The prostration of the University

Image: Isaac Taylor


The University is experiencing a process of irreversible desertification of its foundations

School without thinking

2008. End of semester. In a classroom of sixth semester Law students, the Political Science professor addresses one of his students and asks him to present a brief synthesis of the identities and differences of the concept of state of nature in Hobbes and Locke. He leaves Rousseau out of his inquiry. Discussing the first two authors already required a certain intellectual effort worthy of note.

After spending some time in silence, perhaps reflecting on what to say, the student, in amazement, looked at the teacher and, with a certain air of abandon, replied: “teacher, in the state of nature, man was always pounding his head without knowing what to do. what to do, as Hobbes and Locke say. Are you right, master”?

“Ingenious, your answer”, replies the professor. In order not to embarrass him in front of his colleagues, he asks him if he made any mistakes in Portuguese or in terms of agreement. “No teacher, I didn’t make any mistakes; not that I know". “Poor soul! He doesn't even realize his indomitable ignorance of his mother tongue", thinks the teacher, who then looks at his pupil and comments to himself: "I imagine how this creature will manage when he has to write a power of attorney or make a oral arguments. Maybe you won’t make yourself an object of ridicule among your peers… After all, everyone is “homines sunt ejusdem farinae” [They are men of the same flour].

After a few seconds, the teacher turns to the student and tells him to be careful not to go around “hammering his head”, as he could break the hammer. After that, he leaves the classroom, resigned to his impotence in breaking away from that state of intellectual barbarism in which his students comfortably live. 

This anecdotal picture is real, it is not fiction. It happened to this narrator, which led him, that same year, to write this text. First, however, it is worth noting to highlight what led him to publish a text produced for discussion in the classroom, written so long ago.

It was an excellent article by teacher Daniel Afonso da Silva, “Desertified foundations”, published on the website the earth is round, dated 24/03/2024, which motivated this writer to remove his reflections on teaching from the drawer, motivated by bright e genial response from his Political Science student, when asked to present the characteristics of the state of nature in Hobbes and Locke.

“Deserted foundations” express, nakedly and crudely, the state of intellectual prostration in which universities in Brazil and, perhaps, the world find themselves today. Assertively, it states that “The reservoir of knowledge, knowledge and culture that university spaces have historically represented has been reduced to levels of trivialization and vulgarity never imagined or bearable, even by its most violent and historical detractors on duty”.

A finding that brings to the immediate surface of the issue, what everyone sees, but remains silent in an attitude of complicity, dumbfounded by the state of prostration in which teaching in general finds itself; powerless in the face of the process of desertification of the foundations of the fields reserved by society for the production of universal knowledge.

“Whoever is willing to read Professor Paulo Martins’ magnificent article again”, comments Daniel Afonso, “University for What”, will certainly reread “that 'the university crisis, above all, must reflect on the attraction of young people' and bring the questions back to consciousness: 'Can teachers from the best institutions in Brazil understand that What was important to them is no longer enough to captivate today's students? Perhaps young people do not seek university for the same reasons. So we are left to ponder: 'what are we for?'”

“What are we for”, anyway? The answer to this question, which brings with it a certain concern about being useful, is unfortunately negative, that is: “we are no longer good for anything!”. Young people no longer seek university driven by the feeling of learning for the sake of learning. Today's young people no longer enjoy thinking. You could too! In a world in which technical specialization has transformed science into crumbs of knowledge, readers have lost the charm of disinterested reading. A natural consequence of the transformation of society into a world of experts, in which each person increasingly knows less about more things.

In this context, cultural and political indigence borders on idiocy. It is the price that society is forced to pay for this extreme form of knowledge specialization. It's a very high price! I certainly do. It is with sadness that today we see a multiplication of the production of texts that are easy and quick to read. The classics of Philosophy, Political Economy, Sociology, are all on the newsstands, to be read in 90 minutes. The work of a lifetime, like those of Kant, Hegel, Marx, for example, is condensed into a few short words. Some easy-to-understand excerpts are selected for the reader to quote and thus appear intellectual in front of an audience as ill-prepared as he is. In this world, many writers don't need much effort to become known to the public. If you're lucky enough to write what people want to read, you're halfway to fame.

From all this it is clear that specialization goes hand in hand with the mediocrity of culture. The amalgam of this union is the bourgeoisie's hunger for money, which has transformed societies into a great commercial fair, where everything is sold. In his Midas-like eagerness, he was concerned with directing the human spirit towards useful arts, making him lose, little by little, the taste for things that ennoble the soul. Result: on the one hand, he created ignorant experts in things of the spirit; on the other, he demoted them to the status of individuals who only use encrypted languages, practically accessible to their ghetto peers.

This state of things is diagnosed by Alfredo Bosi, in his classic The dialectic of colonization, when, thus, he describes the entry of the world into the post-utopian era. He says: “A production engineer quite renowned among his peers told me with the candid boldness of fools that psychoanalysis is the last superstition of the 19th century, an opinion supported by a doctor in the sexual behavior of caged rats, who asserted that Freud wrote songs for anxious nannies. In the other corner of the room (it was an academic party), a serious Semiotics professor launched from the top of her sememes an anathema against the Exact Sciences which, in her opinion, were nothing more than skillful binary arrangements. More than one journalist barely out of postgraduate studies declared the inglorious passing of Hegel and Marx, attributing their cause of death to a stroke of automation. In general, some helped themselves with quotes from a Japanese author considered to be a genius who had already noted the end of History, the death of ideologies and the entry into the post-utopian era.”[I].

It is in this direction that we seek to make some contribution to Professor Daniel Afonso's excellent article, with the intention of seeking the deeper causes that desertified the foundations of the university.

The reasons for intellectual prostration

We live in a time when man has unlearned how to think. He no longer reads lengthy texts that require him to make minimal effort to understand them; he prefers those who spare him from thinking, as it is more comfortable for others to do it for him; that they simplify for him everything that takes time to understand; If possible, reduce systemic and complex theories into half a dozen statements that fit into a few pages.

Things from postmodern times? Before it was! As Kant would say, it is easier to be smaller. Thinking is hard work, as it requires the effort of reflection, which can only be acquired by those who dare to give up the immediate, everyday pleasures of life, to dedicate themselves to things of the spirit and find the “joy of thinking” in them.[ii]. Experiencing such a feeling is like diving into a large lake, without rushing to cross it in one swim. Only those who cultivate “the patience of diving”, who go to the deepest waters, will find “the pearls of enchantment”. Anyone who reads out of obligation or to kill time will never again be enchanted by the world, which is so familiar and familiar that nothing surprises them.

When people willingly prefer the arms of laziness, reason and imagination are the first to be banished from men's lives. Hegel already sensed this, when he advised Philosophy students to distance themselves from the immediate world, to delve into the intimate night of the soul and thus see the world again with different eyes; to know in a different way what is already known to everyone.

Hegel's advice was lost in the nights of time. Tocqueville witnessed the beginning of times when man began to lose interest in long reflection. He realized that the neglect of reading and reflection is a permanent malaise of modern societies, of democratic societies, as he defined the birth of modernity. Despite the stale conservativeness of his ideas, he rightly says that, when traditional forms of life are overcome by an egalitarian social state, men prefer to cultivate a certain depraved intellectual taste, habituating them to want the spectacle of literature, the emotions of the heart to the pleasures of the spirit. It is a form of society that leads men to dedicate most of their lives to business and, consequently, little time to letters. Therefore, “they like books that can be obtained without difficulty, that can be read quickly, that do not require erudite research to be understood. They ask for easy beauties, which are self-giving and which can be enjoyed immediately; They need lively and rapid emotions, and sudden flashes, brilliant truths or errors that tear them out of themselves and introduce them suddenly and, as if by violence, into the middle of the subject.”[iii].

Despite the prejudiced accusations about his work, mainly from left-wing intellectuals, Tocqueville does not see the present with his eyes fixed on the past. He simply recognizes that there is no longer a place for the disinterested cultivation of the sciences. However, he notes that capitalism does not antagonize the sciences to celebrate simple and pure ignorance. That's not what happens. What changes is the fact that they are no longer cultivated for their own sake, as the production of disinterested knowledge, as Aristotle defined Philosophy, has been replaced by knowledge with immediate practical application. Let the author of the Democracy in America, for whom it is not true that men “who live in democratic eras are indifferent to the sciences, letters and arts; it is only necessary to recognize that they cultivate it in their own way and introduce, into this context, the qualities and defects that are their own.”[iv].

This is how he sees American society, where social egalitarianism was most fully developed. In it, Americans can only dedicate themselves to the general culture of intelligence in the first years of life. At fifteen, they enter a career; thus, their education ends, in most cases, where ours begins. If it goes further, it only goes towards a special and profitable subject; They study a science as one embraces a craft and are only interested in applications whose current usefulness is recognized.”[v].

For this reason, he adds that they lack both the will and the power to dedicate themselves to the work of intelligence, to things of the spirit. After all, the universal desire for material well-being and the tireless search to achieve it lead men to prefer the useful to the beautiful, to cultivate the arts that serve to make life comfortable. For “spirits disposed in this way”, he comments that “any new method that leads to a shorter path to wealth, any machine that reduces work, any instrument that reduces production costs, any discovery that facilitates pleasures and increases them, It seems like the most magnificent effort of human intelligence. It is mainly on this side that democratic people are interested in science, understand it and honor it. In democratic eras, the pleasures of the spirit are required in particular from the sciences; in democracies, the pleasures of the body”[vi].

In a world like this, men's lives, Tocqueville emphasizes, are so practical, so complicated, so hectic, so active, that they have little time to think. Men of democratic centuries appreciate general ideas because they exempt them from studying particular cases; they contain (…) many things in a small volume and provide a great product in a short time”[vii].

Men who dedicate their entire lives to making a fortune really have no esteem for art. If they go to the theater, they go looking for fun. They do not seek the pleasures of the spirit on stage, but rather the living emotions of the heart; they do not expect to find a literary work but rather the spectacle; if they find it, they don't understand it; they find it tedious and boring. Therefore, if the characters represented arouse “curiosity and arouse sympathy, they are happy; Without asking anything more from fiction, they immediately enter back into the real world. Style is less necessary, therefore, because, on stage, observing these rules escapes more.”[viii].

Tocqueville saw far. He was a theoretical contemporary of a time that was not yet fully developed, but that, in a certain way, was already announcing itself. This is his genius. He understood that the development of sciences would depend on their practical usefulness. In his own way, he realized that men only study and develop the sciences in the same way as a profitable business. With this, he envisioned a future in which nothing that was not useful would be of interest to society.

But the biggest implication of all this lies in the fact that the application of science began to require increasing specialization, to the point of transforming it into “crumb knowledge”. Only in this way can it meet the demands of capital appreciation, which require specialists and not philosophers (that is: literate men, with humanistic training). Companies don't need thinkers, wise men. Your workers just need to know how to read, write and calculate; Nothing else. After all, industry, as Marx said, is the mother of ignorance. A paradox, if judged from the perspective of a time in which most people interact on a daily, everyday basis with some information and communication technology.

Paradox, yes! Because people don't need to know how these technologies work; All they have to do is follow the “script” that each machine has written on its display: “press this button to get this”. Did you make a mistake? Just undo your typing and start again. It is even advantageous for the owners of capital for people to act like automatons, as such technologies are the means by which information is generated, recorded and distributed to accumulate and appropriate the economic values ​​of the representatives of the “lord capital”.[ix]".

A world of illiterates is what the society of information and communication technology is. In it, people live immersed in the deepest scientific, cultural and political indigence that borders on idiocy. An example of this is offered by the United States. In this country, home to Nobel Prize winners who control the destiny of the world and which has already sent spacecraft to the farthest reaches of the Solar System, 11% of its population does not know what a molecule is. And what's worse: 44% of Americans reject Darwinism and 52% ignore that the Earth revolves around the sun[X]. Research carried out by the American astronomer, Carl Sagan, reveals that North Americans live in a world where scientific ignorance prevails; a society, he comments, dominated by scientific illiteracy[xi]. According to their studies, 95% of Americans are scientifically illiterate, they do not have the slightest knowledge of how the laws of nature are applied to the processes of producing wealth.

It is not just scientific illiteracy that terrifies the world. Before that was the case! The man became a homo ignotus, fell into a state of intellectual anorexia.  He no longer reads the great classics of Economics and Philosophy, which built the economic, social and political thought of modernity. He prefers textbooks, which save him the hassle of thinking. He doesn't know Machado de Assis, Graciliano Ramos, Guimarães Rosa, Kafka, Drumond, Fernando Pessoa, Shakespeare, among others. If you have the opportunity to come across a book from these monsters of national and world literature, you will be discouraged by the size of its volume; If you read the first few pages, you soon become discouraged and abandon it for a text that talks about witchcraft, esotericism or the like.

In his critique of North American university education, Allan David Bloom, 1987, in Closing of the American Mind, “lamented the devaluation of the great books of Western thought and the emergence of a popular culture that lulled new students, unable to seek a philosophical feeling for life and moved only by the satisfaction of immediate desires for knowledge and commercial success”[xii].

Bloom is not a lone voice. Susan Jacoby, in her book The Age of American Unreason[xiii], recognizes that the replacement of written culture with video culture resulted in a decrease in people's ability to concentrate for longer periods. The impatience to obtain information in the shortest amount of time has created people's habit of using messages instead of text; the abbreviated words, instead of their full writing. Everything that demands time and reasoning is received with the infamous and common phrase: “I don’t know, I don’t want to know and I’m angry with those who know”.

In this world, people are collectively getting sick; They all seem to have been stricken with intellectual anorexia. Even teachers no longer enjoy teaching, as most of their students no longer want to know anything that takes more time than they can spend in the classroom; You don't even know how to read anymore.

It is the irreversible desertification of the University’s foundations!

*Francisco Teixeira He is a professor at the Regional University of Cariri (URCA) and a retired professor at the State University of Ceará (UECE). Author, among other books, of Thinking with Marx: a critical-commented reading of Capital (Rehearsal). []


[I] Bosi, Alfredo. Dialectic of Colonization. – São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992. p. 352)

[ii] Lima, Batista de. Joy of Thinking. Conference given to Social Sciences students, at the University of Fortaleza, summer 2004: “What today's young people lack is the joy of intellect; the metaphor in the form of poetry, cinema, visual arts, theater, music and literature. Today reading is missing. The young man doesn't know who Nietzce or Foucault are, he doesn't know who Kafka or Guimarães Rosa are. Never read the magic mountain, by Thomas Mann, does not even know the poem “The Machine of the World”, by Drummond. History is the great lack for today's young people. Everything is history. It is necessary to read history, study history, do history. We are making history right now and we are not aware of the importance of this moment. History is much more this than this, than that. History is now. Roland Barthes (2000:8) states that among the anthropological sciences, sovereignty belongs to History.

“Entering a university means making history. It's like entering a large lake. There are those in a hurry who swim across it. There are those who prefer the patience of diving, as they know that exploring the depths is where we find the pearls of enchantment. To live well is to be enchanted. Unhappy for those who are not enchanted by the simplest of things. A great philosopher is one who is enchanted, who is excited even by his own shadow. Flaubert, before writing Madame Bovary, he was an idle person, he limited himself to watching the River Seine, therefore he was very busy. How much philosophy a river transmits to us. But he also spent his time either watching his niece eating jam, or observing the behavior of the cows. When he got tired he watched the women. But our French writer had another habit: he liked to refine sentences. He worked on a sentence like someone polishing a diamond. So he became a writer. I am sure that he concluded that literary writing can bridge the gap between our desire for greatness and the smallness of the world, between our aspiration for eternity and the mortal condition we carry” [Lima, Batista de. Joy of Thinking. Conference given to Social Sciences students, at the University of Fortaleza, summer 2004].

[iii] Tocqueville by, Alexis. Democracy in America: feelings and opinions. – São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2000; Vol. II.

Idem.Ibidem.Book.II, p. 53

[iv] Idem.Ibiodem.p.53.

[v] Idem.Ibidem. Book.I, p.61.

[vi] Idem.Ibidem. Book.II, p.51/52.

[vii] Idem.Ibidem.Book.II, p.19.

[viii] Idem.Ibidem.Book.II., p. 96/97

[ix] Dantas, Marcos. The logic of information capital: the fragmentation of monopolies and the monopolization of fragments in a world of global communications. – Rio de Janeiro: Contratempo, 1996., p.15: “Today, the vast majority of people interact on a daily, everyday, routine basis with some information and communication technology. This interaction is not limited to the mere use of the telephone to the passive television audience. Also, in one of other examples, the simple act of withdrawing money from a bank at an ATM is a fact of telecommunications. People, in general, know little or nothing about how these technologies work: from a technical point of view, of course, this could not be demanded, except from the engineers who design and operate them; but what about from a broader social point of view? If they are not specialists (and, in Brazil, with the exception of professionals from telecommunications companies, the “specialists” are no more than half a dozen academic economists, with sociologists, historians and even communicators who actually and seriously study , the theme), people, even those most politicized, know little or nothing about the functioning of communications, as a means through which information is generated, recorded and distributed, thereby obtaining economic and social values ​​that are accumulated and appropriated by the various agents”.

[X] Planeta Magazine. Edition 403, year 33, April 2006., p. 28/29].

[xi] Sagan, Carl. The World Haunted by Demons: science seen as a candle in the dark. – São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1996, p. 20: “All over the world, there are a huge number of intelligent and even talented people who have a passion for science. But this passion is not reciprocated. Surveys suggest that 95% of Americans are scientifically illiterate. The percentage is exactly the same as African Americans, almost all slaves, who were illiterate just before the Civil War – when there were severe penalties for anyone teaching a slave to read.

[xii] Wood Jr, Thomaz. Homo ignobilis. – Carta Capital., Edition of 02/04/08.

[xiii] Idem.Ibidem.

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