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Literacy, Bureaucracy, and Swim Goggles

One of Brazil’s great leaps forward in recent decades was to make primary education available to all children, producing – in theory, at least – a generation of literate young adults. One of its centuries-old hexes is its ingrained tendency to create stupefying bureaucracies, part of the famous “Brazil cost” that scares multinational companies and would-be local entrepreneurs alike.

But sometimes, literacy and bureaucracy are not as monolithically good or evil as they seem.  (If they were, I’d be down one pair of swim goggles, but I’ll get to that in a second.)

Literacy’s problem is that it is that we think of it as a binary phenomenon: you either can read or you can’t.  In reality, some people are amazingly capable of reading words but not processing the information they contain, especially if they learned to read in by the rote memorization methods so common in developing countries.

Bureaucracy’s boon is that it creates deep records that can at times render great benefit. Last year I was stunned to read that the Brazilian government crossed their database of people-who-had-recently-bought-new-cars with their database  of students-who-qualified-as-dirt-poor-enough-to-win-federal-college-scholarships.  The people on both lists lost their scholarships Try that in the United States, with 50 different Departments of Motor Vehicles and no national identification card.

Here in Sao Paulo, I swim nearly every weekday in the pool at the SESC, a semi-public recreational and cultural center.  Last Thursday, I left my goggles and bathing cap in the locker room, and didn’t realize it until Monday morning, when I couldn’t find them at home.

I told the young locker room attendant what had happened, expecting to be shown a sad-looking lost-and-found box with random socks dating back to the 20th century. Instead, he sprang into action, pulling out a spiral notebook containing what appeared to be a handwritten log.  What color were the goggles?  White, I said. And the swim cap? Black.  What day did I lose them?  Thursday, I said.

He paged through the notebook, studying it like it were a sacred text containing elusive wisdom in hard-to-decipher ancient script. But when I caught a glimpse of some lines, they read: Bathing Suit – blue; Reading Glasses – brown, and the like. Finally, he focused on one page, headed with last Thursday’s date.  He spent what seemed like minutes going up and down the page.

I recognized his behavior from prior run-ins with poorly paid workers: this was functional illiteracy.  He had learned how to read mechanically, but could not handle a slightly more complex task: identifying, under the entries for “Thursday”, a line that said “Goggles – white” and another (likely immediately before or after it) that read “Bathing Cap – black.”

I strained over the desk to try to spot it for him, but couldn’t quite make out the words.  But wouldn’t you know, he finally found it. Whoever had logged in the items had even drawn a red bracket around the two lines, linking them together. I was amazed it had taken him so long to find something so obvious, but I was equally amazed that the system had worked.

Let me rephrase that: it was in the midst of working. The lost items had been sent up to the central locker room on the sixth floor. Once I had waited for the very slow elevator, which had a seated attendant punching the floors for us for no apparent reason, the attendant above had my items in a plastic bag. I had to show my SESC identification card, and he copied down my name and ID number in halting script.  Obviously a record was needed in case the real me showed up a few minutes later to claim his items.

True, semi-literate workers produced by Brazil’s educational system had rendered the lost-and-found system painfully slow.  But the institution’s dyed-in-the-wool bureaucratic instincts had rendered the painfully slow system wonderfully effective. I was off for my swim.