Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Genilma Boehler: The Methodist Tradition: Educating for Autonomy and Freedom

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Genilma Boehler. Dr. Boehler holds a PhD in Theology from the School of Higher Education (EST) of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil, located in Sao Leopoldo. She is an ordained elder of the Methodist Church of Brazil and serves as a missionary of Global Ministries, acting as a professor at the United Methodist University of Mozambique, Africa, since January 2020.

Among the historical archives of the Methodist tradition are records of the influence that Susanna Annesley Wesley (1669–1742), mother of John Wesley, had on the formation of her nineteen sons and daughters. This is known about her method of literacy: whenever one of her sons or daughters turned five years old, Susanna would spend six hours on that day teaching him or her the letters of the alphabet (as a birthday present) and for three more months teach him or her to read by means of the words of Holy Scripture.

In the records of her life, one finds a note in her diaries expressing her frustration at having failed with this method with three of her children. In other words, three creatures born of Susanna were not able to memorize the alphabet in one day and read in three months, at the tender age of five. But later in these same records is her self-assessment, where she states that she has reflected and learned that one being is not the same as another being. That everyone has their singularities and capabilities, which do not always arise at the same time. Such notes lead us to believe that this magnificent lady did not give up teaching each of her sons or daughters to read, even if some did not learn in the time that she had stipulated as the ideal.

My memory as a Christian and a Methodist educator has sought in Susanna A. Wesley the inspiration to reflect on the educational legacy of our Wesleyan tradition.

I remember that between the years 2004 to 2010, we tried some excellent applied experiences in two Methodist institutions of education in Brazil: the IPA, Centro Universitàrio Metodista in Porto Alegre, RS, and the Methodist Izabela Hendrix Institute in Belo Horizonte, MG. Our management team, led by the Rector Jaider Batista da Silva, worked with policies of socio-economic inclusion for scholarships. Profiles were defined that reflected the needs of economically impoverished populations, difficulties of opportunities for specialized and university training, and at the same time exclusion based on race (skin color, Afro-descent), ethnic groups (indigenous populations and quilombolas),[1] gender (women imprisoned in female prisons), sexual diversity (such as transvestites or LGBTQ persons), social movements (landless, homeless, etc.), people who lived on the streets of the two large cities Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte. The schools were also opened with scholarships for foreigners from emerging, extremely poor countries such as Haiti (in the Caribbean), Mozambique (Africa), and Kosovo (Europe).

The two Methodist university centers, in both cities, are over a century old and by tradition worked to form an elite originating from social classes with access to resources and the financial stability to pay monthly payments to private institutions for higher education. Certainly, offering scholarships to marginalized and impoverished sectors generated resistance and a lot of noise from students and teachers.

But, with the experiment, what we found is that the presence of different social segments can bring excellent results in education, from groups and face-to-face or virtual classes, with possibilities of the construction of critical knowledge compared at a high level and with opportunities to wonder about topics not previously valued. In addition, it generated possibilities for structuring intelligences and solutions for the future, for problems that until then had not been considered in the teaching and research in the courses offered in such institutions.

Subsequently, between the years 2011 to 2019, as a missionary of Global Ministries, I was assigned as a professor of theology for the Latin American Biblical University (UBL) in Costa Rica. Such an institution, with more than 90 years of tradition, is very competent in Latin American Liberation Theology. Its students come from many Latin American and Caribbean countries. As an institution specialized in theology, the training it offers is very much aimed at leaders, pastors of churches of the various evangelical inclinations (Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Neo Pentecostal), as well as nuns or lay people of the Roman Catholic Church.

At the UBL, what was for me, as a teacher, more relevant was the cultural richness of students originating from different cultures and with diverse academic backgrounds. Many of them came to university education with a minimum of what is considered basic training. On the one hand, higher education led to a demand for studies based on readings and on deep research into current and challenging topics, often generating personal difficulties due to the lack of academic preparedness; on the other hand, the cultural richness that permeated all students generated fruitful debates and unusual conclusions as a result of the proposed research. I want to say that the experience that adds socio-cultural particularities to the construction of scientific knowledge generates new results or understandings of the same reality that challenge the knowledge of life, God, and the challenges ahead in our human and/or community experiences.

Finally, I find myself working in Africa, Mozambique, at the United Methodist University, located in Cambine, since the beginning of 2020. One of the elements that challenges me around here is first and foremost the linguistic diversity. Mozambique is a country that speaks 42 different languages in addition to Portuguese, which is the language of the colonizer. One of the curious aspects that makes it difficult for those who teach is that students think with their mother tongues and have great difficulty in understanding and capturing epistemologies generated in academic circles that have nothing to do with their way of thinking or speaking locally. In addition, Africa, on the shores of the Indian Ocean and far south, is very distant from Western thought.

Thus, some difficulties are observed: It is difficult for the students to grasp the dissonances between the Western theories, because they were constituted in far distant worlds and unknown to the Mozambican people. Secondly, the cultural richness based on parental relationships and rural contexts differs from an urban and academic background. Local cultures are transmitted orally, and therefore, academics registered through writing cause difficulties of comprehension. Or in other words, the academic often tries to impose him- or herself on the local knowledge, rooted in traditions and experiments of thousands of years. Here in Africa, as in Central America, with students from ancient indigenous cultures, I have experienced the challenge that academics blocks the cultural knowledge that permeates the minds of those who study.

I return to the memory of Susanna A. Wesley mentioned initially: no person is the same as another. People, as subjects – with their intelligences, desires, and subjectivities marked by cultural inheritances – do not obey the same order of cognitive structuring. This does not mean that someone is superior to the other because he or she goes faster, nor does it imply that some may know more than others due to one or another socio-cultural condition. It is not a question of falling into the traps of universal scientism or the superiority of those who possess political and economic power.

But, as we walk with people who belong to multiple cultures, we learn that there are no weights or measures to classify people's ability to know and to learn. There will always be new and curious universes to stimulate our attention and to capture other notions that are as true as others that exist in the universe of knowledge.

Education understood in this way makes it possible to think of the human being as a learning being. We are all apprentices. There is never a limit to knowing! We will always find a horizon that escapes us and that points to the beyond, and there are so many things to know, much still to be unveiled, intelligences to encounter.

From its origins, Methodism was marked with the goals of education. Educate for autonomy and for freedom. Never educate for slavery, for subjugation, for exclusion. One thing the Holy Scriptures—the source that Susanna A. Wesley applied in her methods of literacy—teaches us is that the written word once deciphered from the codes of the alphabet opens up windows for life and its mysteries, for the human being and for the encounter with God.

[1] The so-called "Quilombos" in the past constituted places of refuge for Africans who fled their slave status in Brazil. Today the descendants and remnants of those refugees are called Quilombolas.

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