Spectres of Vasconcelos in AMLO’s “Cuarta Transformacion”?

The following is a guest post by our good friend Julio Covarrubias.

(You can find Alfonso Reyes’s “Cartilla Moral” referred to below here: https://regeneracion.mx/cartilla-moral-alfonso-reyes/)

Spectres of Vasconcelos… in AMLO’s “Cuarta Transformacion”?

As a part of AMLO’s recently unveiled education and anti-illiteracy campaign, his administration is reprinting and distributing copies of Alfonso Reyes’ “Cartilla Moral,” a pamphlet Reyes wrote as a kind of “layman’s guide” to ethics in 1944. It had been commissioned by then Secretary of Public Education, Jaime Torres Bodet for an anti-illiteracy campaign of that era. The purpose of the Cartilla was to promote principles for a kind of public morality, to create a new kind of citizen.[1]

Now, imagine a world where the US government distributes a pamphlet on moral philosophy to the masses. Unheard of!

But what interested me about AMLO’s discourse on the literacy campaign was his philosophical justification for including the Cartilla as a part of it. His justification is essentially that there is a need to ward off the ideology of materialist individualism, where accumulation of material goods and self-interested behavior are seen as the good. He argues that there are higher goods required to live a fully human life and that distributing the Cartilla is necessary to start a public reflection/discussion on the ethical principles and values that should govern Mexican society.

This interested me because these are the same kind of grounds that Jose Vasconcelos used to justify his stance on education, especially as pitted against John Dewey’s pedagogical views (or what Vasconcelos would have regarded as the “Anglo model” of education).[2] Vasconcelos served as Minister of Education in the post-Revolutionary government. Of Vasconcelos’s work during this period, Octavio Paz has written that:

His work was brief but fecund, and the essence of it is still alive. In part he carried out the task begun by Justo Sierra, which was to extend elementary education and to improve the quality of instruction on the higher levels, but he also tried to base education on certain principles that were implicit in our tradition but had been forgotten or ignored by the positivists. Vasconcelos believed that the Revolution was going to rediscover the meaning of our history, which Sierra had sought in vain. The new education was to be founded on “our blood, our language and our people.”[3]

“If the Revolution was a search and an immersion of ourselves in our own being,” Paz said, “no one embodied this fertile, desperate desire better than José Vasconcelos, the founder of modern education in Mexico.”

By contrast to this, Dewey is seen as having believed that the scientific method had displaced classical education (i.e., reading the “Great Books”), and that this called for a change in education that was—Gregory Pappas will correct me if I am wrong—more student-centered, learning-by-doing type stuff. The main point of contention for Vasconcelos, though, was that the political end of education should be merely to prepare individuals to be useful citizens in a democracy, not to train them into a particular world-view.

According to Jose Antonio Aguilar Rivera, although Vasconcelos was, at first, pleased with the growing influence of Dewey’s philosophy in Mexican education, he came to vehemently oppose it. As Octavio Paz puts it, Vasconcelos understood the concept of education as entailing already “an image of the world and a program for living.” “School,” said Vasconcelos, “should be a summary of the general experience of humanity.”[4] And, for Vasconcelos, the most important lesson of the human experience, the main purpose of an education, was to introduce the child to a world that escaped the “brutish necessity” of the natural world and that “develops according to the rules of morality or art,” that is, the world of the higher goods of an intellectual, moral, and aesthetic nature (the “spiritual”). Such a program, Paz points out, must naturally turn to tradition. And for Mexico this would mean looking to its Spanish and indigenous roots, not to the Anglo-Saxons, who, on Vasconcelos’s reading of world-history, were always enemies of the “Latins.”

Vasconcelos perceived, correctly in my view, that Dewey’s ideas (or, at least, the ideal of education we are here attributing to Dewey), were attempting to be neutral with respect to what, in contemporary philosophical parlance, we would call “a comprehensive view of the good,”[5] or a world-view attached to a particular form of life. But Vasconcelos’s point is that this is a false neutrality, since Dewey’s view is already informed by a comprehensive view of the good. For Vasconcelos, “pragmatic pedagogy” is just Protestantism being brought to bear on pedagogy. In fact, Dewey’s pedagogy embodied Anglo-Saxon values that for Vasconcelos were inimical to the aims and values of Mexico, Latin America, and even to civilizationas a whole.

In regard to the first claim, Vasconcelos believed that one of the worst things the porfiriato did to Mexicans was, in fact, to submit them and to try to impose on them the Anglo-Saxon values written into the official state ideology: Herbert Spencer’s positivism. As he wrote in La raza cosmica,

We have been educated under the humiliating influence of a philosophy conceived by our enemies… with the purpose of exalting their own goals and annulling ours. In this manner, even wehave come to believe in the inferiority of the mestizo, in the unredemption of the Indian, in the damnation and the irreparable decadence of the Black… If we do not liberate the spirit, we shall never be able to redeem matter. [6]

But, Vasconcelos thought, these Anglo values are a danger to all civilization. “The nineteenth century,” he wrote, “with its emphasis on practical science, made war on the literati…  Later, it became evident that a society without literati was simply barbaric.” (He was referring here, presumably, to the science-worship of the positivist period.) But for Vasconcelos, as Aguilar Rivera notes, the new barbarians—the Anglos del norte—“were even more dangerous than the old ones, because they had at their disposal the means of destruction and the power of modern technology… They were, simply put, a ‘threat to the spirit.’”[7]

Robinson y odiseo, the book where Vasconcelos lays into to Dewey and the Anglo-Saxon education, was published in 1935, although it obviously owes a lot to Rodo’s Ariel. It’s been 84 years, but, man, doesn’t this almost sound like a critique of our modern day educational system? As Vasconcelos puts it in Robinson,

Al criterio pragmático se dice ante la cosa: ¿como puedo aprovecharla? Una civilización cabal no puede acallar en los labios del niño a otra pregunta vieja que adquiere: ¿cual es el ser de la cosa?

(“…the pragmatic criteria asks before the object: of what use is the thing? But the excellent civilization cannot silence in the mouth of the child a much older question: what is the nature of the thing?”)[8]

With the shuttering of philosophy departments and cuts to humanities programs of recent times, isn’t this “civilization” (I won’t call it “our”) doing exactly this?

Of course, a nosy liberal will say, we might have reason not to think the state has any business creating specific types of human beings, or setting morality in any substantive way. Vasconcelos’s own positive educational project, of course, while achieving everything Paz describes, we still would now regard as ethnocentrist/racist. As Minister of Education, Vasconcelos set himself the task of instilling the people with what he regarded as the foundational elements of Western culture—Spanish/“Latin” being the more lofty, and therefore superior, inheritor to that culture, over what he regarded as a vulgar Anglosaxonism.

My worry isn’t that he was ethnocentric against the Anglos, though. Instead, I mean that this project was essentially about Westernizing/Hispanicizing the mestizo and Indigenous peoples of Mexico. To accomplish this, Vasconcelos, contra Dewey, saw the teaching of the classics as essential,[9] and he set himself the explicit goal “to have the highest works brought to the humblest hands, and thereby achieve the spiritual regeneration that must precede all regeneration.”[10] Once accomplished, he thought this would provide the Mexican people with the historical orientation necessary to come to terms with the great purpose that their Ibero-American legacy had imparted on them…. Cue the thesis of the The Cosmic Race: to bring about the coming of the new American man who would resolve all racial conflicts and the opposition between East and West.

I have read somewhere that so many youths were inspired by Vasconcelos’ anti-illiteracy campaigns that, with the zeal of missionaries, many shipped off to rural schools to teach, and that, in public places, one could find university students standing on chairs and soapboxes reciting poetry and reading literature, so that the masses could at least in this way have access to them. Something about this seems moving. Characterized one way, a sympathetic interpreter will admit that, while doing violence to Indigenous knowledge systems and ways of life, these efforts simultaneously were important in providing a basic education that all the non-literate could use to better their social position, or to secure their interests in interactions with state authorities. From another perspective, though, we could see the student reciting Shakespearean sonnets in a public square to bemused onlookers as, essentially, trying to shout into existence a Mexico that would have required many of the onlookers to disappear…[11]

I am not sure yet about the details of Obrador’s literacy campaigns. And surely there is something to Vasconcelos’s piece that, even the thought that the state doesn’t have any business creating specific types of human beings, is itself rooted in some comprehensive view of the good (Rawlsians don’t @ me). Either way, I’d hope his project isn’t as thoroughly Vasconcelista as all this.

[1]Check out the story at el Universal: https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/mochilazo-en-el-tiempo/la-cartilla-moral-que-amlo-desempolvo.

[2]I am getting most of this information from José Antonio Aguilar Rivera, The Shadow of Ulysses: Public Intellectual Exchange Across the U.S.- Mexico Border, Trans.Rose Hocker and Emiliano Corral (Boston: Lexington Books, 2000):

[3] Octavio Paz, Labyrinth of Solitude, 152.

[4]Vasconcelos qtd. in Aguilar Rivera 20-1.

[5]Who cares. (Ok its Rawls)

[6]You know this book.

[7]Aguilar Rivera, 16.

[8]Robinson y Odiseo, 37. My trans.

[9]Of course, Vasconcelos’s list of “Great Books” was very non-traditional, including books like Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s True History of the Conquest of Mexico, and Hernan Cortes’Letters From Mexico. (Aguilar Rivera 33 fn. 63).  But, even though he elsewhere emphasized the need to trace Latin American patriotism to both the Hispanic and indigenous traditions, he clearly intended the latter to be absorbed into a kind of cultural scaffold he envisioned was provided by the former.

[10]Vasconcelos qtd. in Aguilar Rivera 15.

[11]This dovetails with what I have argued in presentations here and there—and some of this is in the upcoming publication of the Prize Essay on Latin American thought—that mestizajewas part of the logic of elimination characteristic of settler societies, since what we are talking about here is basically a project that sought to complete the colonial mission of erasing Indigenous peoples.

8 responses to “Spectres of Vasconcelos in AMLO’s “Cuarta Transformacion”?

    • Thanks for the article, Memo, which I thought was GREAT. Maybe you’d like to send another guest post on this theme??? Just a suggestion.

  1. Julio, we need to talk. I have always been puzzled by Vasconcelos views on Dewey on education. Nothing could be further from the text. I have no idea where he gets them. I have no idea what you mean by attampting “neutrality” (yes, there is no big Telos to education, so what? there is a normative commitment to many things including a more democratic existence). Also, on the contrary, Dewey’s philosophy of education has little to do with USA culture and what has passed as “education”…and much closer to Latin America…(e,.g, much closer to ideas of Paulo Freire on education). We need to talk!!!! Con`o!! Carajo!

  2. Julio, we need to talk. I have always been puzzled by Vasconcelos views on Dewey on education. Nothing could be further from the text. I have no idea where he gets them. I have no idea what you mean by attampting “neutrality” (yes, there is no big Telos to education, so what? there is a normative commitment to many things including a more democratic existence). Also, on the contrary, Dewey’s philosophy of education has little to do with USA culture and what has passed as “education”…and much closer to Latin America…(e,.g, much closer to ideas of Paulo Freire on education). We need to talk!!!! Con`o!! Carajo!

     Gregory Fernando Pappas, PhD Distinguished Fellow, University of Texas at AustinProfessor of Philosophy, Texas A&M University Vice-President of Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, Fulbright Scholar  Editor-in-Chief of the Inter-American Journal of Philosophy  http://philosophy.tamu.edu/html/bio-Pappas.html 

    • Goyo! let’s talk.

      I’m not well-versed with Dewey’s pedagogical views, though I have often seen him taught alongside Freire. (I sometimes find it confusing, though, that Freire is talked about in the US context as if he is directly applicable, when he was, it seems to me, so clearly responding to positivism in education, which took a particular character in Latin America.) That said, I don’t think anything I say depends on Vasconcelos getting Dewey right, and I don’t assume that he does. If Vasconcelos does indeed get Dewey massively wrong, my guess is that Vasconcelos was straw-manning him for ideological purposes. It’s well-known Vasconcelos was anything but a rigorous scholar–he cared more for advancing his own views than getting other people right, and (ironically, not unlike many analytic philosophers, whom he would have probably despised) was satisfied with pillaging the views of others for things he could make use of for his own projects. While he might straw-man Dewey, though, I am not sure he is misdescribing Anglo culture. *shrugs*

    • One other thought, though, on your question about “attempting neutrality.” As I said before, I am not sure how exactly this fits with Dewey’s actual views. I do know, however, what Vasconcelos was trying to get at. Vasconcelos thought that education did need to have, as you put it, a telos. He thought that the normative commitments implicit to an education made this an inescapable part of the project of a public education. What he ascribes to Dewey (and, I concede, he might be wrong in doing so) is a kind of “civic nationalism” in education. By “civic nationalism,” I refer to the idea that the state is supposed to be neutral with respect to culture, but only promote purely “constitutional” (i.e., civic) values. Hence, civic nationalism in education refers to the idea that education should be neutral with respect to culture or world-view, but only still instill values based on the constitutional (that is, según, “non-ethnic” or “pre-political”) culture of the nation. Hence, civic education in this sense is, on its face, a normatively thinner conception of education, one that doesn’t require instilling a normatively thick comprehensive view of the good. Vasconcelos’ point is basically the same point communitarians have been making against liberals, that the normative commitments required by civic forms of nationalism are, in fact, not normatively thin, but are rooted in a substantive conception of the good. If so, V. thinks, there are better substantive conceptions for Latin Americans–namely, those that root us in our specific histories and cultures.At least, this is as far as I can make sense of him.

  3. ¡Muy interesante! I’ve always been amazed by how positivism had such a significant influence in Latin America as a whole (beginning with Auguste Comte). The combination of the European-wanna-be’s (at the end of 18th and mid 19th centuries) through their positivism PLUS the resulting paternalistic mentality…is something we’re still getting over as a people. I’m thankful for patriotas y pensadores like Vasconcelos who looked to educate and build on the personhood and warmth of our past traditions…however imperfectly…to where at least we can be on a jornada to our thinking. Thank you for this piece!!

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