Not so long ago, Brazil was a country divided by the debate over ideas: open or closed economy; privatization or nationalization; democracy or authoritarianism; socialism or capitalism. Today, the ideological debate limits itself to quotas and scholarships.
On one side are those who deny poor and black Brazilians the support of scholarships and quotas; on the other, those who consider scholarships and quotas a sufficient solution to the problem of poverty and prejudice.
Part of the population opposes the distribution of scholarships to the poor; part considers the distribution of scholarships sufficient to give the government credence. The same thing is happening with quotas.
Part of the population opposes using them as an instrument for the formation of a black university elite; another part commemorates quotas as if it their existence were the solution for all the problems weighing upon black Brazilians.
A single reason unifies the two sides of our impoverished debate: the disdain for the poor and the excluded that characterizes Brazilian opinion-makers, both those who defend as well as those who criticize scholarships and quotas.
Those who oppose the scholarships today are like those who for centuries have been insensitive to the tragedy of a country condemning millions of people to hunger and misery. In the past, they did not defend the revolution necessary to make the scholarships unnecessary today.
Those who commemorate the scholarships as the great merit of an administration, moreover, are insensitive to the tragedy of a country that condemns a considerable part of its families to the need for help. They are satisfied with the scholarships without defending the revolution that would render them unnecessary.
In the case of the quotas, the situation is even graver.
Those who are opposed to them are insensitive to the exclusion of black Brazilians from our elite. They fear that the university slots will be filled by young black students with a few points less in their scores on the Vestibular entrance exam.
Those who are in favor of the quotas fight to reserve slots but do not fight for everyone to complete their secondary education in quality schools. They reserve places in the university while maintaining the lack of competition for these slots due to the multitudes excluded by illiteracy and school dropouts.
We are fighting to maintain privileges or to incorporate the privileged instead of fighting to eliminate the privileges. The ethical criticism of the scholarships and quotas is the defense of educational equality, i.e., rendering them unnecessary instead of impeding them.
The national soccer team of Brazil needs no quotas because the ball is round for everyone: the most talented and persistent make the team. Only a “round” school for all would permit the abolition of the need for quotas and scholarships. This demands a revolution in elementary and secondary education.
However, both those who defend and those who oppose the scholarships and quotas disdain the radicalism of the definite solution: equality of opportunities to abolish all the privileges. This would put an end to the present dispute over who is trying to restrict the privileges and who is trying to create access to them.
In a country anxious for justice, scholarships and quotas are necessary palliatives, distributing a little help to the poor and dropping black students into the universities. We must not reject these instruments of affirmative discrimination but neither should we commemorate the need for them.
Brazil is a country divided, a society split. Scholarships and quotas are necessary crumbs, tossed from one side to the other. However, they do not carry out the revolution that would open the door through which the excluded would cross over into modernity, living fully and needing neither scholarships nor quotas. That door is the equal school for all, one capable of breaking with privileges and causing Brazil to make a civilizing leap forward.
Due to the poverty of ideas, divided into superficiality and simplistic solutions, that option demands a debate that is impossible today. The proof is that those who defend, as well as those who oppose, the quotas and scholarships will certainly reject an article like this one.
Accustomed to defending or condemning crumbs or drops, they fight to maintain the privileges without seeking solutions that would allow us to forgo scholarships and quotas.
But that would be expecting too much of the Brazilian elite because neither scholarships nor quotas exist for lucidity and radicalism. Nor is there taste for definitive solutions.
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 email@example.com.
Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome LinJerome@cs.com.