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History & Background

Mexican education is linked to its turbulent history and its ethnic and class divisions: Indians, Spanish aristocrats, criollos, and peons/mestizos (those of mixed blood). Clearly, the Catholic Church played a significant role in Mexican education during the Colonial era, which extended from first European contact in the early sixteenth century until the Mexican revolution. The Spanish governor of Cuba, Diego de Velázquez, sent expeditions to the Mexican mainland via the Yucatán Peninsula. The first Spaniards arrived in 1517 and a year later reached the Gulf coast along what is now Veracruz. Hernán Cortez then landed in 1519 with eleven ships and 550 men and succeeded in conquering the Aztecs in three years. Once Montezuma II was captured, Cortez named this land "New Spain."

Spain, like the other major colonial powers in what is now North America, provided education mainly for the ruling Aristocracy. The indigenous peoples had their traditional ways of education destroyed by the Spanish, but elements of these beliefs and methods survived through the new Mexican culture that emerged. In the Spanish colonies, including Mexico, educational services were provided by the Catholic Church. Here, the upper class and clergy were educated in the classics, while the peons and mestizos remained ignorant. The Mayan and Aztec had their own traditional ways of education, an ethnomethodological process that was primarily oral.

The population of American Indians in what is now central Mexico at the time of European contact was estimated to be 25 million. Physical genocide, wars, slavery, and disease reduced these numbers to a mere 1 million by the seventeenth century. Most Indians continued their informal verbal educational heritage and lived on pueblos, while their mestizo and lower-class counterpart campesinos resided on ejidos (communal land holdings). Others were forced to work for the Spanish on farms and in mines. Even then, the Spanish attempted to change the communal lands into taxable ventures called encomiendas. Despite these challenges to their aboriginal culture, many of the Indian languages and traditional ways remained intact with many attributes incorporated into the large mestizo population.

Wary of the influence of Rome, the Crown, and the Holy Roman Empire, the local Spanish attempted to establish their own plantation form of government in Mexico, one that exploited the both the Indians and peasants. The Roman Catholic Church and Spanish crown, on the other hand, wanted to establish a colonial form of feudal privilege and religious dissent. Clearly, the Catholic Church was intent on cultural genocide, often building their churches on sacred sites of the aboriginal idols. The Indians revolted unsuccessfully in 1541 in the Mixton War but did manage to draw attention to their plight under the encomienda feudal system. Missions and monasteries came to replace the encomiendas as the form of local control over the indigenous population. Rural estates called haciendas surrounded these missions, and monasteries becoming self-sufficient centers of political and economic power. Within this system, Franciscans provided the early education of the Indians and mestizo peasants, which consisted mainly of instruction in Catholicism. The Jesuits and Augustinians, on the other hand, provided the more classical education for Spanish emigrants and the criollos. Vasco de Quiroga, a liberal Catholic judge and Bishop, is credited with starting the first school for the natives, the hospital-school of Santa Fe established on the outskirts of Mexico City in 1531. Viceroy Mendoza and Bishop Zumárraga established another Indian school, the School of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, in 1536. However, with its focus on Latin, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, music, and native medicine, the school's student body changed to comprise mainly the Spanish privileged class. Nonetheless, during colonial Mexico, the small group of well-educated Indians was still held to an inferior status even by the illiterate Spaniards.

In 1547 the Orphanage School of San Juan was opened for the education of both Indian and mestizo youth and, in 1548, the Caridad School was established for orphaned mestizos; this was the beginning of a number of schools for the limited education of female peasant youth. Nonetheless, few Indians or mestizos benefited from these schools, and most learned the Spanish language and customs informally. Soon this level of understanding among the native and mixed-bloods frightened the Spanish with fears that continued formal education would lead to rebellion, and the education of the Indians and mestizos now was widely perceived by the Spanish colonial rulers as undesirable. The vast masses of uneducated Spanish peasants (peons) were subjected to the leva, the system of forced conscription into the military or militia. Non-Spanish speaking Indians were exempt from this duty. During this same era, the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico opened in 1553, making it the first university in the New World. Its main purpose was to educate the criollos for the Catholic clergy. During the colonial period, nearly 30,000 bachelors degrees and more than 1,000 masters and doctorates were awarded, providing many of New Spain's educated elite.

In 1791 another university began in Guadalajara. These schools were the exception and, by 1842, the time of the public school movement in the United States, less than one percent of the Mexican population was educated and only about 33 percent of education was free. Schools and education remained for the benefit of the wealthy. The ensuing revolutions and civil wars between the conservatives (pro-Catholic, elitists) and liberals (anticlericalists, reformers) did much to destroy the schools that did exist.

Under the haciendas system, a number of major urban centers emerged—including Puebla, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. Universities soon became established within these major urban trade centers, again for the education of the white upper classes. By 1800, New Spain had about 6.5 million residents (with 18 percent being white, 60 percent Indian, and 21 percent mestizo). The white educated class now consisted mainly of native-born criollos. The criollos resentment of Spanish influence germinated the seeds of revolution in 1810. On February 24, 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain, and in 1822 it proclaimed its own Emperor, Agustín I. The empire was overthrown a year later, and Mexico was declared a republic.

The resulting wars with imperialistic Anglo-Americans, first in Texas (1836) and then with the United States (1846 to 1848), eventually led to the loss of half of Mexico's territory (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 and Gadsden Purchase of 1853). A popular revolt by both educated criollos liberals and indigenous peasants began in 1855 with the result of forcing the dictator Santa Anna from power, making the Catholic Church sell its land, and dissolving the ejidos. These actions did not produce the desired result of creating an educated middle-class. Instead, Mexico embarked on a new civil war (War of Reform, 1858-1861). It was during this war that conservatives sought foreign assistance from Napoleon III who attempted to establish a Mexican empire under the Austrian prince, Maximilian. The liberals, under the Indian leader, Benito Juárez, successfully drove the French and Catholic influence from Mexico in 1867. Juárez died before he could bring about the reforms he envisioned, one of educational and economic opportunities for the peasants (Indians and mestizos). His battle was later fought by Emiliano Zapata in the south and Pancho Villa in the north.

The revolution resulted in constitutionally guaranteed educational and social benefits for all. These efforts finally produced a new constitution in 1917—one based on anticlericalism, land reform, nationalism, workers rights, and secular education. The hemisphere's first university, the Royal and Pontifical University was now named the National Autonomous University of Mexico and was a multicampus facility throughout Mexico. The new constitution provided greater powers to the federal government over education, including the structure and curricula. Religious, or parochial, schools were separated from public schools. Mexico was a federal republic composed of 31 states and a federal district with a president, elected for a single 6-year term, and a bicameral legislature. In 1921, a federal Secretariat of Public Education was created. At this time, a nationalistic theme was incorporated into all public schools in Mexico, a trend that continued in 2001; this nationalistic theme was a major feature of the revolution and was designed to obviate the foreign epistemological theme of the Catholic schools.

Marked changes occurred in Mexico following the revolution and World War II, which liberated the mestizos and Indians from their rural haciendas and pueblos, allowing them to migrate to larger communities. Rural schools grew rapidly within these larger communities providing greater educational opportunities for all Mexicans regardless of ethnicity or social class. This increase in educational opportunities coincided with a significant reduction in the infant mortality rate, which dropped from 222 deaths per 1,000 in 1920 to 125 per 1,000 by 1940.

World War II again forced Mexico to challenge outside influences including the United States, fascist Germany, and the Soviet Union. Mexico finally sided with the Allies providing both raw materials and human labor (braceros) to the United States. Initially these were agricultural workers, but by 1942 Mexico took steps to prepare its workers for industry forming the Camara Nacional de la Industria de Transformación. At wars end, some 300,000 Mexicans had worked in 25 of the United States, opening the door for the current illegal migrant-worker market in North America. In 1944 the Mexican Congress passed legislation opening the door to foreign participation—providing that Mexicans held a controlling stock in any mixed corporation. This led to the establishment of maquiladoras, most of which emerged along the U.S./Mexican frontier border. The maquiladoras, in turn, led to mass migration of mainly females from rural interior Mexico to the frontier borderland. Both these migrants and immigrants (both legal and illegal) became exposed to the U.S. school system, one which contrasted markedly from the basic ninth grade lower secondary education guaranteed to Mexican children and youth.

Post-World War II industrialization saw two avenues of growth in Mexican education. One was in the direction of adequate training for the new industrial workers, while the other was a focus on higher education. So determined were Mexican leaders at this time at transforming Mexico from rural isolation to an industrial powerhouse, the revolutionary party changed its name in 1946 to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional or PRI; it held power in Mexico until the 2000 elections.

A major project of the institutionalized revolution era (1946-1958) was the construction of the new University City built to house the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Completed in 1952, the National University of Mexico sits on three square miles and was one of the most modern structures in the world. However, beyond the facade lay a deficit of instructional materials including a near-empty library. Despite these shortfalls, an intellectual movement emerged, moving toward objective scholarship—especially in depicting the history of Mexico.

Between 1940 and 1951, the El Colegio de Mexico, the Escuela National de Antropologia e Historia, and the Instituto de Historia of the National University were founded, leading to a series of academic conferences in both Mexico and the United States that were relevant to a more accurate portrayal of Mexico. The conferences departed from the blatant partisan view provided by the pro-revolutionary curricula posited by the government during the 1920s and 1930s. These conferences began in Nuevo Leon in 1949; Austin, Texas, in 1958; Oaxtepec, Morelos, in 1969; Santa Monica, California, in 1973; Patzcuaro, Michoacán, in 1977; Chicago, Illinois, in 1981; Oaxaca in 1985; San Diego, California, in 1989; and in Mexico City in 1994.

The educational efforts of the revolution did reduce illiteracy in Mexico from 77 percent in 1910 to less than 38 percent in 1960. Due to the rapidly growing Mexican population, this figure represented more than 13 million Mexicans; a figure many felt was excessive. In their attack on illiteracy, the PRI established a network of rural schools comprised of prefabricated buildings. The government provided these buildings while the communities provided the land and construction labor, thereby increasing the cohesiveness of the community and education, a process that continues to the present. Here, the teachers often become respected leaders within the rural communities, replacing the priests of the past. At this time the educational system embarked upon a uniform curricula within this system. The compulsory textbooks were selected by the federal government and were provided free to the students. As would be expected, this process was met with resistance from a number of sources—including the conservatives, the churches, and even liberals who felt that the standardization of curricula was a form of indoctrination that tended to exalt the PRI at the expense of other political parties.

Mass student protests disrupted Mexican higher education during the mid- and late 1960s. Massive student strikes crippled the National University campuses. Federal troops were brought to the campuses to maintain order. The campuses erupted again in 1968 just prior to the Summer Olympics being held in Mexico. This time the protest met with violence, due mainly to the intervention of the grenadiers, the despised paramilitary riot police. In August 1968, demonstrations on the campuses of the National University and the National Polytechnic Institute were coordinated by the National Student Strike Committee, an organization similar to the American organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). On August 27, 1968, the National Student Strike Committee organized a half-million people—the largest, organized, antigovernment demonstration in Mexico. With the Summer Olympics only a month away, President Diaz Ordaz cracked down on the student protesters placing the Army on the campus of the National University causing the university's rector to resign in protest. This round of university student protests climaxed in violence on October 2 at the Tres Culturas District of Tlatelolco. The Army and police crushed the protest by firing indiscriminately into the crowd of students; hundreds of people were killed, injured, or jailed.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, became effective on January 1, 1994, placing greater strains on Mexico's educational system. Its basic public educational system lagged in structure from that of its new trading partners, Canada and the United States. The kindergarten through ninth grade (K-9) compulsory school program in Mexico is at a disadvantage when compared with the kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) programs in Canada and the United States. (Compulsory education in the United States is through age 16, regardless of what grade you achieve.) NAFTA also curtailed the availability of free U.S. education for those Mexican families residing along the border frontier. Prior to 1996, hundreds of Mexican children and youth crossed the international border daily during the school year to attend public schools in the United States that provided a free twelfth grade education, which was not available in Mexico, especially in rural frontier towns. Since NAFTA, the 1996 U.S. Immigration and Nationalization Reform Act denied Mexican students F-1 visas, which in the past allowed these children and youth to cross the U.S./Mexican border to attend U.S. public schools. Now only those Mexican children who hold dual citizenship are afforded this luxury. These children, whose families reside in Mexico, were born in a U.S. hospital so they hold dual citizenship and, where tolerated, can attend public schools in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

Immediately following its membership in NAFTA, the Mexican economy collapsed, greatly devaluating the peso against the U.S. dollar and forcing an end to the subsidized university system where tuition had been frozen since 1948. The tuition was raised overnight from a few cents per semester to the equivalent of $70.00 in 1999; this led to another massive student protest at the National Autonomous University, this time disrupting the classes of some 200,000 high school and college students. The Army and police again challenged the student strikers but with greater restraint this time due to the world attention NAFTA membership has afforded Mexico. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the challenges to Mexico's educational needs continue with rural Indian areas such as Chiapas having one-third of the children receiving no schooling. And now that Mexico plans to join the world economy, it needs to augment its K-9 curriculum to meet that of other Western nations where a twelfth grade education is compulsory. Lastly, Mexico's post-World War II growth has resulted in a multicultural mix where 80 different languages are now spoken by citizens; these individuals now need to be accommodated by the public school system.

Additional topics

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