Throughout history, education has been a mechanism for sharing knowledge, generating thought and encouraging changes in mentality, as well as perpetuating ideologies, culture, public policies and for justifying the political control by those who are in power. But education is also a liberating process, especially from the world view, mentality and acceptance of the inequality that affects the well-being of human beings. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher, in his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), asserted that education is a source of liberation for those who are part of the marginalized classes of society. He emphasizes that education from power is an instrument used by the privileged classes to perpetuate the social inequality that benefits those classes to the detriment of the other members of society. Freire calls this relationship between the classes “oppressor-oppressed.” In his work, he states that the oppressed recognize the need for freedom, but are afraid to begin the liberation process and opt to adapt to their reality. The philosopher refers to this process as a duality:
The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. They discover that without freedom, they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized (39).
Freedom is only achieved when the state of oppression is understood. Only then can the individuals bring about the change that results in the process of internalizing and materializing the freedom they know they deserve and initiate their self-liberation.
Education from the Power Structure
The value of education is unequaled. That is why those whose agenda is to control collective thought and maintain the status quo value education as a tool. Education, however, as Freire says, can be a tool of oppression or it can also be a tool of liberation. César Rey Hernández, former secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Education, in the article “Education and Public Policy: The Challenge of Governability in Puerto Rico” (2009), asserts that: “…education is fundamental for managing a world view, codes and imperative values for sustaining any society” (120).
Adolf Hitler was able to carry out his political agenda through mass manipulation using education and propaganda. He persuaded with his speeches and spread his ideals in the German society of the early 20th century. It is interesting that once Hitler came to power, he founded the National Socialist League of Teachers. This association went from 5,000 followers to 220,000 and, by 1937, 97% of the teachers belonged to it (Lobato 13). German teachers spread and validated the Nazi principles and justified the actions of the Führer’s government. The “Official Manual for Teachers. Official Education and Instruction Publication of the Reich and the Prussian Ministry of Science, Education and National Culture” was the guide that established the principles of the Nazi educational system and that teachers had to follow loyally (Lobato 19). The document established in detail everything from the way the classroom should be structured to what the students should think.
Nazi Germany is just one example. Other cases of the political power structure using education as a tool to justify its agenda and maintain control of the collective include Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Benito Mussolini in Italy, Francisco Franco in Spain, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and the educational system in the United States, whose nationalist bent has been shielded by so-called “American exceptionalism.”
The examples mentioned above depart from democratic principles when they undermine the people’s ability to elect government leaders and express themselves on issues that affect the common good. However, even in those cases where elections are held under models that are considered democratic, the educational system validates the selection process even when it does not serve the interests of the masses, but rather the prerogatives of those in power. Governments, democratic or otherwise, control the educational system and implement their public policy in conformance with standards that match their governing agendas. Democratic systems do not guarantee that the educational system will not be used to promote ideologies and maintain the established paradigms.
Important Aspects of Education as a Political Tool in Puerto Rico: 1898 to 1952
Puerto Rico is no exception to the use of education as a political tool. Immediately after the United States assumed control of the island in 1898, a plan was begun to implement U.S. public policy in all corners of the island, including education. In 1899, General John Eaton began the so-called Americanization process through the imposition of English as the language of instruction in Puerto Rico’s public schools. The adoption of English as the official language put into motion the process of cultural assimilation of Puerto Ricans.
That public policy did not change until 1948, when Luis Muñoz Marín, the first governor elected by a vote of the Puerto Rican people, took office. Muñoz named Mariano Villaronga as Commissioner of Instruction. Villaronga, in turn, issued Letter No. 10 of August 6, 1948, in which he decreed teaching in Spanish as the official language in the island’s primary and secondary schools (López Laguerre 13).
In 1952, the government of the United States approved the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In Article II, Section 5, the Constitution establishes the right to a free and non-sectarian public education in Puerto Rico. That education would be provided by the public education system, and therefore would be based on the government’s public policy. Since then, the Puerto Rican educational system has experienced countless changes, depending on the structure and political party in power.
It is essential to consider the federal statutes that are in place and govern the federal public policy of the United States when examining the public policy of the local government in terms of the official language and attempts to increase the use of English in the teaching process. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and, therefore, state legislation has to be consistent with and not conflict with the legislation in place at the federal level. At the same time, the Puerto Rico Department of Education receives federal legislative funds that require compliance with parameters and standards that are established by the allocation of funds to enable the transfers.
Brief Points on the Implementation of Educational Public Policies in Puerto Rico
In the Rey Hernández essay cited earlier, he notes and explains the challenge of managing the Puerto Rico Department of Education in terms of governability within Puerto Rican public administration. Rey Hernández discusses the particular characteristics of the public education system, the changes it has experienced over centuries and its reality as of the end of the past decade. Furthermore, he asserts that education serves as a political tool. He believes that the administrative change from one political party to another diminishes the continuity in implementing public policies that can benefit the educational system in the long term but instead are discarded just because were implemented by an adversary:
Even when good ideas and competitive projects are generated, they suffer from the actions of those currently in power and the processes that have begun are not given continuity. This causes a level of interruption that is equivalent to decades of development in thinking and, perhaps, in the progress of the nation, in more than one sense (124).
The author calls this type of practice in public administration “populist immediatism” and notes that this practice means that it is impossible to “launch projects that transform the foundations of the educational system” (124). The use of education as a political tool damages the Puerto Rican educational system and retards progress by eliminating useful projects without just cause.
The former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, said that: “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Possibly,the transformative and liberating process that is education perhaps has no equal. Unfortunately, in countless cases in history, the pattern of using education as a political tool by those in power is repeated to ensure and justify an agenda that is more individualist than collective, to the detriment of the common good.
Puerto Rico is not exempt from this kind of practice. The Puerto Rican educational system has not evolved, probably due to the use of the educational agenda for political purposes. For decades, ideas and public policies have been rejected because they were proposed or implemented by a political adversary. Simultaneously, the use of the Puerto Rico Department of Education as a mechanism for advancing agendas that benefit particular individuals or entities is obvious and has resulted in public scandals and criminal acts.
Rethinking the Puerto Rican educational system, with special attention to the historical reality, is urgently needed. The complexity of the educational system situation invites a change in the discourse by the island’s administrators and a call for participation by other stakeholders in the educational scene, without personal agendas or predetermined scripts. Only the desire to transform education into a tool of freedom will lead to critical thinking, the solution of problems, and the creation of a better nation.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogía del oprimido. Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1970.
Lobato Olea, Francisco. “La educación en la Alemania nazi”. Final degree project, Facultad de Ciencias de la Educación, Universidad de Sevilla, 2014, pp. 1-71, https://idus.us.es/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11441/32721/TFG-105%20COMPLETO2.Final.2.pdf?sequence=1
Rey Hernández, César. “Educación y política pública: El reto de la gobernabilidad en Puerto Rico”. Revista de Administración Pública, vol. 41,1 Jan-Dic. 2009, pp. 119-138.
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