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Public Education in Mexico


by Jose' Manuel Puig Casauranc - 1926

I WISH to begin this address by expressing my sincere thanks to Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, and to Doctor William F. Russell, Associate Director of the International Institute of Teachers College, for this opportunity to present to you and through you to the American people the work that is being done or planned for by the Government of President Calles in connection with public education in Mexico.

I WISH to begin this address by expressing my sincere thanks to Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, and to Doctor William F. Russell, Associate Director of the International Institute of Teachers College, for this opportunity to present to you and through you to the American people the work that is being done or planned for by the Government of President Calles in connection with public education in Mexico.


Before entering fully into the subject and in order that the objectives of our educational program may be fully understood, I wish to mention very briefly some of the psychological and social conditions prevailing in Mexico. Only with a thorough knowledge of the social and ethnical inheritance of the people in whose life education is to function is it possible to judge as to the propriety and efficiency of our methods.


It is frequently said that the Mexican people are backward. To a certain extent this is true, but the explanation of our backwardness is not correct. To those who maintain that we have fallen behind other nations on account of the racial and ethnical inferiority of the elements entering into the composition of the Mexican family, I wish to say that their contention constitutes a capital error which it is my purpose to correct.


A fair classification of human groups can be based only on a serious study of their physical, intellectual, moral, and artistic traits. Considering the question from any of these points of view, the Indian race which forms the nucleus of the social structure of Mexico is far from deserving to be classified as inferior, because the attributes of moral loftiness and physical strength existing in races considered as superior can be found fully developed in the Mexican Indian. In order not to base this statement on a personal opinion which might be ascribed to the natural devotion that I, as a Mexican, feel for everything related to my country, I shall refer you to a French psychologist, one of the greatest living authorities on the subject of the human mind--the illustrious Doctor Janet, of the College de France, who had an opportunity to make an intensive study of Mexican children during his visit to our country last year when he delivered a series of lectures at our National University. Dr. Janet saw our experimental Free Schools of Painting, where drawing is not taught at all and students are given brush and prepared canvas and are instructed to paint whatever they wish in the way and manner they themselves devise. Dr. Janet visited also an exhibit of paintings of some of these schools and not failing to observe the marvelous color and mastery achieved by these children, most of whom have a large percentage of Indian blood, he concluded that without question the race is endowed with potential artistic faculties of the highest order.


When we consider the remarkable mental and artistic powers of the race, and when we bear in mind that the people are endowed with unusual physical vigor, tested courage, and an unfailing spirit of endurance and stoicism; that they have physiological characteristics of racial superiority scientifically admitted, such as the size of the eyes and teeth, and the length of the intestinal tube, it is not too much to maintain that the Mexican people are bound to be an important factor in human progress on the same level as other civilized nations.


Our greatest need is that the men who guide the destinies of Mexican people be willing to do their duty and that we eradicate from Mexico the most dangerous social ulcer--individual and collective selfishness and indifference. For the truth is this: The people of Mexico--the Indian, the "Mestino," and the "Criollo"--are not inferior ethnical elements but social groups that have been abandoned and kept apart from the rest of the population and civilization.


This indifference and criminal neglect of which the Indian population and the large rural population of Mexico have been the victims for generations are the real cause of the so-called backwardness of Mexico. This attitude, so characteristic of the selfish governments that have ruled Mexico from the consummation of the Spanish Conquest to the time of their administrations emanating from the Revolution of 1910, has also been the cause of the frequent internal commotions and infinite suffering which Mexico has undergone during its life as a free nation.


Perhaps partly because of the pressure of the written law hut mostly because of the wilful oblivion of what Mexico owes to the millions of its disinherited children who in spite of their pitiful condition are the ones who make Mexican history, former governments have centered their attention almost exclusively upon the city of Mexico and other large capitals which have been used as a show window in which to exhibit false manifestations of well-being and social progress. Thousands of villages and hamlets in the heart of the mountains and in the depths of the valleys have been left on the margin of national educational programs. Without the benefit of education which should have been the logical and elemental means of improving their economic status and their ability to fight life's battles, millions and millions of Mexicans have been obliged to remain as passive units in the life of the nation and have been only too often tools in the hands of native and foreign oppressors. After twelve or more hours a day of physically exhausting work they were able to earn only a few cents which merely permitted them to die from gradual starvation.


To the administration of General Obregon belongs the honor of having started, not on paper but actually on the field, the difficult task of the educational redemption of these rural masses. At the end of his presidential period General Obregon left 960 rural schools. General Calles in the sixteen months that he has been in power has succeeded in establishing 2,046 more, thus bringing the total of rural schools supported by the Federal Government to about 3,000. To this number we must add approximately 1,500 maintained by the governments of the different states; so we now have at least 4,500 educational centers in rural districts where a school teacher had never been seen before. In these educational centers we are endeavoring to teach the peasant to master not only the rudiments of reading and writing but also the information in practical agricultural and industrial subjects which will help to develop the natural resources of each region. Our object is that, at the same time that the child receives instruction, he may be enabled to increase his economic ability to succeed in life and be put in a position to cooperate in the life of the country, so that these millions of human beings may at some time become productive units, real factors in the promotion of the material and moral welfare of our country; that they may cease to be what they have been heretofore--the eternally exploited, social nonentities taken into consideration only when they were required to make the supreme sacrifice of blood and sorrow in our internal strife or in external conflicts.


President Calles has instructed the Federal Department of Education to establish a minimum of 1,000 new rural schools each year, and we are making every effort to the end that the states' governments may follow the path of the Federal Government in this work of justice and true redemption of Mexico. It would have been an injustice--not so vital as the one which we have discussed, of course, but still worthy of reproach--to give all the attention of the Government to the educational problem of the peasants and to neglect the city children. But we are not making this mistake, in spite of frequent assertions to the contrary which savor of interests and evil-meant influences.


This year, when slanderous propaganda against Mexico claims that the schools have been closed and that thousands of children have been neglected, we have in our schools, in Mexico City alone, 20,000 children more than last year and by "our schools" I mean only establishments controlled by the Federal Department of Education. Just the day before I left Mexico City I applied for a substantial increase in our budget to cover new requirements in this connection.


Instead of devoting our resources to the construction of new schools and the building of palatial structures in the heart of the city of Mexico, we have decided to build schools of a new type in the slums of the city, far removed from the aristocratic sections. Upon my return I expect to inaugurate five more of these schools. These institutions not only are serving educational purposes but are also performing most important tasks of social improvement in sections of Mexico City which have been heretofore completely neglected and even regarded as dangerous.


I wish to emphasize the extension work of our schools. For all of these new schools we have adopted a proper and energetic policy and a sound and carefully chosen moral code which the children can practice. By means of frequent talks and constant examples of cooperation and savings, we are accomplishing much in the way of social betterment beyond our mere educational boundaries. Every school in Mexico is rapidly becoming both within and without its own walls a center and nucleus of community life, of which the parents' associations which we have organized are important factors. In a large percentage of our rural schools we have secured small parcels of land for experimental agriculture, in the tilling of which the students and the villagers cooperate. In our city schools we are establishing small home industries--also with the cooperation of the parents--so that boys and girls who cannot attend the secondary schools may, upon finishing their primary education, be equipped with manual training to assist them in their start in life.


In one of the largest commercial buildings in Mexico City we have opened a store with a permanent exhibit of articles manufactured by students, chiefly in the technical, industrial, vocational, and university schools. This organization is conducted on a cooperative basis, following along general lines the plan of an institution of Hamburg. The store, by reason of its size, the large assortment of articles to be found in it, and the artistic value of most of them, provides a real and interesting novelty in our national educational system. I do not know of any other similar institution of a permanent character existing in America or Europe.


Until the beginning of this year Mexico City had only one institution open to students who desired to supplement their primary education in order to take preparatory and professional courses. I am glad to say that two additional schools of this kind have just been opened. For young people desiring to specialize in the applied sciences within a short period of time, the city of Mexico affords excellent facilities in its school for mechanical and electrical engineering, reputed to be one of the best of its kind on the continent; in its technical school for builders; in the superior school of commerce and business administration; in three more commercial schools, one of them located in one of the most beautiful private parks of the city; in a school of domestic science for girls; in four industrial day schools; and in twenty-five night schools for working men and women. Outside of the capital the boys and girls can attend other industrial schools supported by the Department of Education in the states of Sonora, Vera Cruz, Sinalos, Jalisco, and Michoacan. In our program for 1926 we have as a very important item the establishment of ten more industrial schools in other parts of the country.


In places where we have not yet been able to open schools, we are establishing small libraries. The movement of education and extension in this respect is so important, if we consider our modest economic capacity, that during the year 1925 we distributed more than seven hundred thousand books for the new libraries and social centers, and approximately an equal number of books among poor children attending the government schools.


We now come to the National University of Mexico, which has the oldest tradition of any university on this side of the Atlantic and which constitutes by virtue of the advanced studies pursued there the climax of the educational work carried out by our Department of Education.


The University is directed by a University Board and a Rector or President, the whole organization being under the Department of Education. The University includes the Preparatory School, the Graduate School, Teachers College, the Faculties of Philosophy and Letters, Medicine, Law, Engineering, Chemistry, Dentistry, Fine Arts, Music, and the Summer School. In connection with this Summer School I should like to draw your attention to the fact that in 1925 we had four hundred students from the United States. This number we expect to see doubled in 1926. We have engaged for this Summer School and also for the regular courses of the University the services of native and foreign professors of fame. This year we are going to have the pleasure and honor of listening in the cloisters of our University to the lectures of Professor John Dewey of Columbia. I wish to extend a cordial and sincere invitation to the students of Columbia University, to Spanish teachers of this country, and to those connected with Teachers College to come to Mexico to attend our Summer School.


With reference to the purely instructional aspect of our University schools, I may say that as in most of the other schools of Mexico we follow programs, methods, and procedures quite similar to those accepted by American schools.


To give an idea of the sequence of studies which are required in Mexico for a person to qualify for a professional degree, for instance that of M.D., we shall rapidly follow the school life of a Mexican child from the time he leaves the kindergarten. He takes four years of primary education, two years of secondary instruction, and three years of general preparatory school training, corresponding (although its program is a little more ample) to the high school in the United States. Then he takes two more years of preparatory education proper which corresponds to the studies included in a college course in this country. Finally, six years of professional studies are required in the Faculty of Medicine. In the case of an average student completing his studies in the normal time, he may obtain his professional degree at the age of twenty-three. A similar plan, modified only as to the length of the professional course, is followed for all the other professions.


We have never abandoned and have only slightly modified the basic studies of humanities, philosophy, and letters which are so important in the proper development of the cultured mind.


If it is true, however, that in regard to methods and systems of university teaching, our University differs very little from any similar institution in any of the other civilized countries, it may be readily noted that special conditions which prevail in our country and our imperative necessity to develop leaders in all phases of our national life--technicians and experts in all branches of industry, of science, and of the arts--are responsible for our earnest efforts to see that our university schools do not produce apprentices but finished professional men and women who, upon leaving school, may not have to lose a number of years in forming and strengthening their minds for the real struggle of life and social cooperation. We want them to become, without delay, constructive factors in the life of the nation. To attain this end we are constantly endeavoring to bring life in our universities into intimate contact with the life of the country. Thus the hearts of our university young men and young women will beat in unison not with the hearts of more fortunate and privileged classes but with the masses of our country. Thus they will understand their anxieties, their needs, and their ambitions.


We firmly believe, as recently expressed by a prominent American industrialist, Cheney, that although we may have faith in the men and the women graduated from colleges we should not overlook the fact that the most propitious field in which to study, to learn, and to succeed is Life itself. Toward this end we are working, that our University shall become a dynamic social force in the new Mexico which we are struggling to build.


In order to give an idea of the importance of educational work being carried on in Mexico, I must tell you that at this moment we have in the Republic 28 preparatory schools, n schools of medicine and kindred sciences, i school of chemistry and pharmacy, 3 schools of dentistry, 2 of homeopathic medicine, 12 of law, 6 of engineering and mines, i of architecture, with a total of 15,000 students, of whom approximately 9,000 attend the National University of Mexico and the rest the other professional schools of the states. All these professional schools are supported by the Federal Government or the state governments, but there are several other professional and preparatory schools maintained by private institutions or individuals. Of this kind we have 22 preparatory schools, 3 schools of homeopathic medicine, 3 schools of law, I of chemistry and pharmacy, 14 seminaries for Catholic priests, and 2 for Protestant ministers. These represent an additional student body of about 2,600. This shows that the proportion of students in these private professional schools is about fifteen per cent of the total school population of the government professional schools.


The Federal Government paid for the primary education of 117,-160 children during the year of 1925. This year we have in the schools of the city of Mexico only, as I said before, 20,000 more children. The Federal Government also provided for teaching staffs and school supplies for 138,190 students who attended rural schools in 1925. This attendance will show an increase during 1926 of no less than 50,000 students, one thousand new rural schools having been established.


In the industrial, technical, vocational and night schools of the city of Mexico, the Federal Government provides for the education of 15,000 students.


The local state governments support schools attended by about 650,000 children in the twenty-eight states of the Republic, which gives the rough total of 1,200,000 young people receiving at the present time in all the country the benefits of public school education.


My wish to give exact numbers here compels me to state, with regret, that especially in the states of the Republic where the Federal Department of Education has no jurisdiction, there are about 2,000,000 children of school age not attending school, and that the state governments are not yet financially ready to meet this situation.


The Federal Government, however, will soon take care of this problem, within its financial possibilities, even if it has to go beyond its constitutional obligations. The most encouraging fact is that the movement has been started. To anyone knowing the disastrous educational situation existing in Mexico until a few years ago, the report of what we have been able to accomplish thus far must be a source of deep satisfaction.




1An address delivered on March 23, 1926, at Teachers College, Columbia University.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 27 Number 10, 1926, p. 865-865
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5912, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 9:23:18 AM

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