About the university model

Image: Silvia Faustino Saes


Can the human sciences dehumanize themselves?

It seems contradictory – and remote – that the human sciences can become dehumanized. It is, in fact, a contradiction. But, if contradictions are part of human nature, what causes species in this is that it is becoming less and less remote, despite representing a serious threat to universal human values.

In practice, the dehumanization of professionals in the humanities has already been taking place on an increasing scale, under numerous guises, in Brazil and around the world. Therefore, it is necessary and urgent to discuss the nature and origins of this trend, which began to rise with the advent of neoliberal capitalism.

The human sciences in hegemonic countries

Bearing in mind that this Bulletin addresses other impacts of neoliberalism on our lives, it is convenient to start by examining the problem in the most influential geopolitical bloc among us: the United States and Western Europe.

No rich country, starting with the United States, fails to admit that the human sciences are the engine of innovation in all areas of knowledge, including the “hard” ones. That is, the world elite knows perfectly well that philosophical rigor fosters new concepts that tend to affect all areas, from human to exact to natural. A classic example is the Cartesian conception of method, whose influence continues to this day in many fields.

It is no surprise, then, that universities at the top of prestigious world rankings, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and MIT, hire drop-out intellectuals from other countries. Its directors know perfectly well that the plurality of ideas favors creativity – artistic, humanistic, and scientific.

These are, in general, institutions that have a considerable history of teaching and research of a comprehensive nature, even if they were born as institutes of technology. Note, by the way, that the MIT, which emerged as an engineering school in the mid-nineteenth century, has for decades housed a department called Linguistics and Philosophy, where Noam Chomsky developed his remarkable career as a scientist, thinker and activist.

However, an overview of higher education in the US shows that the situation of universities dedicated to other strata of the socioeconomic pyramid is different. i . These are public and private institutions that offer short or long-term vocational courses (two to four years). They are: state universities, with campuses in more than one city, and technical and community colleges (technical and community colleges), which serve communities far from these centers.

Many of these more popular institutions have undergraduate and even graduate programs in the humanities. However, the non-mandatory engagement of its professors and students in research activities drastically reduces its chances of fostering critical thinking and cultivating professorship freedom independently of market interests.

Just remember that among the professionals trained in “humanities” in these schools, there are managers, publicists, digital influencers and even lobbyists – that is, a wide range of professions that revolve around the direct demands of the market. Although many programs offer activities such as field trips and international exchange, the focus is on practical problem solving rather than knowledge building.

This system stimulated mass higher education for nearly four decades. It had the function of feeding a variety of specialized jobs, until the all-powerful financial market began to take over services that were previously the responsibility of the state. It is no surprise that higher education funding was among them.

The expansion of this university model took place in the XNUMXth century, from a nucleus born in the XNUMXth century. As Reginaldo de Moraes showed, in the book already mentioned in the note, state funding grew after the second world war, in the form of scholarships and investments in infrastructure. However, in recent decades, pressure from banks on the state has led to this financial contribution – much greater than that of school fees charged to those with higher incomes – to retreat and make room for private financing. As a result, student debt and defaults skyrocketed.

The traditional system of higher education, which houses elite schools like those mentioned above, also suffered from the retraction of public funding. Its survival today is due to multiple solutions, which include exponentially increasing tuition fees, sharing research infrastructure with large companies, and aggressive policies to attract international students. In this context, the humanities are the most affected. With regard to basic and/or social interest research, private investments are far from compensating for the reduction in public funding.

Like the economic system that fueled it, this stratified model knows no boundaries. It is at the base of the reform that abolished gratuity in English universities and has been reproduced in many European countries, even those with a strong tradition of public education, such as France and Germany. Despite local differences, the essence is the same everywhere: financialization of school fees and the link between teaching and research reserved for elite schools.

This situation also generated a new and powerful actor: transnational education companies, which include colleges and universities. They offer students valid overseas qualifications obtainable on campuses located in their own countries. The main goods for sale are preparation for the global job market and multilingualism, with academic content taught in English and offering languages ​​considered strategic for certain activities.

In this globalized, financialized scenario, and conniving with the lack of regulation of digital technologies, a new type of human sciences professional is emerging: the database annotator. They are graduates or undergraduates in areas that produce useful taxonomies for the segmentation and annotation of sound, text and/or image files. Many of them are human sciences.

Such files belong to gigantic databases, used by artificial intelligence for the most varied purposes. Its owners are the large corporations of the digital universe: Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc., whose activity is still not subject to effective and transparent regulation. Just remember the recent Facebook and WhatsApp data privacy breaches.

The foregoing should have sufficed to allow us to examine, now, the issue of dehumanization.

We know that alienation dehumanizes because it weakens solidarity, a value without which ideals of freedom and equality cannot be cultivated. We also know, as Antonio Candido taught usii, that socialism was victorious in containing the predatory force of capitalism. Now, what is at stake now is precisely the desire of neoliberalism to turn this game around, with the help of an army of ill-trained human scientists.

One does not need to be versed in any human science to learn how to fight alienation. This learning is open to everyone, and can take place in the streets, in trade unions, in neighborhood associations, in social movements, etc. It is, however, deeply worrying that today there are so many human scientists who are indifferent to social causes – either because of their adherence to conservative ideologies, or because of their immersion in technocratic activities that are based on their area of ​​training.

The perfect example of this last case is the fraudulent use of social networks by the company Cambridge Analytica in 2016. This was the source of the necessary inputs for the technology that biased the results of the last US elections – and also of the 2018 Brazilian elections.

In this episode, the authors of the tools used to manipulate vulnerable internet users were far-right computer scientists, with training and/or advice in human sciences such as linguistics, psychology, demography, sociology. On the other hand, the authors of the data processing involved in this manipulation were specialists in text, audio or video content analysis – most of whom were unaware of the final destination of their notes.

It was not even necessary for the masterminds of the fraud to take care of concealing this purpose. The neoliberal order of work automatically obstructs transparency by instituting outsourcing. For example, some modules of the databases involved are ordered from third-party companies, which temporarily hire specialists to segment, annotate and organize the data.

The rest is the work of artificial intelligence, as machine learning allows the reproduction of the treatment of a solid base in larger bases. Furthermore, it is common for different companies to deal with information belonging to different levels of the data hierarchy.

We can now discern three ascending degrees of risk of dehumanization currently haunting the human sciences: the utilitarian training of a majority of students; the precariousness of specialized work in companies dedicated to the collection and preparation of digital data; and the totalitarian bias of the directors of some of the companies that hire scientists to do the high-level processing of the annotated data.

Let us now remember that Brazilian public higher education was against this trend until 2016. Even with the advance of private higher education, state funding had been growing significantly, at least at the federal level.

In addition, the inclusive measures adopted by the federal universities stimulated an unprecedented diversity of coexistence and, therefore, of thought. This helped to promote useful research for the country's sustainable development, inspiring other universities, such as Unicamp, for example, to expand their affirmative action programs.

This situation was highly unfavorable to the pretensions of neoliberalism. The reason is that it hinted at an ambitious project of national sovereignty, in which young scientists from all areas – coming from all social strata – would have increasing opportunities to engage.

Let us now see how some other parts of the higher education scenario in the world help to explain why this university model displeases the national elite with an Enlightenment veneer, depositary of imperialist interests and responsible for the coup d'état that changed Brazil's position on the geopolitical scene. .

The human sciences and the war against Brazil

As the rector of UFBA pointed out. Joao Carlos Sallesiii, speaking to the National Congress, we, Brazilian researchers in the human sciences, were not competent in convincing public opinion of the relevance of our work. If the media committed to economic power boycotted us, we could have occupied more space in the independent media. But we didn't start thinking about it until the danger signs were already evident.

Nor were we competent in convincing progressive governments of the urgency of going beyond the public school in providing social and educational assistance to the neediest. Therefore, we had to watch, with amazement, a variety of fundamentalist evangelical churches prosper by exploiting the feeling of impotence of families in the periphery in the face of the threats of an environment controlled by drug trafficking.

The exponential growth of these churches encouraged their faithful to try to take control of public spaces involved in education and social assistance. In view of the recent and aggressive disputes for the board of directors of the Federal Council of Psychology, as well as for places in the municipal tutelary councils. It is not surprising that many of these fundamentalists are trained in some human science by newly established private colleges.

On the other hand, we were – and still are, as pointed out by Érico Andrade iv – extremely competent in resisting arbitrariness and obscurantism. And more: we are a much more constant presence in the public university than our colleagues from the other countries belonging to the BRICS bloc. Now, it is precisely the conjunction of these two factors that makes us so threatening to the strategists of the neoliberalist occupation of Brazil and its national representatives.

They know that the willingness of the BRICS to invest in public higher education is much greater than that of the Eu-American bloc, for the simple reason that they are all emerging countries, aware of the importance of science and technology for their development. They also know, on the other hand, that not everyone has a consolidated tradition of research in human sciences.

Take, for example, the two great powers, Russia and China. Both are still struggling to overcome the Soviet model of higher education, which focused on technology and the “hard” sciences. With the transition to the mixed economy, they adopted the classic model of the comprehensive university, previously restricted to older institutions. Today, some new universities have advanced enough to feature prominently in international rankings, but not to become centers for the dissemination of humanist ideas.

In contrast, Brazil and its South American neighbors are heirs to the Iberian tradition of cultivating arts, letters and philosophy, whose prestige in these rankings is relatively low. It is, however, in this tradition that our strong interest in history and the social sciences is based – an indispensable ingredient for understanding our colonial past. Thus, the search for comprehensiveness in our universities occurred in the opposite direction, that is, through the consolidation of other sciences, as well as technologies.

This means that the majority of Brazilian human scientists – and also a good part of their colleagues from other areas – have enough intellectual baggage to appreciate our country's potential contribution to the reorganization promised by the BRICS to the geopolitical future.

It should be clear by now that the war against Brazilian human scientists is a strategic piece in the war against the BRICS. Its origins, certainly, are outside the borders of our country.

So, we have no choice but to dedicate our lives to resistance, under penalty of seeing our workplaces invaded, little by little, by people we don't recognize as colleagues. After all, who among us would agree to live with inhuman human scientists?

* Eleonora Albano is a professor at the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) at Unicamp.

Originally published on AdUnicamp Newsletter, in November 2019, p. 15.


i MORAES, RC Higher education in the United States: history and structure. São Paulo: Editora da UNESP, 2015.

ii In: https://www.brasildefato.com.br/node/6819/

iii In:https://www.change.org/p/congresso-nacional-em-defesa-das-universidades-públicas- brasileiras/u/25215673?cs_tk=AgNyNTK3SW8eABnFsF0AAXicyyvNyQEABF8BvIWbqtFiS80VfkY1RqFSCik

%3D&utm_campaign=766720e4683249d283be5f4f31ea3004&utm_medium=email&utm_source=petiti on_update&utm_term=cs

iv In:https://diplomatique.org.br/o-preco-do-reslhinho-sobre-o-ataque-as-ciencias-humanas/

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