CEI in Europe: Travelblog 3–Porto, Portugal

Some things at the Porto Language of Liberty camp are lost in translation.

One problem is political labels. They call us “liberals,” meaning classical liberals. The teachers call themselves libertarians. In lectures, some of the teachers criticize “liberals,” meaning leftists. The politically-active students told us they belonged to the equivalent of a Republican Youth group, but their group is Juventude Social Democrata—Social Democrats. They’re the right-wing of Portugal, and they thought we’d understand that better by thinking of them as Republicans. In truth, most of them would be considered moderate Democrats in America. They are right-wing because the rest of the country is far left.

But they are looking for solutions to their country’s problems, and are interested what the teachers at Language of Liberty have to say. In a workshop about education reform, an argument breaks out. Some of the students say that Portuguese schools are failing. They believe the system—in which the best students go to public universities and the worst go to private—is not encouraging the Portuguese youth to be productive and accountable for themselves.

The recurring question this week has been how to make the Portuguese less dependent on the government and more focused on individual economic achievement. One student has said several times that Portugal suffers because the government treats the people like children. Now education reform may be a matter of economic survival for the country. Portugal’s public debt is currently 80 percent of their GDP. The future of Portugal depends on the productivity and independence of their youth.

One student in the workshop says Portugal should reform education by adopting a Swedish model of school choice. But a group of students—who speak softly in rapid Portuguese until the teacher forces them to speak in English—say that a Swedish model may not work for Portugal. “We’re a different culture,” one student says firmly.

A 17-year-old student, the youngest at the camp, agrees. “For example, if you told Swedish students to come to a Language of Liberty lecture at 9:30 am, they’d come at 9:30 am,” he says dryly.

Everyone laughs. The big joke at the camp has been about the Portuguese concept of time. When the lectures are scheduled for 9:30 am, the students come at 10:15; if we schedule at 10, they come at 10:30. “It’s normal,” one student told Glenn Cripe on the first day when Glenn wondered why everyone was late.

Now, the students are half-serious when they talk self-deprecatingly about “Portuguese time.”

“We’re soft,” one student jokes.

“We’re a Latin country,” another amends.

“We need a more disciplined education system.”

“A Fascist system!”

People laugh and start speaking in Portuguese again. The student who first suggested implementing the Swedish school choice model speaks up.

“The reality is we need to change our culture when we change education and change the government. And people will suffer at first. But in the long run, Portugal will be better off.”