Peru Table of Contents

In Peru schooling is regarded as the sine qua non of progress and the key to personal advancement. In 1988 there were over 27,600 primary schools in Peru, one for virtually every hamlet with over 200 persons throughout the country. It is no exaggeration to say that the presence of a village school and teacher is considered by the poor as the most important first step on the road to "progress" out of poverty and a state of disrespect, if not for themselves, for their children. Because of the historical ethnic and racial discrimination against native peoples, the village school became the instrument and method by which one could learn Spanish, the most important step toward reducing one's "visibility" as an identifiable object of denigration and being able to gain mobility out of the native American caste. The primary school also has provided the means to become a recognized citizen because the exercise of citizenship and access to state services require (in fact, if not officially) a basic ability to use written and spoken Spanish. Thus, the spread of primary schools owed much to the deep desire on the part of the native and rural poor to disassociate themselves from the symbols of denigration. The thrust of Peruvian education has been oriented toward this end, however subtly or even unconsciously. School policies encouraged the discarding of native American clothing and language, and the frequent school plays and skits burlesqued native peoples' practices, such as coca chewing or fiestas, or equated indigenous culture with drunkenness and, often, stupidity and poverty, while at the same time exhorting native children to "lift themselves up." The opposite pole to being native American was to be Spanish- speaking, urban, white-collar, and educated.

The influence of these educational policies is reflected in the currents of social change sweeping Peru in the second half of the twentieth century. In the early 1960s, Peru was a nation where almost 39 percent of the population spoke native languages, half being bilingual in Spanish and half monolingual in a native tongue. By 1981 only 9 percent were monolingual, and 18 percent remained bilingual. In 1990 over 72 percent claimed to speak only Spanish, whereas in 1961, about 60 percent did. In 1990 Quechua was by far the dominant native language spoken in all departments, except Amazonas and Ucayali. Almost 80 percent of Aymara speakers lived in Puno, with many bilingual persons in Arequipa, greater Lima, Tacna, and Moquegua. About 85 percent of the population in 1991 was literate.

There are many technical and cultural difficulties associated with gathering and reporting information on native languages. Because of this, most experts have concluded that native languages are significantly underreported with respect to bilingualism. According to one study, native languages are the preferred means of communication even within those households whose adult members are bilingual. However, given the force of state policy in education and the many concomitant pressures on the individual, Quechua and Aymara will likely survive largely as second languages.

In the Sierra, where villages and communities are famous for their voluntary work, the majority of self-financed public community projects have been dedicated to the construction and maintenance of their escuelitas (little schools) with little assistance except from their migrant clubs and associations in Lima or other large cities. This overwhelming drive to change personal, family, and community conditions by means of education began at least 150 years ago, at a time when public education was extremely limited and private schooling was open to only the elite mestizo and white populations of the few major cities. In 1990, however, 28 percent of all Peruvians, over 5 million people, were matriculated in primary or secondary schools, which were now within reach of people even in the remotest of places.

In the mid-nineteenth century, aside from a few progressive districts that operated municipal schools, most educational institutions were privately operated. Individual teachers would simply open their own institutes and through modest advertising gain a clientele of paying students. There have been laws mandating public education since the beginning of the republic, but they were not widely implemented. In 1866 the minister of justice and education sought to establish vocational schools and uniform curricula for all public schools and to open schools to women. The Constitutional Congress in 1867 idealistically called for a secondary school for each sex in every provincial capital. With constitutional changes and renewed attempts to modernize, it became the obligation of every department and province to have full primary and secondary education available, at least in theory, to any resident. Primary education was later declared both free and compulsory for all citizens.

The Ministry of Education in Lima exercises authority over a sprawling network of schools for which it uniformly determines curricula, textbook content, and the general values that guide classroom activities nationwide. Because of the importance invested in education, the role of the teacher is respected, especially at the district level, where teachers readily occupy leadership positions. Owing to this tendency, for many years teachers were prohibited from holding public office on the theory that they would, like priests, exercise an unusual level of influence in their districts. The power accruing to a teacher as the only person with postsecondary education in a small rural town can be considerable: the teacher is sought out to solve personal and village problems, settle disputes, and act as spokesperson for the community. Both men and women have eagerly sought teaching positions because they have offered a unique opportunity for personal advancement. In a nation steeped in androcentric traditions, however, teaching has been especially important for women because it has been an avenue of achieving upward mobility, gaining respect, and playing sociopolitical roles in community affairs that have been otherwise closed to them.

Higher education is hence greatly respected. University professors symbolize a high order of achievement, and they are addressed as profesor or profesora. The same recognition of educational achievement is given to other fields as well. Anyone receiving an advanced degree in engineering is always addressed as engineer (ingeniero) or doctor. The titles are prestigious and valued and permanently identify one as an educated person to be rewarded with respect. The titles are therefore coveted, and on graduation the new status is often announced in El Comercio, Lima's oldest daily newspaper.

In 1990, in addition to its primary schools, Peru counted over 5,400 secondary schools (colegios) of all types. Although these too were widely distributed throughout the country, the best secondary schools were heavily concentrated in the major cities and especially in Lima. There, the elite private international institutions and Peruvian Catholic schools have offered excellent programs featuring multilingual instruction and preparation aimed at linking students with foreign universities. The private Catholic schools throughout the country, both primary and secondary, have been highly regarded for their efforts to instill discipline and character.

Because it is required by law that each provincial capital have a public secondary school, such schools historically have come to enjoy special status as surrogate intellectual centers in the absence of universities in their regions. The tradition of strong high school alumni allegiance is pronounced, with organizations and reunions commonplace and attachments to classmates (condiscípulos) enduring. The importance of a high school diploma is further emphasized by each graduating class, which bestows honor on some personage or event by naming its graduation after them. High school graduates take the selection of the class name as an opportunity to make a statement about things that concern them and choose one that embodies their thoughts. This custom is followed by university graduating classes as well.

Because people correlate social and economic well-being with educational achievement, schooling becomes essential not only for its functional usefulness but also for social reasons. The concept of education is infused with high intrinsic value, and educated people by definition are more cultivated (culto), worthy, and qualified to be admired as role models than others. Educated persons are thought to have the duty to speak out and address public issues on behalf of others less privileged; many students have accepted this responsibility as part of their student role.

The development of national identity is another area to which public education is firmly committed. In the wake of the devastating War of the Pacific--in which Peru lost territory, wealth, dignity, and pride--the emergent public school system became the major vehicle by which citizens established strong linkages to the state. Primary and secondary school curricula are thus heavily laden with patriotic, if not jingoistic, nationalism, elements of which are written into the nation's textbooks by the Ministry of Education. If nothing else, the primary school pupil learns that he or she is a Peruvian and that many of Peru's national heroes, such as Admiral Miguel Grau, Colonel Francisco Bolognesi, and Leoncio Prado, were martyrized on the nation's behalf by Chilean forces against whom one must be constantly on guard. Ecuador is viewed in this same tenor, but perceived as less menacing, constituting a vague threat to the nation's security or Amazonic oil rights.

The school calendar is thus filled with observances and ceremonies honoring national heroes and martyrs, including Túpac Amaru II (José Gabriel Condorcanqui). Parades, drum and bugle corps (banda de querra--war band), and flag bearers spend dozens of hours in school yards preparing for the celebration of national holidays (fiestas patrias), national independence day affairs that are the feature of every district, province, and department capital each year on July 27 and 28. In Lima the tradition of fiestas patrias involves a major display of military forces and equipment accompanied by high school units parading the length of Avenida Brasil (Brazil Avenue) across Lima. Completing the essentially military focus on nationalism in the public schools is the pupil uniform, a military cadet-type outfit for boys that includes a cap introduced by the General Manuel Odría regime in the 1950s.


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Source: U.S. Library of Congress