by Amanda Smera
Not once in my life have I had to wonder what it is like to not know how to read or write. And I am guessing that, if you are reading this right now, neither have you.
But what if I told you that in some countries, reading and writing are not as reachable as they seem to be? That for some people, reading and writing is seen as a privilege and not as a common practice?
I come from one of them.
I was born and raised in Brazil, the country that carries the lungs of the Earth, but we are most known for our soccer players. What many people from the US are unfamiliar with is the social inequality that is rooted in every country considered to be “undeveloped.” I never really appreciated this term, but to say Brazil is “in development” would perhaps be an overstatement. If you ask any of us, we have been stuck in a vicious cycle of inequality and unfairness. In my country, there’s no such thing as meritocracy, and thus guarantees that the rich will die richer and the poor will just die. It’s the good ol’ “lottery of birth,” argued by Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes and Rawls. But when did reading and writing become part of the elite’s birthright? I will argue that in some countries, it has always been a privilege, not a right.
Over 30% of people in Brazil, between the ages of 15 and 64, are considered to be functionally illiterate—that is, minimally able to read and interpret memos, pieces of news, instructions, narratives, graphs, tables, ads, and other types of text. This is not a reflection of the lack of education, but the lack of quality in the education proposed in Brazil. Professor José Marcelino de Rezende Pinto, a specialist in educational policy and management, of São Paulo’s University, believes these statistics are a reflection of Brazil’s low quality education. “Our schools still produce many illiterate people,” he says, adding that “these schools are not able to convey knowledge, literacy, into something that will be used in the daily lives of these people.”
For context, in Brazil, you either attend a private school—which is what anyone with a good financial situation does—or you attend a public school, which will very likely lead you to ending up as part of that statistic. And if you are reading this right now, you have probably guessed that the person writing this not only has the privilege of being literate, but has the double privilege of being literate in two languages. I attended a private school and a private university in Brazil, and now I am attending a private graduate school in the US. A Master in Writing nonetheless (ah yes, the irony!). Opportunities really are the most tangible excluder in a society dictated by the lottery of birth.
Different from the public education system in the United States, public schools in Brazil have been neglected by the federal government, and with the lack of funds, which reflects on both the infrastructure and the quality of education, we have more children in the streets than in the classrooms. While in the US it is a crime not to send your child to school, Brazil had almost 1.4 million kids and teenagers not attending school at all in 2019. Due to extreme poverty, many children end up dropping out of school to work and help with the family income—a responsibility no child should have to carry on their shoulders.
Now, let me bring this scenario to an even more chaotic moment in time. When the pandemic started, Brazil (which is under the control of a neglectful government) had these flawed systems that were much more tangible and hard to ignore. In 2021, Elected Jair Bolsonaro (I refuse to call him President) announced he was going to make a cut in the resources from Health, Education, and from Science, Technology, and Innovation that amounted to more than R$ 5 billion.
During the pandemic, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) stated that the number of students without access to education in Rio de Janeiro grew from 2% to 17%. Deputy Flávio Serafini, president of the Education Commission of Rio de Janeiro, explains that the education crisis happens at all levels of education, “The federal government did not take any action that would help sustain a national project to guarantee the right to education during the pandemic. So, there is no structured remote teaching process in any municipality or in the government of the state of Rio”, he says. According to him, there are between 30% and 40% of public school students without any permanent remote education, which turns that previous 1.4 million, into 5.5 million children not having any school activities through the entirety of 2020. “It's a big exclusion,” he reckons. Meanwhile, parents in the US are concerned about the impacts the pandemic had on their children’s education, complaining about the use of masks, remote learning, and claiming that their children are “falling behind,” when they should just be grateful their children are getting to have an education at all.
Ask any politician that ever was, and they will all say—meaning it or not—that education is the greatest tool to enact change in our countries. A nation can only develop when the processes of education and shaping the minds of the future are taken seriously. Politicians say it as a promise, but there are few who actually take a stand for it. In my twenty-two years of living in Brazil, this was the inequality that was constantly dismissed, but the one I believe has scarred my society the most. That’s because it’s impossible to conquer your future as a citizen in a country in which you are unable to understand the laws and rights that you should live by, or question. What I am about to say may sound conspiratorial, but the way our educational system and our politicians failed us feels almost on purpose, as Brazilian journalist, Eliane Brum, wrote: “The act of writing, the one that makes stains on the paper, the one that pulls everything from inside out, the one that is murderous, is one of the main weapons of the elites for several generations in the history of Brazil. It’s a weapon to subjugate, oppress, enslave, all the ones who are only able to narrate their lives through orality. Writing in Brazil means to leave people out. It is used by the powers of law and medicine, who rape the ears to maintain the high walls of inequality intact.”
This violent and unfair act of exclusion, of leaving behind, is rooted deeply in the soil of my country. It’s perpetuated by geographical context. It became part of a capitalist doctrine that reads loud and clear: The poor don’t stand a chance. It denies opportunities. It’s a consequence of a white system that is terrified of seeing anyone but their kind succeeding, of a government that is more concerned about legalizing guns than making education accessible for children.
The importance of literacy is stamped in the corner of every developed country, and it can be as trivial as menus that don’t require pictures, as asking for a signature at the end of the receipt. Being literate means to live without shame and with the knowledge that the system—one that exists to protect us—has failed us completely. It’s a privilege, one that feels second nature, and that makes it hard for us to realize this is a privilege indeed. “Reaching adulthood in an illiterate condition in a predominantly urban, graphocentric literate society [centered on writing] is a process of social exclusion, which is not strictly educational and is perpetuated in our country,” says Professor Maria Clara Di Pierro, of USP.
Coming from a country where this privilege is more palpable, reporting this violence is frustrating to say the least. The notion that these statistics haven’t changed in years—and with the pandemic, they grew stronger—and that there’s no visible initiative to prioritize and invest in education, makes me sometimes think this is a hopeless cause; a basic human right I am restlessly trying to defend. But it wouldn’t be fair to these marginalized minorities if I, and all the other journalists/writers/activists, gave up on them and on the idea of trying to use our platform to bring awareness to this devastating situation that has excluded my people from the world around them; from the possibility of achieving a life beyond the traps of an inactive meritocracy; from having the pleasure of simply picking up a book and reading, picking up a pen and writing. Being illiterate is being exiled from your own language, and I urge whoever is reading this to take a stand, to be disruptive, and use this privilege to report this violence as well.