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History & Background

Located in the northwestern part of South America, Columbia touches both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, bordering Ecuador and Peru on the south and Brazil and Venezuela on the east. In July 2000, the census reported the population to be 39,685,655, with the majority of people living in large cities in the center and the northern part of the country. The census reported that the population was divided into six ethnic groups: 58 percent mestizo or of Native American and Spanish ancestry; 20 percent white; 14 percent mulatto; 4 percent black; 3 percent were both black and Native American; and 1 percent Native American. Spanish is the official language, and over 90 percent of the people indicated that they were Catholic.

Since 1886, the official name of the country has been the República de Colombia. Administratively, the country is divided into 32 departments and one capital district. Geographically, three mountain ranges and two major rivers divide the country into four regions. Although the central executive branch dominates the government structure, Colombia has a long history of regionalism. The early constitutions reinforced the notion that Colombia was a loose federation of different regions, which allowed each region to develop its own government. While countries such as Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil built railways and systems of roads to unify their peoples, Colombia resisted such innovations. In 2000, although the country had a land mass of 1,038,700 square kilometers, there were only 3,380 kilometers of railways. There were a total 115,564 kilometers of roadways; however, only 13,864 kilometers of which were paved (Williams and Guerrieri; Central Intelligence Agency).

Columbia is a country of contrasts. There are large cities facing the common problems of industrialization such as air pollution from vehicle emissions. There are rural sections where underdevelopment is a problem. Only about 4 percent of the land is arable, and about 48 percent of it remains forests and woodlands. Despite these large natural areas in Colombia, deforestation and soil abuse persist as serious problems. The population suffers from extreme income inequality. In 1995, 10.0 percent of the population consumed 46.9 percent of the available income, while the lowest 10.0 percent of the population consumed only 1.0 percent. In 1999, this disparity of wealth and poverty was reflected in Colombia's per capita purchasing power of $6,200. An unemployment rate of 20 percent intensified the economic problems (Central Intelligence Agency).

Before the arrival of the Spanish, several Native American groups occupied the region. However, none of these people had developed the ability to write. Some groups, such as the Taironas constructed impressive roads, bridges, systems of platforms for large buildings, and mountainside terraces for agriculture. The Taironas also produced stone statuary, gold objects, and fine ceramics. The largest group was the Muisca, who lived in the intermountain basins of the Cordillera Oriental. Depending mostly on agriculture for survival, the Muisca made cotton textiles, worked gold, and made some stone sculptures. Although there is reason to believe the Muisca were unifying their society when the Spanish arrived, the group never demonstrated the engineering abilities of the Taironas. Within 100 years after the first Spanish settlement, nearly 95 percent of all Native Americans in Colombia had died. Many were killed during armed conflicts with European settlers, but the majority of deaths were caused by diseases such as smallpox and measles, which were imported by Spanish settlers (Bushnell).

The era of Spanish colonization began in 1510 with the founding of San Sebastian near Panama. In 1526, settlers founded Santa Marta, the oldest Spanish city still in existence in Colombia. For most of the colonial period, New Granada, which included the areas that became Columbia, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador, fell within the Viceroyalty of Peru as part of the Spanish empire. In 1739, New Granada retained independent status as a Viceroyalty separate from Peru. Administrative divisions such as these influenced the boundaries of the countries when they sought independence (Bushnell).

Although many Spaniards began their explorations searching for gold, other colonists took advantage of the sedentary lifestyle of Native American groups such as the Muisca. The Spanish established themselves as the leaders and ruled through the existing native social organizations. The Spanish crown outlawed this system of exploiting Native American labor, called encomienda. However, the practice did continue for some time because it served as a type of educational institution through which the European leaders were able to teach the Native Americans the Christian faith and the ways of civilization.

Most Spanish colonists avoided the tropical grasslands of the interior. Jesuit priests went into those regions and established missions that gathered together the communities of semi-settled Native American groups who lived there. Depending on Native American labor, these missionaries created cattle ranches and plantations that passed into the hands of other religious orders in 1767 when the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish empire. Through these mission communities, Catholic priests served as mediators between the settled Native Americans and the Spanish state, and they provided education for the Native Americans that otherwise was unavailable. However, critics complain that the education Native Americans received in the missions actually was nothing more than an indoctrination into the Christian faith and instruction in Spanish. In spite of existing historical documents that show that the clergy was urged to teach the Native Americans, little education actually took place (Bushnell; Londoño).

The earliest missionary schools date to the mid-sixteenth century. In 1533, Fray Juan Luis de los Barrios founded a school, while Archbishop Luis de Zapata de Cárdenas established the Seminary San Luis. Although the seminary closed in 1586 due to student dissatisfaction, it later reopened. In 1580, the first university, Universidad de Estudios Generales, was opened in Bogotá by Orden de los Predicadores. This university later merged with the Santo Tomás School and taught religion under the new name Colegio-Universidad Santo Tomás. In 1622, the Jesuits opened Javeriana University, offering grammatical studies, and in 1635, Archbishop Fray Cristóóbal de Torres created the Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario. All of these schools were in Bogotá, and each had a curriculum that was theoretical and focused on subjects such as law, logic, grammar, theology, and oratory (Londoño).

In 1783, José Celestino Mutis, Barón de Humbolt, and Francisco José de Caldas came to New Granada, the area now known as Colombia, to start the Expedición Botánica. Their goal was to record all of the botanical species found in South America. Although this task was too great for the expedition to fulfill, group members spread scientific thinking through the colony and Mutis won honorary membership in the Swedish Academy of Science (Londoño; Bushnell).

Nonetheless, the educational efforts in New Grenada were extensive. By the end of the colonial period in 1819, the number of Catholic clerics—whose calling essentially required spiritual and educational endeavors—rose to nearly 1,850. With a population of 1.4 million during the early 1800s, the ratio of priests to citizens reached 750 to 1. This ration exceeds the ratio found in any Latin American country in the 1990s (Bushnell; Low-Maus).

In 1819, when the famous leader Simón Bolívar addressed the Congress of Angostura, he called for the establishment of universal popular education, claiming that the Catholic religious orders had not created anything that resembled a proper system. The clerics could not provide education for children from rural areas or from lower classes, despite the large number of priests in colonial New Grenada. To some extent, Bolívar's request went unheeded. The members of the congress had not come together to improve education. Having broken with Spain, they sought to define the country's political organization. Thus, they unified the regions of the former New Granada, Venezuela, and Ecuador into what they named Gran Colombia. The members of the congress appointed Bolívar president and Francisco de Paula Santander vice president.

In 1821, the Congress of Cúcuta devised a constitution for this new country. However, before the regular Congress of Gran Colombia could form, the Congress of Cúcuta abolished all monasteries with fewer than eight members, confiscated their assets, and placed the money in an endowment for the development of secondary schools. Although these actions were driven more by anticlerical feelings than by educational concerns, Santander did open several new secondary schools. Despite opposition from the Catholic Church, Santander urged that works by unorthodox authors, such as Jeremy Bentham, be included in the school's curriculums. In the meantime, Bolívar continued as the head of the Colombian armies that were battling Spain for control of the country (Low-Maus; Bushnell).

According to the congressional delegates in 1821, Spanish indifference had caused widespread illiteracy, a condition they pledged to correct. Thus, in the constitution of 1821, the delegates chose 1840 as the date by which all voters would have to pass a literacy test. Unfortunately, for the next 10 years, educational reform moved slowly. In 1832, delegates met in a national convention to draft a new constitution. However, acknowledging that literacy had not spread throughout the new republic, the delegates postponed the date for voter literacy tests until 1850 (Bushnell).

A civil war called the War of the Supremes (1839-42) interrupted educational reform. After the war, because of the tendency of local leaders to inflate their positions, Colombian president Pedro Alcántara Herrán and his secretary of the interior, Mariano Ospina Rodríguez, introduced new methods and pedagogical principles. For example, they removed the controversial authors from the secondary curriculum, reduced the extent of theoretical studies, and increased studies that had more practical applications, such as natural science. In addition, Herrán invited the Jesuits back to become teachers and to continue their work in frontier missions (Bushnell; Low-Maus).

In 1849, after a close and controversial election, José Hilario López, a Liberal Party candidate, became president. In 1850, fulfilling the Liberals' desire to reverse many of the Conservative policies, the Congress enacted various policies that were intended to increase the freedom of education. The Congress disbanded all universities, placing those programs of higher education into colegios (secondary schools), and ended all academic requirements for people to practice any profession, with the exception of pharmacy. The citizens had the freedom to decide what training they needed, or if they needed any education at all, before entering a profession. In the same year, López reversed Herrán's invitation to the Jesuits. He argued that the sanction of 1697, which originally expelled the Jesuits from the Spanish empire, was still valid in New Granada. According to the anticlerical views held by some of López's associates, the Jesuits had to be expelled because their schools converted citizens to conservative Catholicism (Bushnell).

To consolidate their victories, the liberals adopted a new constitution in 1853. They offered universal male suffrage, removed the electoral college system, and increased the number of officials who were elected rather than appointed. The provincial legislature of Vélez extended suffrage to women. In addition, the new constitution guaranteed freedom of worship for all citizens and introduced civil marriage and divorce. In 1863, the liberals framed another constitution that changed the name of the state to Estados Unidos de Colombia (United States of Colombia) and advanced the regionalism of the country. The new constitution gave extensive authority to the then nine states, allowing them to determine their own suffrage laws and maintain their own services, such as postal delivery. To further limit the authority of the federal government, the constitution of 1863 reduced the president's term to two years and prohibited anyone from serving consecutive terms (Bushnell).

By 1867 the liberal government had started to undo the educational reforms of 1850. It established the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogatá. Emphasizing the traditional disciplines of law, medicine, and philosophy, the university offered technical studies to help Colombia enter the mechanical age. Three years later, the Congress made primary education in Colombia free and compulsory and established several teacher training institutions—called normal schools—to meet the sudden need for teachers. To assist in the process, German experts were brought in to serve as instructors at the normal schools. Fearing this represented the beginning of a godless education, church leaders called on parents to ignore the public schools. Some Catholics complained that the German educators imported to staff in the schools belonged to the Protestant faith. To alleviate the controversy, the government allowed church representatives to offer religious instruction in the public primary schools during specific hours to pupils whose parents requested it. Some states required religious teaching in the primary schools. These controversies continued to grow and became part of the civil war that erupted in 1876 (Bushnell; Londoño).

Additional topics

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