Hypothetically, imagine the situation in Brazil after receiving two atomic bombs in any war. Imagine further, that all the pride of the country has been devastated, like its infrastructure and economic and social development. Compounding this scenario of pure imagination, imagine that Brazil has no wealth of natural resources (anything from the Amazon or Atlantic Forest) or the mineral wealth we now have.
In this imaginative exercise think now that the geographical area of that country was composed of volcanic islands vulnerable to earthquakes in the last degree on the Richter scale.
Imagined? It would be chaos, right?
If you think this is one of the world’s worst case scenarios, be surprised to learn that in the last century, after the Second World War (after 1945), Japan had all these features described above, with the exception of natural resources in large scale.
However, even given all these constraints of structural and economic orders, this oriental country managed to overcome them with massive investments in a policy of long-term development, focusing on reconstruction of infrastructure and especially in the appreciation of education as an element of transformation. The Japanese educational policy focused specifically on the creation of technical courses supported by a policy of innovation applied at the base. Copy the best products, surpass them in quality, and the proposed goal was achieved by the Japanese. Result? In the 1980s, the then U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), had to ask the Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita (1924-2000), that companies of his country, especially the automotive sector, stop selling cars in the U.S. market, since such action could cause the fall of General Motors (GM).
Not very long after these events, in the 1960s, South Korea sought a model of economic development to be able to move forward with South Korean companies. The socioeconomic indicators of the country were below the Brazilians, not counting the tiny home market. At the same time, Brazil was experiencing the fruits of the process via Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI), which was basically to protect the domestic market from international competition, thus ensuring a space for companies which were within the country (both domestic and multinationals). Such a practice would lead to a competitive process capable of making local businesses replace imported products, ensuring, in essence, a consistent and promising industrialization.
Korea, it is important to note, copied this model with some variations: 1) protected its industry while at the same time promoting competition in the world order, 2) as its domestic market was small, they opted to sell their products to the world, which obliged it, therefore, to make its industries take measured efforts with international leaders, particularly on issues of innovation and competitiveness, 3) conducted an extensive and symptomatic revolution in its education system.
The last demonstration in which this took place? Radical changes occurred in schools through the university level. Substantial investments in basic education have made South Korea think big, as the ruling class believed that education needed structural change. From there a culture of meritocracy was implanted to encourage education, increasing the number of hours of study. Today, after a decade of the new century, the South Koreans study twice as many hours as compared to Brazilian children.
South Korea emphasized specific points: improved teacher salaries, increased partnerships with the private sector in order to raise funds for education and promotion of technological innovation and, ultimately, involved the nuclear family in responsibility (co-participation) in the process of teaching and learning. They applied the sermon that together (government, families, businesses, students and teachers) all become stronger.
The figures underpin this statement: The budget for education in South Korea rose from 2.5% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1951 to 22% in 1980 – in less than thirty years, a jump of more than 750% . The result was predictable: South Korea was the only country that managed to develop economically in a well structured form over the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Education: the key variable
In the examples cited, education appears as a decisive variable for the development of countries (Japan and Korea), and currently it is being worked in a cohesive manner for countries growing at considerable rates such as India and China.
This “variable” called education, was also the object of study by economist Theodore Schultz (1902-1998). Following the war, Schultz wondered why Germany and Japan, which were defeated countries physically ravaged by the crudity of bombs, recovered so quickly. Schultz’s conclusion was that the speed of recovery of these countries was due explicitly to a healthy and highly educated population. He said a good combination of these two variables – health and education – we prefer to call it sentiment, would significantly increase the productivity and competitiveness of these and other countries who transited through these paths.
It was in this way – which was already highly familiar to many – that Schultz introduced a new key element for economic development: the Education Capital, which would later be identified as Human Capital. In essence, the know-how (savoir-faire) that Schultz prioritizes as a lever for development.
The work of Schultz, besides influential, particularly in the allocation of resources from developed countries (say Korea whose lesson was well learned and applied) was also on a list of staff development policies recommended by institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the UN itself, in its various reports and studies.
All these situations are well known and some are part of public domain. It is not through ignorance that, in some places, the promotion of education does not become a priority. Certainly the reasons for the neglect are different, with multiple facets.
History is replete with good examples. Examples of development guided by appropriate educational policies are also illustrative. Exiled in Chile during the 1840s, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888) was commissioned to improve the Chilean educational system. On his return to Argentina, Sarmiento became the ninth president of the Republic (1868-74). During this period, he converted the Argentine educational system into a model of excellence. Soon the number of public schools doubled and more than 100 qualitatively unique public libraries were built. Even up to now, Argentines reap the fruits of this system. Not at random, five of our brothers have won the Nobel Prize, three focused on science, including physiology and medicine in 1947.
As for Brazil, the ones who put their feet first to colonize these lands have always wanted this to be a simple place, capable of producing and supplying useful items for metropolitan trade. By the end of the colonial period, this was the goal of the Portuguese empire. It follows that education came to be treated, on Brazilian territory, with mere negligence.
Education work sponsored by the Society of Jesus was removed from Brazilian reality. The first letters were not taught to the simple people, but the sons of the elite (children of the plantation owners). For the simplest (Indians and children of the settlers), teaching was in charge of converting them to the dictates of the Church. Thus, education in Brazil was born with an elitist paint, and continues today – just pay attention to the qualitative distance education for the deprived with the elevated who pay private monthly tuition payments and the still higher educational level and compare them with what is learned in public schools that lack chalk, chairs and, often, teachers are threatened with death in the peripheries.
The first university in Brazil and the five centuries of neglect
Of equal amount, the first university in Brazil was not born with a project to bring liberating and inclusive education, but only to flatter the European elite, granting the King of Belgium the title of Doctor Honoris Causa, in 1920, on account of his visit to the country. This is the seminal history of the current Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), originally known as University of Brazil (UB). What led to this? The continued collapse of public power, begun with the Portuguese, for teaching in Brazil. Today, through the years that are running in the XXI century, we reap the bitter fruit of those badly-initiated public administrations in the sixteenth century. There are five centuries of neglect. Currently, the Brazilian educational system is highly inefficient to promote a break with the status quo and to promote, through knowledge, a policy of valuing the individual.
In Brazil, coming from the world of politics, being a politician with a refined Administrative vision, remains the banner unfurled by Cristovam Buarque. The “Revolution in Education” advocated by the current senator, unfortunately, has not yet reached the ears of the deaf central executive power. As few revolutionaries are within the meaning of the term utopian, Cristovam Buarque is a catapult for those feelings for a better world led by chalk and slate. With this, is packed a world of ideas guided by quality in education. Like him, there is Paulo Freire (1921-1997), Teixeira (1900-1971), Lourenço Filho (1897-1970) and Fernando de Azevedo (1894-1974). And yet, it remains to ask: how many of us know who they were and what they did?
Some day we will repent bitterly for the neglect with which we treat education. We will never be able to build a cohesive nation. And the gateway to this construction is well known: quality education, not quantity of education, merely for convenience.
Maybe that’s why Celso Furtado (1920-2004), our most brilliant economist, rightly said that “we never developed, only modernized” because, in my view, development, through the lens of economics, implies a situation where there is an improvement in the state of life for those who compose the most simple strata of society. This leads us to say this is one of the few countries where the wealthy class seems to dislike the fact that the poor and simpler citizens may have the ability to study. It seems that “they” do not want everyone in a better intellectual condition.
Not coincidentally, we have diametrically opposing social classes – from one side the “luxury,” the other the “rubbish.” Perhaps that is why we still have (as a nation) a mania about the times of slave society, since there are many who still consider manual labor a thing for little people without merit. A country that wishes to be classified as serious needs politicians to return back to the school bench, to make the first of the most basic lessons the development of the alphabet: to eradicate illiteracy, to qualify the individual and give them the opportunity to thrive in life. And that is not done with a mere 4.3 years of study that, on average, each Brazilian is sitting on a bench at school.
Finally, we must point out here that we seek only understanding of history. Is up to you, distinguished reader, to “discover” who are the guilty culprits for the neglect of education and, more importantly, understand why everyone talks about the importance of education, especially at election time, but few are they that do something to improve it. After all, as the Frenchman Bachelard would say, “the truth is the daughter of discussion.” So let’s provoke more than discussion. The time is ripe.
Hugo Eduardo Meza Pinto
Marcus Eduardo de Oliveira
Translated from the Portuguese version by: Lisa KARPOVA