Education gets huge boost in Venezuela

Revolution, suggests radical educator Paulo Freire, is “the ultimate teacher … giving first place to the indispensable role of education in the process of forming the New Woman and the New Man.” Although Freire wrote these words almost 30 years ago, in his preface to Jonathan Kozol’s book “Children of the Revolution,” he could have been writing about Venezuela today.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez devoted a May 15 call-in television program to education. Attending the inauguration of a new high school, he presented a “new educational model for a new citizen.” Competition and individualism in schools, he said, must give way to unity, brotherhood and solidarity. “We are all a team, going along eliminating little by little the values or the anti-values that capitalism has planted in us from childhood.”

Chavez noted the country’s new constitution calls for a democratic, free education characterized by “inclusion, activism, participation and opportunities.” Article 103 of the Constitution states, “Every person has the right to a full, high-quality, ongoing education under conditions and circumstances of equality.” Education, Chavez said, is a “human right and a fundamental social duty.”

Crediting Education Minister Aristobulo Isturiz for defining the nation’s educational philosophy, Chavez went on to say that education is more than “Isturiz’s responsibility [and] not only the responsibility of the government, but is everyone’s.”

Isturiz, also at the ceremony, talked about “co-responsibility” as an alternative to paternalism. “The democracy that we are constructing is a participatory democracy,” he said. “We would not have been able to teach 1 million people to read and write if we had not had the help of 100,000 volunteers.”

Until now, Isturiz said, education in Venezuela has been “responding to the neoliberal model,” which he called “profoundly elitist and exclusive.” The new curriculum includes gender equality from preschool onward, and today Venezuela boasts more women than men with a university education.

In an April interview with venezuelanalysis.com, Isturiz described the process of setting up “Bolivarian schools,” free public education, meals for all students and increased educational funding. Over the past five years the educational segment of the Gross Domestic Product rose from 2.8 percent to 7 percent. The government now devotes 20 percent of its spending to education.

In their new schools, children learn actively and collectively. Practical experience and academic instruction are joined. Families participate as classroom helpers, food providers and community advocates. Teachers receive a 70 percent add-on to their salaries to encourage nearly full-time involvement with students — eating, playing and sharing.

Nearly 1.4 million children are enrolled in mandatory preschools, the “Simoncitos.” Isturiz said that early education works to overcome social inequalities and promotes self-esteem and language skills. The curricula of Bolivarian high schools now group academic subjects in “areas” as a means of helping students correlate information and solve problems. The recently formulated Decree 3444 aspires to transform Venezuelan universities, and the education ministry is developing a system of “small university villages” in outlying areas.

Over 1 million children are enrolled in 3,780 new Bolivarian schools, among them 350 secondary schools. The government has refurbished 8,750 of the nation’s 20,000 schools, and has built 700 new elementary schools and 80 technical schools.

An outreach program called “Mission Robinson,” which has received Cuban support, has enabled almost 1.4 million people, including prisoners in Venezuelan jails, to read and write in less than two years. Over 1.2 million people, mostly adults, are studying to complete the sixth grade, and in another program, 800,000 adults are studying at the high school level.

These programs have enabled millions of poor and uneducated Venezuelans to improve themselves. The United Nations predicts that in 2007 Venezuela will meet its millennium goal of elementary education for all, eight years ahead of schedule.

The name Mission Robinson comes from Simon Robinson, who served as director of education in Bolivia under Simon Bolivar, the 19th century South American revolutionary. Robinson’s message resonates in Venezuela today: “We have to educate everybody, with no distinctions of race or color. We are not off in the clouds: without popular education there will never be a true society.”