Image Source: El País
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has opened yet another battlefront in Mexico’s belligerent political context. In violation of the constitution, the national education law, and the most basic sense of decency and morality, but with the usual levels of opacity and cynicism, AMLO’s government has drafted and published new textbooks for public schools nationwide through the Ministry of Education. The textbooks are fraught with manifold math, science, and history errors and reveal a total disregard for knowledge and education.
Rightly so, there has been a strong reaction and outrage by opposition parties, civil society, and parents for this assault against public education. Several local governments have refused to distribute the textbooks and have filed lawsuits before the Supreme Court. Some federal judges have already issued precautionary measures against their distribution, given the violations in the legally required drafting process, which was conducted opaquely and without the necessary consultations with the various actors within the education system. Regardless of the legal effects of these cases, the episode is a clear representation of the government’s nature and political intentions. If some doubts remained about AMLO’s political and ideological goals, the textbooks now expose it in black and white.
One of AMLO’s first actions as president was to eliminate the National Institute for the Evaluation of Education (INEE), an autonomous government agency in charge of evaluating the development and shortcomings of education nationwide. It made sense. If education is no longer a priority, why bother to measure it? Likewise, only a few months after the inauguration of his presidency, he capsized the educational reform made by the previous administration, yielding enormous influence to radical teachers’ unions in exchange for their political backing. The textbooks are just another stride in a hurried race to place public education in a place from where it will be hard to rebuild.
Mexico’s public education was already in crisis. Public schools have long lacked proper equipment and infrastructure, paired with the fact that results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA test have repetitively shown lower scores than the average of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries. To make matters worse, during the pandemic, the Ministry of Education was negligent enough to allow 1.4 million children to abandon school. But the current blatant destruction of anything resembling an education system is a new phenomenon; this is a political provocation to lower the standard below anything imagined in the past, an attempt to create apathy, cynicism, and a political climate in which barely anything astonishes anymore. It is a cruel plan to use children for a petty political project and perpetuate dogmatism into the future.
According to one of Mexico’s most renowned education experts, Gilberto Guevara, the textbooks are filled with “dogmas, fanatism, and are a pedagogic absurdity.” They destroy the national education policy to satisfy the interests of a single political movement, abandoning logical thinking and erasing the line between scientific and non-scientific knowledge. This should come as no surprise. The textbooks are a representation of the movement’s three basic hallmarks.
Firstly, the ideological nature. The textbooks are a reliable exemplification of an antiscientific government and its determination to politicize public life. Flooded with historical errors and vulgar manipulations of information, the textbooks disseminate a cognitive relativism in which any form of knowledge is equally valid and displaces the student’s individuality with “collective values.” The manipulations of history include, among many others, AMLO’s lie about the 2006 electoral fraud against him, a bigoted narrative for which no evidence has ever been presented. Based on the rancid ideology known as ‘epistemologies of the South,’ which attempts to repudiate Western values and to surpass “the rotten roots of neoliberalism,” math and sciences are portrayed as part of an oppressive model that corruptly promotes individualism and meritocracy.
Secondly, the textbooks are representative of the regime’s opacity. The government has reserved the information about the elaboration processes for five years, a clumsy admission of guilt. The Marxist firebrand and fanatic in charge of the textbooks, Marx Arriaga, with the help of a former public official of the Maduro regime and a small cohort of people with no expertise in education or pedagogy, were responsible for the elaboration process. Given their backgrounds, it is no surprise that they hid how they worked together.
Finally, the textbooks signal the government’s distinctive incompetence. In this case, ill intentions go in tandem with ineptitude. Some mistakes are also the result of carelessness, even for their propagandistic enterprise, i.e., errors in pictures of the solar system and the birthdates of former presidents.
Sadly, even critics of this assault have fallen into a trap. By asking for the mistakes to be corrected, they overlook that AMLO’s party is a movement that nurtures itself through provocation and disruption and where conflict is inherent in every action. Correcting the mistakes is not a solution because it misses the purpose of the original intent: the textbooks are no longer tools to educate but to indoctrinate. In propaganda leaflets, mistakes become requirements. AMLO and his political movement are conscious that any personal achievement, aspiration, and personal development are kryptonite for a project that feeds itself from resentment and prides itself on anti-intellectualism.
Public education should be the guidepost of long-term policies that transcend government idiosyncrasies. The Mexican constitution forbids the ideology of incumbent governments to be translated into public education; the third article mandates that: “the criteria that will guide education will be based on scientific progress, the fight against ignorance […] fanaticisms and prejudices”. Not surprisingly, some of Mexico’s most brilliant and renowned intellectuals were appointed as ministers of Education and responsible for the drafting of public textbooks during the 20th century. Yet, it would be naive to think that all previous governments have continually placed public education on an apolitical and unreachable shelf. In 1939, the opposition party, PAN, with the help of the catholic church, emerged with freedom of education as a political banner, given the inclusion of socialist ideas in the constitution during the 1930s. Spawning a political tug-of-war for the ideological content of education. But the flagrant destruction of any basic moral or pedagogical standard is new. The current petty debate in Mexico around how much communism in the textbooks is too much is irrelevant to the millions of children who will not care about the label we use for books that will harm their future.
AMLO’s books do not contain mistakes because he is not trying to educate. This is another step in a broader scheme to propagate lies in the prevailing ambush to eliminate research centers, public universities, and scholarships. For a self-declared antiscientific government and a president who repetitively prides himself in having “other facts”, belittling science and knowledge is no mistake—it is the natural outcome of the disdain.
There is an old and common trap used by radicals against moderates and common sense: to avoid being called a bigot, one must always be willing and capable of finding the golden nuggets in the dirt. However, this is a set-up and a fallacy nonetheless. We mustn’t fall into the ploy of finding merits when something sprouts from a rotten core. If a whole model is corrupted and, more importantly, devised to corrupt, it must be rejected and condemned, regardless of the glitter to conceal it. Propaganda disguised as education is propaganda, not education with mistakes. Yes, Mexico’s education system was already in a ruinous situation, but the recent events are not the aggravation of an existing crisis but rather the upholding and propagation of disaster as a political aim. Destroying public education is not a mistake for someone who sustains his power in lies and political instability. The textbooks are a faithful projection of the political project.
Those who claim that AMLO should “fix” the mistake of not teaching children math, for example, are missing the point. They are scrutinizing a fantasy and a projection of what they would like to be analyzing. The existence of mistakes presupposes a basic concern for facts and the truth. Well-intentioned liberal critics have created their own veil, through which it is extremely difficult to comprehend a level of ignorance and irresponsibility that throws the public education of millions of children under the bus without any shame. But such is the case. AMLO has fooled his critics once again by making them believe and reiterate that his “textbooks have mistakes,” ignoring the most important fact: the books are made for his purposes, not theirs.
Emiliano Polo is a graduate student of global affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His research focuses on applied history and Latin American politics. He currently works in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.