Education in (under)development

Violence influences both, the colonized and colonizer, used to say Fanon. Nevertheless, in an increasingly interconnected world, is every practice from the core adopted in the periphery a colonial heritage? What if global tendencies, such as the increasing value of education, are seen by both as their key towards development, but the exercise of dialogue is obscured and worse, its non-requirement is assumed?

In Ecuador’s Revolución Ciudadana, a main step towards the Buen Vivir is improving the quality of its educational institutions. Hence, guaranteeing a democratic access to top schools and universities required reforming the whole education system. In this sense, not only thousands of buildings were repaired or newly constructed, not only were teachers evaluated and called for trainings, but essential paradigms, as announced by the government, were changed, too. Ecuador`s political project consists on becoming a social economy of knowledge, in order to fight internal social inequalities so that the country can finally become independent from foreign intervention in, mainly, its economic organization. At this point, it is crucial to critically examine the theoretical tools and its implementation for the mentioned means. We talked therefore with an expert in the field, Alexis Oviedo1. His main inquiries were: “if the Unidades Educativas del Milenio (UEM) are the milestone to reduce education gaps (ethnic, economic and urban/rural differences as main axis), what are the consequences for previous communitarian and/or alternative schools? In how far are foreign norms still uncritically adopted? And, how much space is left for dialogue then?”

The efforts of the government, which invests the larger percentage of its GDP in South America on education, are reflected on the undeniable increase of students attending public schools. Oviedo criticizes, in spite of this, that “Eurocentric canons of education quality have been adopted in a unilateral way” (e.g. taking Finland as a point of reference). Without appreciating all the pedagogic variety available in the country, above all as exemplified by the unidocente2 schools in the indigenous communities, the institutional changes and its budget have rather been oriented towards infrastructure investment. Standardization, homogenization, and evaluation are practices derived from a Eurocentric perspective. But who is to say that the alternative (to the norm), and particularly, communitarian schools fail to offer quality, when they have been proven to be very successful, especially in Costa Rica?

According to Oviedo, the quality of education is a relative phenomenon. It is constructed inside and beyond the classrooms as a process of constant dialogue between the teachers, students, parents, and the community in general. The curriculum, therefore, should seek to be flexible and allow its diversification. Ecuador`s ethnic structure is highly heterogeneous, since, together with Bolivia and Peru, it is one of the countries with the largest indigenous population. These collectives have developed a resilient tradition against the imposition of foreign values, which have been prioritized by the schizophrenic3 elites, who neglected the worldview (cosmovisión4) and practices of the natives’ millennial heritage since colonial times. For instance, one of the major achievements, which resulted from this fight in the education branch, is the Bilingual Education System (developed in the 80s and 90s), which was aimed to be guaranteed and promoted by the LOEI (Ley Orgánica de Educación Intercultural). Sadly, the law (including the word ‚intercultural‘) and the actual government failed to accomplish their promises (increasing Quichua courses) so that the development of a proper curriculum has rather regressed, while the centralist role of the Ministerio de Educación (MINEDU) determining its content has become bigger.

Regarding claims from various indigenous political leaders, Oviedo suggests that there is a paradoxical relationship between them and the government, since they have been great supporters of the education reform and even requested improvements in infrastructure. Thus it is a moment of political confusion, he continues, just quiet voices inside the communities and by few scholars express dissatisfaction in regards to the increasing state interventionism. But would the aim to beat social inequalities by offering democratic access to basic education justify such unifying enterprise? Oviedo’s answer, pointed out once more Ecuador’s tradition on assimilating Eurocentric standards (actually Ecuador is not the only case due to initial UNESCO campaigns in the 60s/70s). This entails, among other aspects, the measurement of quality by the acquisition of trendy technologies (lately in vogue, i.e., the digital boards). Indeed, statistics show that school attendance by the indigenous and afroecuadorian population has increased; still Oviedo insists that it is crucial to remark that minimizing colonial gaps is a long-term process, which requires the reflection and participation of the whole society: indigenas and mestizos coexist on a daily basis and so do they in school classes, especially in the cities. Hence, to what extent are other ethnic groups than the so-called mestizos, the ones who have to get closer (in both interactive and statistical ways) to them?

The state puts all those who seek for alternatives (even if actually heirs of former struggles and traditions) under pressure in order to integrate them into the structure of the state. This is why for Oviedo, the plurinational-sense in the intercultural education law remains in “letra muerta” (silent letters) – partly because of a differentiation for several centuries: We call them “ethnic groups” (or “ethnic collectives” according to the Contrato Social por la Educación statistics), but they are in fact part of “pueblos y nacionalidades” and so is every human being framed within an ethnic group or collective. “Therefore”, emphasizes Oviedo, “if we want to break the chains of colonialism these archaisms have to be overcome, we have to assume positions that challenge it from the bottom, from each one of our subjectivities”.

Nonetheless, this has not met the core of the education debate yet. In fact, this interview was motivated by a conversation with another man, who lived his whole life in Cotacachi, an “indigenous highly populated village”. I asked him, “which were the communities‘ perception on the UME (particularly indigenous)?” To which he responded, that they do not appreciate it: “they cannot understand culture and education. You have to knock on their doors and convince them to send their children to school. In short, it is like giving pearls to the pigs5”. To this assertion, Oviedo commented that a schizophrenic identity still affects plenty of Latin Americans; who by claiming to be white or non-indigenous, inferiorizes the supposed Other. But this heritage is so unavoidable to neglect that at a certain point the mestizo turns to show the roots him-/herself was escaping from. Therefore, the voice assuming the we is called to permanently question if our policies undervalue the knowledge and practices of groups we have assumed to be out of the norm. In this sense dialogue is essential; same as the sovereignty to choose communicating in a certain language (contrary to a vast proportion of conquered territories).

As a final reflection, it should be pointed out that throughout the history of humankind (if there is an all-comprehensive-one to be told), just five countries (US, Germany, France, the UK and Italy), have been capable to shape Social Sciences, and particularly, education in accordance to their scholars’ classics6. This trend threatens to be enforced in monotone conceptions of primary education. Therefore, in case diversity (in all broad senses) is aimed to be defended, it is now, more than ever, the time to defy and provincialize the universal7 within of the self-proclaimed nests of knowledge, sciences, in sum, civilization8.

Furthermore, the increasing competition for education and human capital training might not necessarily be a global tendency (derived from consensus) but caused by the thirst for high skilled workers in the OECD labor market; and a periphery, which refuses to be continuously categorized as such, and hence lets access to knowledge spill over their regions. However, if it is sought to decentralize cognitive capitalism as well as to leave colonial relations and/or actual attempts behind, there is one main task to keep in mind: one has to permanently (re)think one’s position and voice in the discourse, and acknowledge that a past of oppression marks our perspectives. In other words, if a page has aimed to be left behind, it has to be read first. Hence this can only happen in a truly dialectical way; between participating agents and its representatives, but most importantly, challenging the core of our epistemologies: not only why, but also how to educate, according to and as discussed by whom.

Michelle Ruiz

1As professor and author, Oviedo is probably the main Ecuadorian scholar doing research on the influence of neoliberalism in the country’s education system’s discourse since colonial times, as well as on the possibilities for an intercultural education model (see e.g. here)

2The term refers to schools, which emphasize the participation of children, families and teachers for a constant communitarian learning process. This means children are not separated in classes according to their age, but generally children between 6 and 14 years learn together.

3 Meaning the contradictory personality and attitudes of figures, who confront an identity crisis. This is commonly known as pathology for colonized populations. In the case of Ecuador, much has been written by “indigenista” authors (see for instance “El Chulla Romero y Flores” by Jorge Icaza; or a more recent sociological analysis by Miguel Donoso Pareja in “Ecuador: identidad o esquizofrenia”).

4Lacking a specific translation in English, “cosmovisión” means a holistic understanding of the interlinked elements forming life. For the Western tradition, “philosphy” could have a closer meaning. For further explanations on the main features of the so called “cosmovisión indigena andina” to be found here.

5 Derived from the expression in Spanish “darle perlas de comer a los cerdos”.

6Think for instance on the nationality of most influential Philosophy, Sociology, Economics or International Relations author’s until the 20th century.

7 In Chakrabarty’s sense; to clarify one idea’s or practice’s context (history, time and space).

8 See Wallerstein 2006: 51. Recommended also Grosfoguel 2013.


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