Brazil’s Conventionality, Continued–and Higher Education

Last post spoke about the insularity of large countries, of which one of the most obvious manifestations are their conventions. This convention issue is not without its slipperiness as a concept. I’ll venture forth the idea that a country tends to be conventional when greater value is placed on standard –homogeneous (traditional) formats– than diversity.

Weddings in Brazil are a good example. They tend to be highly formulaic, from the bride’s dress, to the whisky poured at the after-party, and the chocolate “bonbons” made available at the door. Some of the conventions are more akin to standards. For example, the Brazilian government enforces a curriculum that is followed in public and private schools: students have few electives in high school or university, and “careers” are far more important than learning a discipline. This standard has produced the conventional wisdom that there is less intrinsic value in, say, a philosophy or political science degree than an engineering or law degree. Although somewhat similar in other parts of the world, this assumption is exaggerated in the developing world. For logical reasons too– it’s hard to make a living off of a philosophy or political science degree in an economy where the comparative advantage is not in intellectual capital or niche services. By contrast, advanced countries place value on analytical or creative thinking, and disciplines such as philosophy or political science arguably provide excellent means of sharpening this sort of thinking. I’m digressing, but will return to conventions.

I was recently speaking with Brazilians about their high school experiences. According to them, high school curriculums are tedious and impractical. A student has no choice whether s/he will take advanced mathematics, for example; there is little to no room for specialization. Whether they graduate or not (most don’t), Brazilians acknowledge the listlessness of what and how they learn. The system is unfortunate, because it stunts the sort of analytical and creative development that leads students in more advanced democracies to discern and develop “niches” within the larger economy. You find that careers in Brazil are more like what you learned when you were a child— clear-cut: policeman, secretary, doctor, lawyer, etc. In this sense, careers here appear to be highly conventional.

We all have good reasons to embrace unconventional thinking, to inject a good dose of diversity into our day to day. Yet the more traditional we are, the more resistant to this sort of thinking. Hence the value of a humanistic or social science education.

Back to Brazil. I have found conventionality in the most unlikely of milieus: the educational establishment. In Canada or the U.S., we welcome people with advanced degrees with open arms. Here, they put up incredible roadblocks to foreigners teaching or working in Brazil. Some of this has to be attributed to the byzantine bureaucracy native to Latin American countries. But some of it verges on xenophobia. A professor at a Rio university recently recounted how the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) came to evaluate his program. The authority responsible, a Ph.D., had a candid meeting with professors, and during the meeting my friend expressed his appreciation for being able to teach an elective course in English. The MEC authority expressed his disapproval, apparently warning professors that “foreigners want to manipulate Brazil,” among other shocking bigotry. While highly disturbing, it is not altogether out of line with my experience trying to break into the higher learning sector here in Brazil. The official obstacles erected against foreigners, and these sorts of paranoid attitudes given me reason to believe that either:

a) A considerable sector within the Brazilian educational establishment is less tolerant, more parochial, defensive and even paranoid than one would expect of highly educated professionals in a traditionally “open” milieu.

b) (The more likely explanation) A sector of the Brazilian academy is defensive because it is insecure and unsure about its ability to compete with foreigners– it feels threatened.

The advanced world has prospered by recruiting the best minds from around the globe and making it easy for them to establish a toehold. One would think that a developing country such as Brazil has even greater reasons to do the same.

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