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Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers Movement Transformed Brazilian Education

Rebecca Senn Tarlau
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Oxford University Press

To what extent is it possible for a social movement to transform a public education system in order to promote an alternative social vision? Under what conditions can this implementation occur within the bureaucratic state apparatus, at the regional and national level? How does state-society collaboration develop, in contexts where civil society groups and the state have opposing interests? This dissertation addresses these questions through an investigation of the educational initiatives of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST), a national social movement of rural workers struggling for agrarian reform. MST activists have been able to implement educational proposals in rural public schools that encourage youth to stay in the countryside, foster a sense of belonging to the movement, promote collective forms of work, and practice participatory governance. 

Part I provides an overview of the multi-level and multi-sited political ethnographic approach used to conduct this research. It then reviews the literature on social movements and state-society relations, and considers how a Gramscian framework can be used to analyze how social movements implement educational proposals in public schools that are opposed to the interests of the dominant class. Part II examines the history and national expansion of the MST's educational initiative: how activists first developed their educational proposals; why the movement went from promoting popular education to participating in the public educational sphere; and why and how the federal government appropriated these ideas as a new approach to rural schooling, known as Educação do Campo (Education of the Countryside). Part III explores the MST's attempt to transform public schools in three state educational systems and two municipalities, and why the MST's success differs drastically across the country depending on the state capacity, government orientation, and level of MST mobilization in each region. 

Tarlau, R. (2018) Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers Movement Transformed Brazilian Education. Oxford University Press).

Educational Policy