Monday, March 14, 2011

Obama’s card in Latin America: Education

I'm not expecting any dramatic policy announcements during President Obama's trip to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador later this month. Although imperfectly applied, the US seeks an international system based on democracy, the rule of law, and free markets.

The US government sees these as indispensable to solving problems of good governance, economic development, and domestic and international peace. I can't see this emphasis changing anytime soon. Unfortunately, we just aren't very good at getting ourselves or others there.

That's why I like Andres Oppenheimer's suggestion to make education, science and innovation into a "hemispheric cause."
My opinion: Obama should announce an Education Initiative of the Americas that would include large scale student and teacher exchanges with U.S. universities (there are currently 128,000 students from China in U.S. colleges, compared with only 13,000 from Mexico), as well as sending English teachers and providing free Internet English courses to tens of millions of Latin Americans.

And Obama could offer to share his experiences with his Race to the Top program, which offers money to states that change their laws to allow teacher evaluations and merit pay, so that teachers are paid by results in their classrooms rather than only by their seniority. It’s a plan that would revolutionize education in Latin America.

It’s time for Obama to move beyond feel-good rhetoric and build concrete bridges with the region so that the whole hemisphere could better compete with the emerging Asian and European trading blocs. Much like in the United States, education would be a good place to start.
While I don't know how all the details of such an initiative would work out (I haven't followed Obama's education policy; honestly, I couldn't tell you one specific from it), I would also include a renewed commitment to push the US Congress to pass some variant of the DREAM Act. We could also work to increase the number of student visas allotted to students from Latin America. The US could probably help with school uniforms and books.

I'd also like to see initiative as more of a partnership and not "let's show you how it's done" that sometimes comes across in this Oppenheimer article. Not the sexiest proposal, but perhaps a transformational one that even the Salvadoran Minister of Education support.

However, history tells us that a joint US-LA education initiative is going to be a tough sell. Andrew J. Kirkendall recently published Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy. In his book, Kirkendall explains how international literacy education in Latin America ran up against a variety of challenges during the Cold War.

The US and some Latin American governments supported educational reforms as a means of promoting economic development and reducing the allure of socialism. Others like the 1960s Christian Democrats in Chile sought to promote economic development and a new generation of party loyalists. However, the newly literate were a little too radical for the Christian Democrats and they started to have second thoughts about promoting education.

Finally, while the Sandinistas in Nicaragua produced some impressive accomplishments in terms of reducing illiteracy, but their emphasis seemed to be political indoctrination rather than an education that would liberate people. The long-term effects of the literacy reforms also was more likely to be found among those who went out to teach rather than those who did the learning.

The easy part is for the US and Latin America to agree that education is important. The content of any such initiaitve is obviously the hard part.

Here's a few more items of interest. If you are interested in learning about popular education in El Salvador during the civil war, I would encourage you to take a look at John Hammond's Fighting to Learn: Popular Education and Guerrilla War in El Salvador.
Popular education played a vital role in the twelve-year guerrilla war against the Salvadoran government. Fighting to Learn is a study of its pedagogy and politics. Inspired by Paulo Freire's literacy work in Brazil in the 1950s, popular education brought literacy to poor rural communities abandoned by the official education system and to peasant combatants in the guerrilla army. Those who had little education taught those who had none. Popular education taught people skills, raised the morale that sustained them in unequal combat, and stimulated the creation of an organizational network to hold them together.
Finally, Danilo Valladares has a new article "Yes I Can" Say Illiterate Adults in Guatemala at IPS that details some of the Cuban literacy programs that seem to be working (it looks pretty Freirian).


  1. In the 1980s a number of Central American school teachers had a chance to study at US universities. I think it was a result of the Kissinger Commission report on Central America - and may have been an attempt to co-opt them and make them more "pro-American."

    I know of at least 18 Hondurans who studied at Iowa State University for two years and got a bachelor's degree from ISU.

  2. Promoting education is something that most people believe is important. However, Oppenheimer makes it sound as if it's apolitical. Your story about attempting to co-opt LA teachers and make them more "pro-American" is more evidence of that.