Citizen Philosophy Classes

Banned during military dictatorship, philosophy classes are now required for students in Brazilian high schools, in an effort to boost political participation.


| September/October 2012


Getting out of the cave and seeing things as they really are: that’s what philosophy is about, according to Almira Ribeiro. Ribeiro teaches the subject in a high school in Itapuã, a beautiful, poor, violent neighborhood on the periphery of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia in Brazil’s northeast. She is the most philosophically passionate person I’ve ever met.

In Ribeiro’s neighborhood, children play football or do capoeira, pray in Pentecostal Churches or worship African gods. Many are involved with drugs; “every year we lose students to crack,” she tells me. And they study philosophy two hours each week because of a 2008 law that mandates philosophy instruction in all Brazilian high schools. Nine million teenagers now take philosophy classes for three years.

“But seeing things as they really are isn’t enough,” Ribeiro insists. As in Plato’s parable in The Republic, the students must go back to the cave and apply what they’ve learned. Their lives give them rich opportunities for such application. The contrast between the new luxury hotels along the beach and Itapuã’s overcrowded streets gives rise to questions about equality and justice. Children kicking around a can introduce a discussion about democracy: football is one of the few truly democratic practices here; success depends on merit, not class privilege. Moving between philosophy and practice, the students can revise their views in light of what Plato, Hobbes, or Locke had to say about equality, justice, and democracy and discuss their own roles as political agents.

To foster that discussion, Ribeiro must take on a deeply rooted political defeatism. Voting in Brazil is obligatory, but many think it’s useless.



“There are also other ways of political participation,” Ribeiro tells her students. She gives them the town hall’s phone number for complaints about infrastructure and asks them to find something in their street they want repaired. When one student calls, nothing happens. But when 15 call, the city reacts. In the same vein she’s now organizing an association of philosophy teachers. One urgent matter is the lack of qualified personnel. Another project is improving the relationship with the philosophy department at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), the region’s academic hub. Most teachers I meet complain that academic philosophers ignore them or look down on them.

That’s not surprising, considering that the 2008 law is above all a political project. In 1971 the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 eliminated philosophy classes from high schools. Teachers, professors in departments of education, and political activists championed its return, while most academic philosophers were either indifferent or suspicious.

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