Carlos Alberto Torres: New Associate Dean for Global Programs Shapes Future of 21st Century Education

A co-founder of the Paulo Freire Institutes worldwide, Torres draws upon a global career without boundaries.

When Carlos Alberto Torres is not teaching his students in the Social Sciences and Comparative Education Division (SSCE), speaking at international conferences on the latest issues surrounding globalization, or leading students and colleagues as the director of the Paulo Freire Institute at UCLA, he is a woodworker. The recently appointed Associate Dean for Global Programs at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies says that mastering the art of carpentry is a profound metaphor for the art of teaching – to a certain point.

Carlos Alberto Torres with his wife, Ana Steinbach Torres. Professor Torres created and built the cabinetry and other woodwork in their Topanga home. Courtesy of Carlos Alberto Torres

“You have to follow rules, you have to be very careful, you’ve got to be very attentive,” he says. “There is problem solving. The tools are at the service of the craftsman — not the craftsman – or the teacher – at the service of the tools.

“But that is where the metaphor ends. The professional in woodworking does the same piece over and over again and after 20 or 30 different changes, the piece could be perfect. In the profession of teaching, you can never perfect a piece. You cannot imagine that you have the tools to apply at any given moment. The minute you enter a classroom [or] engage in conversation with a new student is a unique moment that will never be repeated.

“But in seeking perfection, you can transmit [your] love for knowledge… knowledge that keeps changing. We can discover new things that we didn’t [see] 20 years ago, while reading the same book.”

Torres, who co-founded Paulo Freire Institutes in São Paulo, Brazil (1991), Buenos Aires, Argentina (2003), and UCLA (2002), says that he encourages his students to not only revisit, but to reinvent the classics, particularly those like the works of Freire. Torres, who now directs the institute, met and befriended the Brazilian educator after writing several volumes of an exhaustive criticism of Freire’s theories while still a graduate student at the Universidad del Salvador in his native Argentina.

Torres says that Freire’s vision of an educational system focused on social justice and alternative pedagogical strategies, “opened up the whole world of pedagogy for somebody like me who is trained as a sociologist.”

“It was very important personally, because of his personality, character, ethics, and his notion that education has to be an act of freedom,” asserts Torres. “From then on, I was totally connected with what has become a social movement all over the world… with an ethic in which we privilege honesty and a sense of struggling for social justice.”

With his PFI colleagues and students, Torres hosted the VII International Meeting of the Paulo Freire Forum last fall, welcoming Freirean scholars from across the globe to UCLA.  His involvement with PFI, as well as his close relationship to Freire, who visited UCLA in the early 1990s, provided an indelible blueprint for his future as a renowned scholar of comparative education and for his leadership in bringing GSE&IS closer to what he calls, “Globalization 2.0.”

“We know that the first wave [of globalization] created many problems we are trying to solve,” says Torres. “We want to use the new demands and challenges we are facing as a school in a global university to address not only the demands of the community of communities that is Los Angeles, but also the needs and demands of the state of California, the U.S., and also internationally.

“One of my responsibilities is to show the world the extraordinary work we do in social justice education with a global perspective,” Torres states. “That means to attract the best and brightest among international students that could come to work with us here. UCLA is one of the most global, multicultural, social justice-oriented, world-class universities in the world. That’s what students are attracted to, and UCLA’s Department of Education exemplifies that better than many others I know.”

Working with Patricia McDonough, associate dean for academic programs, Torres looks forward to establishing a new set of global programs at GSE&IS by encouraging the faculty, whose books have been translated into a plethora of languages the world over, to share their expertise. They are also working on a new master’s degree program focused on social justice education, and hope to have it approved by UCLA and to offer it in a year or two.

“We want to create more expertise inside the school about the great challenges we are facing in the world,” says Torres of the new initiatives. “Globalization is here and it’s here to stay, we are confronting an extraordinary challenge. A global citizenship model, very often associated with the notion of human rights, could be one of the answers, but not the only answer. I hope that the faculty here will also play a role in designing more and more of these [programs].

In June, Torres was elected as new president of the World Council of Comparative Education Societies (WCCES). He has served the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), one of the founding societies within the WCCES, through membership on the Board of Directors and as CIES President from 1994 to 1998. Most recently, he was recognized by Online Schools in California as one of the “Top 20 Education Professors in California.” This month, he participated in a UNESCO discussion on global citizenship education. In August, Torres was elected a Corresponding Member to the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and delivered a keynote on “Neoliberalism as a New Historical Bloc: A Gramscian Analysis of the Neoliberal Common Sense in Education” at his incorporation ceremony. Torres served as division chair of SSCE from 2008 until this past June. He was honored with the GSE&IS Department of Education’s Distinguished Teaching Award for 2011-2012.

Although passionate about his woodworking, Torres says that, “The pleasure that I have when I am sitting at the new furniture in my house cannot even come close to that moment when we are graduating our students at commencement; that moment in which we dress in our [regalia], being part of a 1,000-year-old experience. The pleasure and satisfaction of the students – you can see them glowing in their faces. That is the moment that we discover that what we do is one of the most wonderful professions on earth.

“Paulo Freire said over and over again, something that not many people would understand: ‘I was dreaming to be a teacher.’ Teaching is not a profession that will make you rich. Teaching is a profession that has occupational hazards; a profession that demands long hours. But teaching is the profession that is descendant of all the good things that have happened in human civilization.”