Mexico – Education Of The People

HAVING myself studied and graduated in several European Universities and been Professor of Comparative Philology, Sanskrit and Oriental history, I naturally felt an interest in the educational problem in Mexico, for upon the solution it receives the destinies of the people depend. Learning my desire, Senor Cabrera kindly put me in communication with the Rector of the University, Don José Macias, on whom I called one morning, accompanied by a foreign prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. We were received with that perfect courtesy which characterises the social intercourse of educated Mexicans. None the less it turned out to be a most amusing experience, a little comedy of errors. The Rector, assuming that we were from the United States, assured us that we would recognise in the institutions and various landmarks of progress in his country mere copies of originals in our own. “The United States,” he went on, “is the standard-bearer of culture and from her accumulated stores Mexico is drawing freely and contracting a moral debt which she can only acknowledge without repaying. But her gratitude is profound. She welcomes citizens of the great Northern Republic whose various dissenting preachers are sowing the good seed on a fertile soil” . . . and saying this he bowed to the prelate. I listened without committing myself, but expressed the hope that in the process he described the University at least would find it worth while to retain some features of its own distinct from those of the United States. Education, after all, ought to be adjusted to the needs of the people, which are not wholly identical with those of foreigners. Adaptation, I said, ought to be substituted for imitation.

That elaborate eulogy of the United States by one of Carranza’s advisers and friends reminded me of an amusing experience which I had had years before with the late Prince Ghika when he first came as Minister-Plenipotentiary of the King of Roumania to Russia, in the reign of Alexander III. I met him at a dinner in the house of Prince Orbeliani and as French was the language of the salons the diplomatist had no sure criteria by which to distinguish the Russian from the foreign guests. Approaching me after dinner, he discanted with rapture on the beauties of Russian literature which he regretted his inability to read in the original and then passed on to the praise of the Tsardom and the Tsar—to all of which I listened with due attention and cold acquiescence, reluctant to tell him that I disagreed with his appreciation of the Tsar-dom and its doings. A few days later Prince Ghika met me at a court function and having in the meanwhile ascertained that I was not a Russian and that I had published over a pseudonym a tremendous indictment of the Tsardom and its works,’ he apologized profusely for his mistake, asked me to treat his remarks at the dinner as purely diplomatical, alluded in complimentary terms to my writings which he had read and then we both laughed heartily at his misplaced compliments.

A similar development was brought about in the case of the Mexican Rector by an observation which I purposely made, implying that I came from over the Atlantic. “Then, you are not an American?” he asked in a flutter. “No,” I replied. “Oh, oh, really. But what then, may I venture to ask, is your nationality?” “British.” “Indeed. I am truly delighted. The British are our best foreign friends. Well, in this republic you will find that the people receive your countrymen with open arms and warm hearts. The British are” … and a string of compliments followed. Then came the query. “But your companion is a United States preacher surely?” “No,” I answered, “he is not.” “Is he a Baptist?” “No.” “A Presbyterian?” “No. He is a Catholic.” “A Catholic!” repeated the Rector. “My God ! Not a Roman Catholic !” “Yes, a Roman Catholic prelate.” The Rector was overcome by the announcement. For he had been extolling the works of the non-Catholic American preachers to the skies.

Don José then took us to various schools and confined him-self to pointing out the peculiar features of the buildings. But in the medical school I fancied I could discern signs of real vitality. There the students were hard at work, keenly bent on qualifying themselves for their profession, and the head of their institution struck me as a man of extraordinary energy and scientific method who endeavoured successfully to communicate his own spirit to the young men under his charge. That and the mining school were the only educational establishments in the country where to my own knowledge sound instruction was imparted and real progress was being made.

I asked the Rector whether I could obtain a copy of the University charter. He answered that it was being drafted. When I remarked that what was being drafted could only be a new charter and that there must have been one in existence before the decision was taken to supersede it with a new one, he agreed with me and promised to let me have a copy together with certain other documents. He undertook to send them to me that very evening. On the following day I reminded him of his promise and he forthwith renewed it. Several days later it was again reiterated. But I never received either the charter or the documents and I ought, perhaps, to add that I never expected them.

Education in Mexico has always been an arduous problem to tackle, owing mainly to the lack of funds and also to the scarcity of qualified pedagogues. A further difficulty arises from the long distances and inadequate means of communication. I visited many schools in the south and centre and was very favourably impressed by the aptitudes and eagerness to learn which the children everywhere displayed and with the assiduity and zeal of the female teachers.

The educational problem is largely a matter of funds and the circumstance that it has never been solved even approximately in a country where a vast stream of wealth is flowing steadily beyond the frontiers into foreign lands is a standing condemnation of the methods of exploiting Mexico’s natural resources that now prevail.

There is probably no social class in the Republic which endures such intense physical and moral suffering as that whose members devote their lives to the upbringing of the young. From outset to finish they live from hand to mouth, never rid themselves of the gnawing anxieties of indigence or of the pain of wounded self-respect. The teachers were badly paid at best and were in some places not paid at all for months on end. This brand of unmerited indignity’ and semi-starvation inflicts on people who can think an abiding and festering wound. In some cases, I was credibly informed, schoolmistresses, stung by hunger and confronted with despair, sold their bodies in order to save their lives. Others sacrificed their lives in order not to lose their souls, while billions of pesos were being taken out of the country to swell the dividends of foreign companies. One can readily visualise the successive stages by which hungry, humbled and exasperated teachers reached the position that the redistribution of wealth, how-ever effected, is a meritorious work and that there are certain circumstances in which private property may become a public crime. It is not that these theories have ever been openly taught in the schools. By no means. But they were indirectly inculcated by events and episodes known to all and well understood by the quick impressible minds of Mexican children. There is no more efficacious means of converting a people to Bolshevism than that of keeping them half starved, badly housed, without hope o f bettering their lot and flaunting in their faces the wealth of their country as it passes them by to the well filled treasure houses of supercilious outlanders.

Education in the highest meaning of the term has hitherto been an unknown discipline in Mexico. It is only now being introduced. under Gen. Obregón and the Rector of the University José Vasconcelos. The conditions were adverse to the experiment. Instruction there is of various kinds and degrees, primary, intermediate, superior and technical, and in some branches such as mathematics, engineering and surgery it compares most favourably with that of Spain. But the training of the mind and the building of character are hardly ever even attempted. It would be a miracle where it otherwise in a country which has long been plunged by imposed hardship and poverty into internecine strife and in a society where primeval instincts were being constantly provoked to break through conventional restraints. And yet the raw material for education is excellent. Indeed, it could hardly be better. Among the Indians I found self-restraint, patience and genuine morality more widespread and developed than among any other element of the population. Their moral and physical natures are well adjusted. The good humour of the adults and the excel-lent behaviour of the children in railway trains and at play, their amazing self-command and the devotion of the mothers to their offspring under the stress of want, disease and black despair are calculated to make a profound impression on the observant foreigner. Nor could a greater contrast be well imagined than that between the simple, cheerful, spontaneous hospitality of the impecunious Indian and the magniloquent verbal generosity of some of the middle-class foreigners which serves as a fanciful screen for egotism and meanness.

Mexican history is at any rate in parts a fanciful narrative which stands in a more remote relationship to recorded events of the past than did German history’ before the World War. It has been coloured, bowdlerised and embellished with a view to awakening or creating a sense of artificial patriotism in the young generation.

Towards the end of the year 1919 the National University received several requests from abroad for text books of Mexican history and was greatly embarrassed thereby. For it felt obliged to treat them as the Rector Macias treated my request for the University charter, and for kindred reasons. It was recognised that none of the existing histories was worthy of the name. By way of remedying this defect the University decided not exactly to produce a trustworthy text book but to stimulate Mexican writers to compile a book on national history with all the impartiality and the research required in works of this kind.

“In Mexico,” an expert writes, “one might almost affirm that no veritably historical research work has ever been done. The narrative of past events is always employed by the compilers of our history to vent their political passions, their interest-born bias or their sentimental leanings. . . . We have succumbed above all else to the infantile vanity of creating heroes and inventing epopees. In this way the national story has come to be a sort of golden legend wherein the profile of truth disappears among the gilt and changeful reflections of fancy. . . . The people continue to be entertained with a deceptive picture of our past, whereby the patriotic conception is falsified inasmuch as it is made to rest upon a fragile web of sparkling gewgaws. Defeats are denied, downfalls dissimulated, miseries hidden, the seamy side of life, which is perhaps the largest part of it, is kept from the view of the pupils, whereby their character is weakened with a paradisaical and make-believe vision of existence.”

All those evils are now being remedied, the only limits set to the reforms being those which lack of funds imposes. President Obregón’s careful attention to the people’s needs has been especially devoted to the most pressing of them all—education. And with the valuable assistance of Senor Vasconcelos he has already worked wonders in combating illiteracy and spreading sane ideas about civic obligations. He is not only painfully aware of the root defects of education in the Republic, but he has been at great pains to discover and apply efficacious means of remedying them.

Among his many utterances to me on the subject that which made the deepest dent in my mind and memory was this : “The base of our education at present is narrow, and therefore unethical. We teach and train and equip our youth to wage the struggle for existence with the sole object of winning, and winning at the cost of others. Now that, I maintain, is immoral. Individual egotism may be a necessity, but if you make it the root of all social organisation, it is sterile, nay ruinous. You cannot bring up a nation and render it prosperous on such doctrines. They are superlatively immoral. Mind, I would not discourage the quality necessary and adequate to enable a youth to fight his way upwards. Indeed, that is one of the functions of education. But I would have him taught that his duty does not begin and end there. It extends to his neighbour, and his neighbour is the foreigner as well as the Mexican. He may and must compete with that neighbour, no doubt to the utmost, but it behooves him to do this fairly, and he should aid and second that neighbour whenever he can do this without damaging his own interests. For he has a duty to perform to that community which is his own country, and also a further duty toward the much larger community, which is the entire human race. Now these obligations are never inculcated upon him at school or elsewhere. To-day the boy and the young man are morally isolated—they resemble snails, each one shut up in his own shell. That is the basic error of our educational system. What I want is to have every unit brought up to feel duties of responsibility not merely toward himself and his family, but also toward his country and humanity at large. It is not enough for him to be a good Mexican. He must also be a good citizen of the world.”

Besides himself studying the grave defects of the educational system in his own country, General Obregón has communicated his zeal and interest to a number of his fellow workers with a view to changing it radically, profiting by the data of foreign pedagogic research and experience and creating the most efficient educational establishments possible throughout the length and breadth of the Republic. “The money spent in thus qualifying our people to play a desirable part in the progress of their country and of humanity will be the most profitable investment of the nation,” he remarked to me one day. We talked this subject over again during our travels and I was amazed at the thorough grasp of it which his remarks displayed. Among other aspects of it, he has made a study of the system adopted by the Japanese, and while his main idea is to adjust educational methods to the needs and strivings of his own fellow countrymen, he is ready to avail himself to the full of the experience of all advanced peoples. Today he has prepared a complete system of educational reform which, if in the concrete it bears a fair resemblance to the detailed description of it which he unfolded to me, will unfailingly regenerate the people and raise them to a high cultural and economic level. “Education,” he observed to me one day when sailing on the Pacific, “is the very basis of freedom, justice and of all the other ideals for which our people are inarticulately longing. It is by means of education that we shall transform the state of chronic civil war into an era of peace, productivity and prosperity. The training of the young generation in accordance with the most approved methods and with due consideration for their special needs should be the chief care of every Government worthy of the name. Educational methods, good or bad, make or mar a people. That is the lesson taught by Germany’s bitter experience. Compare the schools and universities in that country before and after the Bismarckian era. The results in each case speak for themselves. If I am elected President my first and enduring care will be to see that the new generation of Mexicans is fitted to play a worthy part in the advancement of their country and of humanity. No higher ambition could attract any man who has the will and the power to serve his country.”

One night General Obregón and I were returning from a visit to the capital of the State of Tlascala. The rain was coming down in torrents. The thunder claps were deafening. The darkness was impenetrable. From the old Aztec city of Cholula5 we were slowly driving in a special tramway car into Puebla. The vehicle was without any inside lights. Occasionally a dazzling lightning flash would enable us to catch a glimpse of each other’s features for a second and to note the inroads of the slanting rain. And during all that interval, from the beginning to the end of that journey, General Obregón unfolded to me his views upon education in general and upon the special needs of the Mexican people, as he under-stood them. I confess I was amazed at his vision, his knowledge of detail and his eye for the essential. I regretted that his words were not recorded as they were uttered.

As luck would have it, however, on our arrival in Puebla, the professors and students of the University—a most imposing edifice erected by the Jesuits—were waiting in the great hall to receive him. A student—one of the young men brought up in the new-fangled notions—delivered a pompous speech in praise of revolutions against the capitalists who man-age to survive these and on the necessity of turning over a new leaf. His speech was not relished by the General, who there-upon arose and unfolded his own ideas in simple, terse and suasive language which came as a salutary electric shock to the academic body. “Our whole educational system,” he said, “from base to summit is an anachronism and must be abolished. We must begin at the bottom and work up to the top, adjusting instruction and training to the needs of our time and our country. What we require to-day is men who can carry on the struggle for life not, indeed, without strenuousness and perseverance, but in a spirit of fair play and scrupulous respect for the rights of others. Character is the spiritual essence of a man. That once formed all else is easy. As for instruction we need establishments in all the rural districts to teach the people how to till the soil to the greatest advantage, we need schools of crafts and arts in which to train young men to revive the lost industries and introduce new ones, we require schools of commerce, of trades, and colleges for the preparation of consuls and consular agents, and all of them with special reference to the needs of our people. What the country now wants and has long yearned for is not abstract theories, not civil war or revolution, but peace, work and prosperity. The era of violence and bloodshed is over for good. To seek to continue or to renew it would be to ruin the nation. It now behooves us all to pull ourselves together and apply the sum of our energies to productive work. That is our one anchor to salvation. It will need a tremendous effort, but the youth of the country will have to put forth that effort and their teachers must encourage and direct it.”

Those were some of the general ideas. When he entered into details and unfolded his plan to men who had presumably made education the special study of their lives and whose theories he was now pulverising, genial excitement and spontaneous applause were hardly distinguishable from tumult. Professors rose, left their places, clapped their hands and shouted “hurrah.” For several minutes he was the recipient of an improvised ovation, and his motor when he was leaving was surrounded by enthusiastic young men offering themselves as coadjutors in the patriotic work.

In a word, Mexico since May, 1920, has emerged from the Slough of Despond. The overthrow of the Carranza régime closed an era of chaos and confusion, and the advent of General Obregón to power marks the beginning of a new era. All the counts in the exaggerated and coloured indictment against the whole nation,—for it was aimed at the whole nation—so eagerly gleaned and so carefully filed by Mr. Fall, have become matters of history. They have ceased to characterise the Republic of today. Many of them owed their existence to the questionable lengths to which the rights of private property when conflicting with the needs of the community were carried, whereas all the reforms alluded to and others are being laboriously effected not only without the help, but in spite of the vigorous opposition of those who profited by those privileges. Mexico is being financially starved at a moment when she needs money more imperatively than ever before. And those who treat her thus are of the country which has received most of her wealth. It is a matter of supreme import that this deciding transformation of the Republic should become widely known. Secretary Hughes showed his appreciation of it by implicitly shelving most of the recommendations of Mr. Fall. That was a manly act worthy of its author. Unhappily he undid it by laying down a condition which being unacceptable to Mexico may ultimately have for its effect the revival of all the terms proposed by his eminent colleague. Mexico has fulfilled the essential requisites for recognition. Her qualifications have been weighed and found adequate by numerous foreign States, including such Powers as Japan, Italy, the Argentine, Spain and Germany. They would on their intrinsic merits be recognised as fully by Great Britain and France, were these countries willing to deal with the matter without reference to extrinsical considerations. The decision consequently hinges on the United States and all the full consequences of its adverse character are ascribed by Mexicans to extrinsic motives.