The Impact of Education On Life

Cristovam Buarque was Brazil's Education Minister during the first year of the Lula administration.  He wrote an article on literacy, which is translated at Brazzil.  Here he states the basic argument for universal literacy for Bazil.  

Every country has the obligation to abolish illiteracy among its adults. This is even truer for a country with a text written on its flag. In Brazil, more than 15 million adult Brazilians do not recognize their flag because they do not know how to distinguish the motto "order and progress" on the flag from any other written words. Either Brazil changes its flag, or it teaches all Brazilians to read, no matter their age.

For more than a century Brazil has had adult literacy programs. This is one proof of the social failure in a country, which, if it had an educational policy for child literacy, would not need such programs for adults. It also demonstrates the failure of the Brazilian state to carry out social programs: in spite of these programs, it has not succeeded in solving the problem.

Buarque identifies the importance of education from the economic point of view, which veers away from providing universal literacy to all citizens:

Brazilian social logic dominated by economicism sees adult literacy programs as the road to increasing revenue, thereby diminishing poverty. According to this theory, since the population's oldest members do not increase revenue, it would be unjustified to teach them to read.

Is it really true that education decreases poverty?  We will now refer to some survey data from the 2003 TGI Brasil study.  This study includes a total of 9,836 persons between the ages of 18 to 64 years old interviewed during 2003.  In the next chart, we show the incidences of a number of socio-economic measures broken out by the number of years of education that a person has received.  For each and every measure, the incidences increase with the number of years of education.   We caution that these data permit only a correlational inference, and not a causal relationship.  For example, inherited family wealth enables one to obtain a professional/managerial position in the family business and acquire consumer goods, as well as a good education on the way.  The reader should also look at the shapes of these curves --- it is enough to make anyone cynical about econometric models that are often based upon linear relationships.

(source: 2003 TGI Brasil)

Buarque does not accept the economic argument for literacy programs:

Brazilian social logic dominated by economicism sees adult literacy programs as the road to increasing revenue, thereby diminishing poverty. According to this theory, since the population's oldest members do not increase revenue, it would be unjustified to teach them to read. But poverty is not a matter of revenue; it is a matter of exclusion from fundamental rights, one of them the right to literacy. The struggle against exclusion, therefore, demands teaching everyone to read, no matter what that person's age or economic potential might be.

We will now look at the TGI Brasil data again to see how media access is affected by education.  In the next chart, we show the incidences of media usage by the number of years of education.  For each and every medium here, the incidences increases with the number of years of education.  Again, we caution that these are not causal relationships. 

(source: 2003 TGI Brasil)

Finally, Buarque points out that it is not totally only about economic considerations or even social justice.  There is also the simple pleasure of the text:

At an event in Belo Horizonte some months ago, I heard a lady of a certain age, who had just learned to read, speak about the pleasure she felt the day that she first wrote the name of one of her children. Then she wrote the names of her other children, and, soon after, one by one, that of each of her grandchildren.

Every Brazilian has the right to that pleasure. It is a shame that we still deny millions of Brazilians older than fifteen—especially the oldest, because of the time that they have lost—the right to spell out the names of their loved ones.

When I heard that justification for adult literacy programs, one that had not occurred to me, I remembered another: literacy for all will diminish the social pain experienced by decent Brazilians when they encounter adults who still do not know how to read. Abolishing illiteracy in Brazil will not only give pleasure to those who have learned to read, but rather to all Brazilians, who will no longer endure the shame of living in a country that is so rich but that still has so many millions of illiterates.

The abolition of illiteracy, the simple fact that we have a broad, general, and unrestricted literacy campaign for adults—with a deadline for literacy-for-all and not the intention of literacy-for-more—will give Brazil a shock of decency. This alone would be sufficient to justify the abolitionist program instead of a mere assistance program.

The love for our neighbor commits us to the task, left to our generation, of abolishing illiteracy. It is an ethical, even a religious, decision as if the eleventh commandment were "Thou shalt teach thy neighbor to read as thou would teach thine own child."

For these reasons, we must have a clear goal for the abolition of illiteracy, excluding no one because of age. Thus was the goal set and carried out by Brasil Alfabetizado [Brazil Literate]. If, for an economic reason, the goal is to focus upon those who are younger, then, for an ethical reason, the older the illiterate, the greater our obligation to teach that person to read.

Instead of teaching younger people to read in the hope that they will pay their debt to the country, the country must teach people to read to pay off its debt for the amount of time it has left them illiterate. The older the illiterate Brazilians, the greater we are in debt to them for allowing them to go so long without knowing their flag, writing their child's name, or being included in the world of the literate.

(posted by Roland Soong, 02/27/2004)

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