Open for debate: “Education is not politically neutral!”

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For the first several years that I visited the village, beginning in 1985, there were almost no books in Santa María Tzejá, the case study that is the basis for my book.  There were no computers, no internet.  There was no lined-in electricity.  Students in the school received just two notebooks and two pencils.  Teachers had their books from which they could teach the state curriculum.  The goals of that schooling were to give very basic reading, writing and math skills, along with isolated facts about national heroes and a superficial patriotism built around the flag and national holidays.

The politics of education in that period were nowhere discussed, but they were certainly in force–and calculated to produce young students (few went beyond third grade in remote villages like SMT) who lacked any basis for critiquing their society and its government.  When I once asked one of the two teachers the state provided whether he taught anything about the civil war or the destruction of the village by the Guatemalan army, he said, “That wouldn’t do anybody any good,” meaning he would probably lose his job and the state would come down on the village and its school.
That began to change dramatically in 1985, with an infusion of new teachers that came back with the refugees from the original SMT population returned from Mexico to which they had fled to save their lives from the marauding Guatemalan army at the time when the village was destroyed in 1972.  The returnees brought with  them young, experienced teachers in their midst.  A major piece of the curriculum in the new, first-ever-in-the-village middle school, was a theatrical play that featured the experience of the parent generation during the violence of the village in 1972.  The play, “The Past Is With Us,” was acted out by middle school students who were deeply moved by reenacting their parents’ experience in their own lives.  The play had such power that it was invited to tour around the country, awakening hundreds of people to the reality of the civil war of the army against the people.  More of that play in a future post.  There is no doubt, however, that the play and its impact on the students was deeply political.  Students were asked, when on tour with the play, “aren’t you afraid for your lives??  Adelina later told me that acting in that play “taught me to risk my life for something good.”  Powerfully political!
Carlos Aldana, an outstanding Guatemalan educator, called attention to this erroneous “commonly-held position…that education is and ought to be politically neutral, indicating that its only purpose is to form the person free of political ideas.”  In his view one of the singular achievements of the wealthy powerful has been to convince the public that education is politically neutral, without a point of view regarding the major issues of the day.  In reality, he argued, it is incontrovertibly biased toward interests of the elite (pp. 26-27 in my book).
Teachers in SMT continue to look for ways to teach that will give students critical thinking skills and an accurate picture of the world they live in.  These Maya students learn about the history and culture of the Maya people.  Another theater play involved students to reenact a drama about gender issues in the male-dominated Guatemalan society.  The play’s unstated goal was to stimulate the liberation of women from male oppression.  Economic texts give the students an accurate picture of their society that is dominated by the wealthy upper social class.  In getting a realistic exploration of their ethnic history and the economy dominated by the rich oligarchy, they get a liberating, political perspective from which they can prepare themselves to be change agents working to liberate others from the oppressions they face.
Do you agree or not agree that education is inescapably political?  Leave a comment with your opinion.
Seeds of Freedom: Liberating Education in Guatemala, my book that I am happy to introduce in this weekly blog, is now available in paperback.  See my “Seeds of Freedom” Facebook page to order.
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