ON OCTOBER 28TH, the day Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election, Ana Caroline Campagnolo, an “anti-feminist” history teacher who had recently been elected a legislator in the southern state of Santa Catarina, sent out a message on Facebook. “Attention students!” she wrote. “Many doctrinaire teachers will be disconcerted or revolted” by the election of Mr Bolsonaro, a politician of the right. “Film or record all partisan manifestations that … offend your freedom of thought or conscience,” she urged.
Ms Campagnolo’s rallying call issues from a movement called Escola sem Partido (“School without Party”, or ESP). It claims that Brazil’s schools have been politicised by left-wing teachers and demands “pluralism” in the classroom. Miguel Nagib, who founded ESP in 2004, contends that schools are engaged in “social engineering” that undermines the rights of parents. Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain, is an enthusiastic supporter. The movement’s critics say that its goal is not political neutrality but to instil a culturally conservative agenda that is intolerant of feminism, gay people and the left.
With Mr Bolsonaro’s election ESP, which has ties to evangelical churches, has moved from the fringe to the centre. During the campaign he echoed its rhetoric, accusing the federal government of promoting “homosexuality and promiscuity” in schools. A proposed law, backed by ESP, would ban teachers from talking about “gender ideology” (a catch-all term for trendy ideas about sex and gender), sexual orientation and their political views. How that will promote pluralism is unclear.
When the president-elect was reported to be on the verge of naming a respected moderate, Mozart Neves Ramos, to be his education minister, conservatives rebelled. Mr Bolsonaro retreated. On November 22nd he announced that the new education minister will be Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, a Colombian theologian who has written that schools force “Marxist ideology” on their pupils.
Brazil’s biggest teachers’ union, with more than 1m members, has ties to the left-wing (but non-Marxist) Workers’ Party (PT), whose presidential candidate Mr Bolsonaro defeated. ESP is obsessed with the influence of Paulo Freire, an educator who in the 1950s taught impoverished sugar-cane cutters to read. He thought teaching should draw on issues that affected learners, like hunger. His book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, published in 1968, spread that view worldwide. Brazil’s military rulers exiled him in 1964. Today, his writings are on the syllabus in most teacher-training courses in Brazil. A law designates him “the patron of Brazilian education”.
For ESP, Freire transformed “innocent illiterate people into illiterate communists”. During the election campaign Mr Bolsonaro, who speaks well of the dictatorship that exiled Freire, vowed to “take a flame-thrower to the ministry of education and get Paulo Freire out of there”.
The panic is overdone. Freire is a source of “fashionable jargon”, not a shaper of policy, says Vitor Henrique Paro, a professor of education at the University of São Paulo. ESP has produced no rigorous studies showing that schools are promoting left-wing ideas and non-traditional lifestyles. “They’re citing isolated incidents,” says Mr Paro. Olavo de Carvalho, an influential conservative intellectual and ally of ESP, admitted in a newspaper interview that the proposed federal law to suppress such evils is “premature” because there is no evidence that they are widespread.
There have been enough incidents to rile ESP, which in turn has sowed panic in schools. Teachers in classrooms have worn T-shirts supporting leftist candidates and described the impeachment in 2016 of President Dilma Rousseff as a “coup”, echoing the language of the PT, her party. In a video shared on Mr Bolsonaro’s Facebook page, a teacher screams at a student: “I fought for democracy and you’re here talking about that piece of crap Bolsonaro.”
Equally sinister in ESP’s eyes are campaigns to discourage discrimination against gay people. In 2011 the human-rights committee of the lower house of congress proposed a programme called “schools without homophobia”, which would have encouraged discussion of gender stereotypes and the viewing of films such as “Beautiful Thing”, about a gay relationship. That angered evangelicals. Ms Rousseff, who was president at the time, blocked the programme. That has not stopped Mr Bolsonaro from accusing the PT of distributing “gay kits”, his name for materials that promote tolerance of gays.
A school in Porto Alegre, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, sacked a teacher for assigning material that discussed gay sex. In Rio de Janeiro a private school removed from the syllabus a book about a family escaping from Brazil’s military dictatorship after parents complained that it teaches communism. Juliana Lopes, a high-school teacher in São Paulo, was fired after telling pupils that she wouldn’t vote for Mr Bolsonaro because she thinks he has an authoritarian agenda. The school accused her of discussing politics “with an explicit partisan bias”. Ms Lopes says she was encouraging “critical thinking”.
By suggesting that pupils record their teachers in action, ESP has heightened their fears. “Teachers don’t have the right to confidentiality,” says Mr Nagib. Mr Bolsonaro backs the practice. “Only bad teachers should have to worry,” he says.
Classroom-made recordings appear on social networks and provoke threats. One video showed a teacher telling a student that “idiotic police officers or your lowlife pastor” are lying to him. The teacher says that he received death threats; he admits that the harangue was inappropriate.
With Mr Bolsonaro in the presidency and Mr Vélez at the education ministry, ESP will have more powerful advocates than it could ever have dreamed of. But the movement faces formidable opposition. Courts in at least five states have overturned ESP-backed municipal laws, saying they violate the constitution’s guarantee of freedom to learn and teach. If the congress backs the federal proposal, it will surely be challenged in the courts. In the fight to contain a radical president’s powers, classrooms will be an early battleground.