Desertified foundations

Image: Justus Menke


University spaces accentuated their mediocrity and made persecution a rule


It’s been twelve months since I commented on the article “University for what?” by professor Paulo Martins, published in Journal of USP em “University pandemonium”.

Incredibly, since then, a lot has changed. But for the worse. University spaces accentuated their mediocrity and made persecution a rule. There has still been no realistic assessment of the situation of Brazilian universities this year and little of a “return to normality”. But the strike by employees at federal universities – which continues to grow and could reach the teaching category – indicates that there are more thorns than flowers in this garden. Which shows that the university pandemonium is still alive and well. And – as on the nights of June 2013 – not simply because of salary and union demands. In this sense, I rehabilitate, with touches, the dialogue with professor Paulo Martins.


Paulo Martins is a scholar. There is no other designation for someone who moves with such familiarity through the collapsed worlds of Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Lucian, Quintilian, Augustus, Severus. By coincidence and destiny, today he occupies the role of director at the main humanities and humanities center in the country, which continues to be the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo. And, from this honorable and symbolically heavy position, he presents an immense, urgent and necessary provocation about the destiny of the Brazilian university in his article “University for what?”.

The question posed in the title is not at all trivial and demands careful, moderate, respectful and subtle reactions. The university's body is sensitive and its mental complexion is weakened. We live, inside and outside the walls, terrible days. Almost desperate. And nothing indicates blue sky. In the short or medium term. Not even on the other side of the magical mountain.

There are many questions about the ultimate usefulness of universities, public or private, in Brazil and in the world. But, lately, people have begun to question the very feedback of the university as a multi-century moral, cultural and rational building that, unquestionably, rationalized and civilized the flow of life in the West and beyond.

Therefore, the university began to lose its monopoly on knowledge and the imperative of knowledge transfer. But, in recent times, the erosion of recognition of the university's own social function has been disjointed in an accelerated and relentless manner.

None of this is trivial or banal. And in the case of Brazil, it takes on even more complex contours.

The first assumption for a possible beginning of dialogue with Paulo Martins' concerns therefore needs to recognize, from the outset, that what is understood as a university in Brazil, with very rare and distant exceptions, has ceased to exist around fifteen or twenty years ago. The reservoir of knowledge, knowledge and culture that university spaces historically represented was lowered to levels of trivialization and vulgarity never imagined or bearable, even by its most violent and historical detractors on duty.

The social and moral role of education in general and university education in particular in driving the reduction of social aporias has almost completely lost its operability. Notably as a result of the sudden and uncritical entry of Brazilian society into the fluidity of the hyperinformation era of the fourth industrial revolution. Its status as a social elevator gained dimensions that were almost contrary to the initial purposes of economic, cultural and moral upliftment of society. No one or almost no one truly informed about the Brazilian job market blindly turns to the university to obtain equipment for personal socio-economic-cultural improvement.

Any Brazilian or foreigner who disembarks at the airports of the country's main capitals and requests transportation services can, sincerely and bitterly, note that the mass of uber workers and similar workers possibly correspond to the best-trained caste of app drivers on the planet. Almost all of them have a higher education degree and, often, come from complex, sophisticated and long training courses such as literature, philosophy, astrophysics, engineering and the like. It has become, for example, impossible to switch from one Uber transport to another in Rio de Janeiro without having a chemical, mining or petroleum engineer as a driver. Likewise, in São Paulo, uberists are, in general, historians, psychologists, business administrators or law graduates, often graduates of the University of São Paulo itself – the most important and relevant university in the country.

In the same vein, based on studies by economist Guilherme Hirata from the educational consultancy IDados, 41% of higher education diploma holders in Brazil, that is, approximately 8,5 million Brazilians, work in occupations below what they qualified for. If that wasn't enough, the numbers move from 25 to 30% to indicate the percentage of unemployed masters and doctors. Not to mention the underemployed. And we must always remember the discouraged, desolate and desperate. Those who, seriously, experience the loneliness of the educated or the despair of the over-educated.

The crisis of the Brazilian university, it should be emphasized, has been an inconvenient truth since the end of the last millennium. With the entry of the new century and the unbridled advance of its expansion, in public and private formats, throughout all regions of the country, what was a remediable crisis took on frankly insoluble dimensions. Any public manager knows this and no university president sleeps peacefully.

No one, with the slightest sensitivity to the empires of inequalities specialized in the multiple regions and sub-regions of Brazil, can condemn the university expansion of the last fifteen or twenty years. But, as Rodrigo de Oliveira Almeida rightly noted, in issue 320, October 2022, of Fapesp magazine, “university expansion has had tangible impacts on local realities, but they still face obstacles to consolidate.”

These obstacles, resulting from the set of moral, cultural, intellectual, economic and social turbulences of the last ten years – that is, from the initial 20 cents on the nights of June 2013 – have taken on the appearance of a public calamity. And, as if in a perfect storm, they began to torment the daily lives of managers, teachers, employees, students and families.


No one can measure the size of the educational disaster produced from the ministry of Cid Gomes to that of Victor Godoy Veiga. The current people responsible – Camilo Santana and the others – simply have to repair the damage.

About the former governor of the state of Ceará, it was said, in small talk, in Brasília and elsewhere, that he was the first Minister of Education who was explicitly devoid of education. Those who understood the subject referred to him as the worst occupant of the office since the beginning of redemocratization. His tenure was brief, very brief. But, perhaps, it is necessary to remember and meditate that the main reason for his fall was his “petulance” in confronting the then all-powerful president of the Chamber of Deputies, Mr. Eduardo Cunha, and not because of his possible inability to perform the role. .

All this to say that the general management of Brazilian education, since the beginning of 2015, has been swallowed up by the political crisis that has taken over practically everything. Consequently, since then, especially the public university has started to cultivate intense relationships with its own irrelevance.

Not simply because of the retention of resources, cutting of funds, mass evasion, progressive reduction of interest and enrollment or the undeniable lowering of the level of its teaching professionals, notably. But, above all, due to the internalization of contradictions, torments, brutalization and national political distemper in the university environment.

The mud and stink that all this caused – and still causes – will take generations to overcome.

Few countries in the world have the privilege, for example, of having an intellectual of the stature of Renato Janine Ribeiro available to occupy and manage heavy and complex bureaucracies in ministries – in this specific case, the Ministry of Education. Because not even with Renato Janine Ribeiro, the fleeting Minister of Education in 2015, did the bleeding in the area show any signs of abating.

The unquestionable correction and discretion of the competent and hard-working Rossieli Soares, Minister of Education under the presidency of Michel Temer, was strategically decisive in the attempt to contain open fractures. But the Education ship continued in free fall.

Everything that led to impeachment of 2016 had left unbelievable levels of degradation in all areas of national life, with the arrest of President Lula da Silva and the election of deputy Jair Messias Bolsonaro in 2018 being the most dramatic demonstrations.

The impact of all this on education in general and on university life in particular still deserves closer and less partisan reflection. No one passes unscathed under palm trees, as the poet said. So, rethink yourself.

When Jair Messias Bolsonaro becomes president, the Ministry of Education – which is, by far, the most decisive ministry for the present and future of the Brazilian nation – is bequeathed to Mr. Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez. It may be inconvenient to remember, but it is not too much to remember that the guarantor of this obscure and obscurantist Colombian professor who emigrated to Brazil was the no less obscure and no less obscurantist Brazilian guru who emigrated to the United States, named Olavo de Carvalho.

Olavo de Carvalho, consulted by the Bolsonarist crowd, recognized Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez as the only one capable of bringing to a successful conclusion the cultural war necessary to overcome the communism entrenched in Brazilian society. A communism that, according to the late Virginia resident, was on the verge of completely corrupting the soul, heart and mind of poor Brazilians attending formal training spaces such as universities, notably public and especially federal.

It is simply unnecessary to dwell on the downgrading of the globality of what has historically been recognized as national education under these guidelines.

If none of this was enough to accelerate the railway derailment at the Brazilian university, the pandemic imposed immeasurable challenges for days of peace and unrealizable for times of war.

The imposition of distance learning and remote bureaucracy caused dysfunctions in the daily functioning of university teaching structures that made coexistence psychologically challenging – not to say unbearable. The complete subjection of the university community to isolation, often precarious and drowsy, during the 2020-2021 biennium, promoted the emergence of multiple forms and levels of mental and emotional illnesses, moral deformations and deterioration of character that contaminate and modify, seriously and indelibly , intramural coexistence since the return to “normal” in early 2022.

After the recommendations to secretly record the activities of “inveterate leftist indoctrinators” in their university practices – things from the time of Mr. Abrahan Weibraub as head of the Ministry of Education –, in the midst of the return to face-to-face classes, after vaccination in multiple doses, circulated the news that an important department of an important Brazilian university was about to issue an ordinance requiring professors to teach sitting down so as not to offend or offend their listeners with the possible prominence of their penis members under their clothes.


Yes: this is the level of absurdity to which everything has reached. Identitarianism and wokism took over everything. Never for the good. Always for deviations and excesses. Never have such outrageous measures been so blatantly provoked within university spaces. Paulo Martins' disaffection therefore has an integral reason for being. A dérision, déconstruction and destruction has taken over the university and is about to gag her and beat her fatally and terminally. Notably in the field of human sciences and humanities.

In this desert of the real of university truth, no detachment of the university remains more deserted than this field. Nothing is more decomposing than this environment. His reality remains dramatic. And, worse than that, the drama ends up fueling the crumbling of everything that was once understood as culture.

Otherwise, it should be noted that the acute and unquestionably erudite training offered in humanities, arts, philosophy and history courses has been – in the last many years and especially after 2013 – distorted, trivialized and humiliatingly abused. The noble and honorable former practitioners of these priesthoods at university level began to be overwhelmed by new technologies and by new generations of “colleagues”, often ex-students, who, not infrequently, behave as cogs of dérision, déconstruction and destruction of knowledge. In other words, uberized labor from the deconstruction of the university.

Going back in time and inserting drops into is and trembles in us, qWhen the “mother of the PAC” ran clear risks of losing the 2010 presidential election to candidate José Serra, eminent professors led the movement The silence of intellectuals. Having completed their task of electing President Lula da Silva's successor, all these professors-intellectuals/intellectual-professors gradually returned to silence in the face of the sneaky rise of what would turn out to be Bolsonavism. Today he seems rarefied. But anyone who calmly returns to the 2010s will notice that Bolsolavism certainly promoted the biggest offensive against Brazilian universities of all time.

Seal and dethrone. That wasn't necessarily his mantra. But it clearly could be. Well, that's what was tried. And, many times, what was done. Examples abound. Never have university professors, especially those linked to the humanities and humanities, been so offended, cursed, humiliated and disrespected. Never.

Basically, after British Prime Minister David Cameron sold his re-election for Brexit and that the bonifrate Donald J. Trump bought the American Republican Party to impose himself as presidential candidate, post-truth became the daily bread throughout the West. In the Brazilian case and in the context of Brazilians' relationship with the university, this post-truth had already been manifesting itself surreptitiously since long before the adoration of many for the teachings of “professor” Olavo de Carvalho.

As incredible as it may seem doxa da self-righteousness university student simply ignored this detail. Next thing you know, underground Olavism emerged and filled the streets on the nights of June 2013 with the simple words “Olavo is right”. What came next everyone saw. Little by little, the leadership of a literally stupid man to the presidency of the republic of a country-continent with more than 200 million inhabitants was paved. It is unnecessary to comment on the impacts of this on the Brazilian university.


President Lula da Silva inaugurated his new beginning by suggesting a deep examination of conscience within Brazilian universities. Once elected, he began laying the groundwork for this in his meeting with the Deans already in the third week of his new term. Important question: was it enough? Honest answer: no. Inconvenient question: was it necessary? Responsible answer: obviously.

“Man does not live by bread alone.” And President Lula da Silva knows this. To put it bluntly, after a true and recurring massacre, public universities and their managers needed attention, affection, and affection. Care. The meeting with Deans was for this: to signal caution. But is and after [and then]?

One year later, public universities are grappling with strikes and strikes.

Who can calmly return to “What’s the university for?” You will notice that there is a railway tragedy that needs to be managed, which salary demands and union movements only make us ignore. Saying this does not exempt the new management of higher education in the country under President Lula da Silva from its irremediable vices. It simply signals that it is still far, far away and short, far short, of the complexity of the problem.

Who will return to “University for what?” will reread that “the university crisis, first of 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 not Is it enough to captivate today's students anymore? Perhaps young people do not seek university for the same reasons. So we are left to ponder: 'what are we for?'.”

It’s embarrassing to reflect on “what are we for?” It is uncomfortable to recognize that the university flirts with irrelevance. It's disturbing to catch a uber driver with engineering training. It is intriguing to realize that the cultural, moral and rational edifice embodied in the university is collapsed or collapsing and that its foundations – founded in the worlds of human sciences and humanities – have been desertified with impunity, perhaps never before.

The new management of higher education in the country and President Lula da Silva know this. But they remain powerless and don't know what to do.

*Daniel Afonso da Silva Professor of History at the Federal University of Grande Dourados. author of Far beyond Blue Eyes and other writings on contemporary international relations (APGIQ). []

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