Sep 1 2020

As an undergraduate, Tomas de Rezende Rocha was drawn to teaching by his interests in humanistic psychology and contemplative practices. A desire to explore the relationship between justice, freedom and education later led him to pursue doctoral studies in philosophy and education.

This fall, de Rezende Rocha, who previously taught at Teachers College, Columbia University as a PhD student and at Fordham University as an adjunct professor, joins the University of Washington College of Education as an assistant professor of the philosophy of education, justice and equity. 

At the UW, he aims to explore social justice education theories, critically analyze the contemplative education movement and continue his collaboration with the Latin American Philosophy of Education Society (LAPES).

In the Q&A below, de Rezende Rocha discusses his research agenda, what courses he’ll teach and more.

What drew you to education?

My parents immigrated to the United States from Brazil and Argentina in the mid-1980s, just as the military dictatorships in those countries were giving way to greater democracy. (Years prior, my maternal grandfather, a German Jew, had fled Europe before the Holocaust to set up a life in Buenos Aires.) I also spent most of the 1990s being raised in post-Soviet Hungary. My father taught economics at the university level for a short time and my mother taught Spanish for most of her career. They sent me to international schools throughout my K-12 years and I have certainly been shaped by how much they valued education as a space of personal and social growth. 

I entered college wanting to become a humanistic psychologist or psychoanalyst. I loved the idea of trying to deeply understand and help people by relying on a very personal, granular level of analysis. Unfortunately, my university’s psychology department was much too behaviorally focused for my taste. I drifted over to the ‘human development’ track in the department of education. There, I was able to patch together a program informed by my interests in psychology, sociology and educational theory. At the same time, I became very involved in Buddhist meditation practice and joined a neuropsychology lab examining the effects of a mindfulness-based ‘intervention’ on middle-school students. 

After finishing a master’s degree focused on the politics and sociology of education, I worked for an organization founded by the Dalai Lama and the Chilean scientist and philosopher Francisco Varela. My job was mostly to help with the design and testing of a contemplative-based professional development program for teachers. This was a marvelous experience, but one that took place in the immediate wake of the Occupy movement and the early days of Black Lives Matter. My reinvigorated disgust with injustice and inequality left me feeling profoundly dissatisfied with my understanding of the purpose and ethics of education, the relationship between justice, freedom, and education, and the role that contemplative practice has to play (if any) in building a good society. I believed a more focused philosophical training would provide some answers to these sorts of questions, so I applied to doctoral study in philosophy and education.

Describe your research agenda. What makes this work meaningful to you?

I think of myself as juggling three distinct but overlapping research agendas. The first is linked to my dissertation project, which tries to answer the question of what, if anything, is distinctively contemplative about ‘contemplative education’. I look at the Ancient Greek diplomatic practice of theoria, which informed Plato and Aristotle’s views on educational philosophy and, subsequently, our common-sense notions of what it means to contemplate something or other. I provide a critique of contemporary mindfulness as the dominant practice of the more neoliberal wing of the contemplative education movement. A chapter on testimonio re-imagines this characteristically Latin American literary genre as a decolonial contemplative practice and raises questions about what it means to refer to testimonio as a ‘method’ in educational research. I also argue that contemplative education, as a field of practice and scholarship, has an underlying commitment to egalitarianism and democratic equality that ought to be reflected more explicitly in our conceptions of the purpose of contemplative practice. My short-term goal is to get writing from the dissertation out the door and into journals. I see a book on these themes somewhere on the horizon. 

My second research goal is to build on my many years of collaboration with the Latin American Philosophy of Education Society (LAPES). We are a small but growing group of educational theorists who partner with teachers, scholars and activists in both the United States and Latin America to promote the dissemination of Latin American education philosophies and practices. We host conferences, translate texts, publish peer-reviewed articles and in general try to serve as a sort of hub for anyone interested in Latin American educational philosophy. I help edit our journal, Lápiz, and would like to use some of UW’s resources to host a symposium on Latin American feminist theories of education. As a doctoral student, I helped design and teach an introductory course in Latin American Philosophy of Education. I think there is more theorizing to be done about what such a course should look like, what the role of testimonios might be within a Latin American philosophy of education, and what is ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ about Latin American philosophy of education (and, indeed, what it says about the status of philosophy that such a question is even posed). 

My third group of research interests has to do with theories of social justice education and how liberatory visions of education are informed (or not informed) by complex debates around professional ethics and the scope of an educator’s moral responsibilities; by inquiry into the nature of personal and social identity; by disagreements among liberals, socialists and anarchists about how we ought to organize labor and resources; and by competing notions of freedom, equality, justice and other foundational concepts. With this whirlwind of concepts, ideals and disagreements in mind, I am interested in articulating how oppression is a terrible state of affairs for all of us, and suggest that we revisit Paulo Freire's insight into how oppression ‘dehumanizes’ the oppressor. Inspired by colleagues, I have started focusing on the question of whether complicity in oppression can really be coherently framed as a ‘privilege’, ‘benefit’ or ‘advantage’ (rather than something that makes the oppressor’s life objectively worse), and want to explore what the implications for educational research and practice might be if we stopped framing complicity in evil as a benefit to anyone. But this requires challenging the standard sort of liberal neutrality about the good life that most of us are comfortable with, which can be hard even for well-intentioned proponents of social justice. I also wonder how the tradition of social justice education overlaps (or sits in tension with) the traditions of moral and character education on the one hand and environmental education on the other. I’m currently working on a paper exploring whether a popular test of moral reasoning sufficiently rewards reasoning about ecological justice.

What attracted you to UW College of Education?

I was most attracted to the belief — displayed by the College by virtue of the job posting — in the proposition that humanistic, philosophical and conceptual inquiry is still a valuable part of educational research. Investments in the arts and (critical) humanities tend to be the first to go, both under conditions of economic austerity and when fulfilling the political goals of authoritarian movements. I thought the search committee did a fabulous job of framing the role of a philosopher of education and the enduring value of conceptual work within a community of scholars and practitioners. It is no secret that American higher education is in the middle of a multi-faceted crisis — we face skyrocketing student debt, tuition fees and administrative costs; a brutal labor market that ties into our over-reliance on a precarious and increasingly ‘adjunctivized’ workforce; a longstanding pattern of public disinvestment; and of course, a refusal to properly meet the needs and ambitions of marginalized students, faculty and staff. I have named only a few of our shared challenges. I was deeply heartened by the College’s faith in the role I am stepping into, despite our grim political and economic context. 

I was also very taken in by the College’s obvious commitment to educational justice and equity across its various programs, initiatives and research areas. This commitment, paired with the high quality of scholarship and teaching, made the College seem like an incredible place to work. Everyone I’ve met has been remarkably kind and welcoming. I should mention, too, that I am so humbled by the opportunity to work at a public university. It is a helpful reminder that my responsibilities are not just to my students and colleagues but in a very real sense to the public: all of my fellow denizens, including the natural world, which provides the conditions for life, shared inquiry and collective action. Lastly, Seattle seems like such a lovely city to call home.

What's a course you're particularly excited to teach?

I’ve been having a fun time preparing to co-teach EDLPS 525, the so-called ‘Inquiry Series’, which is required of all doctoral students at the College. As a philosopher, I am fascinated by different ways of knowing and doing research. The long-standing model of pairing a philosopher with a social scientist is innovative and no doubt creates a richer educational experience for everyone involved. We are better off collectively and in the long-run as epistemological pluralists, and I appreciate the decolonial lens recently incorporated into the existing syllabus. Philip Bell and Deborah Kerdeman have been so generous in getting me up to speed with this course. Most of all, I love that I’ll get a chance to meet, teach and learn from each cohort of doctoral students before they go off and develop a more specialized expertise. 

I am also quite looking forward to teaching EDLPS 520: Education as a Moral Endeavor. I’m currently thinking of framing it as an inquiry into professional ethics for educators, but focused on four ‘big approaches’ to ethics and education: teaching and learning as the good life, teaching and learning as part of the good life, obligations to oneself as an educator and obligations to others as an educator. All four approaches interact with one another in complex ways and can be informed by reading, discussion and written analysis of moral philosophy, political philosophy, teacher autobiography and professional codes of ethics. 

In Spring 2022, I’ll begin teaching a general introduction to philosophy of education. Stay tuned ....

Tell us about an education-related book or movie that has influenced you.

When I was 19 or 20, I read “Dibs in Search of Self” by the clinical psychologist Virginia Axline. The book tells the story of Dr. Axline’s play therapy with a deeply disturbed young boy. The reader learns how, over the course of a year, Dr. Axline’s patience and unconditional love allows Dibs to heal from his emotional wounds and develop a more stable sense of self. It’s not quite a philosophy of education, but the story always stuck with me and still brings me hope. It’s a reminder that we can, in fact, help one another. Indeed, that my capacity to flourish is inescapably linked to yours. It speaks to the enduring possibility of recovery, growth, connection, healing, renewal and so on — these goods have a way of persisting even in our darkest moments.

What's something that students and colleagues should know about you?

I aspire to become more of an outdoorsy person and enjoy the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. I love to cook for friends and family. A source of immense joy is hearing from students who feel transformed by a particular text or assignment, or a course overall. I will be looking for a meditation community in Seattle to restart my contemplative practice. I believe teachers and students wield an unparalleled amount of political power. I was diagnosed with adult ADD/ADHD some years ago, which explained a lot, but I still struggle to find the right mix of medication, habits, exercise and therapy to help me better organize my thoughts and actions. (I mention this last one to contribute to the ongoing destigmatization around mental health.)

Besides your work, what's something that you're passionate about?

I probably spend most of my time reading about domestic and international politics. I love anything having to do with science fiction — books, movies, games, TV shows, etc. 

Story by Gabriela Tedeschi, marketing and communications student aide.

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