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Endangered Liberty: Schooling, Literacy, and the Idea of Progress in the Early Mexican Republic.

Toward the end of the post-Independence Mexican Empire, which collapsed in 1823, officials in the province (later state) of Guanajuato thought it important to accommodate the local reading public. The first regional libraries, or gabinetes publicos de lectura--public reading salons--were to "banish ignorance and error, and generate light onto the citizens, instructing them in knowledge which should prevail," wrote Manuel de Cortazar, a member of a leading provincial family. (1) By the end of the decade, the first public schools were established in the Department of Guanajuato, located in northwestern Mexico, the region from which sprouted the war of Independence. The subject of "ignorance" and all that it represented to literate Mexicans recurred throughout public discourses on literacy and education in the following years. It was a counterweight to the fear of "savagery" among the masses, including the poor, indigenous, and mixed-race populations. A massacre of hundreds of white Spaniards in Guanajuato, the provincial capital, in 1810, was well-remembered, as was the Terror in France long after the Revolution. Education and mass literacy were seen by Mexican elites as means to civilize and bring orderliness to a culturally and economically fragmented society.

The idea of "progress" in the Western world means, according to one interpretation, that "mankind has advanced in the past--from some aboriginal condition of primitiveness, barbarism, or even nullity--is now advancing, and will continue to advance through the future." (2) Its conceptual connection to learning took shape in Europe after the Middle Ages, although there have been differing interpretations regarding the origins of mass education. One earlier study argued that it was "produced by the social construction of the main institutions of the rationalized, universalistic worldview that developed in the modern period--the citizen-based nation and state, the new religious outlook, and the economic system rooted in individual action," (3) while the idea of mass literacy gradually took form in the wake of the Enlightenment. (4) Nascent primary school systems developed with varying degrees of success in states as disparate Prussia, Denmark, Iceland, and Portugal by the middle of the eighteenth century. (5)

Earlier studies indicate that the rise of mass education was not particularly tied to industrialization or urbanization. Scotland, for example established widespread literacy and schooling by the 1830s, with a mixture of private schools and those established by clergy, and had outpaced England in that endeavor. (6) The French Revolution inspired more continental debates on the role of primary education, leading to increased adoption of school systems. (7) By the time of Mexican independence in 1821, acceleration of mass education efforts in the transatlantic Western world, including in the U.S., were in effect for several decades.

The idea of mass education and literacy was prevalent in discourse among early Mexican state-builders (1823-1852) who envisioned social progress by Western standards of development. However, economic and political instability, social realities, and epidemics greatly restricted those efforts. The ideal of greater access to education and an expanded literate population, concurrently happening in Europe and the U.S., fell far short of what Mexican educators intended for their struggling nation-state during the first thirty years of independence. This essay focuses on the idea of Western progress through education as it was perceived by literate classes of Mexico during this period. In addition, it will hopefully provide points of reference in the world history classroom, especially regarding Latin America, on issues of state formation and liberal ideologies beyond warfare and military affairs, as is often the case.

Harvey J. Graff's seminal work, The Literacy Myth, first published in 1979, sparked a debate on whether literacy in reading or writing, or both, leads to measurable "progress" in the modern industrial, technological, or economic sense. The social science narrative that high levels of literacy lead to such progress, Graff, argued, was not supported by documentation. "Literacy, then, as a measure of modernity, on either the individual or societal level, becomes a symbol--and just as its benefits are located in areas of abstraction and symbolism, so are its functions," he wrote. (8) Although he modified the argument more recently, recognizing "limits of the analysis and the need for more direct temporal and geographic comparisons," Graff's work remains influential. (9) Other scholars have recorded the relative acceleration of literacy rates in Western Europe and in the United States after the first decades of the nineteenth century, markedly among non-elites. Scandinavian states, starting with Sweden, contained relatively high rates of literacy prior to 1800, and illiteracy rates in England went from around 40 percent to close to 0 by the end of the nineteenth century, with a female literate population outnumbering that of males in some rural counties. (10) As in Mexico, there were discrepancies in urban and rural populations. At German unification, literacy rates of between about sixty-seven percent in West Prussia and nearly ninety-nine percent in Berlin were recorded. (11) David Vincent has cited the growth of "counting' and new bureaucracies that required literate workers.

With formation of the first Mexican federal republic in 1824, informed statesmen and hombres de bien--"good men" of the professions--in the national capital Mexico City had access to a growing body of newspapers and magazines that were distributed to major urban centers. In 1827, El Amigo del Pueblo, a weekly newspaper that was "literary, scientific, of politics, and commerce," quoted the Scottish economist J.R. McCollach, for example. Literacy skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic, combined with lessons in religion and "morals" prevented "crass ignorance" among the poor, and save them from their own vices. (12) Workers would recognize the value of their own wages, making them "agents of their better condition." A few years later, the official organ Diario del Gobierno de la Republica Mexicana reprinted an article that called for, as it stated, a centralized system of education like that established earlier by French revolutionaries. Scattered local attempts at public education produced national, provincial, and local governments that were administered by a "hierarchy of intelligence" and left out qualified and otherwise intelligent individuals. This system threatened the existence of republican governments: "Ignorance puts liberty in danger." (13) Such commentaries became more prevalent in the public sphere as the influence of Western liberalism developed in opposition to growing calls for a return to monarchy in Mexico. The polarization eventually led to civil war.

Secular learning in Mexico was codified when the first federal republic was formed in 1824. The new Constitution called for "one or more establishments" organized in each state, where "natural, political, and moral sciences, noble arts, and the languages, without prejudice to the power which the Legislatures have to regulate public education." (14) Educational standards and guidelines were adopted in the Federal District (which includes Mexico City) and establishment of a Directory of Public Instruction was decreed by Vice President Valentin Gomez Farias. The state of Guanajuato incorporated public education into its constitution of 1826. Schools of "first letters," as primary education was called were to be organized in "all the pueblos of the state" for purposes of creating "religious citizens, lovers of the nation, useful to the state." (15) Schools were to be established for boys and girls, the common practice in Mexico, and taught by same-gender teachers, with women by being paid at lower scales than men by constitutional stipulation.

Ravages of the War of Independence left the mining and agriculture sectors in ruins, and sparse public funding often went toward expenditures for local militias (and a national army). An emerging city of importance at the time was Leon, Guanajuato, part of the breadbasket region of Mexico known as the Bajio, and an important grain and corn-producing region for the provincial mining economy. As a frontier community that grew into an urban center with a relatively large literate population, it was the site of aggressive attempts to establish schools, both in the city itself, in outlaying pueblos, and on rancho and hacienda agricultural landholdings. Problems faced by schools in the region included resistance by parents because of the need to put their children to work, including among indigenous peoples. (16) Despite their literacy skills, the challenges involved, and sometimes nonexistent pay, prospective teachers clamored for employment, finding themselves in a "deplorable situation," as one teacher stated in his letter of application for a position. (17) As the national political situation continued to destabilize, local education efforts in Leon continued with limited degrees of success. Of seventeen schools for boys and five schools for girls that existed in the region between 1830 and 1840, only one remained by the end of that time frame--the school for boys in the city of Leon. Still, as the municipal seat, the city was among the most literate in Mexico, with a census recording a total reading population of twenty-seven percent in a population nearing 49,000 people, a figure that includes children and adults, (18) although the figure is still low in comparison to regions of Western European nations, the German states, Scandinavia, and the United States. (19)

In Mexico City, proponents championed the British-based Lancasterian system, which became the "official" means of public education in Mexico by public decree in 1840. The method was named after John Lancaster, an English educator who modified what was called "mutual teaching." The method attracted a popular following among educators in Great Britain, France and northern Europe, and the United States. The concept involved allowing older or more advanced students to instruct younger primary students, thereby reducing the time teaching literacy skills by half, compared to other methods available at the time. Meanwhile, the number of daily, weekly and monthly periodicals produced in the national capital greatly increased by 1840. One magazine, the illustrated and apolitical El Museo Mexicano, featured random snippets of Mexican regional life, and also poetry. It reached 1,209 subscribers nationwide, including fifty-nine in Guanajuato, the provincial capital and five in Leon, reflecting limited but growing reading publics in larger cities and towns, hungry for entertaining printed matter. (20)

In 1835, a new government replaced the first federal republic in Mexico City. The more authoritarian Central Republic, which restricted voting rights to propertied men and abolished the Constitution, came about largely through the efforts of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The "pronouncement" became a staple of the violent politics of Mexico, as military officers such as Santa Anna issued their printed public grievances, and led their own loyal soldiers and allied military officers against national governments. The Central Republic itself was toppled in 1846 when Mexico lost nearly half of its national territory to the United States through warfare. Amid continued political instability, state officials in the state of Guanajuato were concerned about the extent of primary schooling in the municipalities, including Leon. A circular sent by the jefatura (head office) of Leon requested all the town courts of justice to report on the number of schools "of both sexes" within their jurisdictions, if they were of more than five hundred people. Schools were also asked to submit figures for school attendance over the past two years. The ayuntamiento (municipal council) lacked basic information on the numbers of students attending schools, or whether individual schools were publicly or privately funded. The town justice of San Francisco del Rincon reported only one school for boys, but regular daily attendance comprised thirty pupils, with all related expenses paid by the state. In other towns, employment turnaround for teachers was still common, and requests for unfulfilled back pay continued to be problematic. In 1855, however, Governor Manuel Doblado praised the teacher of one school in the city of Leon for a good job of "student advancement." (21)

Problems in primary education were not limited to Leon and its towns, and were not always related to finances. The population of the state capital Guanajuato was hit with four smallpox or cholera epidemics (or both) from 1830 through 1851. Already stretched city officials needed to raise funds for large-scale inoculation programs during the epidemic years. (22) At a school for girls, officials assigned by the Leon ayuntamiento, along with an associated parish priest, paid a surprise inspection to a girls' school, asking the teacher if there was "anything to discuss." She replied that "some little girls were missing school, so others are falling behind in their subjects," and that twenty-seven of 125 students were out sick with smallpox (23) In another case, a complaint received by state commissioners of public instruction led to the inspection of a boys' school in Valle de Santiago, in the southern region of Guanajuato. The state inspector arrived with the members of the town "school commission" early in the morning on a Saturday, a day of instruction. However, the school was closed because the teacher, Don Jose Maria Gonzalez Rosales, was out sick. When the inspector reached his home, Gonzalez appeared waving his hands wildly in the air, saying there was a "problem with his nerves." After agreeing to meet that Monday at the school, the inspector then found that the children were present but not the teacher, who left the keys to his brother. The teacher was eventually forced to resign. (24)

After the civil War of the Reform, followed by the French military occupation and the capture and execution of Emperor Maximilian von Hapsburg (1857-1860, 1862-1867), educational efforts were renewed with vigor by the victorious liberal government under President Benito Juarez. Still, years later under the authoritarian presidency of Porfirio Diaz, the high national level of reading-illiteracy in late nineteenth-century Mexico (some eighty-four percent of adults by 1895) contrasted with that of France, where illiteracy approached zero percent. In Costa Rica, more than forty percent of the population could read by 1900, a figure roughly equal to the total literate population of Mexico, including children, recorded that same year. (25) Despite the best of intentions, promotion of Western-style mass education did not lead to a thoroughly lettered populace in Mexico, as envisioned by its early nineteenth-century proponents.

(1) Manuel de Cortazar to the Alcalde Constitucional (Constitutional Mayor) of Leon, Aug. 22, 1823, Archivo Historico de la Municipalidad de Leon [Guanajuato], hereafter AHML), Jefatura Politica, Educacion Publica, Bibliotecas (hereafter JP-EDP-BIB), Box 1, File 1. The Historical Archive of the Municipality of Leon (Guanajuato), Political Leadership: Public Education, as the archive and collection translates into English, is where much of the primary research for this paper was conducted the summers of 2015 and 2016.

(2) Robert A. Nizbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers, 2009 [1994, 1980]), 4.

(3) John Boli, Francisco O. Ramirez and John W. Meyer, "Explaining the Origins and Expansion of Mass Education," Comparative Education Review, Vol. 29:2 (May, 1985), 156.

(4) Harvey J. Graff, The Labyrinths of Literacy (London, New York, Philadelphia: The Falmer Press, 1987), 35.

(5) David Vincent, The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 30.

(6) See R.D. Anderson, "Education and the State in Nineteenth-Century Scotland," The Economic History Review, Vol. 36:4 (Nov., 1983).

(7) Vincent, The Rise of Mass Literacy, 28.

(8) Harvey J. Graff, The Literacy Myth: Cultural Integration and Social Structure in the Nineteenth Century (Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1991 [1979]), 8.

(9) Harvey J. Graff, "The Literacy Myth at Thirty," Journal of Social History (Spring 2010), 636.

(10) Vincent, The Rise of Mass Literacy, 8, 12.

(11) Vincent, The Rise of Mass Literacy, 13.

(12) El Amigo del Pueblo, Vol. 1, No. 12, 1827, 27-28

(13) Diario del Gobierno de la Republica Mexicana, Vol. 3, No. 105, Nov. 3, 1835, 355-366.

(14) Harvey J. Graff noted, for example, the "indifference, rather than activism," in state support for primary schools in France before the 1830s. Harvey J. Graff, The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 268.

(15) Senado de la Republica, LX Legislatura, Constitucion de 1826: Constitucion del Estado de Guanajuato. El congreso constituyente del estado,, accessed Jan. 21, 2016.

(16) This was true of parents of Barrio de Guadalupe in the town of San Francisco del Rincon, which had been a semi-autonomous Indian republica during the colonial era. See Jose de Jesus Trinidad, Agustin Guillen, Victor Perez, and Jose Maria Felipe to the Alcalde Constitucional (Constitutional Mayor), San Francisco del Rincon, May 5, 1831. AHML, JP-EDP-COM, Box 1, File 4.

(17) Jose Antonio Hinojosa to the Leon municipal council (ayuntamiento), ca. December, 1836, AHML, JP-EDP-COM, Box 2, File 32.

(18) Archivo General del Gobierno del Estado de Guanajuato (state archive), Secretaria: Censo y Estadistica, Box 227, File 18.

(19) "More than 90 percent of white Union soldiers and 80 percent of Confederate soldiers were literate, and most of them wrote frequent letters to their families and friends." See James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 11-12.

(20) El Museo Mexicano, Vol. 3, 1844, 568-584.

(21) Manuel Doblado to the Ayuntamiento of Leon, Oct. 31, 1855. AHML, JP-EDP-COM, Box 1, File 27. Earlier documentation for the post-war years has been largely obliterated, possibly by the incoming liberal government.

(22) Angela Tucker Thompson, Las otras guerras de Mexico (Epidemias, enfermedades y salud publica en Guanajuato, Mexico, 1810-1867) (Guanajuato: Instituto Cultural del Estado de Guanajuato, 1998), 22.

(23) Schoolteacher (Preceptora) to the State of Guanajuato. Archivo General del Estado de Guanajuato (Hereafter AGEG), Box 241, 1851.

(24) "The Inspector of Schools reporting to the State what was found in the school at Valle de Santiago, including the resignation letter of the teacher." AGEG, Box 241, 1851.

(25) Census 1895, Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Geografia (INEGI), accessed Feb. 19, 2017), mx/est/contenidos/proyectos/ccpv/; Harvey Graff, The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Society (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 265, 333, 343; Ivan Molina and Steven Palmer, "Popular Literacy in a Tropical Democracy: Costa Rica 1850-1950." Past & Present, No. 184 (Aug. 2004), 171; The figure is 43 percent for the national census of 1900, although Robert McCaa estimated a population of 1,038 more people, at 541,516; Census l900 Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Gecerafia (lNEGI), accessed Feb. 6, 2107,

E. Mark Moreno, Texas A&M University-Commerce
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Title Annotation:Special Section: The World from Latin America
Author:Moreno, E. Mark
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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