HM - October 2017 - Berkin

The History Corner


Reflections on Portugal
by Carol Berkin
Author and Historian

Portugal is home to beautiful churches, terraced vineyards, and seaside fortifications that reflect its centuries long struggle against invaders from the South, the East, and the North. But it is also home to an educational system that has shown remarkable results. In 1970, 25% of the Portuguese population was illiterate; by 2011, less than 5% were unable to read and write. This transformation is the result of a national commitment to education, but it is also a result of the stunningly low birthrate in Portugal: Large families have virtually vanished in the past few decades.
A visit to a local elementary school and to the oldest university in the country illustrate this transformation. On a sunny day in October, I had the opportunity to visit an elementary school in  Figueira da Foz, not far from Lisbon. The building was perhaps five years old, designed to create bright, airy classrooms. Because Portugal’s birthrate is so low, the small, local schools of the past have been closed and this school—like so many others—represents a consolidation of young students from a broad area. I was told that, at first, parents objected to the creation of a centralized elementary school, but they have come to appreciate the benefits it brings: More resources than were possible when classes had been as small as 5 students.
The Figueira da Foz classes run from 20 to 25 students, with special education students fully integrated into a classroom. Although students are required to wear a smock over their own clothing, on the day of my visit this rule had been waived. Too hot, explained the teachers. The school year begins in September and runs through June, much like many American schools, but the days are much longer for these youngsters. Parents drop them off between 8:30 and 9AM, and the day does not end until 5pm. If working parents cannot arrive at 5, the children can remain in an “after school program” that runs until 7:30.

A typical day’s schedule looks like this: 9-10, classes; 10-10:30 break; lunch is at noon and lasts for an hour and a half, leaving plenty of time for play outside or in the indoor  gym after the food is gone. A second break comes in the afternoon. Lunch, by the way, is provided to every child so working parents do not have to rush in the morning to pack a meal.
Both the faculty, who are classified as civil servants, and the administration here are largely female. A B.A. is required for teaching, usually in a particular subject area, not from an education department. Pedagogy is learned on the job during a four year internship with an experienced teacher that we might call “student teaching.” Portugal has a national standard curriculum and national testing, something that none of the teachers I talked to criticized. They were wryly philosophical about the fact that the curriculum changed with each change in government. When a party lost power in a national election, teachers had to prepare for new instructions about what to teach and what would be tested. Their only complaint—and it was mild—was that they cannot choose where they teach; they are assigned to a school, often in a city or town far from the place where they were born and where their extended family lives. There is a teachers’ union but I was told that few teachers join it. Salaries are not high, but they are above that of the average worker in Portugal. Retirement, incidentally, is mandatory at age 67.
Although students everywhere are probably on their best behavior when a visitor comes to their classroom, I must say the children I saw – in 1st grade and 2nd grade—seemed to be especially contented and remarkably well mannered. Perhaps a healthy lunch and plenty of exercise explains this.
My next stop was the public university in Coimbra, the oldest university in Portugal and its most prestigious. Twenty-five percent of all high school graduates go to the colleges here, in Lisboa, and in Porto. The most striking fact about higher education in Portugal is the cost: In a public university, tuition is 1000 Euros a year [$1183.68] while private universities run only 600 Euros a month [$710.25]. Harvard, are you listening?? These fees do not include room and board, however. Thus many students chose to enroll in universities in their hometown. Poorer students do have their housing subsidized by the government, but middle class students who choose to go to schools far from home usually wind up sharing apartments with 2 or 3 others.
Coimbra University opened its doors in the 13th century at its original site in Lisboa. It moved to Coimbra in the 16th century, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the early centuries, it boasted only four faculties—theology, law, canon law, and medicine—but today the over 20,000 students can get bachelor, masters, or doctorates in Letters, Law, Medicine, Sciences & Technology, Pharmacy, Economics, Psychology & Education Sciences, and Sports Sciences & Physical Education.
Coimbra students wear black robes throughout their years at the University, with ribbons that signify their faculty, e.g., red for law, dark blue for humanities, and purple for pharmacy. When they graduate, they hold ceremonies at which they symbolically liberate themselves by burning their ribbons in bonfires. Over the gate to one of the oldest of the university buildings, a visitor can see a number of these ribbons tied high above their heads. At the end of each school year, students gather in a courtyard by the thousands, to drink an endless supply of beer and to celebrate their liberation by singing fado, the traditional Portuguese music, often with off color lyrics for the occasion. In short, like college students in America, they party hard.
For most of Coimbra’s centuries, the student population was exclusively male. Many of these young men serenaded local young women, singing fado love songs beneath their windows. If the object of a singer’s affections liked him, she flicked the lights on and off three times. If you have been to Portugal and heard Fado sung, you will know it is hard to resist its passion! Today, since 2/3 of all university students are female, this tradition has vanished.
Town and gown conflicts were common in every century and as a result the university developed its own police force, courts, and even a prison. Trouble-making students were jailed in a collective cell under the main library. Each day they were escorted out to attend their classes, however. A particularly troublesome student [including anyone who refused to keep up with his work] could be placed in solitary confinement. Today, the prison is only a tourist attraction.
The library above the prison is extraordinary. Baroque rooms, gilt columns, large carved wooden tables, elaborate murals—and walls and walls of ancient books. Students work side by side at the tables, but professors are entitled to small rooms, big enough only for a desk and a chair but with the luxury of windows to let in air and light. It is not clear how many students opt for more modern accommodations, including plugs for computers, in subsidiary libraries, but to a historian, this library is awe-inspiring.
Anyone who has gotten the jitters before a masters or doctoral oral exam, or sweated out a defense of their thesis before a panel of experts will count themselves lucky when compared to a Coimbra student. Examinations of all sorts are held in a cavernous room, with portraits of former heads of the University staring down at the degree candidate as she or he sits all alone at a small table, facing inquisitors. For doctoral dissertation defenses, the candidate's family is invited to sit in pews and watch the exam. No pressure here, right? The majority of male high school graduates do not endure these trials. Those who attend what we could call vocational schools begin work as plumbers, electricians, etc. upon graduation.
I came away from these visits with a few central thoughts. Portugal is neither a rich nor large country, and it is still recovering from a devastating economic depression, yet its government, whether liberal or conservative, is committed to educating its people, rich or poor, rural or urban. Teachers in Portugal are treated with respect as purveyors of knowledge—something that cannot be claimed these days in America. The educational system has adjusted to and accommodated the demographics of a drastically diminished birthrate. It has turned to consolidation in order to bring resources to all Portuguese children. The results have been impressive. Our own literacy rate does not compare with theirs. But it has also adjusted to and accommodated the daily realities of working life, making it unnecessary for parents to spend money on day care or after school programs. Finally, the modest cost of higher education has resulted in opportunities for women and for low income students of both sexes to obtain degrees. It is true that middle and upper class students dominate in advanced degrees programs, but government subsidies do exist for ambitious working class students. Families in Portugal do not have to empty their bank accounts to send their children to elementary, middle or high school—or even to college. The rising costs of education in the United States stand in stark contrast to the Portuguese commitment to education for all.

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