Brazilian Pragmatism

Saturday night (Feb. 18, 2012) I got a message that my younger son was seen briefly on Finland’s national television news broadcast. As I haven’t done so in a while, I watched the whole 15 minutes worth of news for the evening from the Finnish national broadcasting service. There were a number of interesting moments in the broadcast besides my son’s 3 second cameo performance, most notably the out-going president’s little dance as she walked through the studio earlier in the day to defend the idea of military cut-backs affecting rural border areas. But of particular interest to me were Finland’s Prime Minister’s comments on his return from Brazil where he’s been drumming up business contacts over the past week.

Brazil is not considered to be a great international success story in many other areas than soccer, but Prime Minister Katainen came back from there complaining that hotel air conditioning gave him a sore throat, but other than that their country is a model example of economic pragmatism. He claims that Finland, among other countries, still allows ideological preconceptions to get in the way of government action to spur economic growth, implying that Brazil has found a better approach on such matters. That claim is in itself loaded with ideological preconceptions –– including the idea that greater amassing of wealth through encouraging greater consumption is the key to national and global well-being –– but it is fascinating to see Brazil held up as a role model none the less.

Prior to this year most of the talk I heard about Brazil outside of the realm of sports had to do with the endangered rain forests there, and the red meat production that is replacing these globally vital ecological formations. I’d hate to think that the pragmatism there which Katainen has been touting indicates that this deforestation is now accepted as a justifiable practice. I can’t really say one way or the other about that though.

The next thing I would naturally think of with regards to this Amazon nation is the inter-national standard they set for partying on the day before Ash Wednesday. As I write this the Carnival season is going full steam there, reaching a climax on Tuesday. This is the ultimate celebration of sex and drugs (mostly alcohol) and whatever music can best encourage both (albeit with surprisingly little rock and roll). This week Brazilian samba girls are making men around the world wish they were Brazilian; and women all around the world who dare to wear the tiniest of tiny bikinis are getting  their “Brazilian waxing” done to keep their body hair from showing.

This promiscuity in turn can also be associated with many of the evils of the country: serious drug problems, an abundance of unwanted children, extremely dangerous slums and all of the social ills that accompany unchecked prostitution. Then in turn there are the forms of religion that arise from the greatest sorts of human desperation, seeking miraculous cures for the problems people have got themselves and each other into.

Then another of Brazil’s claims to fame is its role as a haven for Nazi war criminals. Josef Mengele is the most famously documented case, but far from the only one. The 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077269/) is loosely based on this legendary demonic individual and his circle of friends there. It may or may not be coincidence that the real Mengele died “accidentally” in Brazil a year after this film was released.

Beyond that Brazil seems to be one of those countries where the constitution is written in pencil. They had a military dictatorship up into the mid-80s, and as I understand it the democratic reforms that have been enacted since have not given the common folk of the country much of a sense of having a say in how the powers that be do things. It would also seem that there is a certain elite there that would like to keep things that way. But I’ve also heard that Brazil has made one important step in the direction of changing this matter: they’ve made philosophy a required subject in all of the nation’s high schools.

An interesting article on the matter from the Boston Review that a virtual friend of mine recently posted a link to (http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.1/carlos_fraenkel_brazil_teaching_philosophy.php) tells of how philosophy teaching in schools was eliminated in the early years of military dictatorship and how it is now being restored on a scale that is quite internationally exceptional. But there remain serious questions as to what methods, purposes and priorities this subject area will come to include.

It would seem to me, and many of the teachers interviewed in the article, that the first priority for a course in philosophy for a country like Brazil should be to better enable young people to form intelligent and constructive viewpoints regarding the sort of issues mentioned above. This sort of active citizens’ involvement was what the old dictators were trying to prevent, leading them to replace the philosophy curriculum with courses in

“Moral and Civic Education” and “Social and Political Organization” (“to inculcate good manners and patriotic values and to justify the political order of the generals,” one UFBA [Federal University of Bahia] colleague recalls from his high school days). But the educational elite there, who have the final say in officially qualifying teachers for the task of philosophizing young people, are apparently trying to keep this course as classical and theoretical as possible. If this course provides yet another measure by which the children of the more privileged classes can prove that they are better at something –– thus deserving of their privileges –– it need not be any threat to the status quo. It can serve to keep those at the bottom of the pile “down where they belong” rather than empowering them to rise up and take charge of their own lives while playing a more active role in society.

This article also points out another very potentially problematic area when it comes to public acceptance of this new element in the national curriculum: as Carlos Fraenkel puts it in summarizing his experience as a guest lecturer in a variety of Brazilian high schools, “In every classroom I was at first flooded with questions: […] How did I get into philosophy? And—still more personally—do I believe in God, a question I encountered almost every time.” And then after his unsuccessful attempts to duck this question, “‘We knew it—all philosophers are atheists!’ they would say. When I asked who was a Catholic, who was an evangelical, and who practiced the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé (Salvador alone has more than 2000 terreiros, Candomblé’s houses of worship), all students raised their hand at least once.” So philosophy as an alternative to religion, or as a means of desacralizing students’ lives, is inevitably going to run into stiff opposition in such a country as Brazil.

Is the students’ generalization that all philosophers are atheists a fair one? I would like to think not, but it is not entirely unfounded. We need go no further than Bertrand Russell’s famous definition of philosophy as “a No Man’s Land [between theology and science], exposed to attack by both sides” to see that there isn’t exactly a natural kinship between philosophy and religion. The days in which philosophy was seen as the “handmaid of theology” have long since passed. Furthermore, many see the essential task of philosophy as providing some sort of moral compass for mankind in a post-religious age; and if the age is not post-religious enough for their taste, they aim to make it that way.

But with all that being acknowledged, the natural enemy of philosophy on this front is not (or need not be) religious faith, per se, but rather blind dogmas of all shapes and sizes. The philosopher’s task is to question all premises which are culturally taken for granted and ruthlessly enforced without leaving room for considering where such ideas come from or what other ways of seeing things there might be; and as Russell points out, that puts the philosopher as much as odds with “scientific” perspectives as it does with “theological” ones. Nor does this mean that a philosopher must consider everything that scientists and/or theologians have to say to be wrong. It simply means that the philosopher dares to keep persistently asking the sort of “why” questions that come naturally to children long after authority figures on both sides try to shut him up. From there, as long as he remains open to all relevant information and reasons things out thoroughly and carefully, the philosopher is free to draw his own conclusions. And if someone would assume that this automatically excludes the possibility of believing in a spiritual realm governed by a benevolent deity I would beg to differ.

The struggle to define how the subject will be taught in a new setting is familiar to me. I began working as a philosophy teacher in Finland at a time when the subject area there was still, as the Bible says, “formless and empty.” It was only two years before I taught my first class in the subject that Finland’s leading philosopher of the time, Georg Henrik von Wright, gave an interview (http://www.netn.fi/295/netn_295_wright.html) in which he was asked his opinion regarding the innovation of having philosophy as a required high school subject. His response was basically as follows (translation my own):

Earlier, a long time ago, I wrote about philosophy as a school subject. If I remember right my perspective was mainly that perhaps philosophy as such wouldn’t be a suitable subject unto itself. It would be a worthy goal to have more basic logic taught as part of math classes, and for history classes to include much more on the history of culture and art, perhaps above all more on the history of ideas. I still feel that logic should be part of mathematics and that there should be more of a philosophical emphasis in history. [But now] I think that it would be good to introduce philosophical schools of thought or philosophical concepts and problems at a relatively early stage. For example it would be good for school children to know something about so-called metaphysical problems or the normative side of philosophy.

I know that this sort of reform is in the works, but I don’t know anything about the subject area divisions. It could be that I wouldn’t be at all happy about them. In any case it is clear that among young people in particular there is a lot of searching going on, including philosophical searching. Recent experience […] tells me that philosophical questions concerning the current zeitgeist at least are of interest to young people. One would hope that academic teaching of philosophy would offer students something to satisfy this real need.  

Since that time the Finnish national curriculum guidelines for philosophy teaching have become much more standardized, in a direction that I believe the late Professor von Wright would be quite satisfied with. The subject matter is presented thematically in a very practically oriented way which enables students to better consider important value questions and knowledge issues in ways that support and improve their performance in other subjects as well. The basic introductory course goes hand in glove with the required courses in psychology and then either religious education or survey of world views. Beyond this there are 5 possible philosophy elective courses available: philosophical ethics, metaphysics, political philosophy, contemporary trends in philosophy and philosophical methodology. It has been during the period when this philosophy requirement was evolving in the Finnish school system that this system came to be ranked as the best in the world for problem solving, reading comprehension and mathematical skills. That may or may not be a coincidence.

Not that the Finnish school system is perfect. The case of Pekka-Eric Auvinen tells much of what needs to be improved. A deeply emotionally disturbed young man with a history of being bullied at school, self-taught in radical social philosophy, brought a gun to school one day in November of 2007 and shot and killed 8 people –– 3 resented female authority figures and 5 male classmates –– before committing suicide with the same gun. A year later there was a copycat killing of sorts resulting in even more deaths. If mental health and anti-bullying services functioned better, and if philosophy teaching in the school in question would have provided a safer understanding of the radical ideas that Auvinen was exploring, it is possible that these lives could have been saved. Even so, it must be acknowledged that no system can ever be 100% foolproof when it comes to preventing violence between teenagers.

I’m not sure how much Brazil can benefit from the Finnish experience when it comes to their pragmatic experiment in the large scale teaching of philosophy at the high school level. The contexts in which their students operate are radically different from the situation way up in northern Europe, so there is only so much experience that can be imported. And when it comes to changing the status quo of their education system to better empower young people from all different backgrounds, there are plenty of forces out there which want them to fail. Yet if they succeed in overcoming these obstacles and go on to build South America’s finest education system on the strength of this vision, it could have positive ripple effects in school systems around the world. From my biased perspective as a high school philosophy teacher that could only be a good thing.

The only things we can say for sure at this point though are that it’s too early to celebrate victory for the subject in Brazil, and hopefully other countries can begin their own initiatives in empowering young people through philosophical education without waiting to see how the Brazilian experiment works out.

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