Education and Socialism in Mexico
by V.F. Calverton - 1936
After reading the Mexican Program for Public Education for 1935, I was convinced that Mexico had begun a tremendously important educational experiment. I still believe that is the case, but a study of Mexican schools in operation proves that little has been done to date to put that Program into effect. If the Program were not so excellent, it wouldn't matter, but being as excellent as it is, the failure to carry it out in practice is all the more tragic.
If MEXICAN socialist education carried out in practice what it has so boldly and courageously proclaimed in theory, it would represent one of the most progressive educational programs in the world today. As it is, the discrepancy between theory and practice is so great that the whole experiment is in danger of failure unless means and methods are devised to lessen, if not destroy, that discrepancy. After reading the Mexican Program for Public Education for 1935, I was convinced that Mexico had begun a tremendously important educational experiment. I still believe that is the case, but a study of Mexican schools in operation proves that little has been done to date to put that Program into effect. If the Program were not so excellent, it wouldn't matter, but being as excellent as it is, the failure to carry it out in practice is all the more tragic.
Mexican socialist education, part of the Mexican Six Year Plan, suffers from the same weaknesses, which have always undermined Mexican socialism. On paper, the Mexican Six Year Plan, for example, is a magnificent project; in reality, it represents little more than elaborate, pretentious scaffolding built about a papier-mâché structure. Unfortunately, Mexican socialist education is built about the same type of structure. Both represent a form of wish-fulfillment sociology, born of the underlying contradiction in the Mexican economic environment. In a country in which 90% of the economic resources are in the hands of foreign capitalists, all talk of socialism is bound to be little more than verbal pyrotechnics. Mexican socialist education is a product of that unfortunate miscegenation of a progressive sociology with a retrogressive economics. It represents the efforts of certain forward-looking politicians and educators to impose a socialist concept of education upon a country, which is predominantly capitalist. The result is an educational programs which reads like a sequel to The Communist Manifesto but which possesses no powers to put its doctrines into effect.
A BOLD ENGLISH COURSE
But let us turn to the educational program itself to see what it proposes. After having perused over a score of lesson outlines, commission reports, and study programs, most of which were unequivocally Marxian in their emphasis, I discovered that there was not a single field which had not been subjected to the new discipline. All bore the unmistakable earmarks of the socialist conception. Mathematics was to be studied in relationship to the class struggle; French was to be taught in order to emphasize the growth of proletarian sentiments in the language; history was to be envisioned as a manifestation of the theory of historical materialism. And so on!
It was in the field of English, however, that I came across the most fertile and ingenious developments of the new socialist outlook. In order to acquaint the reader with the nature of the new emphasis, and how it is developed, I am going to take the liberty of quoting from some lesson plans for the teaching of English in the secondary schools. English is not studied as dry-as-dust grammar. Even in the study of syntactical relationships, the social factor is introduced. Note this introductory paragraph to the Third Lesson in First Year English:
The Joneses live in Plutonia. Plutonia is a capitalistic country. There are many poor people there. Some people have much and many have very little or nothing. The rich people exploit the poor; the poor work hard but they do not have enough money to satisfy their needs. They are very hungry and cold. There is no justice for the poor.
The lesson proceeds to analyze the vocabulary employed, testing out the spelling of each difficult word, parsing the verbs, and dissecting the structure of each sentence. All one needs to do is to compare such a lesson plan with a lesson plan in first year English in any of the high schools in the United States and the difference between liberal education and socialistic education will be immediately apparent.
When we come to Second Year High School English, we find such challenging paragraphs as these serving as introductory material:
THE WORKERS DECLARE A STRIKE
The workmen weren't satisfied with conditions at the factory. They worked too many hours a day and their wages were frequently reduced; besides, there were no educational facilities for their children.
At a meeting, one of the Labor Union officials said: "For a long time we have suffered bad working conditions and I think it is time to protest. Now, we shall ask for justice, and if it isn't given to us, we shall declare a strike."
The speaker's words caused great enthusiasm and were applauded by all present. A committee was immediately appointed to present the workers' petitions to the factory owners. The committee talked to the manager first, but he wasn't interested in their problems. Then they tried to reach an agreement with the factory owners, but they too, didn't pay any attention to their words. So, the Union declared a general strike. . . .
In the next lesson, we find the following introductory paragraph:
OTHER LABOR ORGANIZATIONS SUPPORT STRIKE
A week passed and the two parties couldn't come to an agreement. The factory owners weren't disposed to give in to the workers. The former knew that the losses were going to be heavy, because their factory wasn't producing. . . .
The members of other labor organizations promised to contribute a fixed amount of their weekly salaries. They also agreed to support the cause until the workers' rights were recognized.
In the Third Year English lessons, the same theme is carried to even a more revolutionary conclusion. In Lesson Two, the following material is employed:
It is not right to criticize socialistic education without knowing its plan. Many people have been guided by the false propaganda of people who have no other interest than to interfere with the proper functioning of government plans. These people do not realize that the socialistic school is the result of public opinion, the demand of the worker, whose family constitutes 98.5% of our population.
The defense of the people, and the conservation of their interests is the nation's interest. It is for this reason that our government is taking the present step to assure its future, the future of its people. (Italics mine-V. F. C.)
I have quoted from these English lesson plans at such great length because they illustrate so clearly and vividly the nature of the new socialistic approach. I could just as well have quoted from the lesson plans in several other subjects, in particular, history, where the Marxian emphasis is even more conspicuous. Suffice it to say, however, that the approach in almost all fields is the same, for the approach has been determined by the leaders at the top, politicians as well as educators. The conflicts arise when the approach is translated into practice in the classroom.
Few experiences have been more disillusioning to me than my attempt to study socialist education in practice. My first approach to the schools was heartening, for there, in the vestibule of almost every school, was the famous hammer and sickle emblem, adjacent to which was a revolutionary endorsement of the new education by President Cardenas. In other schools, there were figures of Lenin and Trotsky side by side with Mexican revolutionaries, and drawings by Pacheco, a disciple of Diego Rivera, illustrating the conquest of capitalism by the workers and peasants. The vast building, once an ancient monastery, in which the Ministry of Education is housed, is decorated from top to bottom by the revolutionary frescoes of Diego Rivera, and the famous Prepatoria School is embellished by the iconoclastic frescoes of Orozco. Certainly, here were evidences of something new in educational experimentation. So I thought!
"POLITICS, YOU KNOW"
But the moment I began to interview the principals of various secondary and primary schools and to talk to the individual teachers in various departments, my enthusiasm for the new education vanished with dismaying and appalling rapidity. To put it briefly, they didn't know what it was all about! I talked to a half a dozen principals, asking each one of them what they were doing to put the new socialistic education into effect, and each one in turn, without exception, turned to me with a smile, and said: "Oh, no one pays any attention to that. That's just a theory. Politics, you know."
I tried to smile knowingly at the remark, but I must confess that at first I was considerably bewildered. If I had been the experienced person in Latin-American affairs that my friend, Carleton Beals is, I would have smiled sneeringly, and said: "Oh yeah, I understand."
As it was, I began to ply the second principal, who happened to be a rather well meaning but not very far-visioned woman, with a veritable barrage of questions. As a matter of fact, as I recall the situation now, I drew out of my pocket a copy of the Program of Public Education for 1935, and began to read parts of it to her, and to demand reasons why the Program was not put into practice. All my efforts succeeded in eliciting from her only the following remark: "Oh, you know that's just theory. We've got a practical job here to accomplish in the schools."
Finally, overwhelmed with that righteous exasperation for which our Puritan ancestry has been deplorably notorious, I exclaimed: "Then, why do you carry that hammer and sickle emblem on your walls? That declares that all education in Mexico is henceforth to be socialistic."
"Oh, that?" she remarked, turning her eyes in the direction of the emblem which hung immediately outside her office, "that's just a poster. You can have it. I insist upon your having it."
And before I could utter another word, she had sent a child out to take down the hammer and sickle poster, and bestow it upon me as a present. She would have it no other way. She didn't want it in her school, so I had to have it.
"But, I don't want it," I exclaimed, "that belongs to the school. It's a symbol of what the new education is supposed to stand for."
Later, as I began to question some of my friends about this particular principal, I learned that she was no different from most of the other principals that supervise the majority of Mexican schools. Nevertheless, I continued my investigations, determined now to avoid principals, who by this time I was convinced were reactionary, and to talk only to rank and file teachers. But the results were not less disappointing. The majority of the rank and file teachers to whom I spoke, and there were dozens of them, were just as much "in the dark" about what socialist education meant as were the principals I had previously interviewed. I talked to civics teachers who told me that socialist education meant being fair to both capital and labor, and history teachers who insisted socialist education meant nothing more than eradicating illiteracy from the Mexican Republic. By this time I was tired of pulling the Program of Public Education for 1935 from my pocket, and merely asked them how they reconciled such notions with the Program.
"Oh, the Program, Oh, yes. Well, you see that's a political document which doesn't have anything to do with us."
THE VOICE OF SOCIALISM AND THE HAND OF CAPITALISM
And there was the answer. Socialist education in Mexico today is a political device. It is dedicated mainly to fighting the Catholic Church in its attempt to win the minds of the children back to a religious conception of life. The politicians "hit" upon socialist education as a special device for combating "religious" education, and at the same time as a means of placating the forces on the left, the Confederation of Workers and Farmers, who have agitated for socialist education for years.
But like most political programs in capitalist countries, and Mexico, alas, despite its so-called socialist government is more capitalist today, economically speaking, than it was ten years ago, there is a vast discrepancy between promises and their fulfillments. The Mexican politicians, now known as Cardentistas, are all for socialist education in theory, and are willing to demonstrate with demagogical fury for it whenever necessary, but they are very little concerned about it in practice. So long as it serves as an effective political weapon they are satisfied.
The lesson programs for Mexican schools have been written by politicians who essay to be educators or by educators who essay to be politicians. The result is a program that is not practiced--which is, in the last analysis, perhaps worse than no program at all.
In the recent struggle between Cardenas and Calles, the position of the working class was crucial to the entire situation. Cardenas's main bid for the support of the working class is his defense of its interests in strikes and his advocacy of socialist education for which the working class for many years has agitated as part of its revolutionary program. Cardenas is interested in socialist education only as a means of strengthening his political position. The working class is interested in it, however, as part of its class role in society.
In a word, what all this means is simply that socialist education in Mexico will never mean more than a theory until the working class assumes the obligation of seeing that it is carried out in practice. The present crisis in Mexico of which the struggle between the Cardenistas and the Callistas was a manifestation, may give the working class a chance to force the hand of the Cardenistas to carry out in practice what in theory has been so abundantly promised.