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Should Brazilian Students Study Portuguese Literature?

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Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa's last words. Image: Manu Dreuil/Flickr. CC 2.0

As Brazil continues the process of streamlining its primary and middle school curriculum, one issue has grabbed the attention of educators and news outlets: whether Brazilian students should be forced to study Portuguese literature.

The directive behind the debate is the National Foundation of Common Curriculum, or BNCC in Portuguese, created in 2015 and which establishes new guidelines for what a Brazilian student should know by the time they leave school.

The question is how to interpret the new guidelines (p. 61) – two of which are as follows:

Ler produções literárias de autores da Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea, percebendo a literatura como produção historicamente situada e, ainda assim, atemporal e universal.

Interpretar e analisar obras africanas de língua portuguesa, bem como a literatura indígena, reconhecendo a literatura como lugar de encontro de multiculturalidades.

To read literary productions from authors of Contemporary Brazilian Literature, perceiving the literature as a localized, but still timeless and universal historical production.

To interpret and analyze Portuguese-language works from Africa, as well as indigenous literature, recognizing the literature as a meeting place of multiculturalism.

The non-mention of Portuguese literature in the quoted statements above has made waves both in Portugal and in Brazil. Some argue that respected authors from Portugal such as Luís Vaz de Camões, Fernando Pessoa, Eça de Queiroz and José Saramago are being axed from the curriculum or that students will lack important context for Brazil's literary tradition.

Others say the guidelines are far too narrow in scope, and even if Portuguese literature were added back into the mix, literature from across South America and even the world would still be missing.

In an open-letter at the Portuguese news site O Mirante, Brazilian writer Eliezer Moreira slammed the BNCC:

Ora, para que a literatura brasileira, ou qualquer outra, seja reconhecida como “lugar de encontro de multiculturalidades” (que linguagem pomposa!) é preciso infinitamente mais do que acrescentar-lhe duas outras. O viés ideológico e o ranço doutrinário da BNCC, nesse tópico, são indisfarçáveis e de um reducionismo ridículo. Na verdade, o que se pode deduzir do texto é algo mais calamitoso do que simplesmente pôr de escanteio a literatura portuguesa. Os professores de ensino médio – aquela fase do ensino em que os alunos costumam decidir suas vocações e seu futuro –, podem se desobrigar de incluir em seus programas de ensino também as literaturas francesa, inglesa, norte-americana e russa – ou seja, nada de Shakespeare, Camões, Dostoievski, Kafka, Fernando Pessoa, Faulkner, Camus e Hemingway, por exemplo.

Well, for Brazilian literature, or any other, to be recognized as ‘a meeting place of multiculturalism’ (what pompous language!) infinitely more is needed than adding two others to it. The BNCC's ideological bias and rancid doctrine, on this topic, is undeniable and ridiculously reductionist. In truth, what one can deduce from the text is something more calamitous than simply putting Portuguese literature in the corner. Teachers of middle and high school – that learning phase in which students usually decide their vocation and their future – can relieve themselves of including French, English, North American and Russian literature from their learning programs – that is, nothing of Shakespeare, Camões, Dostoievski, Kafka, Fernando Pessoa, Faulkner, Camus and Hemingway, for example.

Image: Farley Santos/Flickr. CC 2.0

Image: Farley Santos/Flickr. CC 2.0

In Brazil's Folha newspaper, university professor Flora Bender Garcia and high school teacher José Ruy Lozano penned an opinion piece touching upon an apparent chronological injustice attached to the removal of Portuguese literature:

Como compreender a cultura popular nordestina, suas canções, seus repentes, seus cantos de aboiar, sua literatura de cordel, sem reconhecer a presença da literatura medieval da Península Ibérica, em particular as cantigas trovadorescas e as novelas de cavalaria?

E Morte e Vida Severina, de João Cabral de Melo Neto, e Auto da Compadecida, de Ariano Suassuna, nada devem ao teatro humanista português de um Gil Vicente? Fugir ao diálogo Brasil/Portugal é negar origens e contextos produtivos.

How does one understand popular northeastern culture, its songs, improvised poetry, cowboy cattle calls, and folk literature without acknowledging the presence of medieval literature from the Iberian Peninsula, in particular, its troubadour verses and romantic prose?

And ‘Morte e Vida Severina’, by João Cabral de Melo Neto, and ‘Auto da Compadecida’, by Ariano Suassuna, they owe nothing to the Portuguese humanist theater of Gil Vicente? To flee from the Brazil/Portugal dialogue is to deny its productive origins and contexts.

Brazil was a Portuguese colony between 1500 and 1815, when Brazil was elevated to a kingdom following the transfer of the Portuguese Court to its largest colony during the Napoleonic invasions of Portugal. In 1822, after the royal family had returned to Portugal, Brazil acquired its independence. The main legacy the Portuguese left behind was the language, now widely spoken across Brazil and the country's only official language.

Recycling many of the ideas in Flora Bender Garcia's piece in Folha, Portuguese newspaper Diário de Notícias attributed the curriculum decision to the current Brazilian Federal government. It also added mention of another controversy in 2011 when a Brazilian textbook for middle-schoolers supposedly downplayed a grammatically incorrect sentence as a means of shedding light on the ways Portuguese is spoken across Brazil's social classes:

O governo do Partido dos Trabalhadores, de centro-esquerda, é acusado de populismo e de agir de forma ideológica, ao querer privilegiar a cultura indígena e ao ser mais permissivo em relação a questões gramaticais já desde 2011, quando causou choque na classe educadora que num manual escolar distribuído pelo MEC fosse considerada “inadequada e passível de preconceito” mas não errada” a expressão, sem concordância, “nós pega o peixe”.

The center-leftist government of the Workers’ Party is accused of populism and of being ideologically driven by giving priority to indigenous culture and by being more permissive of grammatical issues since 2011, when a textbook distributed by the Ministry of Education caused an uproar among educators by stating that the expression ‘nós pega o peixe’ [we takes the fish], which lacks verbal concordance, was ‘inadequate and subject to prejudice, but not incorrect’.

Brazilian university professor Anderson da Mata took issue with the idea that Brazilian folklore has its origins in Portuguese literature, which was central to the Folha piece and repeated in the Diário de Notícias article. He also defended the proposed changes on his personal Facebook page:

Que vergonha desse texto publicado em Portugal que anda circulando por aí sobre a Base Nacional Curricular Comum. Só a ideia de que “Portugal criou o Brasil”, pelo colonialismo rasteiro, já merecia fazer com que o texto fosse ignorado.

Não custa lembrar que a história da literatura portuguesa foi “excluída” dos currículos da educação básica no Brasil há quase vinte anos. O objetivo não poderia ser mais claro: menos história da literatura, mais literatura.

E ninguém está proibido de ensinar a meninada a ler com Camões, Alcoforado ou Pessoa, ok? Mas o foco é esse: ensinar a ler.

What an embarrassment this BNCC story published in Portugal is. The mere idea that “Portugal created Brazil”, for its trivial colonialism, should be enough for the whole thing to be ignored.

It doesn't hurt to remember that the history of Portuguese literature was ‘excluded’ from the curricula of Brazil's basic education almost 20 years ago. The objective couldn't be more clear: less literature history, more literature.

And no one is prohibiting kids from read Camões, Alcoforado or Pessoa, OK? But the focus is this: to teach how to read.

With all the blowback it received, the Ministry of Education issued a follow-up statement with a guarantee that Portuguese literature would definitely not be dropped from the curriculum. Instead, they said that what may occur is a change in the way the content is presented, but failed to go into further detail:

Na proposta de Base Nacional Comum Curricular (BNCC), o estudo de obras literárias brasileiras deve ser realizado em conexão direta com a leitura e o estudo de obras clássicas da literatura portuguesa.

In the BNCC proposal, the study of Brazilian literary works will be performed in direct connection with the reading and study of classic works of Portuguese literature.

At the blog O Jornal do Romário, Brazilian linguist Marcos Bagno used a wider lens to question why the debate doesn't reflect other important literature connected to Portugal and Latin America, rather than looking at how Brazilian culture reflects its Portuguese ancestry:

Por que ninguém faz protesto contra a não obrigatoriedade do ensino na escola da literatura africana de expressão portuguesa — uma literatura com fascinantes identidades próprias, fecunda, que recicla os cânones ocidentais, que fala de realidades sociais e culturais muito próximas de nós? Cadê o abaixo-assinado?

Por que não se convoca passeata para que se torne obrigatório o ensino da literatura latino-americana, a mais rica e influente da segunda metade do século XX, produzida em países do nosso próprio continente, com uma variedade de gêneros e temas tão vasta quanto a porção do mundo que se estende de Tijuana a Ushuaia?

Why doesn't anyone protest against the non-requirement for schools to teach African literature of Portuguese expression — a fertile literature with its own fascinating identities, which recycles Western canons, which speaks of social and cultural realities so close to our own? Where's the petition?

Why aren't marches being called for so that what becomes required teaching is Latin American literature, the richest and most influential of the second half of the 20th century, produced in countries on our own continent, with a variety of genres and themes as vast as the part of the world that extends from Tijuana to Ushuaia?

The matter of what to include in the new curriculum is open to public comments until March 15, 2016, on Brazil's Ministry of Education and Culture website. It will be only the first step in solidifying Brazil's future school curriculum, as it will also be reviewed by state and city school networks as well as individual schools before going into effect in June 2016.

  • Gentillylace

    This seems like an odd controversy. It is as if there were a question about teaching high school students from the US literature from Britain and Ireland. Of course American students should read some Shakespeare, as well as have at least a bit of familiarity with English authors from Chaucer (in modern English translation) to modernists like Woolf — provided that those students are literate enough to read (excerpts from) those works! Similarly, it seems to me that Brazilian students should have some familiarity with Portuguese authors from Camões to Saramago, provided that they are literate enough in their native tongue to read them. What do you all think?

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