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Paraguay - Educational System—overview

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceParaguay - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


In Paraguay at the beginning of the millennium, perhaps as few as 28 percent of the children will advance to secondary school, and one percent will earn university degrees. Some democratic mobility through education does occur.

During the colonial era, the upper class had sole access to formal education. Wealthy families hired tutors or sent children abroad. A few private schools operated after 1811 but hardly thrived during the nineteenth century.

Early establishment of public education in Paraguay came after 1840 under President Carlos Antonio López, who, with Mariano Roque Alonso, overthrew the dictatorship of Rodriguez Francia (1814-1840). Joint-consuls López and Alonso promoted public education by establishing a secondary school in Asunción; they also freed the children of slaves born thereafter. But López proved dictatorial, and his son and successor hapless, plunging his weak country into a bloody war (1864-1870) with Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Boys of 12 fought in a Paraguayan army outnumbered 10 to 1. The war almost extinguished the male population of Paraguay and reduced the population from a half million to fewer than a quarter million people.

In 1870, in a devastated country, the literacy rate in Paraguay was perhaps as low as 14 percent.

Though education has been compulsory for children to age 14 since 1909, illiteracy was still high at mid-century. Official figures about literacy, which often conflict, gloss over the truth by counting anyone who attended primary school as literate. The literacy rate in 1962—counting citizens age 15 and over who could read and write—has been reported at just under 75 percent, though some figures suggest an illiteracy rate closer to half the population.

In any case, recent decades have shown some progress. During the 1970s and early 1980s, overall enrollment in schools grew at all levels. Reforms during the 1980s tried to improve the school systems, especially in rural areas, where inadequate facilities and materials and a lack of trained teachers were common. These reforms instituted multigrade programs to try to make better use of limited resources. In the early 1980s, more than 2,000 multigrade programs were reaching more than 55,000 students.

Such efforts seem to have had some effect. Official figures show that the literacy rate rose from 60 percent in 1960 to 80 percent by the late 1980s. Still, a mere one third of elementary students finished the first six grades, so functional literacy may not have been very high. The urban literacy rate, at an estimated 90 percent, was somewhat higher than it was outside the cities. The estimated rate in 1995 had increased to 92.1 percent, with the percentage for males (93.5 percent) being slightly higher than for females (90.6 percent).

In South America generally, where a tradition of a tripartite class structure operates, education has been the often-elusive means of the advancement of people out of the lower and into the middle class. Since the 1960s, somewhat improved education has fostered the emergence of a new "technical elite" class and has progressively moved some women into the educated and professional classes. By the 1960s women comprised a third of the work force in South America, and female university students had become commonplace. Paraguay, though relatively backward, has reflected these continental patterns.

Also on the favorable side, a tradition of respect for culture and education has existed throughout South America during the twentieth century, even among uneducated classes. In the 1960s, South American presidents included four military men, six intellectuals—lawyers, doctors, professors—and no professional politicians.

Church & State: As a country that is only 2 percent Protestant and that in 1998 was about 90 percent Roman Catholic, Paraguay has never embraced the principle of separation of church and state but does allow other religions to be practiced and to run schools. The constitution of 1870 designated Catholicism as the national religion; the Ministers of Justice, Worship, and Public Instruction were government officials; and conversion of the Indians to "Christianity and civilization" was a state-sponsored venture. In this parochial context, schools typically served jointly with churches as instruments of Catholic instruction. Several English Episcopalian missions operated in Paraguay by 1909 as part of the state-sponsored program of conversion.

As elsewhere in South America, Catholic priests—Franciscan Fathers—had accompanied the first conquerors in Paraguay. The earliest schools in the country, complements to the proselytizing efforts of the Fathers, date from the second administration of provincial governor Domingo Martinez de Irala (1542-57). The Jesuits gained official recognition in Paraguay from King Philip II of Spain in 1608 as part of the mission work of the disciples of Loyola; the expulsion of the Jesuit Fathers in 1767 under orders from Charles III ended a period of relative success at instructing the natives of the Chaco in Christianity. After 1811 and independence, the Church was firmly established, and throughout the nineteenth century—as elsewhere in South America—it became the primary educational agency in Paraguay. Even today, because of the strong and pervasive Church influence in government and social institutions, the distinction between state and church education in Paraguay is almost completely blurred. Private schools in Paraguay are likely to be Catholic.

With a traditional stranglehold on primary and secondary education, the Catholic Church in the 1960s extended its power to the university level in Paraguay and elsewhere. In the 1980s, in advance of the 1989 overthrow, a Paraguayan Peasant Movement and Catholic leaders both criticized Stroessner (who was in alliance with the Colorado Party). Pope John Paul II's visit in 1988 set up an occasion for antigovernment demonstrations in which intellectuals and poor farmers united to demand reform.

Guaraní & Spanish: The Bilingual Problem: Paraguay claims to be the only truly bilingual country in South America. Traditionally a large number of Paraguayans have spoken Guaraní, the indigenous tongue, rather than Spanish. In rural areas through the 1980s, an estimated 90 percent of children entered primary schools speaking Guaraní, which, especially outside Asunción, is the medium of daily exchange. Thus bilingualism has contributed to educational difficulties including widespread failure of students to complete Spanish-based educational programs, especially in the rural contexts.

In the late 1970s, the Ministry of Education and Worship recognized a crisis in rural education and responded by initiating a bilingual program to help native Guaraní-speaking children progressively gain oral and written skills in Spanish after entering school.

Literature in Guaraní remains available at the secondary and university levels, and materials printed in the indigenous language are available in the country.

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