Cambridge University has erected a statue of an outspoken academic in a symbol of tolerance amid the campus culture wars.
The bronze bust of Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian social scientist who championed critical thought in classrooms, has gone on display at the university’s Faculty of Education.
Cambridge has been the centre of fierce clashes over “wokery” in recent months, with pro-free speech dons rebelling against a portal to anonymously report microaggressions and defeating a guideline to force them to be “respectful” of others’ opinions.
And earlier this month, the Cambridge Union debating society made an about-turn on plans to blacklist guest speakers deemed to cause offence.
Professor takes aim at ‘cancel culture’
Professor Susan Robertson, head of the faculty, took aim at “cancel culture”, saying it “hoses down possibilities of listening and hearing each other and then working forward”.
She told the BBC: “How do we actually talk about difficult issues that we might have different views about? It’s those qualities that [Freire] would actually say are absolutely desperately needed to get our way out of really some fairly challenging polemical positions.”
She added that Freire’s qualities of “living, loving, trying to know, being tolerant, being curious” would help educators to “resist” attacks on their freedoms.
Leading dons worked with Latin American students to install the sculpture, the first institution outside of Brazil to do so, to foster “tolerance and dialogue”.
The new bronze statue, gifted by the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement, celebrates Freire who inspired thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Karl Marx by challenging undemocratic ideas.
Dr Haira Gandolfi, assistant professor in education at Cambridge, said criticism of increasing attempts to decolonise curricula “are underpinned by an objection to the idea that schools should be places where children engage with these complex sociocultural ideas”.
“Freire matters because he embodies resistance to that. Some administrators today want schools to be places where children just go to learn facts. Freire said that they are also places where children go to become citizens,” she said.
Dr Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy at Cambridge, told The Telegraph: “Universities should never become training camps for political activism. Instead, they ought to be neutral spaces that tolerate the widest possible range of expression by their members – including views that some find shocking, disturbing or offensive.
“The Freire sculpture should remind us of the liberal value of tolerance and of the need to defend it, and academics like Kathleen Stock and Selina Todd, from the mob.”
‘Education cannot be separated from politics’
Cambridge scholars and students also hope the sculpture signals defiance against global “right-wing populism” and an anti-Left overhaul of Brazil’s education system by Jair Bolsonaro’s government.
Freire’s seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written in exile in 1968, influenced international education reforms in the 1970s. He argued that education could not be separated from politics but rather could further inequalities or promote change.
Freire, who died in 1997, took particular aim at methods of teaching which feed passive pupils facts without any critical discussion.
The bronze installation follows a string of British universities returning looted artefacts, renaming buildings and taking down statues since Black Lives Matter protests sparked by George Floyd’s death in the US.
Cambridge’s Jesus College became the first British institution to return a Benin bronze cockerel to Nigeria last month, over links to the slave trade.