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Nicaraguan literacy campaign: its democratic essence

Monthly Review, July-August, 1985 by Russell Kleinbach

The 1980 literacy crusade in Nicaragua, continuing now as the adult education program, is a political program with an educational format and educational outcomes. The goal of this campaign and other mass organizational activities is to secure the revolutionary process and develop the Nicaraguan people and society through democratic participation.

Descriptions of the planning, organization, and statistical results of the crusade are available from a number of sources. The task of this paper is to look at the methods and content of the campaign to show that one of its central characteristics is participatory democracy. The campaign is the process of learning words such as revolution, freedom, production, and health in a way that enables people to transform society collectively in order to reflect and materialize the words.

The impetus for the paper comes from an interview with Ernesto Vallecillo Gutierrez, vice-minister of adult education, in Managua in December 1984 and the acquisition of copies of the textbooks used in the literacy campaign.

This, of course, is not to suggest that there have not been abuses, corruption, and exaggerations in the Nicaraguan programs and policies. But I argue that the democratic character of the literacy program, which is a building block of the whole Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) program, gives convincing evidence in favor of the short- and long-range democratic character of the Nicaraguan revolutionary process and is evidence disproving Reagan administration and conservative Nicaraguan claims that the policies and institutions of the new Nicaragua are totalitarian and/or Marxist-Leninist.

The points to be made are that (1) the literacy programs are political activities in support of development and participatory democracy; (2) the methods of teaching and the widespread popular involvement make the process intensely democratic; and (3) the concepts and values used in the texts promote equality, democracy, and freedom. All of these points are indications of the democratic nontotalitarian character of the revolutionary process. This is especially true when comparisons are made with the Somoza years in Nicaragua or with educational systems in the rest of Central America.

The political nature and philosophy of the literacy program has its theoretical foundation in the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and its practical forerunners in the literacy campaigns of Cuba, Peru, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome, and others. The Nicaraguan campaign, however, has its own unique characteristics.

Roberto Saenz, one of the crusade's planners and subsequently vice-minister of adult education, with four years of experience teaching literacy (semi-clandestinely prior to 1979), said of the campaign: "It is a political project with pedagogical implications...not a pedagogical project with political implications.

There are no neutral projects, not in Nicaragua, not in the United States, not anywhere. Every social project carries with it an ideology--in order to maintain a system, to reproduce a system, or to sustain a process of profound change."

As Robert F. Arnove points out, the current government in Managua "posits that, under the successive regimes of the Somoza dynasty (1937-1979), education worked to legitimize an inequitable social order that prepared elite groups for leadership while denying fundamental knowledge and skills to the vast majority. Passivity and fatalism were fostered in the masses by the previous regimes." The new Sandinista-led government, understanding the political-ideological character of education, has changed the values, ideology, and educational process itself to make education more egalitarian, universal, and democratic. According to Father Fernando Cardenal, national coordinator of the crusade, "Any education that merits the name must prepare people for freedom--to have opinions, to be critical, to transform their world."

Ernesto Vallecillo Gutierrez, current vice-minister of adult education, put it this way:

The literacy campaign was a political act precisely because it gave the people the instrument (denied them for centuries) to know themselves, their history, and the nature of their society. In no part of the world is there neutral education: here it is not neutral, but in the interest of working that children and adults will want this revolution and will work for this revolution.

Prior to the 1979 Sandinista revolution, there was almost no education in the rural areas (75-90 percent illiteracy); some children received schooling through the early primary grades but nothing more. Fifty percent of the population was functionally illiterate. In the cities there were private schools for the wealthy and a few public schools. Many of the educational materials came from outside the country and presented a false history and reality which had little to do with Nicaragua. Nicaraguan culture, poetry, and literature were taught in a mangled form. For example, Sandino was presented as a bandit, and students learned that all progress and technology would have to come from outside of Nicaragua. Materialist, as opposed to humanist, values were stressed so that, for instance, students learned that doctors studied and practiced not to save people but to make money.


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