What are they learning?

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Brazilian Schools Are Ideological Battlefields

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is on the verge of being thrown out of office. A rolling corruption scandal has roiled the country, and the entire political establishment seems to be at war with itself. So you might hope education would exercise a moderating influence on the nation, training students to think critically and tempering their partisan passions.

Good luck with that. These days, Brazilian schools have been swept up in the national funk. Instead of promoting scholarly inquiry, classrooms are often political battlegrounds, with students enlisted in the fray.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, check out the syllabus. In a recent review of 10 of the country’s government-approved history textbooks, Fernando Schuler, who teaches political science at the São Paulo university Insper, found a predictable agenda. “In every one of the textbooks I read, the slant is clearly to the left,” Schuler told me. “The world is divided as if in a ‘Star Wars’ film into forces dark and light, with social progressives confronting the apologists of international capital and neoliberalism.”

Consider the entries on former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995 - 2002) who was both lauded and loathed for his era of sweeping structural reforms. In the “General History of Brazil,” a staple of public and private middle and high schools, students read about a leader “more committed to international finances” and whose many free-market policies caused “growing unemployment,” “de-industrialization,” “economic stagnation,” and “glaring” social inequalities. Another text claims that Cardoso coasted through his second term “without implementing any reforms or important policies.”

Never mind that Cardoso stabilized the currency, paid down debts, and sponsored many important amendments to reform the spendthrift constitution in his first term, and went on in his second to initiate pension reform, launch a cash-transfer program to benefit poor students, and create the fiscal responsibility law (the one Rousseff is charged with breaking) to keep government spending in check

Cardoso’s successor, leftist Workers' Party leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, gets far gentler treatment for his aggressive social spending, government-led development projects, and foreign policy unbeholden to the United States. What students won’t hear is that Lula was elected only after ditching his capitalist-bashing shtick and committing to uphold Cardoso-era economics, and that a global commodities boom underwrote his generous social programs.

The textbooks’ treatment of contemporary Latin American history also amounts to a battle of good versus evil. The authors rightly, if predictably, excoriate the U.S. for its support of military juntas in Brazil, Argentina and Chile. But what you won’t find in their pages are harsh words about the Cuban dictatorship under Fidel Castro, or human rights abuses and political intimidation during Hugo Chavez’s autocratic run in Venezuela -- “a center for challenging global capitalism led by the United States,” as one textbook puts it.

That college campuses are incubators for anti-establishment pique will come as no surprise to anyone in the U.S. or Europe. But plugging a political agenda to high-schoolers and even middle-school students, especially at taxpayer-funded public schools, is another matter. And the problem goes beyond textbooks. For example, last year an influential teachers’ union in southern Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul state convinced public high schools to cut classes short so that students could take part in “citizen classes organized by educators with a wage grievance.

Compounding the problem is that most secondary teachers earn their diplomas at Brazil’s state-run universities, where tendentiousness flourishes. Earlier this month, a professor at a teacher’s college at the Federal University of Bahia canceled class to send his students to “accompany and register the popular movement against impeachment, in defense of democracy and for the advance of social rights,” the professor wrote in an e-mail. “Long live the Democratic Rule of Law!”

One of his students, Fernanda Accorsi, objected and posted a copy of the assignment on Facebook, which went viral. “The professor was using class for partisan ends,” Accorsi told me. “We are going to be teaching future generations. We have a responsibility to educate, not indoctrinate.”

That’s the sort of miseducation that upsets Miguel Nagib. After his daughter’s seventh-grade history teacher told her class that Saint Francis was “just like Che Guevara” -- the bandoleer-sporting hero of the Cuban revolution -- the Brazilian lawyer started a citizens’ pressure group, Schools Without Parties. Nagib says he has no quarrels with professors who speak out, just with those who use schools as soapboxes. “Students are a captive audience. They can’t just get up and leave,” he said.

Recently, the issue of classroom bias has attracted attention in Mato Grosso state, in western Brazil, where federal prosecutors filed an inquiry with the education ministry. “Education is never neutral, but it has to be impartial,” said prosecutor Cleber Neto. “We are concerned about possible violations of constitutional rights and asked the ministry to justify choosing these books.” The authorities have yet to complete that assignment.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net