Philosophy and Education in Brazil: Teaching Kant to Grade Schoolers

In a fascinating article in the most recent issue of the Boston Review, explores the mandated teaching of philosophy to all Brazilian public school students. The program has been in force since 2008 and is the largest in the world.

The first thing I found interesting was how the program came about. It was as an attempt to undo the curricula instituted by the erstwhile Brazilian military dictatorship, and encourage an engaged democratic citizenry:

In 1971 the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 eliminated philosophy from high schools. Teachers, professors in departments of education, and political activists championed its return, while most academic philosophers were either indifferent or suspicious. The dictatorship seems to have understood philosophy’s potential to create engaged citizens; it replaced philosophy with a course on Moral and Civic Education and one on Brazil’s Social and Political Organization (“to inculcate good manners and patriotic values and to justify the political order of the generals,” one UFBA colleague recalls from his high school days).

The official rationale for the 2008 law is that philosophy “is necessary for the exercise of citizenship.” The law—the world’s largest-scale attempt to bring philosophy into the public sphere—thus represents an experiment in democracy. Among teachers at least, many share Ribeiro’s hope that philosophy will provide a path to greater civic participation and equality. Can it do even more? Can it teach students to question and challenge the foundations of society itself?

But, as with many education-related matters, Brazil's program has been controversial, Fraenkel says. First, some Brazilian academic philosophers and educators believe that in a country as poor as Brazil, teaching philosophy to young students who may be barely literate is an example of misplaced priorities. Basic literacy and math should be the focus, they say. Philosophy is an academic profession, or at least one that is inappropriate for those without training in more basic areas. On the other side are educators who believe that this attitude is totally elitist. They believe that even poor, uneducated students are capable of understanding philosophical arguments, and that it may have a beneficial effect on their citizenship capabilities.

I admit to being torn here, given my background and love for the discipline of philosophy. The question, I think, is not one of the value of philosophy itself, but about priorities. Another concern I have is that teaching philosophy is not to be taken lightly. Learning about, say, Rousseau or Nietzsche from the wrong person can jaundice ones views of not only these thinkers but of philosophy itself. And the last thing I'd want a student to take away from early instruction in philosophy is a distorted view of what philosophy in fact is, and why it matters.


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