Brazilian scholars ape foreign trends in order to be seen as
more up-to-date. This superficial use of foreign authorities and even of
fashionable terminology or jargon disenfranchises people and discourages critical thought.
External censorship, prevailing in the military period, has been replaced by a much more
deleterious inner censorship.
By Pedro Paulo A. Funari
What is the current status of academic freedom in Brazil? Academic freedom in Brazil,
as in other countries that experienced dictatorship, is a matter of particular concern and
a sensitive issue. Intellectuals are therefore quite aware of the political
implications of what they say and do. Brazil was ruled by the military for twenty one
years (1964-1985) and the scars caused by authoritarian rule are still very much with us.
Nor can academic freedom be dissociated from society and Brazilian society has
from its inception been authoritarian and patriarchal, dominated by patronage and
hierarchy. Brazil has been described as a country without citizens, where there are
dependents and vassals and where privileges are granted to people in power. The
result is a most uneven society, with the 10% richest people getting 47% of the GDP, while
the poorest 10% gets only 0.8%.
In this context, intellectuals have traditionally been people from the ruling elites
and the main obstacle to their freedom came not from the state but from their peers. As
patronage is pervasive, critical approaches are not welcome. In the Brazilian
academic world, scholars are encouraged to exchange favors, in a "give and take"
attitude (following the Roman do ut des approach).
Accordingly, the best way to survive within the intelligentsia has always been
to eulogize intellectual authorities, be they university deans and presidents or state
officials. Since the 1930s, when Brazil’s first universities were founded, the
opportunities for people from outside the elite to become academics have increased,
despite the continuing constraints of the clientage system.
Especially in the years after the Second World War, academic freedom expanded
considerably, although professors still held significant power over ordinary scholars.
Professors, who were not always scholars, were appointed by university authorities
interested in promoting friends and acquaintances, while ordinary lecturers, who studied
and got academic degrees, were kept in junior positions without tenure.
When the military took over in 1964 there was strong opposition from some scholars, as
restrictions on freedom of speech run directly counter to academic independence. The
academy was quickly targeted by the military authorities concerned with what they
considered to be subversion. First, the military imposed censorship and reduced funding,
then came the expulsion of scholars, finally free thinkers were tortured and
As Aziz Ab’ Saber, a leading scholar who survived this nightmare, put it recently, "it
was forbidden to think." In the words of another academic Francisco Iglésias,
"A lot of people suffered, were exiled, tortured, killed." Many leading
intellectuals had their academic freedom severely affected, most were exiled, like
Fernando Henrique Cardoso (the current President of Brazil), Maria Ieda Linhares,
Ciro Flamarion Santana Cardoso. Hundreds of others were expelled from the academy.
Perhaps the most well-known victim was Paulo Duarte, a leading humanist who
had fought against dictatorship since the Second World War, and who was expelled by
collaborationist academic authorities in 1969.
The end of military rule in 1985 left the same people in power; and within the
academic world the most of the collaborators retained their authority. Nonetheless, the
restoration of civilian rule meant freedom of speech; and, in response, free expression
sprouted in the last fifteen years. At the same time, the enticements of power were
not negligible, and several intellectuals, attracted by the opportunity to gain influence,
tailored their work to the demands of the entrenched authorities and then, when they
achieved power themselves, were able to win additional credence for the theoretical
frameworks through which they provided intellectual support for globalization.
This is the case, ironically, of several former exiles, like the President himself,
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and a host of ministers and other high officials. Through the
systematic denial of other interpretations, they establish a discursive field constraining
other academics to comply or to be excluded from funding and power. Academics are
led to carry out studies confirming fashionable ideas, particularly those sponsored by
official institutions and funding programs.
In a society grounded on patronage, to follow official policies is more important than
elsewhere, and the temptation to parrot the established ideas and canonic authors is
palpable. There are even scholars who consider that favor is not a threat to academic
freedom: "The political culture of favor does not necessarily entail submission and
inequality," suggests a scholar, "it can also bring rights, equality,
justice and, why not?, fraternity." However, "fraternity" is a symptomatic
word, as it refers to brothers in a hierarchic system, thus limiting freedom and
constraining scholars to compromise their freedom in order to take part in the academic
Nowadays, academic freedom is thus hindered not by the state, as was the case during
the dictatorship, but by two different but concurring sources. Globalization is clearly
the leading maître mot used by the dominant scholars and research foundations to
promote their concepts as the only valid and acceptable ones. Scholars ape foreign trends
in order to be seen as more up-to-date.
This superficial use of foreign authorities and even of fashionable terminology
or jargon disenfranchises people and discourages critical thought. Globalization also
affects academic freedom in Brazil by accentuating the imbalances between the tiny
minority of professors with access to the internet and ordinary academics with difficult
or no access. This varies by discipline, with the humanities, in particular, lagging
An even more important threat to academic freedom is the patronage-ridden academic
system itself which enforces compliance with official policies. As Milton Santos, a
leading scholar and geographer exiled during the dictatorship and one of the few black
intellectuals in the country, said recently, "to look for new ideas is
This is because the patronage that pervades every institution, from small towns to
states, from university departments to ministerial offices in Brasília, means that
scholars are pressed to put their academic freedom on hold, so that they can be in good
terms with both official policies and funding and with colleagues in academic posts.
Young scholars are particularly vulnerable to persecution. Walter Alves Neves and
Solange Caldarelli were expelled from the University of São Paulo some years ago when a
dean decided that she did not agree with their ideas about prehistoric settlement. Eduardo
Góes Neves was also subjected to threats from a senior scholar, who tried,
unsuccessfully, to get the University Chancellor to fire him just because the young
archeologist disputed her claims about a very early occupation of Brazil some fifty
thousand years ago, a claim, by the way, not accepted by almost every serious foreign
specialist. These are clear examples of how scientific disagreements can become threats
within the Brazilian scholarly world.
Nowadays, another way of limiting the freedom of scholars is just to stop or reduce
funding for scientific research. This strategy was widely used during military rule,
against scholars and institutions that did not conform. The Institute for Prehistoric
Studies, in São Paulo was affected by such cuts during the 1960s and 1970s, as were
departments from the humanities to the medical sciences at many universities throughout
the country. Recently though, the authorities are disguising the reasons for their
cutbacks, claiming that the reduced funding stems from the search for globalization and
These cutbacks have been extensive and public universities have sometimes been
without funds to pay for toilet paper! Engineering research centers in Rio de Janeiro have
been subjected to reductions, because, according to the authorities, they were "too
nationalist." The lack of funds has been used as an excuse to close down departments
and research units, affecting scholars studying such subjects as eastern and dead
languages (Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese) , archaeology and
even non-applied, so called pure sciences, like physics. Naturally, these cut-backs
have only increased the public and private pressures on the already underpaid lecturers at
Academic freedom thus faces new challenges in the late nineteen nineties, as the
earlier external censorship, prevailing in the military period, has been replaced by a
much more deleterious inner censorship. To deviate from dominant discourse is to risk
retaliation from people and institutions with power. It is perhaps a mixed feature of
postmodern times in Brazil that academic freedom is threatened not by the sheer use of
force, as had been the case for several years, but by a most insidious internalization of
docility, as well as by the dominant discourse that favors market oriented research.
This paper first appeared in Academe, publication of the American Association of
University Professors, 1999, July/August, pp. 22-25.
Pedro Paulo A. Funari, BA, MA, Ph.D., is an archaeologist, University of
Campinas professor, author of several books and papers. You can contact him at email@example.com