Go Back

June 2003

Brazil, End Illiteracy or Change Your Flag!

Some say that it is inefficient to spend money on literacy
programs for adults who would have little to offer the
national economy. First, the 20 million people learning
to read and write would become a considerable workforce.
Second, it may even be inefficient, but it is decent.

Cristovam Buarque

When our flag was created in 1889, at least 70 percent of Brazilian adults were illiterate. Even so, the leaders of the new republic chose a flag that would only be understood by 30 percent of the population, those who knew how to read Auguste Comte's words "Order and Progress" on it. The remaining 70 percent did not matter to the leaders. By law, the flag of 30 percent of the population became the flag of all Brazilians, including those who did not know how to recognize it completely.

One hundred years later, the percentage has diminished but there has been an increase in the absolute number of Brazilians impeded from completely recognizing their flag. In the Brazil of today, 20 million Brazilians do not know their flag because they are unable to read the slogan written upon it.

One year before the creation of the new flag and the new Republic, Brazil was still experiencing the shame of being a slave-ocratic country. One hundred thirteen years later, the process of abolition has still not been completed, and neither has the republic.

The social inequality, especially in education and health, is shameful, incompatible with a republic. As is, for example, the fact that Brazil spends, as a lifetime average, R$ 240 thousand (US$ 81 thousand) on the education of a person of the middle or upper class, while spending only R$ 3,200 (US$ 1081) on a poor person since a rich person spends an average of 20 years in school while the average poor Brazilian stays only four.

In none of the modern monarchies is there such a large differentiation between the poor and the aristocracy. Brazil has the most aristocratic republic of the modern world, and its flag is an example of this. Even today, the Republic has a flag that is not recognized by 15 to 20 percent of its adult population.

To correct that absurdity, we could change the flag, removing the letters so that the illiterate could recognize merely the stars. After all, instead of changing the reality, the Brazilian elite customarily only pretend to solve the problems of the poor.

Thus it was with the prohibition, for appearance sake, of the trafficking in slaves with the Lei do Ventre Livre (Law of the Free Womb) and the Lei do Sexagenário (Law of the Sixty-Year-Old), which emancipated babies born of slaves and slaves over the age of sixty-five, respectively. Thus it was with the false aristocratic republic, with the economic growth without income distribution, with the dictatorship in the name of liberty, and with the new democracy without any sort of social reform, the latter continuing to the present, 18 years later.

Instead of changing the flag to pretend that it is everyone's, we must adopt the banner of literacy for all Brazilians. And put an end to the mere continuation of programs that emancipate only some from the slavery of illiteracy, programs that would take decades to solve the problem. Rather, we should take concrete actions to make all Brazil literate in four years.

As is usual when services to poor people are radicalized, many are raising doubts about the feasibility of this objective. Some say that it is inefficient to spend money on literacy programs for adults who would have little to offer the national economy. In the first place, the 20 million people learning to read and write would become a considerable workforce. Therefore, economy. In the second place, perhaps it may even be inefficient, but it is decent. And decency should take precedence over efficiency.

Others say that it is technically impossible, without perceiving the absurdity of thinking one hundred million literate Brazilians could not succeed in teaching the other twenty million to read. If each of the three million university students would dedicate the time of an additional class for the length of the course, six hours per week for a semester, 20 million adults could be taught to read and write in a single year.

As a country that produces R$ 1.321 trillion (US$ 446 billion) per year, exports R$ 208 billion (US$ 69.6 billion) and spends R$ 13.7 billion (US$ 4.62 billion) upon advertising so that Brazilians will be familiar with the goods and services produced by their economy, couldn't Brazil reserve, at the maximum, R$ 250 thousand (US$ 84,459) annually so that its compatriots could recognize the flag of Brazil? This would be the amount it would take, not counting any volunteers in the literacy campaign.

But it is not enough to teach adults to read and write. It is necessary to turn off the faucet producing new illiterate Brazilians each year. This is the case of the children without schools who do not learn to read and who, consequently, will not continue their studies.

Brazil has the resources. It has a President of the Republic who has made a commitment to the education of the Brazilian people at a time in which all perceive the necessity of overcoming the 115 years of an incomplete abolition and of an aristocratic republic that never invested in the education of its poor people.

It is possible. And the time is now.

As this is being written, the Biennial of the Book is underway in Rio de Janeiro. This is one of the major cultural events of the planet; yet millions of Brazilians are excluded from the beauty and richness offered by this cultural fair. Excluded even from the right of recognizing the National Flag flying. Besides displaying and selling books, the Biennial could have a goal as its banner: within four years, no Brazilian will be excluded from the right to enjoy the Biennial of 2007. The slogan would be: "Let all Brazilians be capable of knowing the Brazilian flag."

Our banner is to make our flag belong to everyone.


Cristovam Buarque (cristovambuarque@uol.com) is the Brazilian Minister of Education.

Translated by Linda Jerome (LinJerome@cs.com)


Send yourcomments to Brazzil

To Top / Go Back