His question took me aback. Not for the first time in Mexico I was staggered by how little many Mexicans know about the outside world. But many have never been to school. The failure is not theirs but their country's.
Why did the Partido Revolucionario Institucional rule Mexico for 70 years? "A lot of ignorance," a Mexican friend once said to me. What she meant was that most people did not know better than to vote for the PRI. And, in turn, the PRI's long reign appears entwined with Mexico's failure to educate its people which, according to John Scott of the CIDE research and teaching institute in Mexico City, has left education in Mexico worse than the already poor level in most Latin American countries.
Appropriately enough, given the shadowy ways of the PRI, the first aspect of the failure, Scott says, is a lack of transparency. There are no standardized examinations for the whole country. Schooling is "extremely old-fashioned," Scott says, with an emphasis on rote learning. "You can tell immediately students that come from state schools," Scott says, of the pupils that come for further education to CIDE, "It is not a question of their intelligence, but to be able to speak fluently and with high-sounding words is more important than giving a coherent reply."
About ninety percent of Mexico's children attend state schools whose overall standard is very poor. In Colombia, where Scott himself went to school, some state schools achieve better results than in some private schools, but in Mexico, depressingly, Scott says he knows of "no exceptions" to the general rule that the state schools are poor, even though some have dedicated teachers who are trying to improve the education children receive.
Is lack of funding the problem? Mexico is, after all, a poor country. But Scott thinks funding is not the problem. Mexico spends more per head of population on education than other countries, Scott says, and Mexico's teachers, are not, in his view, particularly poorly paid.
How then has this uniform failure come about? Scott puts it down to the role of the state and the teachers' trade union.
The state has dictated what should be taught and the methods that should be used. It has not moved forward with the times. The teachers' union, meanwhile, is the largest in Mexico and has resisted changes that would demand change of its members. The system has failed the people. And now the fact that only private schools -- themselves highly variable in quality, especially between rural and urban areas -- provide a reasonable education helps to maintain the inequality of Mexican society, its regrettable lack of social mobility, its poverty.
Yet the state's involvement began optimistically with the Mexican revolution of the early part of the twentieth century. One of the aims of the revolution was to improve the access to education of the majority of the population. In this some success can be claimed. About 10 percent of the population was literate a century ago, Scott estimates. Now the literacy level has climbed to ninety percent. Literacy, the basis of all education, has been achieved. But to rise above the basic, to learn to think for yourself: there the record is less good.
In the 1930s President Lázaro Cárdenas "gave definitive shape to the self-perpetuating, one-party state," writes Edwin Williamson in his History of Latin America. Centre-pieces of his presidency were agrarian reform, the nationalization of the oil industry and education reform. In all three areas the results from the very beginning were mixed.
"Distributed land was often of poor quality; many plots were too small...overall, agricultural production fell," Williamson writes. Pemex, the corrupt and inefficient giant, is the legacy of oil nationalization. It charges very high prices for gasoline, imports refined gasoline rather than exporting it and claims not to have sufficient funds to sustain oil output at current levels. Meanwhile Mexico's education system has become another obstacle for the country: a block to progress rather than a step towards it.
President Vicente Fox, who broke the PRI's monopoly of power in 2000, is trying to break through the obstacles and, as with other deep-set problems, has so far made little headway. He has set up a body to monitor education standards and improve them. The PRI had blocked publication of an international comparative study in the mid-1990s that painted an unhappy picture of Mexico's schools. Fox has allowed light to be shed on the failures. That openness may be a beginning.
As so often in Mexico disappointments in disparate aspects of national life share common roots. "Paradoxically, the revolution would finish by building in the 1930s a political order not very different to that of Porfirio Díaz (president from 1876 to 1911), a new and anti-democratic fundamentalism of the State: the regime of the "institutional revolution," writes Mexican historian Enrique Krauze.
That fundamentalism of the 1930s has helped to deny generations of Mexicans a more than basic education. Yet many Mexicans still revere Cárdenas and the PRI is still strong. The road winding its way out of the barren emptiness of Mexico's institutionalized revolution looks like being a long one.
(Inside Mexico is a weekly column in which our international economics correspondent reflects on the country in which he lives part of the time. Comments to email@example.com)
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