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American Youth Prepares for "The Age of the Americas"

by Frederick J. Rex - 1943

With characteristic vigor and enthusiasm American education is meeting one of the major challenges of the war: to acquaint its youth with the world we live in and with the peoples in that world.

WITH characteristic vigor and enthusiasm American education is meeting one of the major challenges of the war: to acquaint its youth with the world we live in and with the peoples in that world. With the aid and encouragement of the United States Office of Education and of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, many schools all over the United States are offering courses dealing with Latin American life and culture. To the great majority of people in Anglo-Saxon America, Latin America is terra incognita. The many study outlines, suggestions for courses of study, bibliographies, and booklets on individual countries or on larger geographical divisions of Latin America now available, attempt to fill in our vague mental maps of Latin America with rivers and towns, jungles and mountains, creatures of the animal world, and with a multitude of human beings of all races. A second level of information, that of exploration and penetration of strange, fascinating nature is beginning to become familiar to us through some of the recent books on the exploration of the Latin American continent.1 It is, as a famous Chilean geographer and writer expresses it, "the National Geographic Magazine" stage of our consciousness and knowledge.2 An interesting example of the next stage of analysis and differentiation of the development of civilization is the ecological approach, i.e., the mutual relations of climate, topography, and man, and man's attempts to bend nature to his will to make physical existence possible, safer, and more fruitful.3 There is still another approach, the psychological one, which has received a great deal of attention and consideration by writers and spokesmen of Latin America, but very little by our North American interpreters of Latin American civilization. This phase of cultural analysis and synthesis deals with the feelings, attitudes, and outlook on life of the people, and with the character of the institutions shaped from these powerful—to the Anglo-American somewhat nebulous and intangible—realities.4

When the representatives of the Coordinator's Office asked the Principal of the Horace Mann-Lincoln School to organize a seven weeks' summer course in Latin American studies for high school students last summer, they were especially anxious that such a course should include activities through which students of junior and senior high school age would begin to understand the feelings and attitudes which many of the people of Latin America have toward life, toward us, and toward the future of the American hemisphere. To make such an experimental course more significant for public school situations, it was decided that the students participating in it should come from the public and parochial schools of New York City. The sixty-four students who signed up for the seven weeks' study represented a wide range of intellectual, artistic, and racial characteristics. Some came because their teachers or principals had recommended this summer course, others because they were interested in working in an experimental school which happened to have a swimming pool for cooling off on hot summer afternoons, or because there was an opportunity to gain additional credits for high school work.

The junior high school section of thirty-two pupils between the ages of eleven and thirteen worked with an experienced classroom teacher who was responsible for the pupils' entire school day and for work in the skills not directly related to the Latin-American study. All the teachers of the senior group participated in the teaching program of the junior high school group, but the development of the unit of work and responsibility for continuity lay with the classroom teacher.

Four major areas of study were included in the program of the senior group: History and Geography, Spanish for Beginners and for Advanced Students, A Two Weeks' Introductory Course in Portuguese, Music, and Art.


It may seem curious to begin the study of Latin America with the statement that there is no such entity as Latin America. From a geographical point of view, the American hemisphere is one continent, and that fact was the keynote of the first week's study of physical and political divisions of the Western hemisphere. From orientation on the large wall maps of North and South America, the students shifted to the library collection of special atlases to prepare individual reports on the topographical formation of the hemisphere, on the river systems of the Mississippi and the Amazonas, the Magdalena River, and the Plata River system, on the relation of climate to proximity to the equator and altitude, on the Humboldt and Gulf Currents. To enable students to retain a mental image of the extended map of the Americas, it was necessary that they make their own maps, fill in outline maps of various types, reproduce skeleton maps on paper and on the blackboard to accompany their special reports or to make a point clear. For purposes of comparison it was equally important to emphasize relative distances and known units of size. With the aid of bar and circle graphs, the students gradually gained a visual background for comparisons of area and population figures of the various countries, cities, and states.

The setting up of a bulletin board in the Social Studies room, where the students posted their clippings from newspapers or magazines, brought out the need for organization of the news according to countries, such as the ABC combination, or into spheres of interest, such as Economic Problems, War and Defense Problems, Personalities, Backgrounds for Understanding the News. The limited time available, and the need for historical information for understanding contemporary Latin America, determined the division of the work into four areas of interest:

1. Ancient Indian Civilizations: Aztec, Maya, Inca.

2. Spanish and Portuguese Conquests.

3. Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Systems Compared with the English System of Administering Settlements in America.

4. The Struggles for Independence and the Development of the Modern Republics of Latin America.

Four committees were formed at the beginning of the fourth week of school to bring together individual research and study about Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean Islands, the ABC countries and Uruguay, and the Republics of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay. During the last two weeks, the students worked on putting the four committee reports into book form.


The inclusion of Spanish and Portuguese in the experimental course was based on the assumption that any attempt to come to a more intimate understanding of Latin Americans without a knowledge of their language would be unrealistic. The beginners used the very practical and simple textbook by Lipp and Besso, Conversational Spanish for the Army Air Forces of the United States, which enabled them to make immediate use of pronunciation and vocabulary for the newly acquired information in geography. They learned to ask and answer simple questions about the daily needs of a person traveling in Latin America, to be always polite and courteous in Spanish, to be as sensitive to the correct pronunciation of Simon Bolivar's name as we are to Jorge Guasington. Once a week La Prensa, the New York Spanish language daily, was used in class and for home reading. Success came when, after six weeks of study, the students were able to read and translate the Spanish newspaper accounts of the Waldo Frank incident in Buenos Aires, and of the rehabilitation project of Tepoztlan, a village in Mexico made famous by Stuart Chase's and Redfield's reports.5

The advanced group in Spanish worked with an exchange teacher from Chile whose limited knowledge of English was a great asset in making Spanish the language of the classroom. They used to great advantage the more difficult text of Brady, Pan American Spanish, La Prensa, and mimeographed selections from the works of Gabriela Mistral. They acted as hosts at a tea and reception given to sixteen visiting educators from Cuba who were studying at a special workshop established at Teachers College in connection with the 1942 Summer Session. Through the Chilean teacher, the students acquired information about life in her country, while she, in turn, became better acquainted with our people after having worked with a representative group of American children.

The course in introductory Portuguese was in the nature of an experimental offering and lasted two weeks. Only a small group of students were able to take the two-hour period of Portuguese in the afternoon, but they were joined by a group of eleven teachers from the New York City public schools who were working in a two weeks' workshop to prepare a syllabus of Latin American Studies. The elements of pronunciation, declension, numerals, formation of the simple tenses of regular verbs and of a few important irregular verbs could be learned during that period. The students put their knowledge of pronunciation to good use in the learning of a number of Brazilian songs.


Music, songs, dance, and poetry are integral parts of Latin American culture. Through the medium of Latin American music, the blending of many races, experiences, and creative forces speaks to us. Far from being primitive, the rhythmic patterns of the Brazilian music, or of certain types of Indian songs, are intricate and fascinating to young people familiar with syncopation. The students sang, they listened, they learned to play a variety of instruments (drums, maracas, guiro, marimbas, psaltery). They were shown three ways of writing down music from records, so that any student could readily read the music and play it on the piano, psaltery, the drum, or the marimba. This skill was especially useful for teaching rhythms and dances for which we could obtain the records but no sheet music. A music specialist from the Radio Division of the Coordinator's Office in New York explained the origin of the music of Latin America and illustrated his talk by using a student-prepared outline map which he divided into sections, such as the Afro-Iberian, the Indo-Iberian, and Afro-Indo-Iberian where a fusion of all three streams of Latin American music is evident. The recordings by native orchestras and groups which the speaker played for the students, and the breaking down of themes or rhythms on the piano gave point to the speaker's thesis of cultural fusion through the arts. Not content with absorbing and listening, the students asked the expert to teach them the rudiments and coordination of accompaniment with maracas and drums, so that they might play their own accompaniments for the songs and dances of the free afternoon dance periods. One of the public school teachers who had been a member of the two weeks' workshop group offered to come several afternoons and teach interested students some of the modern Latin American dances, such as the rumba, the samba, the Argentine tango, and the conga.

The music teacher went with the students to the Spanish classes, and the language teachers accompanied the students to the music classes to help in the correct pronunciation of the Spanish and Portuguese songs which the students learned.

Through recordings and piano selections, the students were introduced to outstanding contemporary composers and musicians of Latin America. Elsie Houston, Olga Coelho, Tito Guizar, Claudio Arrau, and Guiomar Novaes were familiar to the radio listeners, but new to them were the compositions and the wide influence in the musical life of Latin America of Carlos Chavez, Ernesto Lecuona, and Heitor Villa-Lobos.

One of the high points in the music classes was a recital given by a Bolivian dancer and poet. In a half-hour talk in English he gave the students a compact picture of modern Bolivia and of life in La Paz. His recital of Quechuan poetry and the religious dances left a deep impression on the students. Three of the boys wrote their own choreography from recorded Indian music for an Indian dance, and incorporated it in the final assembly program. At the end of seven weeks the repertoire of Latin American songs included: La Perla, Cielito Lindo, La Cucaracha, Tu—Fair Cuba, La Golondrina, Adios Muchachos, La Paloma, La Cumparsita, Palapala, Peruvian Hymn to the Sun, Chiapanecas, Alia en el Rancho Grande, Tutu, Maramba, and the National Anthems of Mexico, Cuba, Bolivia, Chile.


Three traveling exhibits of Latin American art were lent to the school, by the Brooklyn Museum, the San Francisco Museum, and the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. The students helped in unpacking, identifying, and setting up the exhibit which was displayed in a separate room adjoining the art studio. Original objects classified in three historical periods—Pre-Colombian, Colonial, and Contemporary—were included in the exhibit. The water colors and oil paintings by contemporary artists from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay reflected a wide range of individual expression and style. In addition to the original works there were large framed reference plates with photographic reproductions of the art and architecture of eleven Latin American countries. Each plate contained a brief summary in English of the development of art of the particular country. The display cases contained stone, silver, and gold ornaments of pre-conquest and colonial days, textiles, lacework, votive paintings, richly decorated mate gourds and bombillas. The hall exhibit cases contained two Mexican exhibits—one of books, periodicals, records, textiles, and pottery, the other of photographic reproductions of modern Mexican murals.

The art studio was used by all the students at least once a day. They learned to work in several mediums, such as clay modeling, weaving, carving, and painting in tempera, oil, and water color. The important thing" in the art activities was that we did not let the students copy Latin American art forms, but encouraged them to respond to their own environment and to the materials at hand, just as the craftsman or artist in Latin America would do. All but five of the students were able to return to work in the studio in the afternoons for the free work periods. At first, the older students, especially the girls, hesitated to handle the "messy" clay, but the obvious pleasure and exuberance of the younger group in pounding and molding the obedient material broke down the resistance. The crude Aztec stone idol in the exhibit room convinced an unhappy beginner that self-depreciation and criticism by contemporaries is not of much help to the budding artist. The Chinese boy in the class, short of words and shy in personal contacts, seemed to be another person when he was working with brush and oil paints on canvas; the fifteen-year-old talented Negro who, time and again, stole into the exhibit room to look at the abstract painting of a still life of fruit, kept asking every visitor attracted by the painting whether he or she thought that was "real art." In a color film of handicrafts of Mexico and Guatemala, the students had seen an ingeniously simple technique of weaving and adapted it to the weaving of colored belts for themselves, using only a workbench vise and wooden tongue depressors as a loom. They used their own classmates as models for the large mural of Latin America at work. When the committee reports were about ready to be assembled, the layout of pages and illustrations, cover designs, and the painful cutting for achieving unity in the books took place in the studio. Cooperation, sacrifice of individual recognition, tolerance of others' suggestions for improving one's own work were tested severely. When the books were returned from the binder the pride in collective achievement and ownership and the praise of the visitors on the day of the final assembly compensated for the imagined loss of individual superiority in a separate piece of work.


No systematic study of Latin American literature was planned or feasible with a group of high school students. In the field of poetry which is the most popular form of Latin American expression, we read from Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Ruben Dario, Amado Nervo, and Gabriela Mistral. Biographical sketches for these poets were prepared from magazines, Pan American Union publications, and from histories of Latin American literature.

Bernal Diaz de Castillo, True History of the Conquest of New Spain, and Prescott's selection from other chroniclers were widely used for history reports. The library of the Brooklyn Museum lent us a copy of the magnificent Florentine Codex of Saha-gun's Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana. Introduction to the Gaucho literature came first through Guiraldes' Don Segundo Sombra and through del Campo's Fausto illustrated by the celebrated cartoonist, Molina Campos, and three of W. H. Hudson's novels and tales. All students were expected to read one of the three biographies available in English of Simon Bolivar. Giro Alegria's Broad and Alien Is the World was liked better by most readers than Graga Aranha's Canaan.

While the number of translations of important Latin American books is on the increase, care and judgment must be exercised in using them with students of high school age.


To say that in seven weeks three hundred books were circulating among the group does not tell the story of how the students learned to work on their own, to select materials more critically, and to rely on their power of judgment instead of looking for expert opinions to copy. At first the students would do any amount of work assigned to them with chapters and pages marked by the teachers or librarian. Gradually, they discovered bits of information by themselves and used three or four different sources for one report, even if they found only a few useful sentences or passages in a particular source. Under the guidance of the librarian they began to locate and use general background sources, such as encyclopedias, almanacs, Statesman's Year-Books, biographical dictionaries, atlases, bound volumes of magazines and weeklies. Fear of disagreeing with a book reviewer's opinion, for instance, was one of the obstacles to the formation of the students' own judgments and valuation of supplementary reading. By the end of the summer almost all the good readers had learned how to cope with an assignment involving library research; a few had also begun to read fiction and biographical works for background to a factual report.


When Dr. Frank Tannenbaum from Columbia University talked to the group on the influence and development of religion in Latin American culture, he found that only four members of the student group had ever visited an American farm long enough to understand the importance of agriculture in modern life. He pointed out to them the roots of religion in man's relation to nature, and the supernatural aspects of the Christian religion brought by the Spanish missionaries. To make his very stimulating (but for the students rather theoretical) talk more meaningful, the group spent a whole day on a well-run Connecticut farm, where four brothers and three sisters had divided the manifold tasks of household management, crop rotation, animal husbandry, dairy farming, arboriculture, farmers' cooperative, and selectman's duties. Each of the brothers took a small group for a two-hour walk over the entire farm, explaining how food was raised and how nature cannot be cheated out of an ounce of its due. The students pitched hay, learned how to milk cows, grubbed for their own potatoes (which actually came from under the ground!), saw a horse shod, and found out how farmers buy and sell their produce through cooperatives. From the selectman they learned how democratic government operates in farm communities, and how each citizen must look beyond the confines of his personal interests to see that the concerns of the entire community are included in deliberation, judgment, and decision of a democratic legislature. Needless to say, the combination of theory and practice, of recreation and work, made more learning and insight possible than weeks of school work. The farm trip had served several purposes: it provided firsthand knowledge about the agricultural basis of our life; it placed in proper perspective the aspirations of the Mexican revolutionaries for tierra, libertad y education; it helped the students to understand why the religious practices of many of the Indians leave room for the gods of wind, rain, and sun from the days of the Aztecs to our own, why man in despair turns to supernatural forces for help and sustenance.


The coordination of the work of experienced special teachers, the "give-and-take" in program adjustments for outside speakers, and the unity of purpose of the entire staff made it possible to achieve in the minds of the students an integration of the various studies and activities we thought necessary to gain a comprehensive view of Latin American culture. This procedure seemed to work equally well with students who had not had experience in coordinated or general courses at the high school level.

The introduction of a new era of learning at the high school level does not need to frighten teachers who can make intelligent use of the available resources for the development of new courses. Newspapers, movies, the radio, community organizations, libraries, museums, and people who have been in Latin America can be used almost anywhere to make the beginning of such a course interesting. The Pan American Union in Washington, the United States Office of Education, the Register of Latin American Visitors published regularly by the State Department, the Telephone Directory, and a few courteous letters never fail to produce a positive response to appeals for help.

Teachers interested in working in this area are as anxious as high school students to participate in workshop courses or institutes with a coordinated program and opportunities for actual work in developing new courses to fit their needs and circumstances. State Departments of Education, teachers colleges, and laboratory schools should attempt to organize and offer such courses for teachers.

To weld a heterogeneous group of thirty-four individuals, different in every respect except age and city origin, into a cooperative unit, appreciating their own and each other's contributions, sacrificing comfort and pleasures so that others, less fortunate, might enjoy weekend companionship or the limelight of the final program, to be eager to continue the introduction to Latin American civilization with further study, is real preparation for the "Age of the Americas." These students had learned to overcome the first obstacle of language in understanding another civilization, they had acquired a knowledge of, and respect for, the great heritage left to them by the joint contributions of the Red Man, the White Man, the Negro. They had learned through their own experiences that differences of race, color, or religion can become an enrichment, rather than a hindrance, in the achievement of democratic cooperation and understanding in our hemisphere.

We face a situation which has an “either” and which has an "or" and we will choose or jail to choose between them. Whichever we do we will have chosen. For the failure to choose in the world we live in is in itself a choice. The "either” as I see it is the education of the people of this country. The "or" is fascism. We will either preserve their own democratic culture or we will watch the people of this republic trade their democratic culture for the non-culture, the obscurantism, the superstition, the brutality, the tyranny which is overrunning eastern and central and southern Europe.—Archibald MacLeish in LIBRARIES IN THE CONTEMPORARY CRISIS, The Library Journal, November 15, 1939.

1 Adamson, H. C. Lands of New World Neighbors. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1941.

Lansing, M. Against All Odds. Doubleday, Doran & Company, Garden City, L. I., 1942.

2 Subercaseaux, B. Chile o una loca geografia. Ercilla, Santiago, 1940.

3 James, Preston E. Latin America. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., New York, 1942.

4 Rodo, J. E. Ariel. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1922.

Frank, Waldo. America Hispana—South of Us. Garden City Publishing Co., New York, 1940.

5 Chase, Stuart. Mexico. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1931.

Redfield, Robert. Tepoztlan, A Mexican Village. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1930.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 44 Number 6, 1943, p. 399-407
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9222, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 2:58:27 PM

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