Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 298 | Mayo 2006


Latin America

What Culture Are We Legitimizing In Our Classrooms?

This third of four articles focuses on the need to create a curriculum based on our own Latin American culture. Our children know European fairy tales better than Latin American legends. They know more about the camels of the Sahara than the llamas of the Andes. And they have learned that blonde Barbie is the most beautiful female biotype. For decades we’ve transmitted both explicit and hidden messages to pupils that others are more important, better and worth more than we are.

María Victoria Peralta

Of all the quality criteria for an educational curriculum for children at the initial or infant education level, or any other level for that matter, one is fundamental because it pervades the whole curriculum. That criterion is cultural selection. What culture are we asserting in our curriculum, and what culture are we annulling or leaving out? All curricula imply cultural selection. What dominates traditional curricula is the commercial culture transmitted by most transnational companies active in the infant world, which send us dolls, clothes and sneakers. A good curriculum makes another kind of cultural selection, opting for a culturally relevant education, something that has been quite neglected in Latin America.

A relevant education means a suitable or appropriate one. What is Mickey Mouse doing in a kindergarten in an indigenous area of Peru? Isn’t this an example of imperial impertinence? And why are the walls of another kindergarten full of zebras, lions and giraffes? It’s not that children shouldn’t know about lions and zebras, but do they know the name of the little bird that comes to sit on a branch in front of the school every morning? Do they know how to say its proper name, instead of just “birdie”? Our Latin American children know more about other environments than their own. When we select things routinely sold to us as the “infant world” by the media and the market so we can decorate our classroom walls, read stories or carry out other activities at school, we have to be aware that we’re legitimizing one culture and annulling another. We’re sending out cultural messages, because nothing is innocent or ingenuous in a curriculum.

Snobbery, thoughtlessness
and cultural impertinence

In Latin America we find little cultural relevance in the curricula and little inclusion of theoretical underpinnings or research for the curricula we’re developing. If we examine the authors on whom we base our own curricula or the research we consider, most are foreign, not Latin American.

As teachers, we can’t ignore the contributions made by Piaget and so many others, but how is it that we fail to consider pedagogues from our own countries who tell us about education from our own perspective? How can I ignore the work of a psychologist or philosopher who’s talking to us from Latin America? There’s a form of snobbery at play here. By saying that I’ve based the curriculum I’m applying on people with foreign surnames, I’m guessing it’ll sound better than if I say it’s based on Juan González or Pedro Pérez. To this snobbery we have to add Latin America’s mass importation of curricula that have been very successful in the United States, England or any other country and are indiscriminately applied all over the world. You have to be suspicious when the big universities tell you that “our research center developed a curriculum that’s being applied in Chile, Nicaragua, Nepal and Afghanistan and works well everywhere.”

Unfortunately, the curriculum in countries such as ours is accompanied by abundant financial and material resources in an all-inclusive gift set. We’re told, “If you apply this curriculum, we’ll finance its implementation.” Any proposal that emerges from the community, that was put together by a local group, gets nowhere because it can’t compete with the guides, materials and images included in this prefabricated kit from abroad. I once had to review a non-formal program being applied in several Latin American countries. Since it was designed in a country that doesn’t use the Spanish alphabet, the booklets had been printed without accents and the Spanish “ñ.” It was being used without any analysis on the theory that you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. And this is no exception; foreign curricula have frequently been applied in Latin America without any adaptation or critical analysis.

There’s nothing innocent
about Mickey Mouse or Barbie

Each toy, book or story is a vehicle of cultural transmission. Let’s take Barbie dolls as a case in point. They’re tall, thin, very blonde, have long legs and can be found all over Latin America. It’s rare to walk into a classroom and not find at least one, even if she’s seen better days. And the girls looking at them are short, brown, plump and black-haired. They have different biotypes, but they’re being taught that Barbie’s is the ideal one.

All curricula always imply some form of cultural selection, whether on the macro level—the curricular framework, the national curriculum, the multi-level guide—or the micro level—the front room, the classroom or the community center. We select, highlight and legitimize a certain culture while at the same time annulling another.

But do I analyze the culture that I value? If I put a certain image on the wall, the children are going to think it’s important. If I give them a Barbie rather than another doll, they’ll think Barbie is the best. In Chile we decided on one occasion to give the kindergartens dolls depicting the different indigenous groups in our country. It was a great challenge, because all the toy factories just made blonde dolls and we had to get an NGO to make us dolls with the costumes of our indigenous peoples. It was also very expensive because we couldn’t buy on a very large scale. But the enormous effect the dolls had on the girls—and boys—when we handed them out in the kindergartens made it all worthwhile. The photo of the son of an indigenous chief with his doll appeared in one newspaper. It was the first time he’d ever seen a doll dressed like his father and he spent the whole day hugging it. The doll had a double effect on him, because in addition to looking like his father, it was also male!

In all curricula we not only stress certain cultural contents and annul others, but we also establish other unexpected ones through what is known as the hidden curriculum. Mickey Mouse is no fool and there’s nothing innocent about Barbie. By using them we are exerting, valuing and legitimizing a culture.

Are we only going to give children
today’s fashionable junk culture?

To what culture are our curricula relevant? In a multicultural world, should we only design curricula relevant to local culture? Or should they be relevant to regional, national, Central American, Latin American or Western culture? Or even global culture? We’ve seen that most curricula in Latin America have been inappropriate and we should reflect on this if we want to produce quality education.

What our children receive most abundantly is what could be termed “light,” commercial or junk culture: the major brands, trendy sneakers, Coca Cola, McDonald’s, and the like. And now even Halloween reigns supreme in Latin America when 20 years ago it was only celebrated in elite American high schools. In a world with such rich and varied music, will we leave our children to listen only to the commercial music repeated on the radio? There are good and bad examples of all forms of music, from popular, to folk and classical. But what concept of “child” do we have if we let our children listen and dance to the same song, with the same meaningless lyrics, like recent Latin American hits such as “La Mayonesa” and “La Botella”?

Aren’t there other possibilities for children in a world where science also reigns, teaching us fantastic things that impress and interest them? Wouldn’t they like to know about robotics, art, literature or science? In a society with such a wealth of knowledge, will we limit them to what’s commercial and second rate? I came across a kindergarten deep in the Chilean Patagonia, far from any town. The two- to five-year-olds there had made a dinosaur skeleton out of cow bones. They told me they were paleontologists. “What do paleontologists do?” I asked them. “They’re the ones who look for dinosaurs!” the children chorused. They had been scientists with the materials at hand, and they were proud of themselves.

Huts and lice: Two lessons on cultural change

When we talk about culture, we’re talking about a system, a cosmovision, a related and mutually sustained set of goods, values, principles, beliefs and material knowledge. When you intervene in a culture you have to bear in mind that certain of its elements are more stable, more relevant; they’re like the pillars on which that culture rests. So if we come along and change those elements we might destroy the culture itself.

One example of this is the culture of Chile’s Mapuche people. They live in semi-oval huts, in the middle of which is the fire, around which family life revolves. One of the “gifts” the Chilean government decided to give them was “social housing,” which amounted to very small houses with two or three rooms. The Mapuches used them to keep their animals in and continued living in their hut, which isn’t just a house but is so symbolically significant in their lives and human relations that suppressing it would have destroyed their culture.

Generally speaking, we make changes without asking anyone and without analyzing the consequences of the change or whether or not people understand it. There’s a great example in anthropology. In the Peruvian Andes there was a population with a plague of lice. The ancestral way of dealing with it was to delouse each other. In the afternoons, after finishing her domestic chores, the mother would sit down, take her child’s head in her lap and kill lice! And then she and the father would delouse each other. When the public health service arrived, they washed heads and handed out a liquid that killed the lice. And sure enough the lice disappeared for a while, but days after the health team left the lice were back. And it even appeared that the delousing activities were stronger than ever, because with the disappearance of so many lice due to the liquid, the population was spending more time looking for them than killing them.

A group of anthropologists was contracted and discovered that in Andean culture delousing was one of the most validated forms of relating to each other by the whole community. The children resisted the liquid for no other reason than the pleasure they felt when their mothers pampered them, stroking their hair and talking to them, and the same was true for the couple. In communities that tend not to express themselves so much, this form of relating offered a wealth of affection. So it turns out there was a whole world of relations behind what appeared to be a simple public health problem. Based on this new understanding, the public health officials changed their work, reinforcing other ways of expressing affection, fostering moments of emotional connection and making the people see that lice were bad for their health… Very gradually the lice began losing their grip.

All cultures are valid and
valuable to those who built them

All cultures are created by a group of humans, a community, to respond to their environment and reap tangible material goods or intangible spiritual ones. Through its culture the group responds to its basic physical needs (shelter, food and covering) and its mental and emotional needs (beliefs, religion, learning, knowledge, theories that explain the world).

A culture is always dynamic, permanently recreating itself to respond to new needs. All cultures have stabilizing factors such as traditions, customs, certain community agents—elders who guard the people’s learning, for example—that leave their mark on the culture, maintaining what provides its identity. But all cultures also have energizing factors, which are the people, artists and the like, who create, invent, turn things around. These people are recreating their culture and thus creating new culture.

It’s important to remember the concept of cultural relativism to avoid the mistake of thinking that only one culture is valuable and the others aren’t. This concept shows us that each culture is valid and valuable to those who built it. So just as I find my people’s culture valuable and useful because it guides me and offers me resources and means to live appropriately among my people, I have to understand that children in New York can be happy eating McDonald’s hamburgers, drinking Coke and wearing Nikes, while their parents work in a transnational company, because that’s the culture people have constructed there.

The world would be a better place if we had really understood cultural relativism, if infant education programs taught that all cultures are of value to those who built them. Until now, we’ve just destroyed other cultures in the belief that ours is the best. And if it’s the best, we also give it to or impose it on others. In Latin America, we’re the heirs of just that kind of destruction, and we can now see great acculturation and the loss of or scant respect for our own cultures.

Culture has both spatial and temporal spheres. It’s not just the past, no matter how valuable that past may be. In the temporal sphere, a relevant curriculum should take cultural elements from both past and present. And in the spatial sphere, it should expose children to local, regional, national, continental, western and global culture, always moving from the smallest and most immediate to the largest and most distant, even though the different planes coexist and overlap.

It’s hard to see our own culture and value others

There are many questions in all the spheres of culture. What exactly is Mexican culture in such a diverse country? What makes all Nicaraguans Nicaraguan over and above other specific cultures to which Nicaraguans also belong? And what is Latin American culture? Despite the continent’s great diversity, we still share many things. What are they? When we’re in the United States, we’re all Latinos and unite as such. But what is Latino culture? How has western culture affected us? Like it or not, global culture exists in the media, in technology and in what ought to be a planetary ethic. What has it offered us?

Like human beings, all cultures can always be improved. They all have strengths and limitations and none of them is perfect. Understanding that is the essence of cultural relativism. Although it may seem strange, it’s incredibly hard for people within their own culture to recognize or visualize it. So to make an adequate cultural selection in the teaching we provide, we need to both re-examine ourselves and turn to people who can see what characterizes our culture, because we may not be able to see it for ourselves.

It’s not easy to accept the idea that our culture can be improved. Many examples of cultural destruction, cultural barricading and acculturation have been caused because we cling to our own culture with such strong ethnocentrism that we believe it’s the best gift we could make to other cultures. Ethnocentrism is behind all the conquests and domination in human history. And of course it goes hand in hand with economic and commercial interests.

I have a lot of respect for the work of missionaries, but we have to admit that they’ve done some terrible things. In the last century some missionaries arrived in indigenous areas of southern Chile, where the people went around virtually naked in sub-freezing temperatures. When they saw them, the missionaries said, “Poor things, they don’t have any clothes.” But they weren’t poor things; they were peoples whose circulation had adapted to conserve heat better. They protected themselves from the cold by covering their skin with seal fat and putting ash on top as an insulator.

They had achieved an incredible biological and cultural adaptation that allowed them to live in tremendously cold temperatures, but the missionaries decided to give them clothes. And the clothes they brought were loaded with measles, small pox and all sorts of other diseases of the western world. Then they took them to live in houses and towns. Can you guess what happened? Nomadic people who had exercised all their lives became sedentary, and with no natural defenses against the diseases in the clothes they grew weak and died in large numbers. This is just one example of the damage caused by “good-willed” ethnocentrism.

The culture of belonging
is only formed in the first years

In today’s multicultural world, we have to educate by making selections in all of a culture’s spatial spheres. In initial education, which is a stage of “enculturation”—others call it early endoculturation—we have to emphasize the culture into which the children have been born, the culture of their family and community.
Children are born with a culture of local belonging that can be urban, rural, coastal… It’s their first culture, the one that gives them identity, a sense of meanings, a value framework, a cosmovision, an explanation of the world. That first culture is what we have to cultivate first in the kindergarten. If importance isn’t given to forming the culture of belonging at that age, during the first years of life, it’s much harder to form later. Cultures of belonging, which are so significant for small children and their families, must be reflected in the curriculum from their esthetics to their colors, symbols, foods and words; in short, everything. In today’s world, that first culture is very fragile given the invasion of the media and other factors of globalization, which are quickly eroding local cultures.

Local culture starts to influence children from birth, but so do all the other cultures. Children may be born in a Managua neighborhood, but they’re also part of a country—Nicaragua—and share something in that country with all other Nicaraguans, which influences them from birth. What do all of the people in a given country have in common, apart from their national symbols? What ways of life, what codes and values do they all share?

Our countries aren’t islands, they’re part of something bigger: Latin American culture. What do all Latin Americans have in common? And what is common to all of us who are part of Western culture? Maybe that something is Christian culture, but we’re also receiving knowledge, sciences, arts, technologies and fashion from Western culture. We wear jeans and the colors currently in fashion in Europe or the United States, rather than ponchos or huipils. Most of our surnames are Western. We can’t deny who we are, and like it or not we’re also part of global culture. Every time we log on to send an email we enter into global culture. We’re already part of it.

Latin American culture is incredibly absent

Children are born into a community within a certain country, and that country provides them a series of symbols, codes and resources that make them part of that country’s culture. And those babies receive a name, which responds to their local or national culture. If a little girl is born in Mexico, one of her names will probably be Guadalupe, and not at all by chance. Or she’ll be named after the heroine of a Brazilian soap opera. And that baby might have a red ribbon tied to her with a little medal to ward off the “evil eye.” That same baby whose parents protect her through a mixed tradition—the “evil eye” is indigenous and the medal Catholic—will use disposable diapers secured with Velcro, a space technology designed because astronauts couldn’t use metal clasps. So right from birth a child’s life is influenced by all of culture’s spatial spheres.

In Latin America, education exerts a national culture—albeit perhaps not a very developed one—so all our countries teach children a vision of their own culture—particularly its symbols, heroes and important national dates that celebrate independence, revolutions and the like—in hopes of forming a national identity. Whether this happens or not is a question that merits reflection, because what in fact is what anthropologists like Margaret Mead called one’s “national self”?

Despite all our diversity, what do we share in each of our countries? Ways of facing problems, certain values, food, lingual expressions? We must select essential elements of national culture to become the citizens of a given nation, taking care not to make our curricula folksy. I visited a very interesting kindergarten where the educator asks the children to come on Monday with “good ideas” to do during the week. She writes these ideas on the blackboard and when the list is ready, the children put their choice in a ballot box. The idea that gets the most votes is the one they do that week. They also do the one that received the least votes, because the teacher’s aim is to teach citizenship: respect for both the majority and the minority. Not everything costs a lot of money; sometimes the best ideas are the most economical.

Latin American culture is incredibly absent in our curricula. We know more about the United States or any European country, their music and habits, than we do about ourselves. And there are paradoxical situations, such as kindergartens and schools full of images of rhinoceroses and elephants, but if we asked about the animals in our tropical rain forests or the Amazon or the Andes, we’d soon run into trouble. Our children know more about the camels of the Sahara than about South American llamas, alpacas or vicunas. They know European fairy tales but not our own legends and traditions.

Global culture offers
many learning opportunities

What about Western culture? Unfortunately what it is currently offering children is its lowest commercial form, from the world of toys, hamburgers and films. It’s junk culture. But Western culture has also developed important values and knowledge. In fact, all the science we work with today was created by the Western world. The sociology and anthropology we know today are creations of that world.

And then there’s the overbearing global culture. Anthropologists define it as the culture that provides us a planetary vision of problems, particularly ecological ones. And that culture can lead us to a planetary and ecological ethic with a notion of solidarity. Our children have to know that if they poison the water or the air it will affect the whole world, not just us and the country we live in. The global culture and ethic are beautiful because it’s about making us responsible for the planetary repercussions of our actions. Children need to be educated in this culture and develop the right skills to live appropriately in the global world. This means teaching them how to use technology—including computers, automatic teller machines and telephones or logging on to the Internet. And it means showing them the basics of English, the universal language, without which they will find it very difficult to get around in the global world.

When a small child asks us a question like “where does a fish pee from?” we might know the answer and we might not. If we don’t, we could make something up, but it isn’t the best approach. The best thing would be to say, “I don’t know, but let’s go check,” by which we might mean, “Let’s ask other people here and see if one of them knows.” Thus the child will learn that people are a source of knowledge when we don’t know something. Or we might reply, “I don’t know, but let’s go see if we can find it in a book.” Then the child will learn that you have to look for answers in books, and in libraries where there are lots of books. In today’s global world, many other possibilities are also open to us. For example, we could go to the Internet. I’ve noticed that young people from my country often say, “I communicated with so and so today,” mentioning the names of today’s great scientists. They’ve used the Internet to ask these scientists unusual things and the scientists have taken the trouble to reply to these young children all the way on the other side of the world.

This global world is quite fantastic, because it’s not just about invading transnationals; it also offers an infinite range of learning opportunities. You have to learn how to use the right tools if you want to exploit these opportunities, because otherwise the global world will exclude and crush us. As we’ve already been excluded and crushed in Latin America, we have to be prepared to educate our children from an early age to take advantage of the global culture.

Pride in one’s identity
is formed in the first six years

There are important reasons to understand why we have to develop a culturally relevant curriculum from the earliest years. That’s when small children are forming their identity, their sense of belonging, so it’s a case of now or almost never. If we don’t make an effort to ensure that the children learn and value their culture, many cultures will be lost.

It’s crucial to encourage a positive ethnocentrism among children. Negative ethnocentrism has sought to impose one’s own culture by force of power, arms and money, without respecting other cultures. But there is also positive ethnocentrism, which allows us to value our culture, to feel proud of it. And that pride in our own identity is formed during the first six years of life.

A great many Latin American intellectuals lived in other places when they were children for different reasons, and they never return to Latin America. They don’t feel it’s theirs, that there’s a task for them here, because this feeling forms during the first few years. To love our country we have to value our ancestors, who are our roots, part of our being. When we grow up and develop in a culture opposed to that of our ancestors we start to be embarrassed by who we are, and that isn’t conducive to a healthy personality.

Our culture of belonging teaches us habits, customs, ways of relating to other people and what we should and shouldn’t do. Learning this set of resources allows us to connect better with our environment. It’s a shock when we change cultures because the adaptive resources of our own culture no longer serve us and we have to learn others. We Latin Americans are so affectionate, greeting each other with great hugs and kisses and touching each other, that we clash in cultures where such effusiveness is considered an invasion of personal space and frowned upon. Only in such situations do we understand one of the characteristic of our own culture.

Little self-esteem in today’s Latin America

All curricula have to be contextualized to respond to the characteristics of the children and their families. We can’t import a curriculum designed for US culture. We can adopt certain principles, contributions and criteria, but the cultural selection has to be different. Having imported so many curricula rather than designing our own is responsible for Latin America’s limited self-esteem and security today.

For decades we’ve been sending out explicit and hidden messages that others are more important, interesting and better than us. And it just isn’t good enough to argue that we don’t have enough resources or materials. The best resources are right under our noses in our legends and traditions, in the trees, the flowers and fruit that are within our reach. What’s that child called, what does his or her family do, why is that fruit that color, why does such a small plant have such a big fruit…? Those are the best resources in a properly contextualized kindergarten.

If we don’t promote this identity-providing culture of belonging so that children learn to value and love it at an early age, it’s very difficult to create such links, which will be so powerful throughout their lives, at a later date. Moreover, when we feel our own culture to be valuable and important, it’s easier to accept the diversity of cultures and feel and think that they’re also valuable and important.

Why only Little Red Riding Hood?

Because we are culturally dominated and both culturally and economically dependent, we accept any gifts on offer. If we’re given a ready-made curriculum, why design another? But such gifts stop us from thinking and creating.

Our children currently receive more from Western culture than from their local, national and Latin American cultures. The best example is the traditional European fairy tales that our children know the best, and which they admittedly should know because they are part of the culture in which we are immersed. But while they should know that there are places with kings, princesses and castles, they should also know the thousand and one fantastic stories Latin America has produced.

Telling tales from the rain forest to Chilean children, who will never see exuberant flora, will stimulate their imagination. Telling them there are trees in Central America that are bigger than buildings would amaze them. I’d never seen trees as big as those I’ve just seen in Nicaragua. We have nothing like that in Chile. There are marvelous tales from the Amazon, the Andes, the island of Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. We could tell them stories set in Mexico City, one of the most populated cities in the world, or in the strange and unique city of Brasilia. Or we could tell them stories of Peruvian children who bathe among piranhas… We could use our enormous cultural wealth to invent thousands of stories for children. And yet we continue telling them about Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood!

Do we even know our Latin American authors?

When we review the curricula developed in Latin America, we see that while the vast majority of authors considered are important and we’ve learned a lot from them, they are exclusively European or American. We don’t even know our own authors, often not even those who’ve achieved international recognition and publishing strength. We’re marked by the domination that came with the conquest and brought philosophy, theology and psychology from abroad as if Latin America couldn’t think, didn’t have the capacity to construct.

We shouldn’t dismiss the contribution of the great authors who have struggled with the major questions of psychology, pedagogy and philosophy, but we should also incorporate our own. We look to philosophy to tell us what it means to be a human being, and what better answer than one that talks to us of men and women in Latin America, with what Eduardo Galeano called their “open veins” and Paulo Freire called their oppression and hopes. We must design a curriculum based on Latin American authors.

And we look to psychology to teach us about children’s development and explain how they learn. But if the so-called “universal” psychology has been based on a white, Protestant population and on tests done by psychologists in European and American universities, can that psychology explain to us the three-year-old child galloping through a Latin American field grasping his horse’s mane? Can it tell us about four-year-old poor kids in Mexico City who don’t know how to read or write and supposedly know nothing about mathematics, but know exactly what bus to grab and how much each ticket costs? Can the universal psychologist explain the children on any Latin American coast who can open shellfish with sharp knives almost as big as they are when they are only four years old? And we give those same children blunt scissors in kindergarten…

Things from abroad are of no use;
nor is what we’re told from outside

In each environment in which children live, certain behaviors are favored over others. If children live in the countryside, their culture will teach them how to live there; we can’t teach them skills appropriate to a city kid. One educator working in a rocky desert area in northern Chile gave me a great example. She had worked all her life in the city and had to assess her pupils when she arrived there.

She wanted to check their bodily equilibrium, so she draw a chalk line on the ground and asked the children to jump over it to see how well they balanced. Reluctantly they all did it and some passed and others didn’t. She spent all day doing this, but after she said goodbye to them at the school door she watched them all leap up onto the meter-and-a-half-high stone wall around the school and run along the top of it to reach their houses, demonstrating perfect balance. “I felt so ridiculous,” she told me.

This is a good example of our inconsistencies and also demonstrates the difficulty of designing curricula from afar, from outside. Some children can swim, climb hills, balance on their own, know the names of all of the plants and animals, know how to start a fire… and we impose a curriculum on them that seeks to develop skills they already have and doesn’t teach them what they need or want to know.

“Universal” psychology supposedly teaches us how we learn, but we learn in many different ways. In indigenous communities in southern Chile they learn through dreams and an attitude they call “self-absorption.” Children who watch with loving commitment as their father and mother do something, even a motor activity, will learn that activity and be able to develop it when they are adults, even if they haven’t practiced it. The human capacity to learn is so broad that we still don’t know all of its complex and varied forms.

Echoes of the Old World and other lives

Latin America has philosophy and ethnophilosophy, the philosophy created by its peoples. But we find no bibliography about it in our teaching schools. I once ran through all of the philosophy courses I’ve ever received. I learned Greek philosophy and European philosophy, but nobody ever taught me the philosophy of our own peoples: the ethnophilosophy of the Aymara, Mapache and Mayan peoples… I had to learn it later, on my own initiative.

Bertrand Russell compiled an anthology of universal philosophy that contained no Latin American philosophy. When asked why not, he said it was because Latin America hadn’t thought. And another great philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, said, “Not so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men, and one thousand five hundred million natives. The former had the Word; the others had the use of it.” The great German philosopher Hegel argued that America must move away from the ground in which universal history has developed up to now, because what has happened there is no more than the echo of the Old World and a reflection of the life of others. He was right; that’s the tragedy of Latin America, a tragedy that we still don’t value enough.

We have some important Latin American philosophers, among them Leopoldo Zea, who says that for its own purposes the West presents its philosophy as universal; a philosophy that speaks and acts in the name of Man, of Humanity. Of course, the only incarnation of this Man appears to be that of the people responsible for promoting it. According to Bolivian philosopher Man Césped, the same has happened with philosophy as with other activities of the spirit: Europe gives the orientations and directions and we assimilate them and incorporate them into our own cultural panorama. Europe has always found an attitude of adaptation and learning in us and treats us like pupils repeating the gym teacher’s movements. And Augusto Salazar, a Peruvian, tells us that Latin Americans think philosophizing involves adopting an “ism” (existentialism, personalism, all the foreign currents we’ve learned), adopting certain pre-existing theses whole cloth and more or less faithfully repeating the works of the period’s most resonant figures.

What makes us Latin American?

Our curricula must make use of the valuable sources that exist in Latin America, because we can only answer the question “what is man?” based on our own reality. Being Latin American is being human, sharing all the characteristics of all human beings, but it also implies being from a mestizo continent with enormous domination and dependence. We have to ask ourselves what makes us Latin Americans, and we can only reply after a period of self-reflection. Plato can help by teaching us that there is a “world of ideas” and Martin Buber may help us understand the concept of “person,” but we have to reflect on what it means to be a Latin American person. After all, it’s one thing to be a person who feels he dominates the rest of the world from his country and quite another to be a dominated person who’s been told he has to do what other people tell him.

Why are we the way we are?

Some of our Latin American psychologists have already stopped regurgitating what Piaget and others already said, and without rejecting their important contributions are studying our psychology, the psychology of native wit and cunning. Jorge Gissi, one of our few social psychologists, has studied why we are the way we are and says, for example, that one of the problems of Latin Americans is that we always want to “whiten ourselves.” That’s the concept he uses. We want to forget that we’re a mixture; we want to forget our indigenous, black and Asian roots.

We want to be something we’re not. We dress like Europe tells us to and talk like the United States tells us to, forever “whitening ourselves.” Another issue that has been hardly examined at all is the pedagogy of good humor. Good humor doesn’t cost a thing and is very much present among Latin Americans. Humor, joy and laughter are part of what makes us Latin Americans, so why are they so absent from our curricula?

If we want to design more relevant curricula in Latin America, we have to exploit this whole rich but devalued baggage we have. Our pedagogy schools hardly even teach our own Latin American authors. To design a culturally relevant curriculum from our own perspective we have to include the contributions of Latin American research and our own self-examinations alongside the great contributions from the rest of the world.

Other values, other logics:
The Aymara and Rapa Nui

Each people has its cosmovision: the way it sees the world, its interpretation of the position humans occupy in the world and the values with which they live. When I visited the Aymara peoples they told me that they don’t view solidarity as a value, because they felt it had a rather paternalistic connotation. “We talk in terms of reciprocity,” they explained. “In our society we regard reciprocity as a value; we all help each other.” This is interesting. It’s not a case of me acting in solidarity with you because I’m better off. Instead, I support you and you support me in a reciprocal and more equal relationship. It’s a much richer concept, isn’t it?

The Aymara peoples also have their own logic, in which in addition to things being either “true” or “untrue” there is third category that doesn’t exist in Western logic: “the unresolved.” There is both “yes” and “no” and this third category. From the rational Western logic derived from Greco-Roman thinking, this could be considered illogical. But in fact it’s perfectly logical, and we currently know that children’s brains can move in very different categories and logics. But we’re so immersed in a world of Western heritage that we don’t have time to reflect on other conceptions.

All cultures have conceptions of life and death, of what it means to be an adult or child and of education. All have theories to explain things and why things happen. They have beliefs and norms regulating interpersonal relations.

They also have perceptions of time and space, which is something quite fascinating. When I arrived at Rapa Nui to do some work with the people there, after flying for five hours over the sea, I thought how far I was from everything. With my mainland ethnocentrism, I asked, “How do you feel, being so far away from everything? What is your perception of the world, of life, being 3,700 kilometers from the nearest coast?” They were surprised and replied “We live at the center of the world. It’s the rest of the world that’s far away from our paradise.” And in fact, rapa nui means the navel of the world. A relevant curriculum has to know, understand and value this whole world of symbolic codes that accompany each culture.

Learn about the community and turn
everything about it into curriculum

A relevant curriculum has to design strategies to transmit all of the community’s symbolic codes. The flag, the shield and the national flower are the least of it. More important is that world of symbols and values. The curriculum must always be based on studying the community in which we teach. But we’re not talking about the kind of studying we normally do or are told to do, such as discovering the number of families, their income, their economic situation. What really matters to us is the community’s cultural situation.

That’s more complicated, because you have to observe, interview, seek documents on the community’s origins and detect needs and strengths, community and cultural leaders, handicraft workshops, agricultural technologies, communication technologies, technologies for transforming raw materials, beliefs, values, codes, conceptions…

Once we know the community in which we are educating, how do we represent that community? What arenas, materials and esthetic criteria are we going to include? Are we going to do all our work in the classroom? What will we do in the yard, the vegetable patch, the community? How will we turn everything in this community into curriculum through the materials, ambience and resources with which we work? How will we organize our time? What cultural practices can we turn into pedagogical time?

If we’re working in an agricultural community in touch with the earth, we have to do some kind of symbolic activity with the earth. If we work in an indigenous community in which dreams are important, maybe first thing in the morning we should all get together in a circle while all the children explain their dreams, which will validate their culture and help develop language. In one area of Patagonia where there are beautiful skies with all kinds of colors, the kindergartens start their day by going out into the yard and looking at the sky. What is the sky saying to the children today? They start the day by reading the clouds, which stimulates imagination and language.

Many coordinators favor a relevant curriculum. Uruguay is one of the countries in Latin America that reads the most. The main avenue in Montevideo, a relatively small city, is full of bookshops. The kindergartens made a deal with the Uruguayan Book Chamber in which retired ladies could be trained to tell stories if interested. Each bookshop has three or four readers and the kindergartens go to the bookshops—which are another educational arena—to look for a storyteller from their area to read them stories. There are rules: the children can pick any book in the store and pass it to the reader. She reads them that story and then tells another, without a book, to help develop their imagination. The intention here is important: to encourage enjoyment of reading from infant education and encourage enjoyment in going to a bookshop to look for books.

We’re risking educational quality
In the culture we annul

The quality of initial education, and all education for that matter, will only be possible if the educators have the capacity to re-examine and re-think their practices in order to change their concept of children, leaving behind their traditional activities and opening the doors of 21st-century pedagogy to the children.

Many experiences in Latin America have demonstrated that a quality curriculum is possible. It can be achieved by valuing our own culture and careful selecting different elements from other cultures, exploiting our human, natural and cultural strengths. This doesn’t require any sophisticated materials. It’s all about formation, training, criteria and changing our educational focus.

There’s always another curriculum—the one we annul—in the cultural selection implied by any educational curriculum. We always annul culture, but are almost never aware of the one we’re annulling. When we see kindergarten and school classrooms full of Power Puff Girls and Pokemon, all the cartoons sold by the transnational companies as the “infant world,” we have to understand that community and professional educators have selected them because they’re validating that culture, declaring it to be important. But what are they leaving out? Perhaps all of the wonderful Latin American esthetic, our own culture.

Having educators reflect on the consequences of putting one thing up instead of another sends a very important message. If we want to improve the quality of the education we’re providing, it’s essential to have the critical capacity to re-examine and reflect on the cultural selection we make, the hidden curriculum we’re working with and the curriculum we annul through our cultural impertinence.

María Victoria Peralta is a pedagogue and anthropologist who was director of Chile’s National Kindergarten Board for nearly nine years. This series of four articles is taken from her seminar on “Quality Education Stressing Initial Education,” sponsored by Save the Children Norway.

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