For more than a century Brazil has had adult literacy programs. This is one
proof of the social failure in a country, which, if it had an educational
policy for child literacy, would not need such programs for adults. It also
demonstrates the failure of the Brazilian state to carry out social programs:
in spite of these programs, it has not succeeded in solving the problem. But,
above all, it is evidence of a mistaken focus that seeks to assist but not
to abolish, that sees things though the optic of economics rather than that
Based upon that economistic
and assistance vision, the successive Brazilian governments' goal was literacy-for-more
and not literacy-for-all. They treat literacy as a means to increase people's
efficiency and not as a right of each citizen, and orient literacy programs
towards those with productive potential and not towards everyone. This means
everyone from early childhood, when the matter should have been faced, up
to the oldest Brazilians.
The younger the person
who learns to read, it is certain, the more literacy increases his or her
productivity. The older the person, however, the greater his or her right
to literacy, not only because that newly literate person will be more productive,
but, above all, because of that lifetime lost to illiteracy.
Every country has the
obligation to abolish illiteracy among its adults. This is even truer for
a country with a text written on its flag. In Brazil, more than 15 million
adult Brazilians do not recognize their flag because they do not know how
to distinguish from any other written words the motto "order and progress"
written on the flag. In Brazil, unlike in other countries, universal literacy
is a matter of patriotism, not of productivity. Either Brazil changes its
flag, or it teaches all Brazilians to read, no matter their age.
Brazilian social logic
dominated by economicism sees adult literacy programs as the road to increasing
revenue, thereby diminishing poverty. According to this theory, since the
population's oldest members do not increase revenue, it would be unjustified
to teach them to read. But poverty is not a matter of revenue; it is a matter
of exclusion from fundamental rights, one of them the right to literacy. The
struggle against exclusion, therefore, demands teaching everyone to read,
no matter what that person's age or economic potential might be.
At an event in Belo Horizonte
some months ago, I heard a lady of a certain age, who had just learned to
read, speak about the pleasure she felt the day that she first wrote the name
of one of her children. Then she wrote the names of her other children, and,
soon after, one by one, that of each of her grandchildren.
Every Brazilian has the
right to that pleasure. It is a shame that we still deny millions of Brazilians
older than fifteenespecially the oldest, because of the time that they
have lostthe right to spell out the names of their loved ones.
When I heard that justification
for adult literacy programs, one that had not occurred to me, I remembered
another: literacy for all will diminish the social pain experienced by decent
Brazilians when they encounter adults who still do not know how to read. Abolishing
illiteracy in Brazil will not only give pleasure to those who have learned
to read, but rather to all Brazilians, who will no longer endure the shame
of living in a country that is so rich but that still has so many millions
The abolition of illiteracy,
the simple fact that we have a broad, general, and unrestricted literacy campaign
for adultswith a deadline for literacy-for-all and not the intention
of literacy-for-morewill give Brazil a shock of decency. This alone
would be sufficient to justify the abolitionist program instead of a mere
The love for our neighbor
commits us to the task, left to our generation, of abolishing illiteracy.
It is an ethical, even a religious, decision as if the eleventh commandment
were "Thou shalt teach thy neighbor to read as thou would teach thine
For these reasons, we
must have a clear goal for the abolition of illiteracy, excluding no one because
of age. Thus was the goal set and carried out by Brasil Alfabetizado [Brazil
Literate]. If, for an economic reason, the goal is to focus upon those who
are younger, then, for an ethical reason, the older the illiterate, the greater
our obligation to teach that person to read.
Instead of teaching younger
people to read in the hope that they will pay their debt to the country, the
country must teach people to read to pay off its debt for the amount of time
it has left them illiterate. The older the illiterate Brazilians, the greater
we are in debt to them for allowing them to go so long without knowing their
flag, writing their child's name, or being included in the world of the literate.
Cristovam Buarque - firstname.lastname@example.org
- is a professor at the University of Brasília and a Workers' Party
(PT) senator for the Federal District. He was also Brazil's Education Minister
during the first year of the Lula administration.