Political Activism and the Academy

“To act … and not to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:26).

One of my favorite essays on the field of Brazilian Studies bears an unusual and entertaining title: “Brazilianists, God Bless ‘Em! What in the World is to be Done?”Written by Richard Morse, one of the most eminent scholars of Brazilian culture and history during the twentieth century, the speech in question was given at the time of his retirement, a sort of farewell address to the academic community. In the paper, Morse reflects on the role of the academic in society and he concludes with a provocation:

“The central function of scholarship and universities is, after all, curatorial and not revolutionary—nor even, alas, intellectual. Any tidbit, once gathered and classified, has its interest some time for someone. … We need to be on the lookout for occasional prophets coming along in our seminars. We’ll recognize them because they’ll be impatient with meticulous demonstration and more concerned with pointing and exhibiting; they’ll take paradox as acceptable statement rather than as a resolvable issue; they’ll have discounted the precept of freshman English manuals to connect all assertions by straight lines. We needn’t do much about these prophets or place them in the hydroponic soil of a greenhouse. We need merely flick off the academic seat-belt sign and allow them to move about the cabin. Which takes confidence on our part and, of course, assumes that we’re airborne. (But please, no smoking in the lavatories.)”2

Here, Morse highlights the role of the scholar as a teacher and a steward of knowledge. He asserts that the role of the professor is one of preparing the rising generation to grapple with the complexities of contemporary society. I doubt few at the university would bat an eye over Morse’s defense of the professor as teacher, guide, and mentor. On the other hand, I am certain that many within the academic community would question Morse’s claim that the function of scholarship and the university is “curatorial and not revolutionary.” In an age when universities increasingly serve as sites of political contention (consider, as just one example among dozens, the recent debates over the placement of confederate statues on university campuses), and when professors place themselves (literally) on the front lines of political protest, many in the academy ardently call for revolution. A tension thus exists between two extreme views of the purpose of the university. If I might hazard a gross exaggeration, we could summary the two positions in this way:

Critique 1:      The academy exists in an ivory tower, cut off from the “real” world. The university is a place of theory and impracticality. The role of university is to preserve knowledge.

Critique 2:      The academy is composed of “activist professors” who teach ideological positions and seek to “indoctrinate” students. Professors inappropriately use their privileged positions to unduly influence students and to be involved in local, national, and international politics.

From our vantage point as teachers and scholars, as we consider the myriad difficult issues facing both local and international communities, we may find ourselves wondering where we fit between these two extremes, and we might ask the same question posed by Morse: “What in the world is to be done?”

I have been thinking about Morse’s essay recently while pondering the current political situation of Brazil, a country I love deeply and have spent my (admittedly short) professional career researching and writing about. Brazil recently experienced dramatic political change through the election of Jair Bolsonaro, whose political rhetoric has led him to be characterized by numerous political commentators as the Trump of the Tropics. In the face of increasing levels of violence and public insecurity, economic instability and rising inflation, as well as political corruption, Bolsonaro ran a campaign in which he promised sweeping change and a hard response to criminal behavior of any kind. Nonetheless, his comments praising the military dictatorship (1964-1985) while simultaneously disparaging women’s rights, the LGTBQ community, so-called political correctness, and the country’s educational system have drawn widespread criticism.

This issue has become acutely personal to me as I have been repeatedly asked—as a professor of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies—to sign petitions in defense of human rights and academic freedom in Brazil. I have questioned myself: “What in the world is to be done?”

The relationship between the academic community and political activism is fraught, and in the context of scholars based in the U.S. who study Brazil, I believe the reaction to Brazil’s military dictatorship is particularly insightful.

In 1964, fearing the spread of communism throughout the country, the Brazilian army staged a military coup and took over the government. In subsequent years, the military-led government enacted a series of radical measures in the name of domestic security, culminating in a governmental act called Institutional Act No. 5, which suspended habeas corpus. The government used this act to imprison any political dissident and to hold them indefinitely without cause, without a trial, without giving them the right to legal representation. Unfortunately, many who opposed the government were not only imprisoned but were systematically tortured. This terrible fact has been well documented. Similarly, a regime of censorship was imposed that led to the banning of books, the suppression of theater productions, cinema, and music, along with the daily censorship of news media. Many of those who opposed the government’s acts and feared retaliation fled the country, thus confirming one of the military government’s mottos from the period: “Brasil: ame-o ou deixe-o” [Brazil: love it or leave it]. Those who went into exile included politicians, artists, writers, journalists, public intellectuals, and university professors.

Notable among those who left Brazil during this period was the Portuguese literary scholar Jorge de Sena, who had already left Portugal because of oppressions imposed by the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar to live in Brazil. After the military coup assumed power in Brazil, Sena again felt the need to leave, and he immigrated to the United States. Sena found an academic home at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and during the 1970s he helped form a generation of scholars of Portuguese and Brazilian literature, including three former professors of BYU (Gordon Jensen, Ron Dennis, and Fred Williams). In addition to his teaching and research activities, Sena, a brilliant writer and scholar, actively campaigned against the totalitarian governments of both Portugal and Brazil.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. academic community has played an essential role in welcoming visiting professors and writers from Brazil and in speaking out against violations of free speech and academic freedom.

I sincerely hope that Brazil’s political climate does not return to the so-called anos de chumbo [the repressive “lead” years of the military dictatorship], but the current moment does beg the question, “What in the world is to be done?” To paraphrase Hamlet, we might ask: to act or not to act? What can or should we do to promote truth and righteousness in the world? Though we may debate the degree to which we become involved in politics (whether local, national, or international), what cannot be in question is the moral and ethical imperative we bear to act upon the knowledge we hold. Lehi wrote that one purpose of our mortal experience is “to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon.” Elder David A. Bednar similarly counseled in a 2007 CES fireside address that we have a responsibility to “exercise our agency as agents and act in accordance with correct principles.” While this certainly leaves wide room for interpretation on what it may mean in any given situation to “act in accordance with correct principles,” the struggle to discover what that personalized action is for each of us no doubt lies at the heart of our responsibility as students, teachers, and scholars, seeking to learn by faith and be of service to others in the world.

Some of the ways I have sought to act in defense of truth include the following:

  1. Teaching. In an effort to help my students understand the current political climate in Brazil, I have not shied away from discussing political events with my students in the classroom. Many of my students have spent time in Brazil and made many friendships, and they often come to class with questions about current events. I seek to address their questions, which often become the starting points for rich discussions about politics and history. Though I primarily teach Brazilian literature and culture, the authors we read in class were often politically engaged themselves, and so we discuss the ways the texts we are reading both reflect and respond to actual real-life situations.


  1. Scholarship. One part of my research program examines the ways in which Brazilian literature represents the family and gender in Brazil, and I have been interested in the ways in which literary texts address questions of domestic abuse as well as gendered oppression and violence. Recently, I have been particularly upset by some of the political discourse in Brazil that disparages women and the LGTBQ community while promoting unhealthy attitudes towards masculinity. I believe that one way of combating this kind of hate speech is to help others to understand the origins of such language and behavior. To change a situation, we have to first see it for what it is, and I believe scholarship plays an important role in helping us see the world.


  1. Service to the university. I believe that one way I can make a difference at the university is to give students an opportunity to meet with Brazilians who represent a diversity of political positions (both conservative and liberal), so following the model of the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the 1970s, my colleagues and I have made intentional efforts to invite to BYU a variety of writers, professors, and public intellectuals from Brazil. Last semester, for example, during the very week of the national elections, we hosted on campus the Brazilian writer Luiz Ruffato, a celebrated novelist who also writes a weekly newspaper column. Having him on campus provided our students with a truly unique opportunity to get firsthand perspective on Brazilian culture, and his presence helped us see Brazil in new light.


  1. Active participation in professional conferences. I currently serve as an officer in the American Portuguese Studies Association, the largest association of professors of Portuguese and Brazilian literature in the United States. As a professional organization and in light of the current uncertain political atmosphere in Brazil, we determined the following theme for our most recent conference: “Democracy in Question: What Does and What Can Culture Accomplish?” We invited numerous speakers to participate in the conference, including historians, journalists, musicians, and novelists, and we had fruitful and invigorating discussions about the role of culture in promoting democracy and the concrete action we can take within our own spheres of influence to promote the positive values of democracy.


These are obviously not the only options for action in our community and I confess that I have been humbled and impressed by the variety of other initiatives taken by my colleagues at BYU and at other institutions to act in the world. As I have spoken to others about what forms of activism their teaching and scholarship assumes, I have been inspired to act more and to take seriously the charge we have as professors at BYU to “bring strength to others in the tasks of home and family life, social relationships, civic duty, and service to mankind.”3

How do you see activism in the academy? What kinds of activities have you participated in or initiated?

Please share your thoughts below or by email: rex_nielson@byu.edu

This post was written by Rex Nielson, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.

[1] Occasional Papers in Latin American Studies, Stanford University, 1981.

[2] This selection can be found on page 10.

[3] BYU Mission Statement, https://aims.byu.edu/mission-statement.

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