Que valiente fue el cachorro, How brave the cub,
Que cobarde el miliciano. How cowardly the militiaman.
This couplet generated by the capture and execution of Roberto Cofresí 180 years ago takes us to a popular imagery that in repeated occasions has celebrated the transgressor typified by the authorities more than it has celebrated the punitive agent. Occasionally, as in the case of islander Ignacio Avila, sentenced to death for the assassination of a landowner by Governor Prim in 1848, the legendary version of the event has changed the facts that may be documented. In all of them, the arbitrariness of the state’s agents has been elaborated as a fundamental piece of the collective memory. Why? Why is the state rarely a common project and always belongs to the imagery of the others?
There is a great need to make a history of the state in Puerto Rico. What we have received until now regarding political history have been government reviews, episodes in the life of political parties, analysis of the vicissitudes of trying to resolve the so-called “status problem”, reflections on electoral behavior, and accounts of resistance or opposition movements towards metropolitan authorities. But we do not have a history of the state as historical entity, in which we could see its organization, its performance, its evolution, and its attributes through different times. Historiographic reflection has been fascinated with the representations of itself that the state in Puerto Rico has done during different moments, but not with its organic development.
This lack of interest of historians could have been motivated by very different reasons, but the effect is the same, governors have been omnipresent in our accounts, but the state itself has remained in partial shadow. Concealing this role of the state in our history is a faithful reflection of its historical absence in our society. It could be objected, if it has been absent, why make its history? Because absences have also had their weight in the history of the people, and the efforts to compensate those absences leave marks.
My objective this time is to link the state’s absences to the violence phenomena in Puerto Rico. Right off the bat I point out that my purpose is not to conclude that the simplicity of saying that because the state has been permanently absent from our daily lives, our society is violent. More so, I try to gauge what the arbitrary attempts of the state in claiming or extending its prerogatives have meant to the peace of Puerto Ricans.
The Puerto Rican state had its origin not only in the violent conquest of the Indians by the Spaniards 500 years ago, but also in the transactions between Christopher Columbus’ heirs and the Spanish Crown, first to specify, then to limit, and finally to settle the claims of the Columbus family to control the island’s destiny.
When the Spanish Crown finally obtained full control of the island, the main aspects of its social order had come to life. Two jurisdictions, the capital (Puerto Rico) and San Germán, divided the island. African slaves had replaced Indians as the main work force in established haciendas and farms. The land, divided into large, medium, and small ranches, and some haciendas and farms, among peninsular colonizers, was more suited for cattle than farming. Less fortunate residents had to choose between moving closer to the owners of seaside lands, or do like the founders of Coamo, look inland for a place to settle their family in a bohío.
The militarization of the capital, following the construction of the prison of El Morro and the settlement as a permanent garrison, contributed to divide the population that lived outside the city walls from the administrative, clerical, and military personnel in the capital city. As Arturo Morales Carrión pointed out, the 17th century witnessed the development of two economies and two antithetical societies, one linked to the Spanish judicial order, legal commercial traffic, and military routines, and another, scattered, producing for the smuggling economy with other Europeans, and living according to the light of their own criteria.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, we saw the triviality of repeated efforts by the authorities in the capital city to impose their order upon the population that was scattered in the mountains and the valleys of the country. Illegal immigration of other Europeans sustained smuggling; the development of solidarity and sociability unconnected to the rules that emanate from the capital city marked the lifestyle of the island’s natives, who were still not called “Puerto Ricans”. Even San Germán’s well-to-do residents resisted submitting to the decisions of the current Captain General to make them provide garrison service at the capital city.
When Spanish bishops went on their pastoral visits —usually only one in the course of their episcopacies— they confirmed that life in the island’s parish churches took place isolated from the claims of current canonical rules. They responded with criticism and censorship that scarcely altered routines of local sociability. Much of what today is claimed by traditional Puerto Rican religiousness was once object of Episcopalian prohibition.
Governors, when not submitting to the lucrative attractions of smuggling and trying to bend the rude resistance of their arbitrators, had little chance of claiming success in their attempts to harmonize the economic practices and social routines of the governed with the Laws of the Indies.
In Fray Iñigo Abad’s Historia Geográfica y Civil we find the testimony of the first sustained intellectual effort to reconcile official institutions and Creole practices. Fray Iñigo in his celebrated praise of jíbaro (country-people) customs tried to make a physiocratic speech that would make progress in Puerto Rico’s commercial agriculture, imitating other Caribbean islands. The island was fertile and productive; its inhabitants were the lazy ones. It needed to get that potential working mass to subordinate to the captains of a new phase of market agriculture that turned out to be advantageous for the Spanish Crown. It was making Puerto Rico into another Saint Croix or another Barbados, with jíbaros as hacienda workers.
From Iñigo Abad to Juan de la Pezuela, we helped the repeated effort by ideologists and rulers to achieve a tie between those extremes, a land at the mercy of or marketed for ideal business personnel, foreign or Creole, and a work force made up of new shipments of African slaves, provided by the liberalization of slave trade since 1784, and the great mass of jíbaro population scattered in the mountains. That vision is the one that Pedro de Irizarry articulates in his report to the council of the capital city in 1809, which this council raises in its instructions to Ramón Power, which inspired the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815, wich encouraged Miguel de la Torre’s government practices and Pedro Tomás de Córdoba’s economic reflections, which impelled the laborer’s notification by governor López de Baños in 1838 leading to the notification of governor Pezuela’s libreta in 1849.
The strengthening of slavery between 1784 and 1837, and the consecutive attempts to eradicate the old agrego and subordinate to the new sugarcane and coffee landowners are in the roots of violence in Puerto Rico. The state was indifferent toward the abuse that took place during that time in our social history, and it allowed landowners to exercise their will on the lives of subordinates. The subordinates were not indifferent toward the abuse and many times they reacted violently to being exploited. If we examine the statistics and the news on homicide and violent acts in Puerto Rico during the first half of the 19th century, the link of these violent behaviors to the coercion, manipulation, and plundering to which the subordinate sectors of our society were submitted calls our attention.
The state authorized the local elite, represented in the Juntas Municipales de Vagos y Amancebados (Municipal Boards for Vagrant and Concubinage), in the war lieutenants and mayors, to try in all ways possible to provide the landowners with a stable work force. In their letters, governors also tried to regulate all popular social practices such as dances, cockfights, wakes on Three Kings Day, cross rosaries, patron saint festivals, horse races, and Christmas carols to make them fit into the requirements of their laws and work schedules. It even became a rule that subordinates must respect rulers.
The underhanded resistance to these governmental efforts came soon. If in order to have a Christmas party in the country they had to pay a dollar for a license, then it was better to have a musician show up spontaneously and give a Christmas serenade in the middle of the night. If fighting cocks had to be matched at the town’s cockfight ring, what prevented a cockfight from taking place among neighbors in a batey (plaza) in the mountains? Concealing, hiding, lack of respect —real or perceived—, wild and dusky means of expression, laconism, lack of witnesses for everything, indifference to public claim came about in the midst of the efforts by authorities to impose economic and social order. The libreta system was avoided by leasing lands to family members. If a slave or a prisoner escaped and went to a suburb, there was a series of shrugged shoulders, silence, directions given in gestures, and authorities were spoken to in dense terms, which made the investigations unsuccessful. Nobody ever knew anything.
The culture of illegality that had germinated during the times of gold smuggling, flourished in the favorable lands of countrymen’s solidarity when facing the damages of the market economy. The countryside solved its discrepancies its way. The state would intervene when hiding was unsustainable. But that culture of illegality was full of ambiguous signs. If it protected laborers who were persecuted by landowners, it also kept state agencies at bay regarding matters of domestic violence, sexual exploitation of minors, and negligence and abuse against the weak. It was not convenient for civil guards, inquiring teachers, and the suburb’s commissioner to meddle much in domestic matters.
Living conditions for many Puerto Ricans drastically worsened in the second half of the 19th century. The cholera epidemic in 1855-56 was a sign of the state’s inability to prevent the disaster of 29,000 deaths because of the lack of basic measures of public hygiene. Recurring epidemics of smallpox, which lazy municipal authorities did little to prevent, the plague of anemia, the rise of tuberculosis in urban centers, recurring infant tetanus among newborns and gastroenteritis among children, poor diet, slow and terrible spread of medical knowledge and wise indifference, mark the pages of that public health disaster. It is enough to corroborate the mortality rates in municipalities such as Utuado, Camuy, Humacao, Ciales, Río Piedras, and Cayey to prove the worsening living conditions in the golden era of coffee landowners and the owners of the first sugar plantations. It is not Zeno Gandía or Matías González who best document this human tragedy, but rather the burial books in parish churches and demographic registry.
Education wasn’t in good standing either, and despite ethnocentric praises to 19th-century education, it is enough to look at schoolteachers’ semester reports in municipalities to realize that the urban and masculine minority who attended classes was forever absent. Despite reforms established by governor Eugenio Despujols in 1880, according to the last Spanish census, the one in 1897, only 14 percent of the population could read and write.
That inefficient, incapable, and insubstantial state of the last decades of Spanish government in Puerto Rico, when it couldn’t assert itself, dramatized its powers to intimidate. The most noticeable case, naturally, is the one of the compontes of 1887, but it is not the only one. The resentment that those groups caused eroded a sense of belonging or loyalty toward Spanish institutions. Therefore, and in contrast with the experience of 1797 during the British attack to the capital, the majority of creoles were not involved in resisting the U.S. invasion in 1898.
The groups of tiznados that spread in the months following the U.S. invasion showed the instability of public order guaranteed by the state. At the municipal level the transition from one political regime to another was not easy. The economic crisis of 1898 became complicated with Hurricane San Ciriaco in 1899, and the military government could hardly avoid famine. Even so, the mortality rate of 1899 was the highest in the entire 19th century. Post-hurricane epidemics hit a malnourished and poorly accommodated population. The 19th century closed in a disaster.
The 20th century did not begin with pleasant events. The violent elections of 1902 created a gap in our collective memory, the time of the crowds in San Juan, Río Piedras, Cayey, and many other towns. After political violence became workplace violence, as the predominant sectors tried to turn off and destroy the growing workers’ movement, it all ended in the deaths of workers in sugarcane strikes in 1915 and 1917. We have very easily forgotten that the workers’ rights in Puerto Rico were acquired with enormous sacrifice and much conflict. In the 1920s, violence also spread because of state efforts to impose alcohol prohibition. Today, we have reduced the stories of alembics and smugglers to folklore—but many deaths, civil as well as police, took place in those struggles.
With the depression of the 1930s, we faced new political struggles and new bloody encounters between policemen and nationalists. But even greater than this political violence was the daily bleeding of our island because of homicides and murders that resulted from misery, hopelessness, and the competition because of the scarce economic resources then available. According to studies by Pedro Vale, homicide rates in the 1930s were not exceeded in the entire 20th century until the 1990s.
If industrialization and massive migration to the United States mitigated street violence on the island between the 1940s and the 1960s, domestic violence and social conflict did not disappear altogether, as we can prove with the statistics compiled at the time and newspapers from that time. Toward the end of the 1960s, conflicts related to drug smuggling and persecution came about, a history for which we cannot foresee an end. But in addition to violence related to the drug culture (and as we often see, drug persecution) we are more conscious of the daily damage of domestic violence, the multiple attacks of adolescents, and the worrying increase of attacks to the elderly.
To summarize, a society that is born to the warmth of a violent event (the Spanish conquest of the Indians in the 16th century), and that for centuries maintains naturally violent institutions such as slavery and agregado workers, one in which the state has always had an imperfect control of the coasts, and has been unable to avoid the multiple phases of smuggling, nor has it been able to guarantee the inhabitants’ social peace, a society that at the end of four centuries undergoes another violent conquest, and lives on the wide framework of a violent Caribbean society and an unjust and violent world, whose images and requirements have an effect here, can’t do less than reflect its experience and institutions in that history.
Rulers in the 20th century didn’t only inherit 19th-century institutions, laws, and state regulations from the Spaniards but also the attitudes, mentality, and ideas that had been valid during the efforts of imposing those rules. It is interesting to note in the military correspondence the perceptiveness with which some U.S. officers warned of the fissures between the Puerto Rican Creole elite and country people masses. The indifference of the elite, even of the educated people, regarding the misfortune and neglect of the poor is perhaps visible in that bill endorsed by representative Luis Lloréns Torres, in which they wanted to prohibit the country people from going into town barefoot.
There is certain continuity between the hostility toward the poor in the influential sectors of our society at the beginning of the 20th century and the rejection of the so-called populism that has become in among the educated elite at the beginning of the 21st century. The same disdain, the same indifference, the same patriarchal speech that awoke the resentment of socialist militants a hundred years ago, the same lordly looks then more dyed of racism, perhaps today are more concealed with speeches and security devices, mark the efforts to advance agendas for dominating and manipulating the people in our neighborhoods, housing projects, and suburbs. How much of our violence today is due to those perceptions of disdain, to that loss of dignity implied in some gestures, to that effort to make others invisible and try to do without their presence?
There is anger in our country, much anger, because the selfishness of some has translated into the insecurity of many. But we have to go beyond the perception of anger and frustration, beyond the feeling of inequality and disdain, and understand that the imbalance of opportunity in our society is not compensated by federal donations or by welfare attitudes. What in justice belongs to all should not be granted by complaisance.
In the same transgression penalizing mechanisms we find the same patterns of social discrimination and elitist antagonism. In Puerto Rico, negligence and incompetence have worked hand in hand to create and perpetuate a penal system that is expensive, inefficient, and sadistic, to which we are all accomplices -from the neat parishioners of the churches that are in style who indulge in hearing about the progress of Puerto Rico’s rehabilitation to the hardened bureaucrats skilled in saying what is expected. I wish I mastered Dante’s smooth rhyme so that I could evoke the Inferno of Puerto Rican Comedy and recognize those secretaries of justice and administrators of the Department of Corrections who have been responsible for promoting, maintaining, and defending this oppressive system of penal retribution.
But the responsibility does not only belong to those who manage public policy but also to those who elaborate it. Keeping prisons as the core and axis of our correctional horizon prolongs one of the most evident causes of our collective violence. Prison is not part of the solution but rather it is in the root itself of the problem. It is like one of those old hospitals that instead of providing individual healing served as a center of viral infection. Efforts to revise the penal code are at risk of being lost in the demagogy of those who want to appear to be enemies of crime and the complaisance of judicial bureaucracy that is slow in applying the reforms. We need more, many more alternatives to prison, and more efforts to save the lives of those who have been pointed out to purge the violence of all.
Educating for Peace in a Violent Society
How, then, can we educate for peace in a society where violence has played such a predominant role throughout the formative years? Is it not missioning impossible for schools to try to make peace when the social environment is so violent? I believe that the starting point should be violence itself. We should not ignore its presence in our past and our environment. If we insist on projecting a vision of an idyllic and harmonious past, we become disabled in understanding the present. Those civic and religious leaders who evoke that lost rural society with such lyricism don’t realize that in erasing the memory of the violent past we lose the key to understanding the present. If social problems don’t have deep roots, they become episodes that have easy explanations and improvised solutions. If violence comes from television programs, then censor television. If family fragmentation is due to mothers going out to work, then they should stay at home. That type of quick and ignorant answer turns its back on the acute testimonies of the censuses of the past and the demographic testimonies that reveal that family fragmentation is not recent; it rather reflects a pattern that is at least 150 years old. Women went out to work… being compensated for their work is another story.
But that gaunt jíbara in antique pictures didn’t stay in the bohío all day waiting. She went out to the ravine to wash clothes, to the rice harvest to weed, to the coffee plantation to participate in the harvest, and if necessary, to the sugarcane plantation to cut sugarcane. Making up the story that women betrayed the family by going to work at the modern factory is hiding the memory of the working woman, slave, worker, small owner and artisan, in the five centuries of our history. Blaming her for the family crisis distorts Puerto Rico’s social history and hides the family crisis and social conflicts of the past. It is not covering up the past that we come to understand the present.
We begin, then, with the fact that our students and teachers live immersed in a world where violent signs have been abundant for a long time. Other societies of the past and present have shared that circumstance. The ability to promote an equalitarian and just society, of stimulating creativity and the good life, does not depend so much on the environment as it does on the will of those who want to achieve excellence. The classic Greece of Euripides and Plato was as violent —if not more— as our contemporary societies, but there it was possible to sublimate the instinct of competition and individual gratification to ensure a significant advance in human conscience. Greek paideia tried to harmonize the individual aspiration for fame with the collective requirement for civic responsibility. That it didn’t fully achieve that agreement is obvious because of the eventual failure of its city-states, but while it lasted, the collective commitment to that ideal was productive in the great works of art, literature, science, and philosophical thought, which are the foundation of our civilization.
In the roots of our social violence is a similar contradiction to the one that the old Greek society and other subsequent societies dynamized. On one hand, we consecrate the ideal of a democratic, equalitarian society where public service is the object of constant praise; and unselfishness and generosity constitute the largest examples of civility. On the other hand, we have made these characters whose performance contradicts the ideals we profess into icons of our society.
We Must Question the Discourse of Sports
Let’s use sports as an example. When sports promoters request funds for building sports facilities, financing events, or sending delegations to other countries, the discourse revolves around the notion that sports encourage comradeship, team work, respect towards the opponent, and knowledge about other societies. There is not a civic prose as eloquent as the one of a federation president in search of economic support. But when the court is built, the tournament is sponsored, or the delegation competes internationally, forget comradeship, teamwork, and international solidarity, what I’m interested in is the amount of medals, individual records, and how much we humiliate the opponent. The individual is praised, he is made into a hero, the defeated is scorned, and the discourse itself that made the event possible is humiliated.
We never question sportsmen, we never demand that they prove that they have achieved the formal goals they set for themselves, the only thing we ask for is that they bring back the medals. There are Olympics every four years, and every four years the sportsmen’s wail for medals not achieved is that sports haven’t been given enough money. However, there are Nobel prizes every year and I have never seen the press in October wail that one more time Puerto Rico has not obtained a single Nobel because there is not enough support for investigation and creative work. We are devastated when sports medals don’t arrive, for which many funds have been spilled, and we silently survive Puerto Rico’s absence in international awards ceremonies in medicine, scientific and social investigation, and literary and artistic creation.
Sports attract us because they are violent, confronting, aggressive, and decisive. “Get him, Tito!”, screams the executive in a tie in front of his television and all the aggressiveness he has held back in the office, all that frustration, overflows in screams and exclamations for the rampant boxer. What does this collective fascination with boxing mean, that momentary glorification of sad boxers destined to an unhappy old age when they have forgotten their old fans and suffer the consequences of the injuries they got for free, languishing in retirement homes waiting for the superficial obituary on the sports page? We regret violence but with the usual civic discourses we encourage boxing, where violence is sublimated and glorified.
All this said, it is obvious that encouraging sports is not in itself the solution to school violence. Those who take that position, just like federation presidents and other promoters of organized sports, will surely use the same worn-out discourse about sports promoting a healthy coexistence and team discipline. I have nothing against promoting a healthy co-existence and team discipline. However, I do doubt Puerto Rico’s sportsmen’s ability to promote them. Sports by themselves don’t automatically achieve them. People educated in the paideia of personal promotion, of competing for competing, and of gaining medals no matter what have not received the training to educate adolescents in the values they seek to encourage. Sports are not a panacea, they are an educational tool, but it is educators, not veterans of giving and receiving thumps, who can manage them pedagogically. It is the worst way to fool yourself, believing that a veteran of courts and canvas is automatically capable of being an educator. Schools should not become a convenient solution to create employment for retired sportsmen.
Dramatize the Signs of Conflict
I see more possibilities in theater to mitigate and sublimate the effects of violence in our society than in sports. It is not difficult to attract adolescents and children to participate in plays: standing on stage, dressing theatrically, participating in the production and staging of a play is extremely attractive to them. Instead of separating by gender like sports do, theater unites girls and boys. It helps them socialize, creates skills of verbal and bodily expression, creates a conscience of the importance of words and gestures, and it has space not only for actors but for other participants as well. Task may vary from collaborating in setting up the stage design, lights, and special effects systems to preparing propaganda, wardrobe, and makeup. Theater develops self-esteem, requires teamwork, and promotes coordinating movements.
Theater has numerous aspects, from formal representations with full staging, to mimes and puppets. A creative teacher can choose the type of representation that is most appropriate for an audience. Is there a problem with abusers in school? Perhaps its worth to not only educate the abuser and his victims but also the spectators of such abuse and the public who witness how the abuser displays his art of intimidation and become a silent accomplices of his abuse. A audiance that sees how human weakness is represented in all participants of abuse, who comes to understand that abuse reflects a pattern they have themselves been victims of before will be less tolerant of the act and better understand those who act that way. To do so, there are simple representation techniques that go from the spontaneous to the studied. A group session in which they all spontaneously represent both sides of the abuse may precede an ample discussion of the topic they are all drawn to.
Involve Students in the Solution
Using the tool of theatrical representation of conflict is part of a larger strategy that in many schools in other countries has been used: involving students in solving school violence problems. One of the techniques developed in the United States is the mediation of equals. It consists of forming arbitration teams who familiarize themselves with techniques to solve and reduce conflict and that effectively channel perceptions, uneasiness, and differences of the student body. This provides a group of students with the experience of educating themselves in the art of mediation and it also encourages that a significant sector of the school population becomes involved in the search for alternatives and solutions to problems within the school community.
One of the advantages of this approach is that it allows the sources of conflict in the school community to be identified with better precision. There are things that are more difficult to tell an adult educator. For a victim of homophobic attacks —whose virility is questioned and ridiculed by his peers— it is not easy to narrate these events to an authority because he does not know if the reaction will be harsh or mocking, insensible or incredulous. That is why they often conceal the resentment and growing rage they feel inside until in a violent act, terribly violent, as happened months ago in Minnesota, they unload the accumulated resentment. But equals know about these situations, they can effectively talk about them without the fear of being ridiculed, and they can help create awareness in the group regarding the injustice and arbitrariness of intolerance.
Feeling as a victim of some prejudice is what often nourishes violent behaviors. Sometimes, even teachers contribute to that discomfort by adding to the general prejudice against the individual. This happens when a teacher makes sarcastic comments, repeats nicknames, and, in his silence about the abuse, becomes an accomplice to prejudice; and the individual feels that he lacks protection from the authorities and in his desperation could turn to violence or suicide.
Identifying and deactivating prejudices, stigmas, and stereotypes requires an honest discussion between educators and students, but often educators have not had the necessary elements to be able to effectively talk about these things with students. It would be good to have an occasional workshop in which they encourage consciousness and provide conceptual tools for those tasks. They should also take advantage of the resources in school libraries. How many of our teachers know about the Dominican origin of the families of Eugenio María de Hostos, Ramón Emeterio Betances, and Juan Morell Campos? Just like in the past, library activities have been used to emphasize the importance of nationalists, blacks, and women in our history, perhaps iconography exhibited in our libraries should also be used to empower the image of Dominicans, Neoricans, and other groups exposed to rejection and stereotypes. Increasing the understanding of the surrounding world is part of the educational mission; having students reflect on the plurality of human experience enriches their perspective; and making them understand that accepting differences is the first step toward a healthy coexistence is vital in achieving peace in the school community.
There are many conflicts which worsen because they have not been adequately described from the beginning. The tendency to lessen, make into folklore, and trivialize student hostility and rivalries has sometimes resulted in ignoring the solution to problems that perhaps at first would have been easier to handle. It is important to learn to recognize the first signs of differences and conflicts, prejudices and resentments. We must ask: who defines the problem? Sometimes, it is surprising to find many people obsessing over a problem that has not been presented correctly. Is it a problem of communication or of discipline? Is it a problem for a few people or for many? Is it a problem that has a solution in the school or outside? Is the problem solved with more resources or by using the existing ones in a better way? How do different sectors define the problem? Whose definition should I follow?
It is worrying how problems are sometimes defined in our society. A civic or professional group launches an advertising campaign to identify something as a problem. The press follows up on it. All of a sudden, radio programs talk about the problem. It becomes a matter of discussion for panelists. The government and legislature are required to solve the problem promptly. And nobody thinks of asking who made it into a problem or why the matter became a problem.
That, which happens in our society in general, sometimes becomes more critical when it is reduced to the narrow environment of an institution. “He gave me a bad look. He was disrespectful. He was rude.” What sometimes begins as a personal insult becomes the issue of most importance in a school. We generalize: people from that area or that housing project have an attitude. We can’t trust tenth graders. Girls today have lost their self-respect.
Accidental is confused with substantial, shapes are confused with content. There are several simultaneous semiotics and they do not decode each other. Suddenly, people begin to take sides, sometimes as a mere reaction to how others have aligned themselves. That is when you have to ask: who defined the problem? Are the terms of the matter well defined? Who does the problem affect? Do the affected people have enough information about possible solutions?
The Matter of School Dropouts
Let’s take the so-called school dropouts as example. It is not a recent problem. If we study the reports prepared by municipal school committees of the 19th century we realize that most students were absent to school most of the time. Teachers blamed the problem on parents who turned to their children as workers to help during times of farming and harvesting. Parents blamed the long distances that their children had to walk to get to school and the frequent illnesses. What’s interesting is that nobody thought about asking children for the reason.
In the last 120 years, the problem of students dropping out of school has been approached in many ways. There was a time when schools could not cover the potential school enrollment, and therefore the dropout problem was left in the parents’ hands, because in any case schools could not try to take care of them all. Then came the times when there was space for all of them in schools, but teachers had to take care of 40 or 50 students in each classroom; if a few stopped going, they weren’t missed much. In those times, school dropouts were not a topic for the press because the job market could take young workers on as apprentices to sell water, or work as masonry helpers, truck drivers, and domestic workers.
The problem of school dropouts began to be presented as an acute problem with an urgent need for resolution when delinquency and violence of youngsters involved in selling drugs is blamed on dropping out of school. The first question is: what should schools do to retain them and how can they be returned to school? The reasons for dropping out of school were listed, blaming the schools or the family, but like in the 19th century, nobody asked the youngsters.
The result was that they put together some solutions that turned out to be damaging to everyone. Families of possible school dropouts were threatened with the possibility of losing the financial help they received from federal programs if the children dropped out. Teachers were told that their effectiveness would be measured by their retention rates of students in the classrooms. And now, they expect to issue driver’s licenses under the condition of them staying in school. It is automatically assumed that school is the best solution for these adolescents. The result is that teachers are many times forced to have in their classrooms students two or three years older than the group, inconsiderate, rebellious, unsociable, and harassing.
But aren’t there other ways to educate that aren’t inside four walls with a whiteboard? Couldn’t another solution be given to the problem of arrested dropouts? Many times rebelliousness hides talent, but talent is wasted and degraded when it is habitually used to sabotage and hinder. Frustration becomes a source of violence. They are potential abusers and poor role models for their younger classmates. Why not design something different for these youngsters, something that challenges and satisfies, shapes, and stimulates them? Aren’t there other models such as clubs or associations whose activities stimulate the necessary abilities to achieve the equivalent of grades?
These are some of the ideas with which I want to provoke you on this occasion. They don’t cover all the areas of this issue, nor do they expect to provide a valid recipe for all imaginable situations, but rather they constitute only a request for reflection. That reflection is highly necessary in a world that becomes evermore conflictive.
As we continue to live the contradiction between praising the individual and at the same time asking him to subordinate his interests and aspirations to the needs of society, it is indispensable to think of social mechanisms to arbitrate tensions, frustrations, and the anxiety that such contradiction generates. We can’t turn back the clock; we can’t go back to more simple times in society in which the claims of the individual and of society collided less often.
Our students are a reflection of the social realities in which they are immersed, and that is why they fall into violent behavior. But educational institutions, aware of those social realities, should also provide tools with which they can understand the realities they live in. It is not merely about schools being exempt of violent incidents, but rather that students learn to handle conflict. Educating for peace is educating to live in a world of diverse interests and conflicts.
Author: Fernando Picó
Published: September 23, 2010.
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