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Human Capital or Human Connections? The Cultural Meanings of Education in Brazil

by Lesley Bartlett - 2007

Background/Context: In the field of educational research, conventional wisdom holds that primary-level schooling, specifically literacy acquisition, promotes economic mobility for individuals and economic development for the nation. This belief is rooted in human capital theory, the causal argument claiming that state investment in schooling or training increases worker productivity and therefore workers’ incomes, owners’ profits, and (ultimately) national development through economic growth. The idea that literacy instruction yields economic and other forms of development, which features widely in global educational policy documents, constitutes what anthropologist Brian Street called an “autonomous” model of literacy, one that suggests that literacy instruction results in automatic “effects” on individual and national economic development.

Focus of Study: Arguing against human capital theory and other autonomous models of literacy, this article reveals how the outcomes of literacy schooling are mediated by complex social interactions and by the meanings that students attach to schooling.

Research Design: This article draws on 24 months of ethnographic research with highly impoverished literacy students from four literacy programs in two Brazilian cities.

Findings/Results: This article shows three things. First, the students interviewed for the study talked about education not only as book learning and formal study but also as sociability and manners. Second, they said that sociability and manners derive, in part, from schooling. Third, the students consistently remarked, and my observations confirmed, that the economic opportunities that attendance at school opened for them were the product of their development as “educated” people, which contributed to their efforts to extend and maintain social networks.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The data presented in this article suggest a need to reconsider key theories and dominant discourses about literacy and economic development that, rooted in human capital theory, predict a tight, causal link between learning to read and write and improved economic opportunities. Instead, I argue that the social, political, and/or economic benefits of literacy must be examined in light of a sociocultural, interactional model of education.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 7, 2007, p. 1613-1636
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13815, Date Accessed: 4/21/2021 5:16:02 PM

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About the Author
  • Lesley Bartlett
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    LESLEY BARTLETT is an assistant professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research and teaching interests include comparative and international education, anthropology of education, and sociocultural and critical studies of literacy. Her recent articles include “Dialogue, Knowledge, and Teacher-Student Relations: Freirean Pedagogy in Theory and Practice” (Comparative Education Review, 2005) and “Competing Educational Projects” (Compare, in press).
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