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José Sebastião Witter

José Sebastião Witter: A life in the classroom

eduardo cesarEmeritus professor of the Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (USP), 73 year old José Sebastião Witter says that he regards himself more as a history teacher than a historian. “I was always a good teacher, I have no false modesty. I learnt to teach lessons in the primary and secondary courses”, he adds. His career, from a primary school teacher at a public school in the city of Mogi das Cruzes, still known as São Paulo’s ‘green belt’, to chair professor of USP’s History Department, brings to memory a system for teaching that has been lost in time. Witter graduated in history, his vocation since he was a youngster. He graduated with the help of a prerogative instituted in the 40’s. It allowed primary school teachers approved in USP’s entrance exam to take leave of absence from their duties, to be able to do the university course in their chosen area. To remain commissioned, these professors had to achieve high averages in their school marks. Between getting his diploma as a primary school teacher and being contracted for the History Department, invited to be an assistant to chair professor Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Witter always lectured in public schools, from the time he went into primary school teaching in 1954 until 1968, when he came to USP.

Almost always under the supervision of Sérgio Buarque, he researched into German immigration, the foundation of the first republican party, and historical archives. In the 70’s, he introduced a subject that was disliked by the university: football, his passion since childhood. As a professor of the History Department, he gave the first course on the history of football in USP. Later on, he was to organize works like Football and Culture, in collaboration with José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy, and wrote What Football Is, and a Short History of Brazilian Football. Alongside this course, which brought him certain notoriety and was exploited by the press for being unprecedented, he always worked as a professor in the area of the History of Colonial, Imperial and Republican Brazil in the undergraduate courses. In postgraduate studies, he played an active part as a professor and supervisor.

In parallel, he had a successful career as an administrator. For 11 years, he directed the Public Archives of the State of São aulo, linked to the Secretariat for Culture. He was also director of USP’s Brazilian Studies Institute (IEB), which had been founded by his master Sérgio Buarque de Holanda in the period from 1990 to 1994. Following that, he began to run USP’s São Paulo Museum, better known as the Ipiranga Museum, between 1994 and 1999, when he coordinated a major reform of its physical installations and produced transformations in the academic and administrative areas. Retired after a long career at USP and back in Mogi das Cruzes, Witter analyzes with some nostalgia the course that the university has run, as can be seen in the following interview.

Before making a career as a historian and professor at USP, you worked for years as a primary and secondary school teacher. This career path is almost non-existent today. What has changed?
A lot has changed. From salary to respect for the professional. Nowadays, the teacher in general and the primary school teacher in particular are very badly paid. When we were young and a primary school teacher, we had a worthy salary, and if we were careful, it was possible to make reasonable savings. But, above all, a teacher enjoyed prestige in any community. He could work in a metropolis or in the smallest town: he was the teacher. We experienced this in all the places where we worked. Furthermore, the public entrance exams, always rigorous, were what guided the career of each master. The rules were well defined, and it was difficult for anyone to be favored. Who were the prominent people in any town? The mayor, the councilors, the judge, the police chief, the public attorney and the teachers. Who knows today who is a teacher or not in cities like São Paulo, Mogi das Cruzes, Suzano or Poá? When I made my career, being a teacher was enough to be different… From the 70’s until today, life in the teaching profession kept being affected by wide-ranging reforms or by specific laws, altering how the professional career develops. It is difficult to state what basically has changed. Practically everything, I would say.

What went wrong?
I don’t like very much saying that all the blame belongs to the military governments. But, coincidence or not, the normal school, which trained the teachers, decayed in the military period. It started to end around 1965, 1968. The responsibility for training the teacher of the 3 Rs came to be the university’s. For better or for worse, I do not knowThat’s a discussion that I don’t want to go into. But the fact is the following: you had a normal school, which taught the teacher of the 3 Rs how to teach reading, writing and arithmetic. That was the function of the primary school teacher. In four years, you would teach reading and writing, and then you would accompany the classes. And you knew how to teach, because, at normal school, you had had great teachers, people who really knew how to teach what Brazil still need: the simplest of all, which is to read, and well. Can it be that the public schools do this today? All technology is welcome, but how can you take it to all the corners of our territory? A well-qualified teacher is competent to teach anywhere, without any resources, whether video, audio, or support of the latest novelty for gripping the listener. I know of cases of teachers who have cancelled the day’s lesson for “lack of audiovisual resources”. Before, each teacher would use his creativity, with only the blackboard and the chalk behind his back, but in front of him he had minds really anxious for learning and lives to be transformed. It was a time in which the female teacher was “teacher”, and not “auntie”. It’s a theme to think about… There’s no room for it in this interview…

Teaching was the career chosen by you and your wife, teacher Geraldina Porto Witter. At some moment, did your paths cross, or did you go so far as to contend for the same professional space?
Yes. I got to know my wife at the secondary school. There was an award, in Moji das Cruzes, known as the Adrião Bernardes Award. It was granted to the person that got the best mark for the discipline of History in the four years of secondary school. We fought for the award, but it was she who won it. She was very studious. Both of us entered normal school. The rules of the game were well defined. The one who finished normal school in first place, adding up the marks of the three years, would win the so-called “chair-award”, which was a guaranteed job as a teacher at a school close to the place where you lived. We both achieved this award: she in one year, and I in the next. When we married, we decided to study at USP’s School of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature. We would go out and back to Mogi every day, during four years. It was the opposite route to present-day students. We would leave Moji in the direction of São Paulo and we would come back at the end of the afternoon or at night.

How did you become a university teacher?
In those days, there were the Isolated Higher Education Institutes, which today are part of  Unesp. And a vacancy arose in the city of Rio Claro. There was a professor in the School of Philosophy who liked me a lot, Professor Eurípedes Simões de Paula, the director of the History Department. Hardly anyone remembers him today. For some, he is only the name of the present-day History and Geography building in USP’s University City. But he was an extremely important figure. Besides being a professor of ancient history, a director and counselor of the Rectorate, he used to do the History Magazine practically on his own, and he took it to issue number 112. He would do all sorts of things personally, and with that dedication typical of men of vision. He would go so far as to package the bundles of the magazine and he himself forward them to the Post Office. He would tell me: “Do not fail to pass by my room every week. If you aren’t seen, you’re forgotten. I used to lecture, those days, in the town of Patrocínio Paulista. I would come from Franca by bus on Thursday afternoon, and, at night, I would go to the History Department in Rua Maria Antônia for a conversation with Professor Eurípedes. One day he told me: ‘tomorrow, you are going to look for a professor. She lives in Largo do Arouche and is needing a professor for Rio Claro. It all worked out well. I stayed three years in Rio Claro, until 1964. My wife went with me, invited to be an assistant of Carolina Bori. She was an exceptional professor who brought a revolution to the teaching of psychology, and in the 90’s was the president of the SBPC [Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science]. She had created a study group and invited my wife to be part of it.

Why did you leave Rio Claro?
In 1964, my contract ended. But, actually, I left for political reasons. I did not have my contract renewed because I was seen as one of the university’s communists. I was a good professor, I always was, I don’t have any false modesty. I knew how to teach. I had learnt to by giving lessons in primary and secondary schools. But the 1964 coup had happened. The city’s police chief arrested a colleague of ours, Professor Warwick Kerr. He knew he was going to be arrested, because the police chief himself had said to the frequenters of a bar that he was going to arrest him on the morning of the next day. But he didn’t want to flee. I and all the other professors, from the left and from the right, went to the police department and formed a ring to prevent him from being taken to São Paulo. He ended up being set free when we brought a statistics professor who also had job in the police and sent to the police department to order his release. But our houses began to be watched, I had a book seized just because it had a red cover. Then something extraordinary happened: I was invited to work at USP, as an assistant to the master, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda. And I also went back to Mogi das Cruzes, to take up my functions as a secondary school teacher of the State, at the Dr. Washington Luís Institute of Education.

What was the change like?
I already knew that I would not have my contract renewed, when Professor Sérgio Buarque went to deliver a lecture there in Rio Claro. Right away on arrival, in the front of everybody, he saw me and said aloud: “Witter, you mean you are coming with me to São Paulo” I replied: “How so? Are you inviting me to be your assistant?” “Of course!”, he added. “I think you’ll enjoy working in the History of Brazil chair”. At the same time that I accepted the unexpected invitation to lecture at USP, I took up my job as a secondary school teacher in Mogi das Cruzes, at the Dr. Washington Luís Institute of Education, which to this date exists as a primary and secondary school. It was a great honor for me, since I had concluded my studies there. The school was going through a crisis. So I went, invited by the Secretary for Education to take up the management of the school. I was 32 years old. The funny thing is that, in 1964, I left Rio Claro as a communist and entered the Institute of Education as a sort of interventor.

You turned into a critic of the extinction of the chairs. Why?
In the 60’s, we were making a very fierce criticism of the chairs. And we did in fact have chair professors who treated their assistants like office boys, they would even send them off to but cigarettes. They were, of course, the exceptions, but they acted as the major cause of the struggle. Today, I believe that the great chair professors are being missed. I was caressed by good luck. My chair professor was Professor Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, an exceptional man. He would meet with all his assistants, and every week we would discuss the course, how everything was going in the department, and, at the end of the year, we would be given the homeworkto do. He would suggest: “You are to give a Geography class this year”, “You are going to give the first year of Colonial History II”, “You will give the Republic”. He would do this in November, December, and, at the time, we would be given the bibliographies for the studies and preparation of the courses indicated by him. In February, we would meet and see what the doubts were and which way to go. You may tell me: “Ah, you are of the old school, you like having a boss, being ordered about, you don’t have the courage to do things”. But Professor Sérgio knew how to open up the spaces. You were not let totally loose, but you had freedom to give the courses. Each one with his own style. After he retired, more than once he said in interviews: “I am proud to have supervised the people I supervised up to the end, and I am also proud to say that each one followed his career in his own way, but they all occupy a prominent place”. Sérgio Buarque was a true teacher and an exemplary chair professor. When I say that we are missing good chair professors, I am thinking of those that made the chair an instrument for forming a veritable school. Today, the careers are more independent and almost always quicker, very different from those days.

In an interview, you made criticisms of the lost importance of the ritual of defending a thesis. Why?
In my time, there you were, sweating before the examining board, and your friends would pack the amphitheater to support you. Defending a thesis was a happening in the university. Today, sometimes, you have the defense made with the just the examining board and the candidate. Other circumstances have also changed. In the old days, a doctoral thesis would only go to be defended when the advisor and the candidate were really satisfied with what they had researched and written. Not now, a master’s degree finishes religiously in two years, a doctorate in four years. I remember a girl who asked for a two-year extension to hand in her thesis. They didn’t give it her. She did what she could and handed in the thesis on December 31. But one member of the examining board fell sick, another traveled, and the defense only took place in May. The board made very heavy criticism of the last two chapters of the thesis, which it considered as badly written, and the girl defended herself as best as possible. She didn’t get high marks, because of the poor finish. When she said goodbye, she handed in to the examining board the last two chapters, redone in January and February. They were impeccable.

But these things have not changed for no reason, have they, professor?
Of course not. Many people spent years writing their thesis. But I am against excessive rigor, that triumph of bureaucracy. One of the best books by Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen a l’époque de Philippe, took 20 years of research before being published. Do you think that Professor Sérgio Buarque de Holanda could have written his Vision of Paradise in two years?

But academic production today is much larger than in those days?
That’s true, but it doesn’t mean to say that it is better. I don’t like making comparisons, because the times are completely different. But is there anyone that manages to accompany everything that is published? Who can guarantee that the bibliographic references were in fact read by the authors. There are exceptions, of course. There are serious people everywhere. We are not erudite any more, erudition has been ending. There is one or other erudite person left. How can you detect fraud in an article that is well written, up to the standards? I had this experience with a friend of mine. He once told me that he had published the same article in eight different magazines, changing only the title, the first paragraph and the last. No one realized that they were the same article.

Your doctoral thesis was about the Federal Republican Party, an ill-fated attempt to create a national party after the proclamation of the Republic. Why were you interested in this theme?
I have always had a concern with the lack of parties in Brazil. Ever since I was a child, I have never managed to understand how the UDN and the PSD, which were antagonists on the national plane, could be united in Mogi das Cruzes, for example. The Federal Republican Party was chosen in a conversation of mine with Professor Sérgio Buarque de Holanda. He said to me: “Look, it’s a party that needs to be recovered. At bottom, it’s the first republican party since the creation of the Republic”. He suggested it because part of the core documentation was in his hands. I picked up the minutes he gave me, we sat down afterwards a couple of times in his house on Rua Buri, where he used to live. We had a long conversation, and I went after the documentation there was in the Public Archives of the State. The professor’s wife, Maria Amélia, had relatives who were connected with the party, so she kept the letters and documents. It wasn’t a prolix thesis. It was a short thesis, done to give the message that the documentation allowed. But it was an important party. It didn’t last long. It maintained itself during a single government, and did not go so far as to be either government or opposition in the school of President Campos Salles, which has a lot to do with our political practice to this date. I was going to say that the only difference is the PT. Despite everything, it still is.

Your master’s dissertation was called An agricultural establishment in the province of São Paulo in the middle of the 19th century…
That is the name that came out in the History Magazine. Afterwards, it was published as Ibicaba, a pioneering experience. Ibicaba farm is a first experience with free hands in the Brazilian workforce, a coffee farm in the west of São Paulo. Until 1840, the time when Senator Vergueiro buys the farm and begins to organize it, it only had slaves. In 1850, with the prohibition of the entry of slave labor, the experience begins with the first batches of German immigrants, and the first one of Portuguese as well, which at the time were not regarded as immigrants. It is very nice to see this experience, to see how the administrators mixed everything up, treating the immigrants as if they were slaves. Then came Thomas Davatz, who is a German professor, and he did a very serious report on German immigration in Ibicaba, which afterwards resulted in the book Memories of a settler in Brazil, published in Europe in the 19th century and only translated in 1954. It was Professor Sérgio Buarque who translated it.

And what about football? Why did you decide to study the subject?
Today, a lot of people in the academic world are studying football. I think I was the first to do so. Professor Sérgio Buarque warned me: “You are going to be considered a second-class professor for this”. And I would reply: “But did you not say that what is missing in Brazil is to study the people”. For a long time, I was seen as someone who was studying nonsense. Nobody else has given a course on the history of football at USP as I did, in the mid-70’s. At the time, I became a bit of a folkloric figure. I appeared in articles juggling a football. I wrote a book, What football is, for the First Steps collection, by Editora Brasiliense, but it was never republished again. Caio Graco Prado explained to me: “I thought it would sell like hot cakes, but the people doesn’t read about football, except the headlines in the papers”. That may have changed today. When I was running the Public Archives of the State, I battled hard for a project about Brazilian football in partnership with the director of the Image and Sound Museum (MIS), who was Professor Bóris Kossoy. There are 64 interviews there, I interviewed Rivelino and Gilberto Tim, amongst others. I always thought that what is written about football in Brazil continues to be a history of what happened in São Paulo and Rio, with a bit of Minas, Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul. We wanted to do a book about the history of Brazilian football that talked about all the states; we thought of dividing it into 21 chapters, which was the number of states at the time, each one written by one person. It didn’t go ahead because nobody wanted to finance it. At the time, it was a taboo. Today, I think that it would prosper.

And today? Is the bibliography about football insufficient?
There’s a lot of stuff written. I myself have 400 books, and I haven’t bought the last one to have come out. One of those that has best translated this Brazilian passion for football was perhaps Ruy Castro, with the book about Garrincha. But nowadays there are many well-written books on the subject. But it is always insufficient to write about a fascinating theme like this.

You are a São Paulo fan, aren’t you?
I still am. I have been a São Paulo fan since I was 9 years old, when I witnessed the debut of Leônidas da Silva at the Pacaembu. When he was signed up by São Paulo, Leônidas made the journey by train from Rio to São Paulo and stopped at all the stations on the way. I went to the station in Guararema to see him. I remember him as a giant, but in actual fact he wasn’t a tall man. Afterwards, I asked my father: “Look, Leônidas is going to make his debut one of these days. Take me there”. He said: “I’m not promising anything because you know I don’t like football”. He was reluctant, but in the end he said: “I’m going to take you, you’re a good pupil. But how are we going to do it? I don’t like watching it”. We agreed that he would leave me in a nearby street, go to the cinema, and afterwards we would meet up there. He left me there at 11:30, with two sandwiches and a bottle of Guaraná. It was the first time that I had been to São Paulo, and that game had a record public, over 67 thousand persons. I was afraid of going up and looking for a place in the grandstand, I was very smaller I am today, but in those days I was very thin. I remained leaning on the wire fence. After some time, I felt a touch. I’ll never remember the kind hand on my shoulder and the phrase: “Keep cool, lad, you’re protected. Enjoy the game”. There were four fans behind me. They asked me which my team was. I replied: “São Paulo”. They were four Corinthians fans. Then one of them said: “Then we’re going to kill you”. There was a pure bit of fun stamped on all their faces. And they really did protect me. At the end, they said: “You wasted your money. Leônidas played a lousy game”.

You ran the Public Archives of the State for 11 years, between the 70’s and the 80’s. What was it like to work for governments as different as those of Paulo Egydio Martins, Paulo Maluf and Franco Montoro?
I went to work there when I was 42 years old. It was the first time I had crossed the walls of the university to act in a totally new world, which is the political world. Three people were responsible for this experience in my life: once again, Professor Eurípedes Simões de Paula, Professor Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, and, in particular, Professor Anita Novinsky. The Secretary for Culture of the Paulo Egydio government was Dr. José Mindlin. He was looking for a replacement for Professor Francisco de Assis Barbosa, setting off for Rio de Janeiro. Then, when the murder of journalist Vladimir Herzog took place, Dr. Mindlin left the Secretariat for Culture, and Dr. Max Pfeffer took his place. Professor Anita insisted, and then Pfeffer invited me to be the director of the Archives. I stayed 11 years, during four governments and seven secretariats. The biggest decoration in my life I got when Governor Paulo Maluf went out, and in came Professor Franco Montoro. Montoro received a petition, headed up by Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, saying that I should not be replaced, that I was an USP man and doing a good job. The new secretary, the former deputy Pacheco Chaves, called me for a conversation. Afterwards, he brought together his advisors and said ‘this is Professor Witter. He’s the only one who’s staying. I’m sure that I’ll be leaving before he does.

Was that what happened?
Yes. I only left in the Quércia government. The Archivesnew building, near to the Tietê Bus Station, was conceived in my term of office. The project went ahead in the Covas government. I have always been very critical of Governor Mário Covas, because his stubbornness was well-known in all the spheres of power. But he gave the greatest example of ethics that I have ever seen. He took the project for the new building from the paper stage, but he wanted to make a few changes. I was called by the then secretary, Deputy Marcos Mendonça, and by Zélio Alves Pinto, the director of the Museums and Archives Department, to see if I agreed with the changes that were going to be made, because there was no money for doing everything. I have never seen this happen. I agreed, but I suggested they left foundations to allow the archives to grow. To this date, I am happy to know that people with ethics have, and do, exist. Nowadays, very few, it’s true…

You also spent a spell running USP’s Brazilian Studies Institute (IEB) and with the São Paulo Museum, better known as the Ipiranga Museum…
I left my mark on the IEB as well. It was in my term of office, between 1990 and 1994, that the institution managed to get its new building. It used to work on two floors of a building. And I won some six or seven hives alongside Crusp, where the management, the library and the space for exhibitions are. There at the IEB there is a large panel that Tomie Ohtake gave to me. I am very proud that Tomie recognizes me anywhere, she’s ninety something years old. She always says: “Professor Witter, I will never forget that you opened the doors of USP for me”. At the São Paulo Museum, I had the privilege of coordinating a major reform. FAPESP and private enterprise, with the support of Fiesp, under the command of Carlos Eduardo Moreira Ferreira, allowed almost all the projects to be carried out. It was also possible to take to the museum the O Estado de S. Paulo collection, a present from the Mesquita family. The Jornal da Tarde as well. There’s another achievement that marked my period of office. I’m talking about the illumination of the façade of the building. That was only possible thanks to the work of Herman Wever, then with Siemens. When the illumination was inaugurated, on a beautiful, memorable day, I left the museum and USP. It was my retirement that was beginning, on November 9, 1999. The farewell address was made by the rector, at the time, Professor Jacques Marcovitch.

What was going back to the city of Mogi das Cruzes like?
I liked going back to Mogi very much. I was able to reencounter many friends. It’s almost like reliving my childhood and youth. The best of all was to carry on with my activities as a teacher and academician. Besides these, I was also able to resume my journalistic side as a writer of newspaper chronicles in the O Diário de Mogi [Mogi Daily] newspaper. In the same paper, I have one page dedicated to comments on books. Now, I am finding people on the street who have never seen me, simple folk, who come to me to talk about my column.