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The mold for academic excellence

In the series of articles on the 70 years of the University of S

Fabrício Marques

The University of São Paulo (USP) has become the great Brazilian paradigm in academic excellence, thanks to a model implanted in a pioneering manner in the Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH). USP was created in 1934, incorporating notable schools of higher education that were already qualifying professionals for the Brazilian elite from São Paulo, such as the College of Medicine, the Law School, of São Francisco Square, and the Polytechnic School. But it was in the Faculty of Philosophy, born jointly with the university to serve as an interdisciplinary amalgam for the already existing units, that the concepts were applied that were to mold Brazilian higher education, such as the inseparability of teaching and research, scientific rigor as a method, and investment in basic research, that disinterested knowledge that pushes back the frontiers of learning and produces surprising contributions.

Until the creation of USP, the chair professors of the College of Medicine, for example, were great clinicians and surgeons who, for the greater part of time, were saving lives. Only a few used to do high quality research. The Polytechnic and the Law School used to supply the country with engineers and lawyers, but their teachers divided themselves between educating their pupils and their private professional activities. With honorable exceptions, they stood out more for transmitting a technological learning than for producing basic knowledge. “Until the creation of the School of Philosophy and USP , the limit between the scientist and the erudite, between the researcher and the dilettante, was not very clear”, says sociology professor Sedi Hirano, the current director of the FFLCH. “Even the idea that scientific activity is a vocation, a profession with exclusive dedication, only became consolidated following the experience of the Philosophy school”, he explains.

Today, the FFLCH has 10,235 undergraduates and 2,117 postgraduate students, and it comprises 11 departments of Humanities: Classical Literature, Modern Literature, Oriental Literature, Linguistics, Literary Theory, Philosophy, History, Geography, Anthropology, Sociology, and Political Science. But, in its early days, practically the whole of knowledge would fit within the institution. It arose in 1934 with a wide-ranging name, the College of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature (FFCL), gathering in as well the nuclei of Natural Sciences, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics.

It was a “university in miniature”, in the definition of sociologist Florestan Fernandes (1920-1995) in his book A questão da USP [The USP issue] (1984). Under the auspices of the São Paulo oligarchy, the young School went to drink directly at the European source. The first director of the institution, Theodoro Augusto Ramos, a mathematician from the Polytechnic School, was in charge of hiring dozens of professors from France, Italy, Germany, and Portugal. The foreign missions brought habits that marked the country?s university culture, such as the annual renewal of the courses and the rigorous planning of the lessons. There were professors who were already hallowed, and young talents who constructed brilliant academic careers in the following decades.

Most came from France, like anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, economic historian Fernand Braudel, sociologist Roger Bastide, or philosophy professors Martial Guéroult and Jean Maugüé, who had a great influence on the study of psychology. Italy sent, amongst others, its great poet Giuseppe Ungaretti and physicist Gleb Wataghin, a Russian by birth, one of those responsible for establishing experimental physics as a scientific activity in Brazil. Germany shared with Brazil its theoretical basis in chemistry, sending professors like Heinrich Rheinboldt. Portuguese was a very rare language in the classrooms, with lessons generally taught in French or Italian. It looked like a colonizing mission, but the reality was more complex than the appearances.

The fact is that society and the academic community in São Paulo showed themselves to be mature enough to absorb the European contribution. The modernist writer Mário de Andrade, for example, associated himself with Claude Lévi-Strauss to found the Ethnographic and Folklore Society. The European masters would soon be surrounded by Brazilian disciples, like the French professor of human geography Pierre Monbeig and his student Caio Prado Júnior, or the Italo-Russian physicist Gleb Wataghin and the young Mário Schenberg and Marcelo Damy. Some European masters spent few years in Brazil, others were to remain until the mid-1960s ? kicking off a tradition of international interchange of professors and students that is strong to this date (the college maintains 40 agreements with institutions abroad).

But, as was foreseen, the foreign professors would gradually make room for the Brazilians they had helped to educate, as in the case of the physicist Oscar Sala, the geneticist Crodowaldo Pavan, the sociologist Florestan Fernandes or the geographer Aziz Ab?Saber.Bold and grandiloquent, the project for the College of Philosophy did, for sure, suffer from turbulence on take-off. Back in 1936 and 1937, they went so far as to discuss the closing down of the institution, since those who aspired to a place at USP continued to take the path of the School of Medicine, the Polytechnic School, and the Law School, probably startled by the exotic experiment under way at the Faculty of Philosophy. In the first two years of the institution?s existence, it was a fashion with the São Paulo elite to attend the classes at the school, to improve the quorum in the classrooms.

The solution that rescued the institution from its initial difficulties was due to the ingeniousness of the educator, sociologist and historian Fernando de Azevedo, who had been the director of Public Education in São Paulo and was to command the school in the 1940s. Instead of educating the elite, as the older units of USP used to do, the new school to the middle class. A degree determined that primary school teachers who passed the entrance exam for the course of the Philosophy school and who always had a mark over 7 could retire from the classrooms and continue to receive their pay while they studied, an artifice known as commissioning. Accordingly, the faculty was filled up with former teacher-training college pupils, to form good secondary school teachers.

“It was thanks to this decree that I was able to graduate”, recalls historian José Sebastião Witter, an emeritus professor at FFLCH. In 1953, Witter had qualified at a teacher-training college in Mogi das Cruzes and, after working five years as a primary school teacher, entered the Faculty of Philosophy in 1958. “The situation of teaching was completely different. The teacher-training colleges would provide an excellent education and had extremely competent masters”, Witter says. The vocation for qualifying teachers has been maintained up until today, above all in careers like literature, history and geography, although the form of commissioning had been abandoned.

The decades of the 1950s and 1960s were the golden age of the School of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature, converted into the center of Brazilian thinking. In 1941, effervescence gained an address: the Faculty of Philosophy, which had wandered over several buildings, some of them lent, settled in the legendary building in Maria Antônia street. In the corridors, the great academic landmarks would cross each other, like Antonio Candido, who was to become the patron of literary theory in Brazil, the sociologist Florestan Fernandes, besides Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, the historian who created the concept of the cordial man and who joined the faculty at the end of the 1950s.

They orbited around Ms. Floripes, an employee who would jot down messages for everybody in the Maria Antônia reception desk. The time is marked by the works on race relations in Brazil, led by Florestan, Octavio Ianni, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who refuted the idea of a Brazilian racial paradise, or by the book Os parceiros do Rio Bonito [The partners from Rio Bonito], by Antonio Candido, a classic of Brazilian sociology about marginalized hillbillies in the São Paulo interior.

It was also in this phase that the school became a cauldron of political effervescence. Flourishing amongst professors and pupils was what was to become known as “radical thinking”, based on which the intellectuals, the majority of Marxist orientation, saw themselves in a sphere apart from the politicians and the people, and claimed for themselves the mission of commanding the changes in society. The first major movement occurred between 1955 and 1962, when the School of Philosophy was the main pole for debates and criticisms of the privatizing reform of schooling proposed by the politician Carlos Lacerda.

The bastion in defense of the public school was the building in Maria Antônia street, headed by Florestan Fernandes. After overthrowing President João Goulart in 1964 , the military found in the School of Philosophy, with its professors and pupils with a strong leftist leaning, a bellicose focus of challenge to the dictatorship. “The school had become very distant from what the oligarchies had thought for it”, said Professor Antonio Candido, in a recent speech in the commemorations of the 70 years of the college. “In 1964, all of USP?s congregations supported the military coup, except the School of Philosophy. And not because it was left wing, because it was against oppression.”

The result of this clash went into the history books: on October 3, 1968, a pitched battle between student leaders from the School of Philosophy and followers of the rightist organization, the Commandos for the Hunt of Communists, installed in the neighboring Mackenzie University, ended with the death of a second-year student, three students shot, dozens of wounded, and the depredation of the FFLCH?s premises. But the hardest blow was to come next, with the compulsory retirement, based on Institutional Act 5 ( the peak of the military dictatorship in Brazil , of the most prestigious voices of the faculty, like José Arthur Giannotti, Emília Viotti da Costa, Octavio Ianni, Florestan Fernandes, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, amongst others. The FFLCH underwent a change of profile.

With the university reform, it lost the last departments still connected with the area of the sciences, and settled on the humanities. It was also expelled from the integrating environment of Maria Antônia street, to disperse pupils and professors in a set of buildings with 41,000 square meters in the University City. Deprived of its most famous heads and distant from the original model, the FFLCH showed, in the 1970s and 1980s, that it continued to be capable of producing a critical mass of the first water, and carried on as an important pole for academic thinking.

Recently, several of FAPESP?s thematic projects were approved, under the coordination of professors from the School of Philosophy, dealing with themes like the philosophy of the 17th century, the philosophy and history of science, and ethics, politics and law. The faculty that had made itself notable for its political effervescence in the 1960s manned the ranks of power after the redemocratization. In the 1990s, with the ascension to the Presidency of the Republic of the sociology professor removed from office by the AI-5, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former members of the FFLCH occupied important posts, ranging from the Ministry of Culture (Francisco Weffort) to the formulation of policies for education. Circumstances are repeating themselves, with other names, naturally, in the Lula administration ? from spokesman André Singer to the president of the Applied Economic Research Institute (IPEA), Glauco Arbix.

The production of over 300 undergraduate students with scientific initiation projects provides the material for a collection of books, baptized as First Studies, published by the faculty itself. “They are works of a high quality, which do the faculty proud”, says the president of the Research Commission, Moacyr Novaes. Published in 2001, the first volume brings together a collection of texts about the policies for industrialization in São Paulo in the 1990s, under the coordination of sociology professor Glauco Arbix.

The second, launched in 2003, is a discourse on the thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre. Of the 24 postgraduate programs, 16 are regarded as excellent, and three of them have top marks in the assessment of the Committee for Postgraduate Courses in Higher Education (Capes): Brazilian Literature, Semiotics and General Linguistics, and Sociology. The methodological rigor and the scientific curiosity sown by the European missions, as you can see, have not got out of breath in the course of the 70 years of existence of USP?s Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences.