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The intellectual elite

Study analyzes the intellectual profile of Brazil's elite

HÉLIO DE ALMEIDAWhen recently announcing future plans for education, President Lula said that “this is the century of elite learning and not only for the elite with a traditional name and surname.” This statement is impeccable, yet it does not herald anything new, because the Brazilian State has been making a major effort for a number of years to attain this in the new century. “Analyses of our work have shown that power in Brazil has become diversified, thanks to intellectual investments, which have gained autonomy in relation to the economic, social and political resources of the families of the students. It has been some time since the State created opportunities for low-income university students to take part in the international world of knowledge and to gain access to the tools that allow them to be on a par with the traditional elite,” says historian Letícia Bicalho Canêdo, a professor at the School of Education of Unicamp and a director of Focus (the Portuguese acronym for Study Group on School Institutions and Family Groups), where she coordinates the project on International Circulation and Leadership Skills for Brazilians. This is supported by FAPESP.

The project’s aim is to identify who the formulators of public policies are and how social and institutional resources were allocated to train these people to enable them to take part in negotiations in a globalized world. “We know that most of the high-level political jobs are held by people who studied abroad and at top universities. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, José Serra, and Marta Suplicy are some examples, and this attests to the fact that many members of our elite have experienced some kind of international specialization.”

The researcher explains that this study will join other studies that seek to understand the meaning of the “universal” or “globalization” project, especially as regards the establishment of “universal” action principles and modes of governments. “We want to investigate the ‘translators of this universe’, the individuals and networks that aim to make this universal project come true at intergovernmental entities, international associations, NGOs, universities and professional societies.” Thus, by circulating internationally and bringing back points of view and principles to their native countries, these individuals spread universal values and adapt them to local systems.

“The idea is to analyze both the elite that ascends the ladder by means of the ‘grand entrance’ afforded by an international education, and which, as a result, demands positions of authority, as well as all those who have a local diploma, and who therefore are allegedly being hired for second-class jobs,” she adds. The researcher believes that, on the basis of this trend, it will be possible to understand the role of the elite in the construction and modernization of the Brazilian State, on the grounds of their individual experiences. “We’re talking about competition based on real flesh and blood individuals, and not on countries. This is fundamental in this globalized era, which aims to establish modes of government with planetary pretensions, a hegemonic device that will be the center for the reproduction of a national elite from peripheral countries.” In other words, it will be possible to know how university degrees, technical knowledge, contacts, resources, prestige and legitimacy acquired abroad to build up careers in one`s native country reinforce, at the national level, the dominant position of those who can leverage the fact that they belong to international networks of the establishment (in other words, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund etc.).

However, if one believes in the popular saying that “it is best to bend it while it is a twig,” the beginning of this global macro process takes place in the micro world of schools and families. “The school has a mission: to generate a work force that is required by economic production and by socially inserted agents, i.e. inserted in a culture that family groups demand,” explains Ana Maria Fonseca de Almeida, one of the researchers in this project. Thus, the role of the school is technical as well as symbolic, because this is the environment in which youths make friends that will ultimately become their support network; at school, young people also learn – besides school subjects – how to act socially: how to handle a group and lead it. “Our concern is not to rely on the education of the elite as a model, but learn how it is used to maintain positions of power in society and study it to observe social inequalities. In short, each country ‘invents’ its educational tradition,” she states.

HÉLIO DE ALMEIDAThe researcher refers to the new view on competency in the Portuguese language, which nowadays is less related to grammar and more related to the student’s ability to interpret the world. This of course does not prevent the constantly renewed interest in the English language, which is essential to be able to move about in international circles. But what is new? The national elite have always valued the learning of foreign languages and traveling abroad, with the aim of creating a cosmopolitan education. “Since the 1950’s, and more so since the 1980’s, a policy was developed that focused on supporting exchange programs by granting scholarships provided by agencies that foster research programs. This point of view radically changed the form of social recruitment of the individuals who travel abroad. Today, trips abroad for educational purposes are no longer a specific characteristic of elite, moneyed families,” says Letícia. .

Education has increasingly become a “State issue”. “The qualification of professors and researchers in a country like Brazil, with a peculiar colonial background which did not stimulate the training of intellectuals, could not be carried out only internally”, points out Carlos Roberto Jamil Cury, also from Focus. “Therefore, the tradition of training the intellectual elite abroad is not novel. In the last 35 years, the country has in some way raised awareness about a long-standing tradition, which has always led the government to pursue the qualification of professors and researchers abroad.” This process was consolidated from 1946 onwards, when the São Paulo State Constitution established free public education, including university education. “Thus, beginning in the 1950’s, the number of institutions increased and the role of the State in maintaining such institutions became stronger. This is the period when colleges became part of the federal system of education, and when colleges were grouped into universities.” The outcome was that the power of families was weakened, because children were now being taken to schools to get an education from State-certified specialists.

Two external movements joined this domestic trend. The first was the birth of the human capital theory in 1960, which suggests that investments in education generate benefits for individuals and societies; thus, education is transformed into an economic development factor. This, in turn, leads to the State’s interest in knowledge, which increasingly places economists as the new managers of education. The other movement, a more prosaic one, was the Cold War, which, as Letícia points out, “reinforced  competition among nations for a monopoly on scientific progress; this concept became  part, with more or less insertions in each area of knowledge in the international scenario, of a hierarchy.” National and international political power lacked something unless it was based on a system of production and transfer of scientific and technological knowledge. “In Brazil, the creation, in 1951, of the first national agencies for aid to research, namely CNPq and Capes, allowed Brazilians to take part in the scientific stage induced and driven by the Cold War.” In the case of CNPq (Brazil’s National Scientific and Technological Development Council), Leticia points out that its creation was directly linked to the use of nuclear energy, which explains why the first directors were chosen from among members of the Armed Forces. Capes was created at the initiative of educator Anísio Teixeira, who was personally in favor of foreign education. By creating Capes, Teixeira intended to narrow the gap between the Brazilian educational system and the educational systems in the big scientific powers, by means of international cooperation. The researcher points out that this resulted in a rupture with the traditional form of Brazil’s educational system, based on Catholic schools. The educational system took on new features, associated with foreign paradigms.

“In addition, the creation of institutions increased the possibility of studying abroad. This was the start of a public policy that focused on providing grants whose aim was to provide Brazil with high quality human resources,” says the researcher. The State takes on the responsibility for training a new scientific elite, a responsibility no longer limited to elite families. “This policy was strengthened in 1962, when FAPESP, a São Paulo State-funded entity, joined forces with the two federal institutions. The aim of this was to allow researchers to have direct contact with the cultural and scientific practices of the professionals at the international forefront of research.” Concurrently, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a permanent group of Brazilian scientists was created, through the implementation of master and doctoral programs in the country. “The early post-graduate courses brought together the State, scientific progress, and the search for knowledge references abroad. The State imposes itself as the guarantor of scientific development, viewed as a fundamental element in the pursuit of national autonomy,” Cury points out.

This movement was maintained and grew though there were periods of exception as in the military dictatorship; after all, the concept of “mighty Brazil” had to be acknowledged by Brazilians and foreigners. The theory of human capital was followed literally. “The desired conservative modernization required that specific professional fields be urgently developed, and it could only be consolidated by PhDs studying abroad. Post-graduate courses took on a strategic position within the scope of education and within the country’s development model,” Cury points out. “This deliberate State measure, which included sending professors abroad, created the foundation for the endogenous dissemination of master degrees and doctoral programs around the country and for the qualified consolidation of such programs. Thus, the role of graduate courses abroad acquired a major role in Brazil: the training that would enable the autonomous development of graduate studies in Brazil.” Nowadays, the researcher adds, the this early drive has died down; agencies have backed out of funding full doctorates abroad and have focused on post-doctoral programs or the so-called “sandwich-grants” [whereby the student does part of his or her degree abroad], which are shorter and in general less expensive.

HÉLIO DE ALMEIDAThe scope of the grants was also broadened. “As the agencies progressively incorporated all the scientific and cultural disciplines into their programs, their intervention opened up career possibilities for new generations of researchers, many of whom lacked the social capital equivalent to that of the traditional elite,” adds Letícia. Soon thereafter, the selection of candidates for studies abroad came under the control of the scientific community, which reduced political cronyism, a decisively important factor in the social makeup of university students studying abroad and in Brazil. “Thanks to this policy, Brazil was able to assimilate – almost instantly – a relatively new technology in Brazil: gene sequencing,” says André Goffeau, a researcher at Institute Curie and director of the yeast genome sequencing project.

“Thanks to these mechanisms, since 1970 Brazil has seen a transformation in its elite”, says Leticia. It is not limited only to the academic community, and comes out of this community to convey its ideas to society. “Suffice it to see how this new batch of university professors has contributed, since the 1970’s, to the strengthening of a new political elite, interested in building a new power-related arena. Their intent is to establish what Brazilian society should be like and, to this end, they chose active representatives from different social sectors, prepared to provide a project for society,” states Ana Paula Hey, another researcher involved in this issue. She states that this group was initially concentrated at USP and at USP’s NUPES (Center for Research on Higher Education). This group’s common characteristic is that all its members are highly qualified and have been involved politically, thus benefiting in several ways from the acquired capital, reconverted to the benefit of the production and materialization of their ideas in the social world. “It is also important to remember the group from CEBRAP, the Brazilian Center for Planning and Analysis, a source of top-level politicians such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso, José Serra, Paulo Renato Souza and Luis Carlos Bresser Pereira, among others, all of them connected to the PSDB party.”

Since the 1980’s, a time of significant political change, this specific group has participated actively in political life, either openly or as ideologues of a new view of society. “Cebrap had a different view of the academic career, considered as being ‘a way of life’, as opposed to the intellectual who did not know how to negotiate his opinions and proposals,” points out Ana Paula. The dream of this group of intellectuals was to prepare a project for society and implement it by means of elections, always keeping in mind the division of politicians into a “low church”, the group of poorly qualified, ill-prepared and insignificant politicians, and “high church”, the group comprising intellectuals and university graduates who viewed knowledge as a way of life and had the means to prepare and implement a social project with national reach. “This view reinforced the birth of an ideology based on a concept of science, which was seen as the only element qualified to talk about the social world, as it was created by the only validated group.”

According to the researcher, the point was to put certain strategies into practice. “As many researchers were invited to government positions, an efficient strategy was to introduce the notion of higher education as an expression of the academic world; in other words, the issue was to introduce what was actually a political program as an expression of academic will”, says Ana Paula. “Thus, the academic higher education program was designed within a political context. The rule was to belong to an elite that set itself apart by its specific cultural capital. This capital was also social capital, created in the course of academic and professional training, which includes circulating internationally.” In the author’s opinion, the result was the establishment of a new level of power, in which the experts belong to an international market, impose political guidelines upon the local level, and work side by side with experts trained in the national academic and scientific world.

“Academic recognition plays a key role in this struggle, as it confers legitimacy on practical political actions.” Thus, the cosmopolitan capital of the elite engaged in the struggle for the construction of an international space of knowledge for the State would allow them to ensconce themselves in a key role in the definition of national institutional models. The objective was to “invest in the international arena to reinforce their positions in the field of national power while also leveraging their domestic notoriety to gain recognition in the international arena. The cosmopolitan strategies in these phenomena present themselves as being at the service of national interests, whereas, inversely, national strategies claim universal values. In short, these are the ideas that the former scholarship grantees brought back from their trips abroad, thus allowing us to envision a new position for Brazil on the global stage,” Letícia points out.