Tuesday, January 15, 2013

In Rural Mexico, Student-Led Education Heals Old Wounds

English: Photo of Paulo Freire
Paulo Freire (Wikipedia)
by , Yes! magazine: http://www.yesmagazine.org

Mike Emiliani wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

Unitierra has no classrooms, no teachers, and no formal curriculum. Yet the school has successful helped local people learn practical skills for years.

As a university student in the United States, I’ve always thought of “education” and “learning” as synonyms.

That’s an assumption that got turned upside down during the five weeks I spent this summer in Oaxaca, Mexico,  investigating alternative education methods among indigenous people.

The educators I observed there called what they were doing “participant education.” While each group had a slightly different definition of the concept, certain things stayed consistent everywhere I went.

First, people have a greater control over how they learn and what they learn compared to the formal model of classroom education.

Second, instruction was decentralized. The philosopher Ivan Illich, who was an avid promoter of redefining what education and learning can mean, called this kind of decentralization the “opportunity web.”

The 4-part web stresses dialogue and skill-sharing between people of different classes, backgrounds, and cultures and people finding other people with like interests or useful knowledge to help facilitate their learning.

Third, it is transformative. To Paulo Freire, another prominent education theorist, learning should center on meaningful dialogue between people to question the existing world in order to re-invent meaning and purpose.

In order to help you envision this process, I am going to describe an example in which participant educators facilitated the building of a clay oven in a village outside Oaxaca. But before I do that, I’d like to put these projects in context by talking about what education has been expected to do In Mexican history.

A history of distrust

Modern education in Mexico begins with the Liberal Party’s victory over the Conservatives in the 1861 Reform War. Liberals elected Benito Juarez, a native Zapotec from the Sierra of Oaxaca, as the first freely elected president of Mexico.

At the time, Mexico consisted of countless groups that spoke different languages, respected different forms of authority, and had different goals about the future of the nation.

The Juarez administration sought to design an education system that would unify these groups and teach them basic skills. Up until this time, education in Mexico was dismal in terms of quality and results, especially among poor and indigenous groups. Illiteracy was rampant.

Juarez built more schools and overhauled existing curriculums, which up until that point had been created almost exclusively by the Catholic Church.

The Juarez plan taught math, science, law, medicine, theater, music, and a myriad of other fields with the goal of creating a more enlightened citizen of Mexico.

A secondary effect of this plan was to decrease the power and influence of the Catholic Church. Before Juarez took office, the church had been the largest untaxed landowner and the largest creator of schools, in which it propagated Catholic teachings and the fear of God.

The Juarez administration attacked that power through legislation such as the Ley Lerdo, which forced the church to sell off its land holdings.

However, the indigenous groups Juarez wanted to educate quickly became his greatest problem. Indigenous groups wanted to retain their ways of life, languages, and cultures, while the federal government wanted to replace these with a singular Mexican culture.

To the federal government, multiple cultures and languages hindered efforts to establish a singular national identity. Ultimately, the indigenous communities resisted the coercive forces of the Juarez administration in trying to implant reforms onto their communities.

Schools and teachers were forcibly pushed into communities, which were often expected to pay for construction of the school and the salaries of the teachers. The 1844 legislation passed by the Juarez administration required that towns disclose their community budgets and finances to the federal government, for the purpose of finding out how much money they had to erect state schools.

This back and forth continued through several more administrations and has been a major factor pitting the federal government against the indigenous populations of Mexico. The tensions between educational models are only one of the reasons why many of the indigenous groups of Mexico harbor skepticism toward the federal government.

To read further, go to: http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/rural-mexico-student-led-education-heals-old-wounds-unitierra?utm_source=wkly20130111&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=titleEmiliani
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