Lecture delivered at the Leadership Institute, Arlington, VA, on July 23, 2013.
I am aware that the presence of educators and speakers of various nationalities at this conference would suggest to me the convenience of speaking about universal and borderless themes. However, the situation of education in Brazil has become so dire that it barely can be understood by foreign observers. A sense of urgency, then, impels me to breach etiquette and address Brazilians more directly than others here present.
Since we are all gathered in this place to meditate on the ends and means of education in a serious manner, I would like to start my speech by making a vow: may God forbid and keep my speech from going beyond what I can personally do. The easiest and cheapest thing in the world for an educator to do is to propose grandiose and even universally comprehensive goals and purposes, which he will never bring about and whose results he will never be held accountable for. Ninety percent of those who are praised as pioneers, reformers, and revolutionaries of politics, education, or thought are prophets of the imponderable, that scum of mankind who have always had the prudence to withdraw from this low world before their beautiful proposals have been transformed into the depressing and often bloody realities that they foretell.
The first thing that should be required of any educator is that he knows precisely whom he intends to educate, for how long he needs to educate his students, and what are the evaluation criteria with which he will gauge the success or failure of his venture. Virtually none of those who are today lauded as great educators pass this test. Neither Paulo Freire, nor Jean Piaget, nor Vygostky, nor Emilia Ferreiro. The disastrous results of socio-constructivism are already so old and so widely known as the very idea that generated them, and yet the prestige of this school does not seem to have been shaken in the least, precisely because the public has become used to the contemporary idea that what one should expect from an educator is not that he educates people, but rather that he helps them “change the world.”
People’s mindset has been so imbued with the cult of universal change that nowadays there is virtually no person who does not follow, unconsciously at least, the maxim of that greatest prince of elegant stupidity who was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A new untruth is better than an old truth.”
The greatest of all educators, Socrates, never made plans for global education nor ever thought about pre-formatting the minds of future generations, but he merely confined himself to educating those who were within his reach, that is, a single generation, a small circle of students, out of which emerged two other great philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, whose teaching still continues to educate us today.
So, God forbid that I should create any educational project which I cannot personally carry out and whose results I cannot myself evaluate during the course of my life.
Accordingly, any education project that I might dare to subscribe should be a provisional response to a given situation and not a model to be imitated per omnia seculae saeculorum. The immediate problem that my personal educational project attempted to tackle is the complete debacle of university education in Brazil. Of course, there is not a single country in the world in which people do not talk about a similar debacle, but we must be careful not to be misled by the use of the same word to qualify different situations. For the word “debacle” just describes a generic quality and does not convey an idea of the extent of the problem, and it is in the quantitative aspect of the collapse of its higher education that Brazil goes beyond the imagination of those who complain of the poor state of university education in their own countries. Maybe you can have a better idea of Brazil’s state of things in education when you know the fact that my native country, having more university professors per capita than any other nation, and now having virtually no children out of school, produces students who usually rank last in international education tests. Not coincidentally, Brazil is also a country in which all public discussion about education always revolves around funding and investments, without educational contents and techniques ever becoming a discussion point—consequently, one must infer that, to the Brazilian national imagination, money must have some educational power in itself, transcending human agency. Even more characteristic of the Brazilian mind of today is the fact that our former president, Mr. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has become an object of general admiration not because he has risen from a poor background thanks to a cultural improvement he achieved through his own effort, but precisely because he managed to climb up the social ladder with no cultural improvement at all. People even compared him to Abraham Lincoln, but the contrast could not be greater between the poor axeman who developed intellectually to become one of the best writers of the English language and the man who distinguished himself rather by his physical transfiguration of a bearded and tattered poor man into an elegant figure with polished nails and dressed in sumptuous Armani suits than for any remarkable progress he made to overcome his original illiteracy. Brazil’s history is laden with poor people who acquired an education through their own effort and rose, by their own intellectual merits, far above their original station in life. I would even say that they preponderate numerically over the notable men of the upper class. The public prestige of Mr. Luiz Inácio is, in this sense, a most significant sociological phenomenon because it indicates a radical change in the judging criterion employed to evaluate the social rise of the humble. Previously, the value of an education acquired by one’s own merits prevailed over the hierarchy of social positions, but the success of Mr. Lula shows that this judgment has been reversed: being in high places is valued in itself, much more than any effort of self-education.
I mention this phenomenon because, more than any other, it denotes the mental state of affairs in contemporary Brazil. The worship of high places, coupled with the most arrogant contempt for knowledge, has become the general rule. In Brazil, a person is no longer required to have made discoveries, created works, and generated great ideas to be acknowledged as an intellectual and an educator of the masses. Rather, what is required of him is that he has occupied civil service positions, held the offices in the public administration, been a member of government commissions; in short, what counts is not who he is in terms of the substance of his creative and thinking person, but in terms of his place in the state bureaucracy.
I began documenting this state of things in my 1995 book The Collective Imbecile: Brazilian Uncultural News. But since then the situation has worsened so formidably that it can no longer be described in a comic and satiric key as it was in that book. Public stupidity has grown to the point where it has become fearful. It has established itself as a form of power which can impose upon a whole generation of students the most complete ineptitude as an essential regulatory obligation.
Because of this state of things, in 2005 I created an online Philosophy Seminar, which today has about three thousand students from all over Brazil and also some other countries. Based on the final projects I have received so far I am sure that these students, whom I asked to refrain from any public activity until they are properly prepared for it, are already an intellectual elite incomparably superior to that which has come out of Brazilian universities and occupied the most important positions in the media, education, and the publishing industry.
Never have I thought about educating other people than those who fell within my reach through the Philosophy Seminar . Nor do I have suggestions about the teaching of subjects which are outside my field of expertise. My students are being educated in the fields of literature, philosophy, and social sciences, precisely those which have been most affected after four decades of absolute rule of the semi-illiterate mandarinate.
However, from this limited experience I can draw some conclusions which may be useful to other people who have the intention of becoming educators.
The first is that the contempt for knowledge in Brazil has always been coupled with the worship of outward signs which stand for knowledge and which, seemingly with some advantage, replace it: degrees, diplomas, titles, honors, media space, good connections in high circles, and so on and so forth. The phenomenon has been so widely documented and satirized in our best fiction literature (Lima Barreto and Graciliano, for example) that I see no need to insist on it.
But the worst is that a circle of mutual reinforcement between those two complementary vices was formed a long time ago, and this circle seems impossible to break .
It works like this: since our business and political elite is not exactly well educated, the well-meaning souls who emerge from it having the laudable purpose of remedying the national evils are by themselves unable to distinguish—through a direct examination of works and ideas—between who is competent and who is an eminent airhead among the available intellectuals. As a result, they will have to judge them by outward signs—those darn titles and positions—and they will end up giving heed to those who have nothing important to tell them nor useful to suggest. Unculture generates unculture with the fertility of a couple of rabbits.
This becomes even worse when a deceiving prestige comes from abroad, landing in Brazil with all the pomp and ceremony suited to “the most modern thing of all.” In the Vargas administration, a beautiful project of popular education ended up taking as model the ideas of John Dewey, then very celebrated by the American media as a great innovator. Today it is known that Dewey was, in fact, the destroyer of the American education, which until then was the best in the world. From 1960s onwards—during the military dictatorship in Brazil—, social constructivism became fashionable, being adorned with names such as Jean Piaget, Emilia Ferrero, Vygotsky, and many others. For half a century the application of this nonsensical theory has brutalized the minds of our children with admirable constancy, at the same time that the triumphal expansion of the number of schools and the increasingly centralized control of national education has spread the democratization of ineptitude to the farthest corners and the poorest people of the country.
And why do these things happen? Because Brazil’s uneducated elite goes along with the media and the volatile prestige of the cultural celebrities of the day instead of examining and testing their ideas. And by doing so our elite only heaps up errors and disasters with an obscene persistence.
Whoever notices this phenomenon cannot but conclude that Brazil’s chief educational problem is precisely the opposite of what people usually say it is. That is to say, our problem is not that we have educated the elite and left the people behind, but rather that we have tried to provide education to all the people before we have a qualified elite to educate them, or even to seriously examine the problem of popular education.
Anyone who has been a teacher at least for a day immediately realizes that the educational process has a radiating structure: first you educate ten people, who in turn will go on and educate a hundred people, who in turn will educate a thousand people, who in turn will educate one million, and so on and so forth. To reverse this order is like wanting children to generate their parents. The rulers of this country have promised education to millions of people before they have been able to gather together ten serious educators to discuss how they are going to do this. Why not educate the first ten people? And to those who may object that this is right-wing elitism, I recommend they read Lenin and ask themselves why he organized the Communist party’s elite first and then the mass. Lenin knew that the tail does not wag the dog.
How to break the vicious circle of an uneducated elite guided by amateurs as inept as itself ?
In my view, there is only one way: we have to raise, outside the official educational system, far from the mainstream media, far from long-established prestige, a new, sincere, and well-prepared class of intellectuals, who, moreover, must be aggressive enough to, in due course, behead airheads, expel sacred cows, and start dealing with problems in a serious manner.
A second conclusion is that a government can only define “programs,” “methods,” budgets, that is, the more external and insubstantial aspects of education. None of these abstract universals has the ability to go into the classroom and guide the souls and minds of students towards their better development. The teacher’s personality is all. You can ask any student of any grade about it. Some teachers make deep impressions on students and have an almost hormonal influence on their intellectual and human growth, others are justly forgotten after a few years, and still others become traumatic obstacles to any conceivable progress.
The problem here is somewhat the same as everywhere else: the problem of human quality. Governments are so helpless about it that sometimes the worst regimes in the world raise, by the power of suffering, the best personalities; and as soon as conditions improve, the souls settle down and deteriorate.
The raising of better individuals can only come from society itself, from spontaneous cultural initiative. Religious organizations, neighborhood associations and clubs, labor unions, community centers can do a lot about it, provided that they are not committed to any political agenda aimed at standardizing minds to use them as pawns. In Brazil, to find a civic association which is free of this commitment has become increasingly difficult.
Finally, there remains the problem of home education. In Brazil, the permanent state of social and economic insecurity leads parents, in their desire to seek an immediate guarantee of livelihood for their children, to deliberately turn their kids into mediocre human beings, inducing them to get an education only to be able to pass civil service exams, instead of promoting the development of their intelligence to reach more ambitious goals in the long term. A good intention deformed by fear is no longer a good intention and becomes a deforming prosthesis. I have observed this phenomenon in virtually all Brazilian families I have met.
A little bit of educational experience shows that the desire for premature social adaptation can cripple a mind and severely limit the very prospects for social ascension. People do not come with their vocations stamped on their foreheads, nor with a manual where they can find out in advance their most promising talents. But what is absolutely certain is that one can only be successful in those things which reflect one’s deepest innate talents. A teenager who dreams of trying his hand at sports, fine arts, or any profession which seems exotic to his family—like a career in the merchant marine, in polar expeditions, or animal caretaking—can easily be induced to failure if his parents impose upon him choices which seem more “realistic” in a limited and mediocre mental atmosphere. I dare say that this is one of the most widespread causes of human failure in Brazil.
If you think your child is a moron who cannot survive in a field of free choice and without the crutches of a depressing government job, it would have been better if you had not generated him, or if you had given him to be raised by a more optimistic family.
Besides, what help can the Brazilian government offer in such matters if it is itself predominantly staffed with inept people for whom the epithet “mediocre” would even be a compliment?
To the present Brazilian government, as to most of its Latin American counterparts, the new generations are but instruments for the implementation of nominally saving policies which despise the present generation in the name of an elusive and unattainable future. I say “unattainable” not only because they are unrealizable in practice, but because their conception is already infected with the promise of endless deferral. Every revolutionary politics, which aims to reshape the world in its image and likeness, begins by denying all higher values in order to be able to establish its own values, which implies that a revolutionary politics cannot accept any judge superior to itself. This is why only the “permanent revolution” exists, that is, the pursuit of goals which have neither a definition nor a deadline to be achieved, so that the revolutionary work might never be judged but might always keep pushing itself further into the future so that it might perpetuate its condition of sole judge of all things.
The third and final conclusion relates to the difference between education and instruction. To instruct a student is simply to pass on to him a set of procedures, habits, techniques, and even mental tics that the teacher has received ready-made. The Department of Education should be called the Department of Instruction, because every educational activity whose model comes from above and is uniformly imposed to an entire population is only instruction. Education, as the etymology of the word implies, has something to do with opening the eyes of the student so that he might see the larger world around him, and he might see it with his own individual and intransferable eyes, without anybody imprisoning him in a preexisting framework. Clearly, if instruction can be a social activity performed by a collectivity of technicians, education, in the sense that I understand it, must be a deep connection between the soul of the teacher and the soul of the student, a relationship that imitates on a smaller and limited scale the relationship between father and son. Thus, it is clear that the teacher has to convey to the student, rather than this or that particular piece of knowledge, a certain inspiration, a power, an enthusiasm, and a love for the search for the truth. And it is also clear that no one can give what he himself does not have. True education is a laborious and late result of the effort of self-education, which takes place in the soul of the educator and precedes education.
These considerations, however, are so far above the current state of affairs in Brazilian education that I do not see any way to put them into action except in small groups, without any illusion of interfering in the present state of things, but preparing, perhaps, a better future.
Olavo de Carvalho is the President of The Inter-American Institute, Distinguished Senior Fellow in Philosophy, Political Science, and the Humanities.
Translation by Alessandro Cota.
The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.