Intelligence, Education and “Esperteza” in Brazil

There are a lot of intelligent people in Brazil who for whatever reason have had limited access to formal education. Then there are also many who seem to lack in brainpower but nevertheless hold university degrees of all types. Indeed, education remains a growth industry in Brazil, despite its currently bleak economic outlook.   Most Brazilians aspire to higher levels of education and schooling, perhaps more than intelligence. Formal education is seen as a requirement for social ascension or maintenance of one’s status in a rigid social structure. Unpopular as she is, President Dilma insists on the theme of “Patria Educadora” to shore up her government. After all, who is not in favor of better and more instruction at all levels?

The table, at the end, contains four quadrants showing education and intelligence and suggests examples of different possible interactions and how individuals could be classified.

In simplistic terms, it might be easy to read the bottom left quadrant as the losers with little intelligence and consequently little education. On the other hand, the top right would be the winners who are both smart and schooled. In real life, things are more complicated and in Brazil more complex still. If we pull some contemporary names and fit them into the table, who might we find?

Lula, for example, scores low on formal education but undoubtedly is not dumb. He was a successful president elected to two terms. Obama called Lula “The Man” on meeting him the first time. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the president prior to Lula, scores high in intelligence (author of many books and scholarly articles) as well as high in formal education.

In Brazil, in particular, (but elsewhere too) there is a missing component.   Brazilians call it “esperteza” or being street smart. Lula scores high in this category but FHC, as a politician, is no slouch either. In more generic terms, and not looking at presidents of the past or future, other categories can be used to fill in the boxes. A surgeon, for example, should score high on both education and intelligence. A successful salesman, on the other hand, could score high on intelligence but have only a modest education, as the formal barriers to his chosen carrier path are low.

Claudio Moura Castro, Simon Schwartzman are noted intellectuals in Brazil and able to speak to the positive impact of education and the importance of intelligence.   In turn, Roberto da Matta, the anthropologist, is one of the main students of “esperteza” or Brazilian street smarts. While all their analyses bemoan Brazil’s elitism, they are also attuned to the importance of being “clever” so as to gain advantage in Brazilian society.

Overall, because education is a scarce commodity with restricted access, Brazilians rely heavily on the quality of being “espertos”. Garrincha is a foremost and respected sports example. Reputedly, Garrincha scored poorly on intelligence tests and certainly had but a bare minimum of formal education. Nevertheless, he was a genius on the soccer field and certainly smart and attractive enough to marry a beautiful and successful singer. Other examples abound. Silvio Santos, the founder and owner of Brazil’s second most successful TV empire, parlayed his street vendor smarts into the creation of a media empire. Many evangelical ministers from the slums educate themselves and bootstrap up cleverly expounding the gospel and collecting tithes. Some even wind up in Congress. Tiririca, the well-known clown, received more votes than other Congressmen but was almost purged due to allegations that he could neither read nor write. So examples of intelligence mixed with being “clever” illustrate both disdain and the failure of the formal education.

In the developed world, there is a high correlation between education and intelligence and the convergence of the two through professional associations, regulations and cultural norms that reduce the role of the savvy and worldly. Sometime being too clever is considered bad form, particularly in first world “civilization”.

In Brazil, on the other hand, there is no lack of intelligence. The weakness is in consolidating education with brainpower. The R (correlation) is lower than it should be; while, at the same time, the culture takes pride in success through “esperteza”. The societal end result is disrespect for politicians, suspicion of the successful, envy of the powerful and apathy/distaste and cynicism in the electoral arena.

Table 1

Possible Correlation of Intelligence and Education

Quadrant 1: High Education, Low Intelligence Quadrant 3: High Education, High Intelligence

Fernando Henrique Cardoso

Quadrant 2: Low Education, Low Intelligence


Quadrant 4: Low Education, High Intelligence


In the table, Garrincha, FHC and Lula fall into different quadrants but also demonstrated “esperteza” and were highly successful.

One comment on “Intelligence, Education and “Esperteza” in Brazil

  1. Colltales says:

    Curious to see who’d fit in the Quadrant 1. About Garrincha, though, he may have had low mental acuity but had some emotional intelligence, as demonstrated by his quick wit on the pitch, and his ability to ‘read’ the opponent in order to fool him with a dribble. That’s may have been an arguably possible reason for having left so many descendants too.

    Liked by 1 person

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