Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Tom's Visit Part 4 of 4: Education in Guatemala: 'Español con Solidaridad’

Text by Tom Kemple

Tom Kemple is a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and a long-time friend of Pop Wuj. He and his colleague Sylvia Berryman in Philosophy have been bringing groups of students to study in Guatemala since the summer of 2010—in fact, they had a group at Pop Wuj in June!

In November and December 2016, Tom spent five weeks studying Spanish, building stoves, helping out in the clinic and Nutrition Program, and having fun at the Family Support Center. What follows is the fourth and final installment of his field notes from his trip for his research project on university field schools and study abroad programs, titled “Global Citizenship at Home and Abroad.”  We hope you enjoy Tom's stories and insights as much as we enjoyed having him back at Pop Wuj. 

One Thursday I attended Oscar’s afternoon lecture on ‘Education in Guatemala.’ He arrived at his focus on the poor state of the current school system since its beginnings in the liberal reforms of the 1870s after first laying out the factors blocking its development—cultural (instruction is in Spanish, thereby excluding most of the 79% indigenous-speaking communities); economic (the mostly rural population lives far from schools, so even basic supplies are scarce and most children must work after a few years of schooling); and political (the civil war from 1960 to 1996 left the government oligarchy unwilling to support a system that could spread critical viewpoints and new ideas through literacy and open discussion).

With the rise of ‘coffee capitalism’ in the western part of the country at the end of the 19th century, and under the influence of the United Fruit Company in the first half the 20th, the ‘liberal-fascist' government of Jorge Ubico (1931-1944) passed laws requiring men to work 140 days in the plantations and build roads and trains, often under the threat of public execution (which took place in cemeteries like the one in Xela). The so-called Guatemalan Spring of 1944-1954 not only advanced agricultural reform through the notorious ‘Decreto 900,’ but also developed a strong labour code along with a formal system of urban and rural education. The subsequent counterrevolutionary period of military rulers (1954-1986) that began with the US-orchestrated coup suspended these reforms until the post-conflict period (1996-present), when funding from the UN and World Bank and some government programs increased access to education, especially for girls, who now outnumber boys in continuing on past primary school.

Nevertheless, only about 69% of the population makes it to high school (the inflated official government statistic of 110% includes 13-25 year-olds who episodically study after primary school), and at least 28% of them are functionally illiterate (that is, only competent in certain contexts, such as signing forms or doing basic calculations).

Among the many statistics that Oscar wrote out for us on the white board was that each of the approximately 125 students who receive scholarships through Pop Wuj, from primary to high school to university (and who made so much noise at the annual assembly during my Spanish class!), receive on average 100 quetzales per month for supplies and food, tuition, and other education related expenses (about $13US). Nearly all these funds come from Spanish classes, donations from former students, and other private donors, or in other words, from gringos like me.

Oscar’s remarks about the fundamental and increasing importance of the Pop Wuj Scholarship Program reminded me of my bus ride out of Panajachel to Xela last month, when three energetic boys in their early teens, returning to Sololá after a morning swim in the lake—Manuel, Oscar, and Fausto — sat next to me, firing off a string of questions about life in Canada. I was thrilled with my ability to keep up with their Spanish, and told them how impressed I was that each of them could speak three languages fluently, including Quiché and Kakchikel. One of the first questions Fausto asked me was whether I could arrange a beca (scholarship) for him. After explaining my understanding of 'how these things work', I told him the story of his name—the young student in medieval Germany who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, wealth, and power. He smiled politely at me through his tinted glasses, and repeated his question.

Despite the poor state of the education system here, in some ways Xela does seem to live up to the extravagant dreams of its native son, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, the president from 1898 to 1920. Cabrera is sometimes compared with Castro; is considered by some to be the first of the Latin American dictators; and is often credited with establishing at least the appearance of a country dedicated to education and intellectual life. His ambitions are displayed in the beautiful Greco-Roman architecture of the Teatro Municipal, the Parque Central, and the Templo de Minerva, named in honour the goddess of wisdom: all were under construction by indigenous planners and workers during his presidency or reconstructed after the volcano eruption of 1902 and the earthquake of 1903.

El Teatro Municipal is a few blocks down from Pop Wuj on 1a Calle in Zona 1. (Photo by Harry Diaz)
In addition to the ‘colegios’ and 'institutos' (private and public high schools) that seem to be everywhere, I can hardly keep track of all the universities I’ve encountered in the past few weeks: San Carlos (the public university from which many other Pop Wuj teachers graduated); Landivar (the private university where my teacher Fredy graduated, and where scholarship student Kevin began classes in January 2017); Panamericana (another private university where a group of communications students recently made a short video about the school); and Friedrich von Hayek (a pre-university college for professional degrees where a friend of Kevin’s recently graduated) amongst others. The latter caught my attention since it’s named after the Nobel Prize winning Austrian economist whose theories of free markets, rational choice, and minimal state intervention are considered the foundations of neoliberalism. Hayek’s ideas have somehow inspired an institution featuring accelerated technical and professional training programs as the key to cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit and intellectual capacities of young people in one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries. When I sent a link to their website to my friend Nick in the U.K., a sociologist working on the influence of neoliberal ideas on post-war sociology, he remarked: "If there is one thing those kids don’t need it’s a dose of Hayek!” I pointed out that the lack of secure long-term public funding (as we have in Canada) means that the educational system often has to muddle through with a mixture of meager government support, private initiatives, and charity donations (such as the scholarships at Pop Wuj), with varying degrees of success and standards of quality.

Although I’ve known Oscar since first coming here in 2010, and had attended his fascinating talk on immigration and ‘the Latin American dream’ a few weeks ago, it was only toward the end of this remarkably fact-filled and politically charged lecture that I learned that he holds a doctorate. I was somewhat embarrassed to realize that I was not really listening to an amateur intellectual with a knack for statistics and a passion for undermining the trained ignorance and ingrained prejudices of educated gringos like me. Rather, I was engaging with a well-trained academic colleague with three jobs and an income that’s a tiny fraction of my own. As he spoke, the Pop Wuj motto began to ring through my head, 'Spanish with Solidarity,' and took on a new meaning for me.

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