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Why Is Education Failing in Brazil? For Lack of Trying.

Elementary school in Brazil

Last week the Chamber of Deputies conducted an opportune debate around one
question: “Why is education succeeding in other countries and not in Brazil?”
The answer requires merely three words: “Because they’re trying.” And the
question, therefore, is, “Why aren’t we?”

For four reasons. The first is cultural. We – the elite and the masses – are not a people with the vision and sentiment that education is a fundamental value. For us, education is, at the most, a public service, like water and sewerage, valued less than the investments in the economic infrastructure like energy, transportation, highways, ports, airports, banks, and also less than consumer goods. No Brazilian family would buy a television in a store that looked like the school where the family leaves its children.


It is part of Brazilian culture to view education as a secondary to income, patrimony, well being, sovereignty, justice, democracy. The standard of beauty is physical. Never is a young person seen as attractive because of his or her knowledge, his or her school grades.


The evening soaps on TV portray their heroes on the basis of wealth and a healthy, athletic body. Never are they shown on the basis of literary, philosophic or scientific education. And, if the reverse were shown, it would appear false.


Even those who are concerned with the children’s education look less at the knowledge they will have than at the salary advantages they could obtain with their knowledge. Because of this, in Brazil, there is more interest in the diploma than in the knowledge.


The second reason is historical. The culture is the consequence of the history. The poorly educated population does not value education. Because the parents had nothing, they see the bad school of today as good: Now their children have a place to stay, to eat, and to have the impression that they are studying.


As with the castes in India, the exclusion generates acceptance of the exclusion. In Brazil, the poor see good schools as a right of only the children of the rich, and the rich think that it is enough to educate their own children. The first think that a good school for all is not possible and the others think that it is not necessary.


The third reason is political. We are a people divided between the elite and the masses. And historically the political will is oriented towards satisfying the desires of the privileged minority and not the needs of the excluded masses. This applies as much to the products of the economy, which satisfy the market formed by the income of the rich, as to the social services, including housing, water, sewerage, transportation, culture and also education.


Because of this, the airports, for example, are under the jurisdiction of the federal government but the bus systems are municipal and state. The universities and the technical schools are federal, but the K-12 schools are municipal or state.


When the airports have a crisis, the minister is replaced and money appears for new runways, trains to carry the passengers from the city, and new airports. But the educational tragedy of the strikes drags on for months with no action on the part of the governments, especially the federal government.


The fourth reason is abandonment. In education, decades of abandon have generated an even greater degree of disdain. The abandon provokes strikes; the strikes provoke more abandon. The same thing happens with the low salaries and the teachers’ loss of interest, with the poor condition of the buildings, with the theft of equipment, with the violence.


These are the principal reasons that impede Brazil from making a leap in education. The lack of a social conscience impedes us from having the collective political will to change. This is why it is so difficult to bring about the educational revolution in Brazil. It is not because we lack the know-how; it is because we still have not convinced ourselves that it is necessary.


The solution is making education a national question, making the school a federal responsibility. Deciding that the schools will have the same quality, independently of the family in which the child is born and the city in which he or she lives. The challenge is to convince the people that this is possible and necessary.


The greatest task for anyone who wants to change Brazilian education is to assume the role of an educationist, to convince the Brazilians and make them conscious of the fact that this revolution in education is both necessary and possible. Only by changing the minds of Brazilians will we educate the minds of our children and do this with the quality and equality that Brazil needs.


Cristovam Buarque has a Ph.D. in economics. He is a PDT senator for the Federal District and was Governor of the Federal District (1995-98) and Minister of Education (2003-04). He is the current president of the Senate Education Commission. Last year he was a presidential candidate. You can visit his homepage – www.cristovam.com.br – and write to him at mensagem-cristovam@senado.gov.br


Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome – LinJerome@cs.com.

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