By DAVID TOSCANA
Nowadays more children attend school than ever before, but they learn much less. They learn almost nothing. The proportion of the Mexican population that is literate is going up, but in absolute numbers, there are more illiterate people in Mexico now than there were 12 years ago. Even if baseline literacy, the ability to read a street sign or news bulletin, is rising, the practice of reading an actual book is not. Once a reasonably well-educated country, Mexico took the penultimate spot, out of 108 countries, in a Unesco assessment of reading habits a few years ago.
The PISA scores show Mexican doing mediocre overall, but with tiny proportions of high scorers, well behind a somewhat comparable country like Turkey in coming up with an intellectual elite.
One cannot help but ask the Mexican educational system, “How is it possible that I hand over a child for six hours every day, five days a week, and you give me back someone who is basically illiterate?”
Despite recent gains in industrial development and increasing numbers of engineering graduates, Mexico is floundering socially, politically and economically because so many of its citizens do not read. Upon taking office in December, our new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, immediately announced a program to improve education. This is typical. All presidents do this upon taking office.
The first step in his plan to improve education? Put the leader of the teachers’ union, Elba Esther Gordillo, in jail — which he did last week. Ms. Gordillo, who has led the 1.5 million-member union for 23 years, is suspected of embezzling about $200 million.
I’m amazed he could find her to arrest her, since she spends most of her time at her luxury homes in California.
She ought to be behind bars, but education reform with a focus on teachers instead of students is nothing new. For many years now, the job of the education secretary has been not to educate Mexicans but to deal with the teachers and their labor issues. Nobody in Mexico organizes as many strikes as the teachers’ union. And, sadly, many teachers, who often buy or inherit their jobs, are lacking in education themselves.
Many public school teaching jobs in Mexico are hereditary sinecures. If you die, your heir has the right to step into your job. If he doesn’t want a teaching job, he can auction it off to people who do.
During a strike in 2008 in Oaxaca, I remember walking through the temporary campground in search of a teacher reading a book. Among tens of thousands, I found not one. I did find people listening to disco-decibel music, watching television, playing cards or dominoes, vegetating. I saw some gossip magazines, too.
Welcome to the future of America!
… But perhaps the Mexican government is not ready for its people to be truly educated. We know that books give people ambitions, expectations, a sense of dignity. If tomorrow we were to wake up as educated as the Finnish people, the streets would be filled with indignant citizens and our frightened government would be asking itself where these people got more than a dishwasher’s training.