Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Universities in Brazil and the U.S.: A Comparison

People in the U.S. generally think they have a good notion of what universities entail: a main campus (with perhaps branches spread throughout the state in smaller cities); diverse buildings that reflect the area's history and culture (the adobe-assault at University of New Mexico providing a particularly strong example); and a well-thought-out use of space and complementarity within campuses.

For this reason, Brazil provides a remarkable contrast, as I've recently had the chance to see first-hand. One of the most remarkable things (to me) about universities in Brazil is how spread out they are. There is no "main campus"; rather, different organizational units harbor different parts of the city, spread hither and thither with not much rhyme or reason. The Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro offers perhaps the most obvious example. The engineering and natural sciences are located in the very north of the city, by the International Airport (which is itself barely inside the city limits). However, the social sciences and philosophy are located in an entirely different building in the heart of Rio's downtown, while the communications school is located in the far south in the neighborhood of Urca (where the famous Sugarloaf Mountain is). There is no sense of unity within a single campus. Some may blame this on the UFRJ's hasty founding (in 1921 or 1930, depending on who you ask, the creation of UFRJ was just the consolidation of pre-existing schools of medicine, law, and engineering). However, the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF) in Niterói (just across Guanabara bay from Rio), established and built in the 1960s, is no different. While the social sciences/history/humanities are in one part of the city, the natural sciences are in a totally different (and not-too-close) part of Niterói. Thus, students can spend their entire university career without even seeing half of the campus where they attend school.

Another thing that strikes me about the university life in Brazil is its...I hate to use the word, but the only thing that comes to mind is its "hippie-ness." It is not at all uncommon to see students occupying parts of campus or even classrooms, playing guitar and philosophizing. But this isn't like your John-Mayer/Dave-Matthews-wannabes who populate most campuses in the states. It's more like your we're-from-the-middle-class-but-we-can-afford-to-be-leftists group (long hair, often dreadlocks, unkempt beards, etc.). And that's not to mock them completely. Their interests in oppression and poverty generally are earnest, and some of them are definitely from the lower-income-levels. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things to me was that, at UFF, there was an area of tents where poor students who can't afford student housing sleep for free. And, in my favorite example, at the Instituto de Filosofia e Ciencias Sociais (IFCS, part of the UFRJ) in downtown Rio, students will occupy unused rooms and smoke marijuana. It's not like we don't know what they're doing - you can't miss the smell. All of the conservatives who weep and bemoan how "liberal" colleges in the United States are, and how they "lead astray" youth, would probably have a coronary here.

The one remarkable similarity between the U.S. campuses and Brazil's that struck me these past few days was the architecture. Just as in the U.S., they reflect the time period they were created in. Thus, the IFCS campus and the Urca campus of UFRJ reflect the Victorian and 19th century architecture that Brazil mimicked from Europe in order to look "civilized," while the northern campus of UFRJ and the UFF campus (both built during Brazil's dictatorship from 1964-1985) couldn't reflect a more authoritarian style of architecture if they tried (large, near-windowless concrete buildings that are cold and without personality, reflecting the authoritarian and bureaucratic nature of the government under which they were built).

Anyhow, for those who thought university life in the U.S. was pretty much the norm in the world...well, that couldn't be further from the truth. And that says nothing about how classes are taught or what pedagogical approaches are involved in university life in Brazil at the undergraduate and graduate levels (which is a blog, if not a book, unto itself...)