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Notable Writings

Educating for the 21st Century (Part I)

By Carlos Fuentes*

Latin America's cultural wealth does not have equivalents in the economic and political order, warns a noted Mexican writer. Could education serve as a bridge?

The drama of Latin America at the dawn of the new century and of the new millennium can be summarized in one fact: cultural continuity has not yet found a comparable political and economic continuity. A culture created, at least in the last five centuries, by Europeans, indigenous peoples and Africans, still lacks deep accordance or equivalence in the economic and political order.

But the wealth of our cultural heritage does not date back only to 1492. It extends back to the indigenous civilizations of the hemisphere, it is projected from the African civilizations brought on slave ships to the Americas, and encompasses, in its European component, not only the Iberian culture, but also, through it, the Greek, Roman, Jewish and Arab legacies of the Mediterranean world.

We are talking about a civilization that is immensely rich, pluralistic, ''cosmic'', as José Vasconcelos would say. The evidence of our culture can be found everywhere and without any cracks. From the solar constructions of Machu Picchu and Teotihuacán to the modern architecture of a Luis Barragán in Mexico or a Lucio Costa in Brazil. From the mural paintings of Bonampak to the modern muralists of Mexico - Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. From the poetic celebrations of the dawn of time by Popol Vuh Maya to the Epic Song of Pablo Neruda. From that original lamentation of the music at the root of the Lost Steps of Alejo Carpentier to the modern compositions of Carlos Chávez, Alberto Guinesterra and Heitor Villalobos: the continuity is astonishing, origins enrich the present, the present feeds the future and each one of our ancient roots has its contemporary manifestations. In fiction, the indigenous world persists in the works of Asturias and Arguedas, the African world in Carpentier and Amado, and the Mediterranean world, supremely, in Borges, conveyor in his short stories of a Western reality nuanced by the Koran and marked by the Talmud.

Each stage of our history builds upon and is enriched by the past, turning it into the present. Colonial culture is not disposable for the mere fact of being what it is. How could it be so if it serves as the Barroque bridge between our indigenous, European and African pasts, and our modernity? That core of identity created by the poet Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz in Mexico, the Incan Gracilazo de la Vega and the architect Kondori in Peru, the sculptor and architect Aleijaidinho in Brazil, allow us to comprehend the connection between the Mayan pyramids and the modern urban setting.

So why, with this continuity so visible and usable, do our political ideologies insist on separating them negatively into antagonistic blocs, what Hernando Gómez Buendía calls the four Latin American moments: the colonial moment, the republican moment, the benefactor moment and the neoliberal moment. Generously and rationally, the Colombian writer insists on relating this ''moments'' with each other, not disparaging any, taking advantage of the lessons of each.

The fact is that we have broken up our experience, giving way to a succession of ideologies that are only concerned about themselves when they place their foot on the cadaver of the ideology that came before. A nation, Isaiah Berlin reminds us, is constituted based on the wounds it has suffered. Self-inflicted wounds, and wounded by the world - conquest, colony, independence, revolutions, imperialisms - Latin America has created nations that, in essence, continue to reflect the limits of the era of independence and even of the colonial administration: we are not the Balkans. What we have failed to achieve is that which Ernest Gellner considers essential for national strength: the identification of nation and culture. Culture pre-exists the nation. The nation is strong if it embodies its culture. It is weak if it only embodies an ideology. Scholasticism, the Enlightenment, Saint Thomas, Rousseau, Comte, Marx, Keynes, the Chicago Boys. We have given priority to ideology, we celebrate culture on its anniversaries and in the public square, but we don't let it enter our living rooms.

This divorce is reflected in the abundant figures on the social divisions of the continent, the abyss between rich and poor, the prevalent injustices and the incredibly low social indicators, despite the passage of time, despite the unequivocal achievements, in income, health, education, employment. Something is rotten in the Latin kingdoms of America when half the population - 200 million people - live on incomes of 90 dollars or less each month. In my country, Mexico, 24 families have larger incomes than those of 24 million citizens. In Brazil, 10 percent of the population receives 60 percent of that country's national income.

Our question is this: Can education be the bridge between cultural abundance and the political and economic impoverishment of Latin America? No, this is not an attempt to give education the cure-all status that we gave religion in the colonial era (Repent!), the constitutions during Independence (Legislate!), the states in the first half of the 20th century (Nationalize!), or corporations in the second half (Privatize!)

Rather, it means giving the appropriate status and functions to the public sector as well as to the private sector, without demonizing either one, but subjecting both to the social necessities expressed and organized by the third sector: civil society. We must respect and take advantage of the lessons of the previous ''moments,'' but we must also accept that the continuity and strength of our culture has never been subjected to a single, abstract standard, but that it his prospered within the alternatives that are born of heterogeneity, virtue.

* Carlos Fuentes is a Mexican author and member of Tierramérica's editorial board. This text is the first part of the prologue Fuentes wrote for the book ''Education: Agenda for the 21st Century'' (UNDP/TM).

Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados

Credit: Fabricio Vanden Broeck
Credit: Fabricio Vanden Broeck