On May 30th, people in Brazil again staged protests against new Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s education measures. Over a hundred cities registered stoppages and marches. These strikes, however, were slightly smaller than those of May 15th, when more than 2 million people took the streets in around 200 cities, in the biggest demonstration of opposition to the government so far. Bolsonaro, who was in the United States at the time, called the protesters “useful idiots”, “chumps”, and the “manipulated mass”. Subsequently, he characterized the street protests as the work of a “movement led by a small group whose budget I cut“. But what are the cultural roots that underlie this educational battle that has taken the Brazilian streets lately?
We must keep in mind that after almost three decades as a congressman, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil presenting himself as an alternative to “the establishment”. To him, the establishment includes the majority of politicians, traditional parties, the mass media, intellectuals, and academics. From Bolsonaro’s point of view, the predominance of a “leftist ideology” in the intellectual milieu is what has caused declines in the quality of Brazil’s educational system and the country’s academic output. Racial quotas in universities, mandatory sociology and philosophy classes in high schools, sex education in elementary school, and the like are—to Bolsonaro—tools for the indoctrinate of new generations of young people. This, he argues, is perpetuating “left-wing cultural hegemony” and undermining the “authentic Christian values” of the Brazilian society.
Bolsonaro’s antidote against moral corruption
Bolsonaro’s mentality has found fertile soil among those sectors of Brazilian society that have found the cultural and socio-political changes of recent years threatening. By mid-2013, under the presidency of Dilma Rousseff (Workers’ Party), it had become clear to a large part of the population that the expansion of social rights and economic growth inherited from the former president Lula had run its course. The mass media—following the trail of the famous “Car Wash” anti-corruption operation—lay all Brazil’s problems at the feet of a profoundly corrupt political apparatus. Additional factors—such as the progressive change of the Brazilian religious matrix, which is increasingly evangelical—converged to transform the political problem into a moral one. In this worldview, not only the State but also the values of Brazilian citizens have been dangerously corrupted. Therefore, established values need to be restored. This is why education has become such a hot-button issue, especially humanities and social science education, where the critical discussion of ideological issues is par for the course.
Eradicating “Marxist indoctrination” from elementary school to the universities is thus cast as the key to moral rejuvenation. It follows that those responsible for this “indoctrination”—left-wing politicians, on the one hand, and social science intellectuals (regarded as atheists and communists), on the other—must also be done away with. Therefore, even before Bolsonaro’s election, political projects such as “Escola sem Partido” (“Nonpartisan Schools”)—which proposed punishments to teachers identified as “indoctrinators”—began to be defended by the evangelical bench, among other groups in the Congress.
Bolsonaro succeeded in capitalizing on this dissent by presenting himself as the antidote to the moral corruption that supposedly plagues Brazil. Once elected he began to articulate a series of educational projects: supervision of the national standardized test, in order to avoid alleged “ideological contamination” in its content; reintroduction of moral and civic education into the core curriculum; revisionism towards the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964–1985), through interference in official teaching material, and; charging tuition fees for public universities. These proposals, however, were presented very poorly, which saw the Minister of Education, Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, fired (he was plagued by controversy in any case). His successor, the current minister, Abraham Weintraub, has intensified the attacks.
Political action undermines federal universities activities
Bolsonaro’s new Ministry of Education has spearheaded the anti-intellectualism advanced by the president. Since his election campaign took shape, President Bolsonaro’s persecution and revanchist attitude towards universities and academics have intensified the political division in Brazil. First, Weintraub labeled history, sociology and philosophy courses as unprofitable, unnecessary, and contaminated by Marxist ideas. After that, with no clear criteria, he announced a 30% cut in the budget of three major federal universities that (it was claimed) were continuing to support the “ruckus”. The explicitly discretionary nature of this decision led to several criticisms. The government then stepped up the political action, extending the cuts to all federal universities and suspending more than 7,000 scholarships, under the “technical” claim that it was necessary to cut costs until the approval for the Pension Reform. In practice, the decision has put at risk the functioning of federal universities and the academic research developed there.
Debriefed a couple of times by the Congress, Weintraub dismissed the protests, implying the universities conduct questionable research. In an attempt to ease tensions, the Ministry of Education reviewed the situation of some of the cut scholarships and pledged to restore a portion of the amount that had been expropriated from universities. These concessions, however, were not sufficient to reverse the crisis that has taken place in Brazilian educational institutions, and it seems that the situation is likely to worsen.
The effects of the cuts have already been felt in the daily life of researchers and universities. To give concrete examples: admissions of some new students to the next school term have been suspended, certain university restaurants had to close and many bus lines that circulate in universities have been shut down. Even more serious, some research laboratories are on the verge of having their research halted due to the lack of research materials or even facilities. There have already been reports from laboratory coordinators who use their own money for the operation and continuity of the researches, and some researchers are disengaging from graduate courses after the confiscation of the scholarships, unable to carry out their research without any financial contribution.
The prospect is that the effects of the cuts will be even worse in the long run, especially in areas that suffer from a chronic lack of resources, such as the humanities. In most of these academic departments, existing scholarships guarantee not only the survival of the researchers but also the costs of field research, the transcription of interviews, etc.
The question now is: how will the president deal with the pressure from the streets? Apparently, the arm wrestling is far from over. In response to the latest protests on May 30, the Ministry of Education has made available to the population a communication channel to receive complaints from “manipulative teachers” that support the protests. For the anti-intellectualism expressed by Bolsonaro, the group of teachers, academics, and intellectuals just want to keep using the university as a headquarter for their manipulation projects. The world has already witnessed the totalitarian course that anti-intellectual movements like this one tend to take. We hope, however, that the people will be able to hold a lit candle and resist to the darkness that takes over Brazil.
Authors: Renan William dos Santos is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at University of São Paulo, Brazil
Luiz Vicente Justino Jácomo is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at University of São Paulo, Brazil
Photo: EVARISTO SA / AFP
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