Oscar Niemeyer, Adib Domingos Jatene, Ivo Pitanguy are the exceptions. Very rare are our philosophers, writers, scientists, professionals who achieve international recognition and will be remembered in the future for their contributions to humanity. We do not have a single Nobel Prize in science or literature.
This is not a Brazilian genetic problem. It results from the limitations of our elementary and secondary education in generating thinkers who meet the world’s highest standards.
More than any other professional, the intellectual is a product of society and relies upon the intellectual stimulation of his or her surroundings. For thinking to advance to the international level, intellectual activity demands dialogue and debate. But Brazil does not have an intellectual mass and falls into a vicious circle: being a nation of few intellectuals impoverishes everyone both in the number of intellectuals and in the level of Brazilian intellectual life.
The dialogue and debate are limited to the very few persons who graduate from a good secondary school, attend a good university, have a good breadth of reading, know the classics in each area of knowledge, develop their potential to historic and international levels. With the immense majority of the population excluded from intellectual activities, the few educated Brazilians stand out without much competition.
Eighty percent of adults hardly finish secondary school. They read no more than a few books over the course of their entire lives. Among the rest, at the maximum 5% manage to complete a reasonable course of studies, acquire a minimum of intermediately solid culture. It is thus relatively easy for them to achieve recognition as scholars in this country, but not abroad.
The quota of exclusion of the others protects our intellectuals. The Brazilian intellectuals have space because those without quality schools remain excluded. Even the quota for black university students is exclusionary since it seeks to privilege race but only for those who finish their secondary education and not for the millions without a good elementary and secondary education.
By excluding millions of Brazilians from school, we are throwing away the geniuses left behind. We are reducing the number of those who have access to the quality school; we are diminishing the level of work demanded in the education of those who study.
We leave millions of Brazilians uneducated and have educated Brazilians without competition who have made accommodations because of the educational poverty surrounding them. Under these conditions, even the good school becomes bad. To survive and to stand out, the intellectual elite does not need to be good: they stand out without making an effort.
This proves the old saying “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” That is the rule for creating thinkers in Brazil.
We do not have a Nobel Laureate but we have many of the world’s best soccer players. Because no boy is excluded in soccer, all boys have the same chance on the improvised soccer field.
Our players are outstanding there abroad because their preparation is the result of competition with everyone here inside the country, all those boys between the ages of four and eighteen. Thus is national competition elevated to world standards. The ones who win are the best and the most persistent. And since the majority of Brazilians are poor, most of the soccer stars come, naturally, from the poorest strata of Brazilian society.
In education, the exact opposite happens. It is as if Brazil were a ship filled with children and young people, throwing 60 boys and girls into the sea per minute during the years of elementary and secondary education (200 days per year with four hours of class per day). The debate is restricted to the few who arrive at the end without competition and without the need to study much.
If, back there in Recife where I grew up, all the boys and girls had parents who gave them the incentive to study, as I had; had access to good schools, as I had; had siblings and friends who studied and read, as I had; had a good faculty, not only in their area but also in the debate of ideas, as I had, then you would not be reading this article. Because someone better would have taken my place. Or, perhaps, the competition would have made me a better writer.
On the one hand, I was the beneficiary: Few Brazilians were competing for the space I achieved. On the other, I was diminished since I did not have to compete with a greater number. The same happens with Brazil: it has remained behind because it left many Brazilians behind.
Cristovam Buarque is a professor at the University of Brasília and a PDT senator for the Federal District. You can visit his website – www.cristovam.org.br – and write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome LinJerome@cs.com.