Historical Background

The Mexican Revolution from 1910-1920 affected the ordinary citizen in a way which perhaps few if any previous political upheavals had done. Far more was involved than a political coup d’etat, for Mexico experienced widespread economic and social changes. A national philosophy evolved which was diametrically opposed to the concept of nationalism dominant during the rule of Porfirio Díaz. Economic practice and policy were drastically altered by the introduction of agrarian reform. The purpose of education was changed from that of Europeanizing the upper classes to raising the masses from their abject poverty and morass of ignorance and illiteracy.

Education under Díaz

The educators surrounding Díaz looked to Europe for guiding principles and ideals. Some of the innovations introduced into Mexico at this time were beneficial and valid. For example, the efforts of the Swiss educator, Enrique C. Rébsamen1 resulted in the introduction of procedures and methods of teachertraining which could be favorably compared with modern practices. Justo Sierra, education minister under Díaz, has been criticized and commended for his part in the educational scene. Granted that his idealistic tendencies prevented him from taking cognizance of more practical realities, his pedagogical theories still helped pave the way for a more practical education in the decades to come. The administrative machinery was established for the various levels of instruction and the stage was set for expansion into new fields of endeavor. On the deficit side of the ledger is the fact that his influence reached a limited circle of society located primarily in Mexico City.

Ernest Gruening quotes statistics which indicate that the Díaz government claimed to have only five per cent of the 15,000,000 national population in school, whereas the expected percentage is twenty per cent of the total in countries with a well-developed educational program. In 1906 the total number of pupils enrolled in private schools was 163,020; and in federal, state, and municipal schools, 615,134.2 The federal educational budget was less than ten thousand pesos and there were almost no rural schools. In contrast, the total enrollment in rural schools alone in 1929 was 1,662,371.3 With perhaps pardonable pride, Moisés Sáenz compared the Díaz regime with the new ideals as follows:

At the close of the Juárez Revolution, from 1870 to 1874, public schools in Mexico increased from four thousand to eight thousand. During the thirty years of “glorious” dictatorship by Díaz, this number of eight thousand increased to only twelve thousand. There was, then, what he could accomplish in thirty years against the number that Juárez had been able to establish in four years. It is true that in the first ten years of the Revolution the disruption of many things in Mexico took place, schools among them. Very many schools were closed, but since 1921, when the stage of reconstruction was begun, to date, we have increased the number of public schools in Mexico from some twelve thousand in 1910 to eighteen thousand. . .. As to illiteracy, statistics for 1910 show something like 80 per cent illiteracy. The latest statistics we have show that this number has been greatly reduced, varying between 58 and 63 per cent, according to the base of calculation.4

Revolutionary Ideals

Because the Revolution was a mestizo and Indian uprising, the aboriginal groups suddenly became important to the new Mexico—in fact the most important segment of the population. With Álvaro Obregón came the emergence of the rural districts demanding their share of the land and school reforms for which they had fought the Revolution. The new educational program needed to be able to reach into the mountain areas three or more days by mule from the nearest transportation connections with the capital. It needed to be a program which could influence and improve the lot of those who lacked sufficient economic resources. It also needed to be a program with sufficient ingenuity and ability to reach the thousands of monolingual Indians who could not partake of a formalized Spanish education. As Manuel Gamio has stated:

Now what educational program could be expected to yield effective results in countries of the typically heterogeneous structure here described? For a long time the only program followed at all, and still observed, though of course erroneously, has been that of selecting and applying methods which have proved successful elsewhere—in foreign countries utterly different, and above all far more advanced, as nations. . .. But the great Indian and half-breed majority gave no response whatever to these pedagogical innovations, for they were not molded nor adequate to the specific diversities of their cultural characteristics, their racial conditions, their peculiar mentalities, nor to their miserable economic condition; and this last was the chief shortcoming. These pariahs needed, and needed badly not alphabets and theoretical postulates but something which could show them the way to get enough to eat. Education, for this enormous majority of the Latin-American people, is inseparably linked with economic betterment, and to attempt this it would be necessary to reform completely not only machinery and organization but especially the existing criterion.5

The educational ideals of those responsible for the new Mexican era thus included practical economic benefits as well as mental stimulation for the peasants.

Federal Education under Obregón: 1921-1924

Creation of a Federal Secretariat

Venustiano Carranza had recommended to the constitutional convention of 1917 that all public schools be in charge of lay teachers. This article of the Constitution as it was finally adopted required that lay teachers be employed in private primary, elementary, and secondary schools and in all public schools. Other provisions governing education included a prohibition against educational institutions owning real estate and a compulsory attendance law on the elementary school level. Congress reserved the right to legislate and thus to control education in the Federal District and in the territories. The national government also reserved the right to establish professional, technical, and agricultural schools in the various states although private groups could operate such schools as well. The states were required to control the educational efforts of the municipalities and oversee their expenses. Business enterprises of a certain size were to establish schools in connection with their plants and the recognition of credits from religious seminaries by official schools was prohibited.6

With the coming of Álvaro Obregón to the presidency a new day dawned for Mexican education. In spite of the numerous educational provisions of the 1917 Constitution, the establishment of a federal Ministry of Public Education meant amending the Constitution. José Vasconcelos, who was to become the first Secretary of Education, traveled widely in order to gather support for the new ministry which he hoped would be approved by the state legislatures. On September 1, 1921, the president announced the establishment of a Federal Secretariat of Education whose chief officer, the secretary, was to be a member of the president’s cabinet.7 The new department was to supervise the national universities, state agricultural and industrial colleges, and primary and secondary schools throughout the country. The department was also responsible for the education of two or three million Indians. In addition, the department was in charge of museums, historical and artistic monuments, theatres, music conservatories, and similar institutions. The three main divisions of the secretariat were to be for the administration of schools, libraries, and activities under the general heading of Fine Arts.8 Sub-departments included those for Indian instruction and literacy campaigns. To the first secretary of public education belongs much of the credit for the successful initiation of the new venture. Vasconcelos’ enthusiasm, ideals, and ingenuity seemed limitless, and he labored tirelessly toward the fulfillment of his goal and dream of education for the Mexican peasants and laborers.

Philosophy of Vasconcelos

To Vasconcelos the three most important aspects of the revolution were agrarian reform, the organization of labor, and the development of an educational program suitable for and including the peasants. He was opposed to any program of Indian education which deliberately segregated these individuals from the mestizos, for he felt that they could and would progress in a normal manner given equal opportunities.9 In an attempt to overcome the inherent antipathy to manual labor he envisioned each rural school with its garden plot and complement of animals. Emphasis was to be on a program of education for economic betterment preparatory to instruction in more academic disciplines.10

There was a scarcity of professional teachers endowed with the practical qualifications necessary to conduct the type of school Vasconcelos desired. Therefore, he proposed sending into the field specialists in farming, carpentry, art, religion, citizenship, and elementary reading and arithmetic.11 He referred to them as modern missionaries and conceived of their task as comparable to that of Vasco de Quiroga, Bartolomé de las Casas, and Pedro de Gante. These great colonial missionaries had carried out effective and complete educational programs among the Indians. The seeds of the cultural missions and other educational developments of the decade had germinated in the fertile imagination of Vasconcelos. He has been quoted as saying, “We have all the ideas we need,. . . more than we can use. What we need is money, resources, people, details, persistence.”12 His type of education was also directed towards indoctrination of the masses with a nationalistic spirit and was an active agent for the formation of a nation from the chaos of revolution. Vasconcelos was able to infect others with his apostolic zeal. The whole country found itself swept up in a crusade for the abolition of illiteracy, the betterment of economic conditions, and the enjoyment of life through art, libraries, and music.

Program of Vasconcelos

President Obregón set forth the direction of the new program in his message to the nation in 1923:

It has been believed necessary to orient education in the direction of the industrial, commercial, and agricultural necessities of each region. The education which is imparted is not only the simple base of the alphabet but it is erected on the two firm columns of intelligent instruction and productive work.13

The first task facing Vasconcelos was to survey the needs and opportunities, and then to enlist workers, raise funds, work out a program, and arouse the Mexican people to participate in this new crusade. Technical schools and institutes were established for the benefit of workers in such fields as textiles, graphic arts, and railroads.14 Rural schools were inaugurated both in mestizo and Indian communities. The new department succeeded in enforcing a three peso minimum daily wage for teachers as opposed to the previous one peso wage. At least partially successful was the special effort made to attract the better teachers to the rural areas.15

In certain sections of the capital at Mexico City a program of free breakfasts was inaugurated for the children whose homes were unable to provide them with adequate food. This program, which was under the direction of Señorita Elena Torres, was a recognition of the obligation of the government not only to educate the children of the lower classes but to alleviate their physical sufferings as well. It was an affirmation that education

besides being of the laity and free, included the obligation of feeding and educating to an extent equal with other children, the children of notoriously poor parents and orphans lacking resources. The law declares that the State recognizes the obligation of providing food and education to poor children. The word obligation is used in order to remove from this service all idea of philanthropy because it is not charity which is granted but elemental justice.16

One of Vasconcelos’ favorite projects was the distribution of sets of books which would serve as libraries or as the nuclei of more extensive libraries both in rural and urban areas. The Department of Education printed readers, geography and history texts, and the “classics.” The classics included the Iliad, the Odyssey, the four Gospels from the New Testament, Tolstoy, works on child care, and many other subjects.17 A set for a rural library consisted of fifty books. These were packed in a box and could be transported by mule-back. For more accessible towns there was a set of one hundred books, and the collection for larger population centers contained a thousand titles.18 In 1922 the Department of Education printed 400,000 readers.19 The magazine El Maestro was also printed by the department and sent to teachers and others interested in rural education throughout Latin America. In 1922-1923, 285 new libraries were established containing 32,173 volumes.20 Vasconcelos has been criticized for distributing the classics to a populace which was not even literate. Sometimes the fact has been overlooked that the program included readers and other elementary works from which the people could profit. The whole library program points up the determination of the new leaders to neglect no social class in the effort to unify the country and bring education to the people.

Another phase of Vasconcelos’ program was an emphasis on Mexican art and music. He employed artists such as Diego Rivera to decorate the walls of public buildings with murals. He established art schools, some of which were called Escuelas de Pintura al Aire Libre, or “Open Air Art Schools.” Later these were under the supervision of the Fine Arts Department of the secretariat. Some of the work which the children produced was of excellent quality. In 1929 a collection of paintings was sent to an international exhibition in Brussels and won several medals and awards. The school of sculpture also seemed to be quite successful. After a time the department lamented its inability to buy materials for the painting schools and suggested a plan for selling the work of the students. Sixty-six per cent of the price would belong to the artist, the remainder being used by the schools presumably to buy materials for future students.21

In 1922-1923 the Department of Indigenous Culture supervised 102 missionary teachers whose job it was to awaken enthusiasm for education in remote places, break down prejudices against the federal government and against cultural innovations, and inaugurate a program of agricultural improvement and practical aid.22 They also taught elementary reading and arithmetic and gave lectures on citizenship, temperance, and the principles of cooperatives and personal savings.

A crash program of literacy instruction was instituted under the direction of Eulalia Guzmán.23 It was called the Campaña Contra el Analfabetismo. Centers were established where volunteer workers could teach illiterates to read. An appeal was made to every literate person to teach ten illiterates to read. Citizens with no more than a third grade education were able to qualify as honorary teachers under the Department of Education by fulfilling this patriotic duty.24

Accomplishments of Vasconcelos

Vasconcelos was a successful fund raiser, and, in December of 1922, the New York Times reported:

To the Department of Education has been allotted 45,000,000 pesos for next year, as against 33,000,000 pesos for the War Department. . .. This is the first time such action has been taken in many years.25

In the year ending September 1, 1923, schools were said to have increased from 8,388 to 9,547, and teachers from 20,407 to 22,939. The crash program of literacy claimed to have produced 52,000 literates.26 Though the program was forced to retrench in 1924 due to the rebellion of Adolfo de la Huerta, the literacy campaign and the construction of new rural schools continued on a modified scale. The Casa del Pueblo, as the rural school was called, was proving gratifyingly successful in its program of community education. It included instruction in farming methods, citizenship, hygiene, child care, preservation of food, and the more prosaic aspects of education.

When Obregón entrusted the education of the masses to Vasconcelos, he entrusted it not only to a visionary but to a practical person as well. Vasconcelos faced formidable problems caused by a decade of war and social change. Almost nothing was being done for the rural populace when he became the first secretary of education, and the educational system was a many headed hydra of conflicting authority. With Obregón’s backing he was able to centralize authority, inaugurate rural schools, and institute a teacher-training program. More important than statistics are his accomplishments in changing the outlook and concept of a nation towards education:

These three traits, general knowledge, technical training and the development of art, have been the fundamental elements of our educational plans. . .. To carry out our program we have counted upon the good will of the executive, upon the generosity of congress, and upon national enthusiasm. We have given new trends to education, we have built a few schools, and we have roused the national conscience. Most important of all we have established the habit of devoting a large sum to education every year. . .. It is the school teacher, the technician, and the engineer to whom we owe whatever we have done. We have made a start, we have scratched the surface.27

It must be borne in mind that the neglect of centuries could not be remedied in four years. Rural Mexico was receiving education even though vast areas of the educational desert still existed. Nevertheless, the new spirit and pride of accomplishment gave promise of future achievement. This is reflected in a comment made in 1921 by Stephen Bonsai, correspondent for the New York Times:

I recalled the incident of the woman I met on the street on one of the critical days lecturing her pulque sodden husband as she led him homeward. ‘You must not do this any longer, Juan,’ she protested; then throwing back her head she added proudly, ‘You must remember that you are the father of children who are learning how to read and write.’28

Federal Education under Calles and Portes Gil: 1924-1929

Ideals and Philosophy

During the time Plutarco Elías Calles was president, José Manuel Puig Casauranc, a physician, was secretary of education, and Moisés Sáenz was sub-secretary.29 Sáenz had studied at Columbia University under John Dewey30 and had served in the Mexican ministry of education. He has been referred to as the “ablest educator in Mexican history.”31 Sáenz was a prolific writer both in Spanish and English and an able apologist for rural and Indian education. Both as an educator and a member of the diplomatic corps, he worked tirelessly for the acculturation of the Indians of the Americas.32 He laid great emphasis on adult education for the improvement of economic conditions for the existing generation as well as for the future good of the children. It was assumed that the children would not practice the precepts learned in school if the home refused to participate in the innovations. Sáenz maintained that this movement of social reconstruction centered about the fulfillment of the four needs of primitive life: health, livelihood, the status of women, and development of one’s personality.33

One of the most fundamental activities of the school was the teaching of Spanish. It was felt that a people who could not speak the national language could not be a vital part of the national culture. Another aim was to encourage physical and intellectual or spiritual communication between the isolated areas and the larger centers. Educators made a conscious effort to lead the indigenous peoples from their tribal ideas and world view to intellectual culture as taught in the schools.34 For example, they endeavored to teach sanitation and the germ theory of disease as opposed to indigenous ideas of bad winds and evil spirits as the carriers of human illness. Following the lead of Vasconcelos, Sáenz advocated teaching art, crafts, farming methods, and other skills in the community centered schools.

With the advent of the “School of Action,” the published works of John Dewey became the source of much Mexican educational philosophy, since Moisés Sáenz and other educators had read these works and Sáenz was a former pupil of John Dewey at Columbia. In 1923 the Department of Education ordered all schools to become schools of action. The sudden overturning of tradition resulted in chaos.35 It is said that when teachers were ordered to implement the philosophy of Dewey, many of them had only the vaguest idea who Dewey was. Some thought he was connected with the United States Navy. For a time it was not considered orthodox to talk about formal subject matter and conventional teaching techniques. But after the first experimental period, teachers and administrators alike tended to choose the best from both old and new systems. An improved type of teaching was the result.

Puig Casauranc, the secretary of education, asserted that his post was not one of political expediency. It was not to be used for the dissemination, of propaganda but as an agency for social and educational reform.36 Nevertheless, education was seen as a means of forming a homogenous culture out of the many diverse tribes and factions which were Mexico.37 One great aim was to incorporate the Indian into the Mexican family. Another was to create a rural spirit and love of the land in opposition to the absentee farming operations of the past. Organized labor also became a proponent of the new education. In their 1924 convention the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM) adopted a platform urging the spread of education, particularly vocational and technical training.38

Organization and Growth

Early in 1925 the administration of the rural schools was reorganized. The Department of Indigenous Culture was combined with the cultural missions and became known as the Departamento de Escuelas Rurales de Incorporación Cultural Indígena. The merger was based on the presumed lack of distinction between an Indian culture and a rural mestizo society. Some of the problems involved were common to both groups, and it was felt that a single sub-department could more efficiently handle the work.39

During this period Sáenz maintained that there was a lack of administrative coordination between federal and state departments of education.40 He felt that the federal department should encourage and aid the weaker state organizations. Sáenz also lamented the myopia of administrators who centered the greatest efforts on the Federal District and neglected such remote places as Baja California and Quintana Roo. He believed that the Federal District should be self-supporting and leave national funds to be used in underdeveloped areas. Some of his other criticisms included the lack of a federal education law and of coordination between the Department of Education and other agencies of the federal government.41

Though education was making great strides during this period, it still fell short of a thousand new schools a year, the goal set by the Calles administration. The genuine efforts made to educate all segments of the population are reflected in a New York Times comment:

The Federal Government is concentrating on education, indicated by the fact that in the last general budget the educational department was the only one which was not cut. Under the plan of President Calles, 5,000 rural schools are to be built as rapidly as possible.42

In later years Vasconcelos accused the Calles administration of drastically curtailing the expansion of educational facilities. Vasconcelos maintained that the Obregón administration’s budget of forty to fifty million pesos annually was reduced by Calles to twenty-five to thirty million annually, and that over a thousand schools were closed.43 The budget was curtailed due to the Huerta rebellion and the necessity for further economic reconstruction. By 1930 it was again set at 40,000,000 pesos.44 The increase in number of schools and pupil enrollment, however, showed steady growth throughout the 1922-1930 period. The high degree of community participation in the local school project was one factor which made growth possible even though fewer federal funds were available. A genuine effort was made to continue the rural educational program even if expenses in other areas had to be curtailed. During the six year period, 1922-1928, almost 4,000 schools were established by the federal government. In these a quarter of a million children were enrolled. By 1931, partly due to the introduction of circuit schools in 1929, the totals had climbed to 7,000 schools and an enrollment of 400,000 pupils.45

The twenty-four model elementary schools in state capitals or other population centers greatly improved the quality of teaching throughout the country. Schools were being founded in Indian areas. The Memoria of the Secretariat of Public Education for 192746 reports that thirty schools were founded in the mountainous and rather inaccessible Mixe region of Oaxaca; two schools were established among the Seri; eight for the Tepehuanes in Durango and Chihuahua; ten in Nayarit for the Coras and six to intensify the educational effort among the Tarahumaras.

Rural Schools

The heart of the revolutionary program of education was the rural school. The basic premise of these schools was that education is a community project for adults, young people, and children. Primary stress was placed on changing the environment rather than on eliminating the high percentage of illiteracy.47 Leaders realized that the peasants would not exert the effort needed to attain academic achievement as long as they were hungry and plagued by parasites and disease. Subjects known as “intellectual skills and tools” could be taken up after some of these conditions had been alleviated. These schools of integration were unfettered by tradition. The organization, curriculum, and physical properties developed as experimental means of implementing the pervasive philosophy of acculturation and economic and social improvement.

In 1926 the rural schools were served by 3,000 teachers and a corps of 85 inspector-instructors. Each instructor was given a zone as his special responsibility and he was the representative of the federal department in that area.48 Not all rural schools had the same types of activities. Many of them had gardens, some had chickens, rabbits, pigs, or bees. In some areas soap-making was taught, in others tanning or weaving, and elsewhere pottery-making or carpentry. Sáenz describes one of these schools in the following:

These children read and write and do some number work; they sing and draw and paint; the girls sew and embroider—all these things we are accustomed to see school children do. But in this school the pupils keep chickens and rabbits. They also have a pig or two. Their flower garden is a spot of beauty. . .. The children have their orchard; they keep bees; they have planted the mulberry tree and are starting a silkworm colony. They are so busy and so happy, these children in the rural school!49

In the evenings the adults occupied the school building for classes in child care, canning, agricultural improvements, reading, and whatever occupational skills or subjects were advantageous for a given community.

The rural education program was in the main a very successful operation, and Sáenz was generally satisfied with the progress made. By 1929 2,758 of the schools had agricultural plots, 1,807 of them kept hen coops, 511 boasted rabbit hutches, and 721 had pigeon coops. Open air theaters existed in 2,150 schools where the peasants frequently gathered to discuss the common problems of the people. Public Health Campaigns had been held in 2,994 villages and 155 post offices were established and staffed mostly by teachers. The department was publishing La Escuela Rural and had distributed 500,000 textbooks.50 Progress was also being made toward a graded salary scale for teachers. Individual ratings depended on quality of instruction and length of service.51

The program was not without its problems. One of the greatest of these was the difficulty posed by a rural school in which teachers spoke only Spanish and pupils were almost completely monolingual in an indigenous dialect.52 An effort was made to obtain bilingual instructors, but it was impossible to maintain this standard because of the simple nonexistence of such people in some areas. Some difficulties were administrative in nature and resulted from the rapid growth and experimental nature of the schools. Sáenz complained that office disorganization resulted in the gathering of useless details to the neglect of significant information. The personnel of the rural schools was quite mobile and the turnover too great for continued efficiency in some respects.53 Sáenz remarked that too often actual practice failed to measure up to the theory of social incorporation. It was difficult for the model schools in outlying districts to attract top-flight teachers, many of whom were reluctant to leave the conveniences of the capital.

Part of the genius of the Mexican program was the tapping of community spirit and the communal tradition. The local village was responsible for the building of the school plant and, insofar as it was financially able, for the support of the teacher. Much of the equipment Was crude and some schools were held under shade trees. But the will to improvise and the acceptance of teachers who had an education barely superior to that of the villagers brought success to a movement which might otherwise have existed only on paper. In a sense it was a “grass roots” movement, and it implied an awakening of the peasant classes. John Dewey became a strong proponent of the new Mexican system and commented:

The most interesting as well as the most important educational development is, however, the rural schools: which means of course, those for native Indians. . .. Previous to the revolution, this numerically preponderant element was not only neglected, but despised . . . there is no educational movement in the world which exhibits more of the spirit of intimate union of school activities with those of the community than is found in this Mexican development. . .. The spirit and aims of Indian rural schools as well as of the Normal School of Mexico revived my faith.54

Cultural Missions

Since the rural school teachers were often equipped with little more than their missionary zeal and enthusiasm, the necessity of providing in-service training was obvious and urgent. Cultural missions were established to meet this need. The missioners supervised the rural normal schools and provided a practical program for the communities in which they were located. They also analyzed the needs and potential of a given community to determine which economic improvements were of the greatest importance. Consideration was given to bettering agricultural techniques and raising social, sanitary, and civic standards in the community and in the home. The village chosen as the site of a cultural mission served as the practical training laboratory for teachers from the surrounding area. Consequently it reaped the practical benefits inherent in that position.55 The missioners were encouraged to learn the Indian language and prepare teachers from among the Indians themselves. They served as research workers, teachers, administrators, and supervisors.

The history of the cultural missions parallels that of the rural schools chronologically, ideologically, and organizationally. Even before there were cultural missions, there were supervisors who worked with rural teachers and were called missioners. In 1923 there were 112 of them working with 578 teachers in 569 rural schools teaching 34,819 pupils.56 In October of 1923 Vasconcelos approved the blueprint for the organization of the cultural missions. That same month Roberto Medellín, oficial mayor of the Secretariat, led the pioneer group into Zacualtipán, Hidalgo.57 Rafael Ramírez, however, was the one primarily responsible for later developments and the growth of the mission movement. At this time mission personnel varied but a team usually included a director, an instructor in rural education, an agriculturalist, a physical education instructor, a nurse and/or social worker, sometimes a music or art teacher, and an instructor in light industries which might include soap-making, tanning, canning, mechanics, bee-keeping, rustic furniture construction, or other crafts.58

In 1926 a definite organization called the Direction of Cultural Missions was created under the supervision of Señorita Elena Torres. About that time the groups began to stress sanitary measures and community work rather than only teacher training activities. In 1926 42 institutes were held with 2,327 teachers in attendance, while in 1927 there were 45 institutes and 3,249 teachers.59 In 1928 some equipment was provided for the missions. This included carpentry tools, a medicine chest, sports equipment, a mimeograph, a motion picture projector, a light plant, and agricultural tools. After four years this project was discontinued due to the cost of maintenance of equipment and losses. In 1928 the budget increased from the 1927 figure of 125,953.00 to 149,251.00 pesos. Expenditures for the above-mentioned equipment accounted for the difference.60 In 1929 work was done by the traveling missions in the states of Nayarit, Mexico, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Zacatecas, Tabasco, Campeche, Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, and Jalisco. In those institutes 1,722 teachers were enrolled.61 In 1927 the institutes were only three weeks in duration, and in 1928 they were scheduled to continue for four weeks each.62 By 1933 the time had been extended to three months in one locality.63 The permanent missions were located in Xocoyucan, Tlaxcala, and Actopán, Hidalgo. The personnel in these missions included a social worker, doctor, hygiene teacher, midwife, visiting nurse, agronomist, expert in light industries, carpenter, mason, and mechanic. The above towns were chosen because they contained a more or less homogeneous mestizo population and this was judged best suited for that type of program.64

The main criticisms of the cultural missions stem from defects of the budget rather than of the program. There should have been more missions and individual institutes held for longer periods of time. Government departments such as Agriculture and Health which were supposed to work together on the project were hard to coordinate.65 It was difficult to obtain experts in the necessary fields to serve as members of the missions. The reasons given for the lack of success of one mission were that fanatic opposition to the governmental education program was prevalent in the region, that there was a lack of social stability due to the depredations of bandits, and that the state government (Jalisco) failed to cooperate with the program.66

Whatever charges may be laid against the cultural missions, the fact remains that they did give in-service training to teachers in a day when rural normal schools were in their infancy. The rapid spread of rural schools between 1923 and 1928 is in large measure attributable to the influence of the missions, the practical community schools. Oscar Lewis describes the contribution made by the missions to the village life in Tepoztlán. He says:

Tepoztlán has had a cultural mission for two years, and in 1947 the mission worked in one of the surrounding villages of the municipio. All of the members of the mission were non-Tepoztecans, again making for increased opportunities to become familiar with customs from differing parts of the country. The mission taught Tepoztecans how to make beds, chairs, and other furniture; it taught the girls knitting, sewing, and crocheting; it encouraged social dancing and sports such as volleyball; it taught the women how to make inexpensive candies and preserves; it worked on improving the homes by getting a few families to build privies and to raise the hearth off the floor for more sanitary cooking. In addition, there was a doctor attached to the mission who administered inoculations and gave advice on baby care.67

Casa del Estudiante Indígena

The House of the Indigenous Student was announced in 1924.68 In the following year Secretary Puig informed state governments that students from various tribes would be welcomed in the boarding school which was to be located in Mexico City. The experiment began on January 1, 1926, with almost 200 young men representing 26 tribes.69 The boarding school was frankly experimental in two respects: first, to determine if the Indians could profit from instruction of both a practical and academic nature; and second, to determine if they would be able to return to their villages and practice what they had been taught. The students attended regular city schools for general primary education. There was also vocational education in the Casa itself which offered training in carpentry, mechanics, and other skills. The performance of the pupils was eminently satisfactory and reports from 1926 to about 1929 give unqualified praise to the institution.70 Once trained with a marketable skill, however, the students did not wish to return to their primitive villages. If they did return, graduates were soon back in Mexico City where they could obtain a good paying job and enjoy some of the conveniences of modern civilization. Even if the undertaking be considered a sentimental gesture it was not necessarily an empty one as it did show the Indians that the federal government was interested in their welfare. Also some present-day educational leaders feel that it provided convincing proof of the need to educate the Indians through the indigenous languages in their own localities.71 The Casa del Estudiante Indígena was operated from 1926 to 1932. In 1926, the first year of operation, the school’s budget was 235,642.50 pesos. By 1932 the figure had decreased to 109,932.48 pesos.72 It was closed because educators felt that ten or more internados (Indian local boarding schools) could be supported on the budget which the Casa was requiring.73

Rural Normal Schools

Rural normal schools were established because of the difficulties involved in obtaining city trained personnel for positions in rural schools. They were also to provide more appropriate training than the National Normal School in Mexico City. It was suggested that they be established in various areas of the country and staffed by the secretariats of Education, Agriculture, Industry, and Health74. Eight locations were designated in which to establish rural normal schools. The bill also placed the schools under the direction of the Cultural Missions Department. The second article of incorporation stated the goals of the rural normal schools as follows:

  1. Preparation by means of regular courses of teachers for schools in the small communities and indigenous centers.

  2. Cultural and professional improvement of the teachers in service in the region in which the school functions by means of short vacation courses.

  3. Incorporation of the small communities of the same region into the general progress of the country through the work of extension and education to which end these institutions shall be dedicated.75

Practical preparation in agriculture, animal husbandry, and rural industries were requisites for teachers as well as academic and professional instruction. Teachers and students shared the household and farm chores and lived together as a family. For purposes of demonstration and student teaching, each normal school operated in conjunction with a rural primary school. Each school had between thirty-five and sixty pupils and in 1929 a total of forty-nine men and twenty-seven women were graduated from six of the schools.76

Open Air Schools

By 1929, nine open air schools had been constructed in Mexico City. Although the term might be understood to mean the rural schools which met under the trees, it was applied to a new type of city school, which had been designed to meet the emergency need of schools for the poorer sections of the city within the limits of an already strained budget.77 At least one side of the room was open to the air and the whole plant was built around a patio. It was a bright clean spot in the midst of the squalor of the slums. The informal type of teaching carried on in these schools fitted well into the general philosophy of education prevalent at the time.78 Like the rural schools, a strong emphasis was placed on practical living and some of the schools kept chickens or other animals. The average cost of construction was U.S. $20,000 per school or U.S. $28.00 per pupil.79 It is admitted that there was the disadvantage of easy distraction, but an interesting and active program seemed capable of holding the interest of the children.

Circuit Schools

In 1929, under Ezequiel Padilla, hundreds of circuit schools were established. These were small, community built and financed schools which looked to the central federal school of a given area for guidance and supervision. Advanced students made the rounds in these outlying districts giving such instruction as they could.80 As the local units demonstrated their initiative and determination to have a school, they were absorbed into the federal system as funds were available. This plan was mainly responsible for the figures which show total federal schools in 1928 to be 4,076, of which 3,303 were rural, and 6,925 federal schools in 1929, including 6,106 rural ones. The student enrollment in the federal rural schools increased from 278,137 to 384,328 during that period.81

A National Culture Through Education

Those skeptical of the value of “mere education” for impoverished people may do well to consider what Moisés Sáenz wrote concerning the need in Mexico:

Mere education, if by that is meant the conventional three R’s, the bookish sort of thing, holds little hope, indeed, for these people in their present condition. The truth of the matter is that we have to change our whole concept of education, and that is exactly what we are trying to do in Mexico. When the problem is one of awakening, energizing, rehabilitating 8,000,000 human beings, education must mean infinitely more than the acquisition of formal knowledge. Even such fundamental acts as reading and writing become useless, barren skills, in a situation devoid of things to read and of the necessity for reading. Functional education is, for us in Mexico, not a refinement but a need of the first order.82

Over a period of years there have been two sub-philosophies within the Mexican department of education. One has advocated special schools and a curriculum for the Indians which includes instruction in the native dialects. The other has wanted to make no difference between ethnic groups and has argued that the problems of rural and underprivileged people are the same everywhere. Gamio and Sáenz were representatives of the first viewpoint and Vasconcelos of the second. This point of tension and its effect on the administration is described by Ramón Eduardo Ruiz U.:

Since the military victory of the Revolution in 1920 each group has struggled to dictate the educational program. With some exceptions, the left wing has advocated the Indianist theory of a “Mexican” culture and individual schools for Indians, while the right wing, joined by conservatives throughout Mexico, has consistently opposed efforts to “divide” the population along ethnic lines, for educational or other reasons, or to see value in any culture other than that of Western society. The policy of rural education has gone from one position to another with the rise and fall of the political fortunes of each group. But like their racial and ethnic backgrounds, the cultural ideals of both factions have frequently reflected divergent influences rooted deep in the past of Europe and America.83

One of the most significant outgrowths of the Mexican revolution was the educational reforms. The cultural mission, the rural school, and the other aspects of the program were developed to meet Mexican needs. They contributed to the philosophy and method of education in such a way that other countries have adapted these programs for use among their indigenous and rural groups. In Mexico the reforms reached from the isolated Seris in Sonora to mestizo towns throughout the republic. Seldom has a cultural revolution been accomplished with as little prior experience and with such scarcity of funds as has the Mexican educational program of the 1920’s. Obregón and Vasconcelos left to their successors more than 1,000 federal rural schools even though they had inherited no schools of this type.84 The number might have been greater had not the Huerta rebellion drained national funds and caused social unrest. This was the achievement of only three years, and under the Calles administration schools and teachers were multiplied several times in rural areas. Much of the credit for the educational success in this period belongs to Moisés Sáenz. Though it is still possible to look around Mexico today and see a multitude of villages with inadequate educational facilities, a solid foundation was laid in the 1920’s, and the philosophy and program have been developed to challenge the problems of modern rural Mexico.


The following table shows the growth of the cultural missions and the federal rural school system and reflects the achievement made.85


George I. Sánchez, Mexico: A Revolution by Education (New York, 1936), p. 138. Dr. Sánchez is a professor of History and Philosophy of Education at the University of Texas, and a long-time student of Mexican education.


Antonio Peñafiel, Cuadro sinóptico de la administración del Sr. Gral. D. Porfirio Días hasta 1909, quoted in Ernest Gruening, Mexico and Its Heritage (New York, 1928), p. 515.


Frank Tannenbaum, Peace by Revolution: An Interpretation of Mexico (New York, 1933), p. 297.


Moisés Sáenz and Guy Stevens, The Mexican Situation (New York, 1929), p. 26.


José Vasconcelos and Manuel Gamio, Aspects of Mexican Civilisation (Chicago, 1926), pp. 131-132.


Wilfrid Hardy Callcott, Liberalism in Mexico (Stanford, 1931), pp. 280-281.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, La educación pública en México a través de los mensajes presidenciales desde la consumación de la independencia hasta nuestros días (México, 1926), p. 212. Hereafter referred to as Mensajes presidenciales.


José Vasconcelos, Obras completas (2 vols.: México, 1957-1958), I, 1225.


José Vasconcelos, Obras completas, II, 865.


José Vasconcelos, “Educational Aspirations,” Survey Graphic, Vol. V, No. 2 (May, 1924), 169.


José Vasconcelos, Obras completas, I, 1330.


George F. Kneller, The Education of the Mexican Nation (New York, 1951), p. 61.


Mensajes presidenciales, p. 224.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, La educación pública en México, (México, 1922), p. 12.


José Vasconcelos, “Education in Mexico: Present Day Tendencies,” Bulletin of the Pan American Union, Vol. LVI, No. 3 (March, 1923), 234.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, La educación pública en México, p. 9.


Ibid., pp. 51-53.


C. E. Castañeda, “The Educational Revolution in Mexico,” Educational Review, Vol. 68 (Oct., 1924), 125.


José Vasconcelos, “Education in Mexico: Present Day Tendencies,” Bulletin of the Pan American Union, LVI, 241.


Mensajes presidenciales, p. 227.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, Memoria que indica el estado que guarda el ramo de educación pública el 31 de agosto de 1939 (México, 1929), p. 291. Hereafter referred to as Memoria.


Mensajes presidenciales, p. 229.


José Vasconcelos, Obras completas, I, 1326-1327.


Mensajes presidenciales, p. 221.


New York Times, Dec. 18, 1922, 23:2. Vasconcelos described the same budget as 49,000,000 in the Bulletin of the Pan American Union, LVI, 234. In Mensajes presidenciales, p. 223, Obregón quoted the figure as 52,362,913.50 pesos.


Mensajes presidenciales, p. 222.


José Vasconcelos, “Educational Aspirations,” Survey Graphic, V, 168-169.


Stephen Bonsai, “Mexico’s Main Need,” Nevo York Times, July 17, 1921, Sec. VII, 5:1.


For the first five months, Manuel Gamio was sub-secretary. During the presidency of Emilio Portes Gil, Ezequiel Padilla was secretary of education.


Ernest Gruening, Mexico and Its Heritage, p. 521, and Moisés Sáenz and Herbert I. Priestley, Some Mexican Problems (Chicago, 1926), p. 78.


Hubert Herring quoted in George F. Kneller, The Education of the Mexican Nation, p. 49.


Moisés Sáenz (1888-1941) served as oficial mayor of the Secretariat of Public Education (1924) and as subsecretary of the department under Calles. He was later minister of Mexico in Ecuador under Abelardo L. Rodríguez and minister in Denmark and subsequently in Peru under Lázaro Cárdenas. His published works include Carapán, México integro (1939), Some Mexican Problems (with Herbert I. Priestley, 1926), Primer curso de inglés, ethnographic monographs on Indians of Peru and Ecuador, and numerous magazine articles. He also edited a number of publications for the Department of Education. It might be noted that his birthdate is listed as 1888 in Raúl Mejía Zúñiga, Moisés Sáenz, educador de México (Monterrey, Nuevo León, México, 1962), p. 23, and as 1892 in Miguel Ángel Peral, Diccionario biográfico mexicano (México, n.d.), p. 731.


Moisés Sáenz, México íntegro (Lima, 1939), p. 118.


Ibid., p. 116.


Moisés Sáenz, “Newer Aspects of Education in Mexico,” Bulletin of the Pan American Union, Vol. LXIII, No. 9 (Sept., 1929), 862.


J. M. Puig Casauranc, La cosecha y la siembra (México, D.F., 1928), p. 309.


Moisés Sáenz, México íntegro, p. 117.


Confederación regional obrera mexicana, Comité de educación, El problema de la educación en México (México, D.F., 1924), pp. 27-28.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, El esfuerzo educativo en México, Vol. I (México, 1928), 12.


It is to be borne in mind that in Mexico three types of education prevail: federal, state, and municipal. The state was absorbing many of the municipal systems during this period, but the federal system was experiencing the greatest growth of all.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, El esfuerzo educativo en México, I, xii-xix.


New York Times, May 6, 1928, Section III, 2:6.


José Vasconcelos, Bolivarismo y monroismo (3 ed.: Santiago, Chile, 1937), p. 145.


New York Times, August 27, 1930, 10:4.


Moisés Sáenz, México íntegro, pp. 149-150.


Memoria, 1927, p. 90.


Given as 65-70% in Katherine M. Cook, The House of the People (Washington, D.C., 1932), p. 18.


Memoria, 1926, p. 220.


Moisés Sáenz and Herbert I. Priestley, Some Mexican Problems, pp. 68-69.


Memoria, 1929, pp. 403-404.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, El esfuerzo educativo en México, I, xxxv.


Moisés Sáenz, Escuelas federales en la sierra de Puebla, Publicaciones de la Secretaría de Educación Pública, Tomo XV, Núm. 5 (México, D.F., 1927), 93.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, El esfuerzo educativo en México, I, xix.


John Dewey, “Mexico’s Educational Renaissance,” The New Republic, Vol. XLVIII, No. 616 (Sept. 22, 1926), 116-117.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, Las misiones culturales: 1932-1933 (México, 1933), p. 9.


Ibid., p. 7.


Ibid., p. 9. After Medellín organized the group, Ramírez became director, according to this source.


Memoria, 1927, p. 244.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, Las misiones culturales: 1932-1933, p. 11.


Ibid., p. 12.


Memoria, 1929, pp. 270-272.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, Las misiones culturales en 1927 (México, 1928), p. 4.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, Las misiones culturales: 1932-1933, p. 16.


Memoria, 1929, p. 273.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, El esfuerzo educativo en México, I, xxvi-xxvii.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, Las misiones culturales en 1927, p. 40.


Oscar Lewis, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Eestudied (Urbana, Illinois, 1951), p. 39.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, El esfuerzo educativo en México, I, 25.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, La casa del estudiante indígena (México, 1927), p. 162.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, El esfuerzo educativo en México, I, 26.


Angélica Castro de la Fuente, “La alfabetización en lenguas indígenas y los promotores culturales,” A William Cameron Townsend en el vigésimoquinto aniversario del Instituto Lingüístico de Verano (México, 1961), p. 232.


Memoria, 1931-1932, p. 71.


Ibid., p. 15.


José Vasconcelos and Manuel Gamio, Aspects of Mexican Civilization, p. 148.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, El sistema de escuelas rurales en México (México, 1927), p. 273.


Memoria, 1929, pp. 277-278.


México, Secretaría de Educación Pública, El esfuerzo educativo en México, I, xxxi.


Memoria, 1926, p. 13.


Moisés Sáenz, “Newer Aspects of Education in Mexico,” Bulletin of the Pan American Union, LXIII, 866.


Memoria, 1929, p. 401.


John W. F. Dulles, Yesterday in Mexico (Austin, Texas, 1961), p. 467.


Moisés Sáenz, “Newer Aspects of Education in Mexico,” Bulletin of the Pan American Union, LXIII, 873.


Ramón Eduardo Ruiz U., “The Struggle for a National Culture in Rural Education,” Estudios antropológicos publicados en homenaje al doctor Manuel Gamio, (México, 1956), p. 476.


John W. F. Dulles, Yesterday in Mexico, p. 292.


Lloyd H. Hughes, The Mexican Cultural Mission Programme, UNESCO Monographs on Fundamental Education, III, 1950, 14.

Author notes


The author is a member of the Summer Institute of Linguistics of Mexico, which works under an agreement with the Department of Indian Affairs of the Ministry of Education. She has made investigations of the Mixe language.