines, from multiple countries around the world, all dealing with Antonio Gramsci from a pedagogical, or educational standpoint,” Holst said. “Some of it is more philosophical inquiry, some of it is based on empirical research.”

Although Holst and Tarlau have been at Penn State for only a short time, they already have integrated themselves into a community of people from many disciplines, specifically by joining a social movement working group.

The group, run by John McCarthy, distinguished professor of sociology, has members from multiple colleges, including political science professors from the College of the Liberal Arts and faculty in the Smeal College of Business.

In an effort to bring together more people from a variety of disciplines, Holst and Tarlau are looking to create an initiative that would focus on combining sociology, social theories and social movements with education.

“I think John and I being at Penn State is a unique opportunity for us to reach out to other faculty across the University and heighten this interest,” Tarlau said. “We think that Penn State could be a center point for students across the country and the world who are interested in studying social movements and education.”

Not only is their work interdisciplinary, but it is international. Tarlau’s forthcoming book with the Oxford University Press, “Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How The Landless Workers Movement Transformed Brazilian Education,” is an account of how a major social movement in Brazil has succeeded in transforming the rural public education system to promote more collective and social values.

After spending many years studying social movements and education in Brazil, Tarlau believes the United States could learn a lot from the approaches that are being taken in the South American country.

“We often think about the United States as teaching the Global South, teaching poorer countries how they should do things,” Tarlau said, “But I think Brazil and the way that social movements [there] use Freirean education gives great examples to how our social movements could incorporate education in a deeper way.”

Holst and Tarlau also are interested in Paulo Freire, an educator from Brazil. Freire was one of the most important educational theorists of the 20th century, according to Tarlau. He was also a major inspiration for the social movement that is the focus of her aforementioned book.

Holst was introduced to Freire through his involvement with a community center in Chicago, and has impacted many with his work based around Freirean concepts. More specifically, an article Holst wrote about Freire is used in the social justice program at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Also, a book he co-wrote impacted study groups in Bellingham, Washington, during the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Holst, and his wife María Alicia Vetter, who is Chilean and a researcher herself, recently returned from Chile. There, they spent time strengthening their connections to Chilean academic and research institutions. Their overall goal is to develop a larger network of people in that region.

Tarlau’s extensive work in Brazil, and Holst’s connections to Chile, are two factors that motivate the two to continue with the work they are doing.

Holst and Tarlau applied for and received a Global Programs Faculty Travel Grant from the Office of Global Programs and plan to use the money to create a yearly study abroad program focusing on education and social movements in Latin America.

“The idea is that it would be a yearly, short-term, summer, study-abroad trip,” Holst said. “We would like to begin with a trip to either Chile or Brazil and then expand it to include Cuba, Mexico or El Salvador.”

With the goal of visiting a different country every year — or even two countries per year to do a comparative study — Holst and Tarlau are working to merge education and sociology with the help of scholars from multiple disciplines continue to make a difference in the way social movements and theory are viewed in connection to education.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 09, 2018