This work is an excellent compendium of the debates, laws, textbooks, and policies concerning education and the teaching of history in Mexico from 1821 to the present. Most valuable is the author’s description of primary-school textbooks from different historical periods. Sra. Knauth’s chronological ordering of these texts around the timeless issue in Mexican pedagogy of the relative merits of Cortés and Cuauhtémoc is logical and illuminating. Recognition of the enduring tension between Hispanists and Indianists in the evolution of Mexican education is the source of both the strength and weakness of the book.
The author’s conciliatory approach to this intense ideological conflict underlies her principal argument that Mexican education and the teaching of history have, in almost all their phases, been a driving force of “nationalism” and “unity.” Failure to define these latter two concepts gravely flaws the argument. Little evidence is cited in support of the author’s assertion that for more than a century grade-school textbooks have furthered Mexican nationalism. For example, contrary to her claims, textbooks during the Porfiriato hardly advanced nationalism with their Spencerian assumptions, racism, and praise for things non-Mexican.
Professor Knauth confuses the various claims to nationalism made by conflicting schools of thought with the substance of nationalism. Presumably the substance of nationalism is serving the needs of the people while freeing them from dependence upon foreigners—not the bombast of patriotic sloganeering. By her own evidence, Mexican educators and governments repeatedly have paid lip-service to nationalism while failing to provide its substance. From 1822 to 1890, elementary education remained in the hands of the Lancaster Company. In 1879, instruction of English became mandatory because, in the words of Mexican educator Ezequiel Chávez, “it was believed necessary . . . given the growing union between the Anglo-American people and our people.” Justo Sierra, Secretary of Public Instruction under Porfirio Díaz, emphasized the “Saxonization” of Mexico and increased immigration to resolve the nation’s problems. A national Normal School was not founded until 1887, and even then almost all Mexican textbooks became the private domain of Appleton Publishing Company of New York and of U.S. authors (until 1919). Yet the claim is here made that educators of the nineteenth century were in these and other ways consciously laying the foundations of Mexican nationalism and unity.
Underlying this “conciliatory” approach of the author is the assumption that at each new juncture of Mexican history, whether the post-Independence period, the post-Reform period, or the post-Revolution period, there occurs a “need to establish order that would permit, slowly, the putting into practice of a new legal order, in which some of the aspirations [in education] were taking form.” What happened, of course, was that “order” was imposed by force and education proceeded slowly. For all the “nationalism” and emphasis on education here attributed to the Díaz regime, 84% of the population was still illiterate by 1911. Whatever exaggerated claims the author makes for the government of Adolfo López Mateos, illiteracy is still over 35% today.
Mexico’s two greatest efforts at eliminating illiteracy were made under Vasconcelos in the early 1920s and during the Cárdenas administration of the 1930s. Sra. Knauth provides no explanation for the failure of Vasconcelos, but attributes that of Cárdenas to the “dogmatic” character of the leftists controlling education. Yet she does not realize that Vasconcelos’ own form of “dogmatism” was highly inappropriate for illiterate members of the working class: “salvation by Hispanization,” a kind of “civilizing” of the Indian. In addition to the Greek and European classics in Spanish translation, only one book was mass distributed under Vasconcelos—the textbook of Justo Sierra, with its praise for Cortés and Iturbide.
What is missing from this analysis is an appreciation of the dynamic of class conflict, class rule, and foreign domination in Mexican history. However, other scholars are working in that area and can draw heavily from this book with its wealth of data on education and socialization of school children in the last hundred and fifty years.