Brazil’s vision for science is strangling the humanities

More investment in gaining skills like critical thinking and problem solving would help the country combat social inequalities, says Sarah O’Sullivan 

June 23, 2019
Brazil demonstration

Winners of the annual Brazilian Math Olympiad for Public Schools, run for the past 15 years, are rewarded with advanced maths classes twice monthly in a local university, with a R$100 (£20) stipend paid by the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development. In 2018, nearly 7,500 youngsters won medals and are currently completing advanced maths classes.  

OBMEP is one of several Brazilian initiatives which involves going into schools to look for children with an aptitude for science. There are Olympiad competitions in robotics, physics, chemistry, biology, and information technology. Independent research shows that such initiatives not only stimulate talented kids, but that overall performance improved when there were medal winners in a classroom. 

Meanwhile, the science minister Marcos Pontes is keen to stimulate Science in the School and recently launched a R$100 million (£20.5 million) programme with the Education Ministry to incentivise innovative teaching methodologies in public schools. Launching the programme, the minister, who is also a former astronaut and the first Brazilian to go into space, pointed to millions of young people in Brazil. With the right “push”, he said, each can become a “scientist, successful business person, happy person, and productive citizen”. 

While all of these projects are laudable, and will undoubtedly contribute to more robust generations of Brazilians choosing exact sciences, it seems that social sciences and the humanities are being thrown under the bus.    

Brazil came to the attention of many international universities vis-à-vis the Federal Scholarship Programme, known as Science without Borders, which sent more than 90,000 young Brazilians to foreign campuses for at least one academic year.  

Nearly 80 per cent of scholarship holders were undergraduate students (which was not Brazil’s intention when launching the programme), and nearly 45 per cent were engineering students. 

Humanities were not included, to the disgust of academics, who argued that a focus on so-called “hard” sciences placed too much importance on economic and technological development, while neglecting human development. A legal battle to include humanities in the programme in 2013 was not successful. 

The exclusion of humanities is not a new phenomenon in Brazil. From 1964 to 1985, sociology and philosophy were removed from school curricula. And in 2016, Brazil’s Education Ministry suggested that sociology and philosophy become elective subjects on the secondary school curriculum.  

While congress analyses the suggested amendments, the current education minister has made it clear that he doesn’t want to invest public money in the humanities. Areas like sociology and philosophy are hobbies of the wealthy, he suggests, and they can afford to pay themselves. 

This rhetoric is beginning to have an impact. The number of Brazilian students accessing university has jumped considerably in recent years – 3.5 million young Brazilians were registered in third-level institutions in 2002, while 15 years later this number had risen to 8 million.  

Academics report that many students, often the first in their families to access university education, tend to choose courses in the humanities and social sciences, possibly because entry to these courses was not as competitive as courses in exact sciences. However, it is noted that many humanities and social science students are now opting out of their chosen areas when they reach post-graduate levels, choosing “safer” areas like law, education, and psychology.  

Meanwhile, academic careers in social sciences and humanities, with historic funding deficits for research, are less appealing to students. With the current education minister stating that areas like philosophy and sociology don’t offer the same return on investment as more technical areas of learning, many fear students will continue to opt out. 

Underfunding for the humanities occurs during an unusual and challenging time for education in Brazil. Intellectuals are seen as a public enemy, while ideological war ensues inside the classroom and out. 

As the country grapples with a growing and changing demographic, and spiralling problems with urban and domestic violence, among other woes, one would imagine that critical thinking, problem solving and communications skills honed in humanities degrees is just what Brazil needs in order to understand and explore healthy and lasting solutions to societal ails.  

Focused investment in exact sciences and business, to the detriment of social sciences and humanities, may only serve to further deepen inequality chasms in the mammoth continent-sized country.  

Sarah O'Sullivan is an education consultant based in Rio de Janeiro. 

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