The Mexican education system is an arena where social and economic strata manifest themselves as symbols for the politically driven elite and the lower/middle class. On one side The National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) regards itself as the defender of the lower class whereas the government’s imposition to alter education policy is viewed as the ruling elite’s attempts to increase state power (Knowland 2014). In this sense, education policy and education reform become distinct discourses where the divisions between Mexican classes make themselves visible. In conjunction with the Marxist embedded union versus state oppositions, there are also greater subliminal contentions that make themselves known through the dissection of Mexico’s education system.
Mexican Education and Social Stratification I:
Habitus, Higher Education and Political Nepotism
To begin, higher education in Mexico reflects the complicated social stratification of the population due to divisional economic status and the lack of opportunities for social mobility. Since the 1990s there has been a decrease in confidence in the ability of public universities to efficiently provide an education in which students can prosper from their degrees (Higher Education in Mexico: From unregulated expansion to evaluation Kent, 79). Similarly, and as expected, due to such a shared sentiment, private institutions have only led to greater social mobility for the already established elite (79), the reason being a higher quality of education in private institutions, “[…] by well-trained and full-time academics,” who have motioned towards developing research as integral pieces of their schools (74). Such a stress on research-oriented programs has proven to expand university and college quality and to allow them a “foot-in-the-door” to the greater, higher education community.
The National Autonomous University (UNAM), which is the most highly regarded private institution in Mexico, is a powerful player in the realm of higher education discourse. In Education and Political Recruitment in Mexico: The Alemán Generation, Roderic Ai Camp gathers research during the time of President Miguel Alemán’s rise to power in 1946 when there was a substantial increase in educational recruitment into political offices from UNAM (Camp, 301-302). Educational recruitment represents a stratification of social class in which the elite are able to reproduce positions in office for their closest friends and allies. To this degree, education and politics blend into one as only certain segments of Mexican society enter into these education institutions, thus easily allowing them to seep into government roles. Camp stresses that this form of nepotistic allocation of political positions is deeply rooted not necessarily in the educational institution but rather in the relationships students have with each other and their professors: “ […] not only do many students remember individual teachers; their careers in public life were actually initiated and supported by such teachers” (313). Higher education and political life eventually become synthesized into one another, as each piece becomes an extension of itself by permitting the upper class to marginalize the lower stratum from opportunities for both social mobility and political life.
Here, higher education can be viewed not as bodies of knowledge that aim to increase the well-being of the greater Mexican population, but as tools for political and social reproduction of the elite. The role of UNAM has been reconstructed through nepotism as a method to draw lines through society and to siphon in only those who fit the correct social criteria and economic status. Much of this social reproduction does not originate in higher education but is inherently solidified through primary and secondary schooling (Camp 297). Due to its extensive origins then, it is worth analyzing such practices of the elite through a sociological lens. That is to say, these are not simply coincidental motions of political and educational life, but rather they are communal and reproductive practices that have fundamental implications in the way Mexico’s society is structured and experienced.
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus has become a useful analytical tool in understanding the corridors of power between social classes. In his Logic of Practice (1980), Bourdieu explains that habitus is constituted by
[…] systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends of an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a ‘conductor.’ (54)
In other words, habitus exists as inherent structures that produce our social worlds and the manner in which we navigate through them. Our demeanors are thus the results of the conditioning we instinctively receive from the social classes we were born into. Habitus is a means of social reproduction in which our lives are predetermined by “motivating structures” (54) that drive our interactions with others and our relationships with our social worlds. A key piece is the idea of a rebirth of inherent social qualities that the present gleans from the past. In this sense habitus is a “[…] product of history [that] produces individual and collective practices – more history – in accordance with the schemes generated by history” (55).
Habitus becomes the background that defines the stratification of Mexico’s social classes. Teleologically, the political and government positions become the end goals of social processes that begin through the primary conditioning of Mexico’s elite in specific educational environments. The private elementary school evolves into the private high school, which then siphons the upper class into a private tertiary institution. Bourdieu may overuse terms such as “structuring structures,” but they are indeed necessary in explaining the methods in which social classes are reproduced through social architectures that command not just the most miniscule, such as the way we speak or act, but also the grander image of how pockets of power are distributed in Mexican society. This is defined by means of who does and who does not have the right and ability to access certain resources, social mobility, and, within both of those contexts, education. The lower class lacks the resources and, one could argue, the right to access the communal sphere or higher education. This then relegates them to the same position where each generation is prone to the cyclical lifestyle associated with the bottom stratum. Thus, they are pressured to remain on the outer rim of the elite society.
If one can expand this even further, education is not just a resource that is accessible to certain members of society but it also becomes an institutional tool that cuts up the populi into certain divisions in which the ability to navigate the political and social realm becomes accessible only to the elite few. By closing the social advancement of one group and not the other, the opportunity for the upper class to reproduce itself, generation after generation, becomes increasingly stabilized and regimented. In conjunction, the blending of the political realm with higher education further stratifies classes and constructs private, social avenues in which only those with the elite habitus can maneuver, operate and then reestablish these cyclical, political and social trajectories that oppress and marginalize the lower class for elite preservation. Education is deterministic and lacks opportunities for non-upper class students. It is not a tool of liberation but rather a structured system whose marginalized products are inculcated in divided social worlds.
Another level of analysis that stems from an examination of Mexico’s higher education is whether or not these political actors are aware that their nepotistic tendencies have the implications that they do. If above I could argue that higher education no longer serves a purpose to educate but rather to divide and control, then in this sense it has also taken on a mind of its own. Its very fabric of existence is to regiment and control the distribution of bodies and their location, physically, economically, racially, and socially. If habitus is the milieu that dictates the lives and strata of society, then education has failed to condition itself into a function of social mobility and has become another cog in the machine to oppress and control.
If societal practices from the local to the global are manifested through a social milieu, then Michel Foucault’s conception of the docile bodies in which we appropriate authority is not at odds with Bourdieu’s sociology. Foucault’s interest lies in the method in which the body becomes an object of control:
This new object is the natural body, the bearer of forces and the seat of duration; it is the body susceptible to specific operations, which have their order, their stages, their mental conditions, their constituent elements. In becoming the target for new mechanisms of power, the body is offered up to new forms of knowledge. It is the body of exercise, rather than a speculative physics; a body manipulated by authority […] (Discipline and Punish, 155)
If education has become a tool to bifurcate classes at the hand of the elite, then the latter’s habitual marginalization of the lower classes’ social mobility treats these strata as objects to control and to funnel into the peripheries of society. They have become objectified into labor producers but with no benefit to their financial apparatuses. Education has lost its ability to enrich the lives of all, but rather it has evolved into (or perhaps has been) a tool to sustain the gap between social classes. Even Foucault, in his great debate against Noam Chomsky, states, “We all know that university and the whole educational system that [sic] is supposed to distribute knowledge, we know that the educational system maintains the power in the hands of a certain social class and exclude the other social class from this power” (1971).
Another level of applicable analysis is that of Paolo Freire’s notions of revolution and education within his momentous work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). His final chapter outlines how part of the oppressor’s ability to preserve control is that of division. By systematically “Dividing in order to preserve the status quo […],” the hegemonic structure of Mexican society is sustained (145). Such a bifurcation of classes in education is increasingly dangerous as higher education has all too easily become a platform in which the lower class is separated from political life through the nepotistic tendencies that have now become a normality.
However, if we can still digest the post-modern pill, we should be hesitant to impose all blame on this vilified, social elite. Below, I will shed light on the contentions between the upper and lower class through education reform. If above I identified and analyzed issues stemming from the elite’s institutional violence through education, then below I will do the same for the lower class. This is not to say either side is a hundred percent in the right, but rather there is a failure in dialogics, admittance and recognition of the education problem which needs to be resolved through the discovery of a class middle ground.
Mexican Education and Social Stratification II:
Peña Nieto and Union Hypocrisy
In September of 2013, President Enrique Peña Nieto signed in new educational reforms that finally (subdued) / engaged in the SNTE’s longstanding battle to control teacher wages and positions. Peña Nieto’s reforms usurp union power through government policies that have, more specifically, mandated teacher testing and increased the state’s regulation of the hiring process (Teachers, Education Reform, and Mexico’s Left Smith, 1). Although the unions have successfully dominated the allocation of finances and decisions as to who obtains certain positions in educational institutions, the reforms have altered the playing field by significantly degrading their political and educational control.
Due to such a transfer of power, unions and their supporters have taken to the streets in Mexico City to accuse Peña Nieto and his administration of purposefully attempting to further stratify social classes and to position Mexico closer to an ostensibly successful neoliberal state. Despite the validity and falsity of both sides, the situation echoes a Marxist struggle as the unions have become representatives of the lower stratum, and the government, despite its claims with regard to oncoming years of educational prosperity, has been framed as the nefarious and oppressive upper class. The unions’ discourse evokes an us versus them dichotomy that seems to further solidify the distinctions between elite and non-elite:
Como no conviene a los intereses de los ricos que la sociedad conozca lo que esconde esta reforma, la mayoría de los medios de comunicación de nuestro país, que están al servicio del gobierno y de los grupos que tienen el poder político y económico (televisión, radio, periódico), difunden noticias mentirosas que mantienen al pueblo confundido, facilitando la manipulación de la opinión sobre la lucha magisterial y popular. El quehacer educativo es preocupación de primer orden en cada uno de las maestras y maestros que estamos presentes en la lucha nacional. Nuestras acciones están encaminadas consecuentemente con nuestro papel de ser transformadores sociales por una mejor educación que necesitan los pueblos de México. Nuestro actuar en esta lucha, nos hace más conscientes y nos impulsa con mayor compromiso en el acompañamiento de los padres de familia y sociedad en general por ofrecer una educación que sirva realmente en la formación integral y armónica de las niñas, niños y jóvenes de nuestra nación. (Documento para padres de familia y pueblo en general de México 2013)
[It doesn’t suit the rich that society knows what hides in this reform / this reform hides, the majority of the media in our country, that are in government service and groups who hold political and economic power (television, radio, newspaper), lie and spread news that keep / keeps people confused, facilitating the manipulation of opinion of the magisterial and popular struggle. The educational workers’ top concern is each of the teachers who are present in the national struggle. Our actions are consequently determined by our role as social transformers for better education that the people of Mexico need. Our actions in this fight make us more aware and urge us to greater commitment in accompanying parents and society in general to provide an education that truly serves the integral and harmonious formation of children and youth in our nation.]
The SNTE thereby reifies a Mexico in which the rich, the upper class and the government have become blended into one scheming and oppressive entity. The above quote aims to take the woes of Mexico’s societal struggle and to reframe the unions as educational messiahs whose objective is to position themselves as “social transformers” against the upper class’ sinister agenda. Education becomes a topic of warfare in which the unions impose a certain frame to instill themselves as heroes of the oppressed. Yet, despite their assertion of increasing education, their previous tendencies involving teaching positions and finances reflect politically narcissistic ideologies (or so it seems).
Paulo Freire would perhaps go further, since these attempts to mend the education situation may be political facades: “Almost always the metropolitan society induces these reformist solutions in response to the demands of the historical process, as a new way of preserving its hegemony” (162). Don Knowland’s “Mexican government imposes education ‘reform’ over protests” (2014) states that “Ultimately, the education reform represented an effort by the Mexican ruling class to discredit and divide teachers from parents and the rest of the population, by accusing them of being overpaid and incompetent.” In this sense, the class statuses are made visible when education policy becomes the battleground for the organization of Mexican society. Thus, education reform has transformed into an outlet where social stratification becomes apparent through movement, protest and discourse.
In an alternate view, Jeffrey Puryear, Lucrecia Santibañaz and Alexandra Solano argue that the unions are in the wrong due to their ability to dominate the education discourse, not by trying to improve the condition of schools or education but by ensuring that teachers’ salaries are their primary concern and not the welfare of students (91). While each side attempts to argue for the overall improvement of education, there is a discomfort in that the agendas both fail to recognize their own flaws.
The argument against education reform imposed by the government stems from the political side’s ostensible negligence in recognizing Mexico’s poor infrastructure and the overall poverty of the population (Knowland 1). President Peña Nieto plans to standardize hiring and the promotion of teachers have been perceived as an attack on the lower class. Yet following Puryear, Santibañaz and Solano, it has also been reported that the education system has become increasingly corrupt, with some teachers secretly undermining education funding for personal purposes:
More than a year after an education overhaul in Mexico, a private research center said Wednesday that it had found hundreds of teachers making ‘exorbitant’ salaries, scores who earn more than the nation’s president, hundreds of ‘ghost schools’ – which siphon off funds but don’t exist – and even hundreds of schools that don’t have electricity (In Mexican education, huge salaries, ‘ghost’ schools Johnson, McClatchy 1)
It would therefore appear that state intervention is necessary in order to combat the allocation of finances by teachers who are exploiting funding for personal gain. If the discourse of education is perceived as a battleground for classes, then how does one make sense of the unions’ irresponsible actions to promote better quality education if one can argue that stronger educational bodies would increase standards of living? In conjunction, Puryear, Santibañaz and Solano mention that some of education funding goes into teachers’ salaries whereas there is none left for “Basic school construction, maintenance and facility issues [that] plague communities across the country” (93). If this is true, then the unions’ claims that the government’s new reforms fail to recognize the systemic issues, such as poor infrastructure and lack of resources, are false. Rather, corrupt educators’ perpetual desire for greater income is the cause of these educational failures.
In this sense, government intervention is necessary to weed out corrupt teachers and to regulate hiring and payment. This would be highly beneficial in allowing educators with a greater dedication to the schooling system to be able to come to the forefront of the educational arena. Their ability to be accepted by predetermined educational standards set by the government would reaffirm their capacity to adequately teach and not follow the corrupted footsteps of their predecessors.
Mexican Education and Social Stratification II:
Critique of and Repairs to Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Mexico’s current educational dilemma thus becomes a reality that can be used to reflect Paulo Freire’s work in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. While Freire’s ideology is strongly influenced by Marxist discourse through his division of society between oppressed and oppressor, his literature does well to serve empirical data revolving around capitalist influenced bouts between classes. If one can map out the “blame guy” that permeates Mexico’s education discourse, then one can see how Freire’s lenses into education, learning, revolution and the life of proletariat are appropriate to come into viable solutions to Mexico predicament.
To briefly review Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues for a new social consciousness through dialogical approaches to revolution. While at times the work can be seen as an outline to methodologies of teacher-student relationships, for the most part these ideas are always strung back to revolutionary instructions. To highlight, Freire’s core tenets can be summarized as “[…] cultural revolution develops the practice of permanent dialogue between leaders and people, and consolidates the participation of the people in power” (160). The establishment of dialogue and the need to distribute power between all members of society are the objectives of his work. For Freire, education cannot be separated from power and this notion reflects that knowledge too cannot be separated from politics. The oppressor therefore eliminates social realities that would impede on sustaining the societal hegemony in place.
In terms of Mexico’s current predicaments involving education, there exists an endless cycling of accountability for its destitute state in which the government blames corrupt teachers for the poor education and degrading infrastructure, yet the unions refocus this claim onto politics. Freire’s deconstruction of oppressor and oppressed has validity in these situations but on a more local level, Freire does well to serve that the oppressor can lie within the oppressed. That is to say that the bodies of the lower class become clad within the societal system and they act out in ways that diverge from the productivity of a successful revolution by the proletariat. Here, I connect this analysis to corrupt educators allocating finances and the unions’ preoccupation with salaries over the improvement of education.
Freire accounts that revolutionary leaders must decide on how to conduct a liberation movement by choosing which demands of the oppressed must be restructured as the driving force for the societal transformation. Whereas the argument above insists that Mexican unions’ are solely focused on increasing salaries, Freire comments that a leader should expand such a societal shift to extend the demands of the oppressed to a far more transformative aspirations:
To be concrete: if at a given historical moment the basic aspiration of the people goes no further than a demand for salary increases, the leader can commit one of two errors. They can limit their action to stimulating this one demand or they can overrule this popular aspiration and substitute something more far reaching — but something which has not yet come to the forefront of the people’s attention. (182)
To this degree, the oppressed must become self-critical political actors by acknowledging that within their own fabric lies figures that move in narcissistic directions impeding on societal transformation. This is not to say that the oppressed should shift away from leading the struggle against transforming the consciousness of the oppressor, but rather that to sustain themselves and to increase the potential for a successful revolution, then the oppressed must ensure that their efforts are united and not stuck within selfish goals. Freire would also argue that such a conflict internal to the oppressor is another tactic by the oppressed to divide the population, thus undermining their ability to produce societal transformation (173-175). Thus, the allocation of educational finances and the advocacy of an increase in salaries by unions must be dealt with internally before the unions and/or the lower class can confront the oppressor.
If Mexico and education are a battleground for the social classes, then there is exigency for a solution consolidating education into the realm of human universality which can sustain transformative processes for all stratums of Mexican life. However, there are inherent issues and roadblocks that have become integral pieces of the education system and that are unconsciously being reproduced with every generation. To end such internal conflict, and to increase the awareness of the differing social habituses that demarcate the political and educational world must, Mexico must acknowledged and debate such social stratification. Yet if the economy of Mexico has bifurcated the country into two social hemispheres of life, then what Freire deems the oppressed must muster the strength to support itself on its own two feet. That is to say that it must acknowledge the injustices that are a part of the elite but it must also review its own internal oppressors and restructure its political body to not fall victim to selfishness and inner turmoil. A construction of community based ethics and the large scale desire to produce viable change is necessary for Mexico’s oppressed. Without a strong body, the lower stratum will increasingly be destroyed by the upper classes’ political rhetoric. The shift of accountability is impeding on the non-elites ability to produce change, but by finetuning their internal conflicts, the lower stratum could undermine the habitus which demarcates their society and bring about social transformations in education and Mexican politics.
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