Evolving Education in Mexico

The Catalyst,  The North American Century,

Spring 2016  - Luis Rubio



The transition from the agricultural era to the Industrial Revolution was traumatic for many around the world, but the digital era constitutes a nearly absolute divide. In this new era, education is the crucial differentiating factor. Creativity makes a person successful and advances the economy and larger society.

Education determines the capacity to add value. This is true not only in highly technological sectors of the economy, such as software development or the sciences. It also is true in traditional production, which has become highly automated and requires special skills, computer mastery and other similar abilities.

The ability to innovate largely stems from an educational system that is geared toward developing critical thinking. Mexico’s educational system is not geared in this direction. Much worse, there is only minimal understanding of what this stage would entail. An educational system focused on developing the abilities of children to the utmost would involve focusing of freedom, individual development, and challenging paradigms, all anathema to a control-oriented political system.

True, part of Mexico’s industry has successfully transitioned to the knowledge economy, but it remains a relatively minor part. Most Mexicans are not yet involved, the reason that the average value added in this Mexican sector remains relatively low when compared with that of its NAFTA partners. No surprise here.

Public education in Mexico, which covers about 90% of students in its primary and secondary stages, was conceived not as an instrument of personal advancement. It was conceived as an instrument to attain political objectives. Education was intended to legitimize the regime that emerged from the Mexican Revolution a century ago. As a result, it became a system of indoctrination and political control.

The teachers’ union would come to control the educators and then sell that service to the government. This process created extremely powerful union bosses who eventually challenged the government, only to later be forced into submission and replaced, restarting the vicious circle.

The cycle of conflict, decapitation, collaboration, and back to conflict was repeated time and time again. Mexico’s current government is reaping the benefits of the decapitation stage after it jailed the previous teachers’ union leader, Elba Esther Gordillo. But the cycle will remain unstoppable until and unless the entire structure of the educational system is reconceived and reorganized.

The latest educational reform, which took place in 2013, was mostly a labor reform. It aims at restructuring and redefining the relationship between the government and the teachers’ union. This reform constitutes a precondition for a more ambitious transformation that actually addresses the enormous importance of education in the digital era.

Of course, there are some rhetorical concessions to the needs of a modern economy. But most of that is limited to discussing the curricula and subjects that students must learn, not the role of education in the digital era. Old habits die hard.

For a true revolution in education to take root, the challenge first has to be understood and assimilated and then, a new world imagined. That, unfortunately, is not part of the prevailing script. A stronger foundation of mathematics, language, and, ideally, the humanities, would force children to think big, look towards the outside, and to the future. In one word, to imagine a different life and to acquire the skills to make it possible, all of which would challenge the existing orthodoxy.

After all, the political stability and control the educational system has helped provide has been extraordinarily useful for one government after another. Contemplating a drastic change would require an understanding of the stakes if Mexico fails to prepare its children for the digital era. Or, conversely, it would require an understanding of what could happen if Mexico prepared its children so they can grow up within the context of freedom. Pursuing a transformation also would require a willingness to undertake profound reforms in Mexico’s political structure.

A true educational revolution in the digital era would call for a thorough redefinition of society and politics. No wonder the recent reform to date has been strictly limited to labor relations.

Luis Rubio is Chairman of the Center of Research for Development, an independent research institution devoted to the study of economic and political policy issues. Along with writing regularly on political, economic and international subjects, he has been planning director of Citibank in Mexico, an adviser to Mexico’s Secretary of the Treasury, and a Wilson Center fellow.