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Educating Rita (and everyone else)

16 February 2007


The Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Federal District Government (GDF) yesterday signed an agreement to provide youths in the capital who now lack an educational alternative the ability to earn their bachillarato (high school diplomas) on line. UNAM Rector Juan Ramón de la Fuente and Head of the District Government, Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón said in a joint statement that this was not the “basic solution, but a tool with enormous potential for the educational system.”

(Jose Galvin, in today’s Jornada [my translation])

My first “post-starving artiste” job (I’m in the minority that went to a Community College after graduate school… finding a two-year computer degree more marketable than a Masters in English) was writing Computer Based Training materials. My first “post-midlife crisis, run off to Mexico” job was teaching junior high school. I was amazed at the creativity Mexican teachers. Mexicans are immensely practical when it comes to resolving immediate problems, and a shortage of teaching materials sometimes called for desperate acts. For the good of the people (at least the ones who could afford private tutors, having beat a strategic retreat from el Escula Bilingüal – where I also was expected to teach computer classes to grades K – Secondaria 3°), resorted to subterfuge and chicanery on occasion. I’ve sat through more than one textbook sales promotion, just to scarf up samples (and then violate every copyright law in the world) to get my students and I the materials we needed.


I can’t see writing a general history of Mexico without talking about the most successful of the Revolutionaries… not the Generals, but the school teachers.


“Gods, Gachapines and Gringos”:


[Alvaro] Obregón later would say “The Revolutionary Party includes everyone who fought for the Revolution”. Even though he would favor a more socialist economic system, he had no problem working with conservatives who were experts in their particular field. While still roving the country with his army, he’d put together a “think tank” from all political persuasions, charged with coming up with practical solutions to the country’s overwhelming problems.

José Vasconcelos was extremely conservative, elitist philosophy professor, but had a practical turn of mind. He served as Secretary of Education under interim president de la Huerta (between Carrenza’s death and Obregón’s election) and later under Obregón. He, and his staff, with full government support, turned to whatever innovative and unorthodox solutions they could find to what was seen as Mexico’s single largest problem – illiteracy and the “backwardsness” of the countryside.

Vasconcelos – helped immeasurably by the fact that both Obregón and Plutarco Eliás Calles had been rural teachers – began recruiting a new kind of teacher. The village maestro or maestra was a “vanguard of the Revolution” Official propaganda equated teachers with soldiers: Ignorance and poverty were the enemy. Books and knowledge the weapons. Although poorly paid, the teachers were dedicated and tough. During the Cristero War, when religious fanatics were likely to assasinate village teachers as representatives of the secular state, sometimes the village school ma’arm was armed.

In the 1947 propaganda film, Rio Escondito, the glamorous Maria Feliz played against type as a sickly recent teaching school graduate sent to clean up “the worst town in Mexico.” She does… as Maria Felix always does… but only fighting a typus epidemic and winning a wild shootout with the villians. And somehow, she manages to teach the children the story of Benito Juarez.

For most rural Mexicans, the arrival of the village schoolteacher was the beginning of the Revolution. The teacher was armed with the blueprints for a schoolhouse… Vasconellos’ staff had designed a designed a standard plan for a building that could be put up by untrained labor, of whatever the local building material happened to be – adobe, brick, or wood. The schools only had walls half-way to the roof, but windows could be added later, in warm climates before rainy season, or walls in cold climates. If there was need for more classrooms, the same plan could be used to add on to the basic model, which originally included a residence for the teacher. Within a month of arrival, a teacher was expected to have their school up and running.

Faced with designing a standard curriculum for both rural and urban students, the former philosophy professor suddenly found himself talking about saddlebags and mules in Cabinet meetings. School books were no problem in Mexico City, or on the rail lines. But Vasconcello’s team had to consider how to deliver a comparable education to the 80 percent of Mexicans who still lived in communities of less than 2500 people and were not served by roads or railroads. Everything from the weight of book covers, to the reporting forms a school superintendent needed was considered. And how much a mule could carry. Everything needed to open a primary school, from the texts to the teacher (and his or her personal belongings) was calculated, based on what one mule could carry.

The “mule school” was only the start of a tradition of innovative educational techniques. One of the few benefits given these underpaid agents of the revolution was a free subscription to the Sunday newspaper. The teachers, especially those in roadless areas, might get their paper a week or month late, they did eventually receive it. So, rather than burden the mules with lessons that wouldn’t be given for months, texts, especially for adult literacy programs, were inserted as advertisements in the paper. These on-going lessons not only included literacy, but other “revolutionary” material – the need to protecting water supplies from contamination, the importance of personal hygene and the need to eat nutritious food.

One unintended consequence of the revolutionary attitude towards education was a change in traditional women’s clothing. The newspapers, for whatever reason, ran the education department advertisements in the fashion section. Women in traditional areas, whose style of clothing hadn’t changed in centuries, adapted the latest in Mexico City haute couture to their own needs. What are today considered “traditional Indian costumes” are often partially based on 1920s urban chic.

The innovative spirit begun by Vasconcelos continued long after he was gone. Radio, television and the Internet have all been pressed into service to provide rural education. In the early 1960s, Mexico was the first country to use satellites to beam basic education into hard to reach communities. Vasconcelos himself is credited with inventing the still successful adult literacy program known in English as “Each one teach one.” By law, every literate Mexican was supposed to teach one illiterate, or pay someone else to give the lessons. Everyone fully expected people to evade the law, but it was successful enough to double the literacy rate within a few years. With innovative primary education, Mexico managed to reduce illiteracy from nearly 90 percent in 1920 to about 8 percent today. Most illiterates in Mexico are older women who speak a language other than Spanish.

Higher education was only available to the wealthy in 1920. Vasconcelos reformed the University, re-instituting the old University of Mexico as the Autonomous National University (UNAM) – constitutionally guaranteed its operating budget and self-governing, as well as other federal schools. UNAM today is the largest university in the Americas.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Anna Concho permalink
    6 April 2014 8:11 pm

    As a truck driver we have problems with loads shifting inside trailers this is a definite major problem….wheels are spinning here


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