A problem of illiteracy

Illiteracy seems to be a global problem, but I had never encountered the numerous other effects that bad education can have on a human being.

Public education in Brazil is painfully bad. Course books contain errors, like misplaced countries and typos; teachers, especially in the north, get very low salaries and teaching as a whole has become an end-of-the-line option for people who once dreamed of being something better. They get no training, are seldom tested for their abilities (schools are short-staffed so any soul is welcome), and often have to teach subjects they know little about (history teachers teaching maths, for example).

Another problem in Brazil is the separation of government/state/municipality education sectors, meaning that schools in Bahia, for example, teach somewhat different topics in a different way than schools in São Paulo state, and municipal school use different material within the same state. This should be a good thing, but some states in Brazil are visibly less advanced than others in terms of teaching methods and content, making the educational gap even wider.

An example of this is the alphabet. In Bahia, the alphabet is taught based on phonetics, and incomplete ones at that. Children in public schools are taught that F (eff, in Portuguese, is fe), that G (Je, in the rest of Brazil, is Ge), that M (em, in the rest of Brazil, is me) and so on. So, when children finish school they are already at a disadvantage with the rest of the country, and considered “behind” and “slow” by students of other states.

I have written numerous letters to ministries of education with no responsible answer. I once got a scruffy, unsigned reply saying “it was a local problem”, which is not altogether true. All of Bahia teaches this way.

Anyway, my aim here is to talk about the problems this and other types of illiteracy bring.

Children educated in public school are not only behind in their writing and reading skills, they are also taught in an almost primitive, illiterate manner. Teachers write long texts on the board, which students copy and must then re-write in “better handwriting” at home. That is usually the homework assignment. There is no discussion because teachers have never discussed these issues amongst themselves. No one asks, so what do you think Cabral was like? Why do you think he did so-and-so? Students are taught to shut up and write, teachers are taught to copy subjects from one place to another.

A bright student who asks questions is either forced into submission or drops out of school. I have seen this personally hundreds of times. A student I knew who loved watching the Discovery Channel via my cable TV, once brought up the subject of “many galaxies” and “other suns” only to be told he was wrong and that the mere assumption was ridiculous. I doubt his teacher ever watched Discovery.

In summary, the entire system is illiterate.

Another problem with illiteracy is the inability to grow out of it. People can attend reading and writing classes (very common in Brazil, either government-funded, via NGO or, sadly, in-company training), but they will never truly learn. Development of a thinking process that has never been used is almost impossible. A student that has been illiterate, functionally or fully, has lost the chance to go through those wonderful mutations offered by good education. They do not learn context, they have no real pleasure in reading, and seldom own a book of their own. Reading is not a common Brazilian trait, and students will only grab a book when forced to do so at college or to pass exams. One would think a person who has just learned to read would be more enthusiastic. Not so. This is the assumption of a reader, who understands what he/she is reading. A person who is learning to read and write with learn just that, without the magic.

People who have never read for information, to know which bus to catch, do not acquire that unconscious act in adulthood. They continue with the same habits they had when they did not read at all. A crude example: “which tap do I use for hot water?” asks the employee. “The one with “quente” written on it,” replies the employer. The employee could have read the word because he was recently taught to do so, but is not accustomed to reading to obtain information. So the newly-obtained literacy is often lost.

When you are teaching an adult to think in the same way you would to form a word, you can see the limitations and insurmountable blocks in their thinking process. You can see the inability to enter that learning zone you are used to entering with every new topic, every new unknown word. Interpretation of a sentence is almost impossible, unless you rephrase a thousand times, and almost give them the answer.

Much as there are people who can never learn a foreign language, I truly believe real literacy is impossible to learn unless the student is fully reeducated from the very core, something no government, company or kind Samaritan is willing or able to fund.

Being poor is not only a question of “not having”, it´s also the inability to absorb the things needed to climb out of that situation. Almost a poverty of mind.