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Brazzil - Education - February 2004

Illiteracy, Brazil's Capital Sin

Every country has the obligation to abolish illiteracy. 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 the motto "order and
progress" written on the flag. Either Brazil changes its flag, or
it teaches all Brazilians to read, no matter their age.

Cristovam Buarque

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 of ethics.

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 fifteen—especially the oldest, because of the time that they have lost—the 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 of illiterates.

The abolition of illiteracy, the simple fact that we have a broad, general, and unrestricted literacy campaign for adults—with a deadline for literacy-for-all and not the intention of literacy-for-more—will give Brazil a shock of decency. This alone would be sufficient to justify the abolitionist program instead of a mere assistance program.

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 own child."

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 - cristovam@senador.gov.br - 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.
Translated by Linda Jerome - LinJerome@cs.com

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