May 18, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- At the sprawling Fermin Toro School, students take classes that extol President Hugo Chávez's brand of socialism and highlight the menace posed by the imperial power to the north, the United States.
Teachers file into workshops every afternoon to celebrate the government's self-sustaining economic model and its superiority over Washington's "neoliberal" one.
In virtually every activity at the school, administrators say, the goal is to help create "a new man," instilled with communal values, filled with love for the republic and ready to battle "internal or external aggression" against Venezuela.
"What's the kind of citizen we want?" said Principal Juana Sierra, who has pictures of Chávez and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara arranged under a glass desktop. "A Venezuelan who's highly humanistic, with solidarity, who knows his history, who knows the Venezuelan Indian, who knows all the resources the fatherland has, who knows the history of oil, about why we're so dependent, about why we're underdeveloped."
The school here in Caracas exemplifies the Venezuelan government's approach to education, one that amounts to the latest phase in a decade-long revolution that has seen Chávez steadily extend his influence over the legislature, the judicial system, local governments and the military. Officials are planning to overhaul schools and install a curriculum that hails collectivism over individualism and socialism over capitalism, with an emphasis on what Chávez perceives as Washington's desire for world domination.
The government, however, has encountered a hitch: a growing movement of irate parents and educators who already turned back a government education reform effort more than six years ago.
"What worries us is the politicization of Venezuelan education," said Antonio Ecarri, who heads an education commission for the affluent Chacao district of Caracas and speaks frequently to parent assemblies.
"The curriculum is more about ideology than about shaping citizens," he said. "Venezuelan society has been steadfast in opposing the educational reform, and on the implantation of models that inject our children with ideology."
The 550-page curriculum, which was first leaked in September, has been temporarily shelved, though the government did not explain why. The Education Ministry, meanwhile, did not respond to requests for an interview. But Chávez has not wavered in his plans. He recently said in a speech that he might hold a referendum in 2009 to win approval for education reforms.
"The new curriculum marches forward," he said. "Those who criticize shouldn't just criticize but provide ideas. Of course we're moving ahead on this, but we're open to debate."
To glimpse the future, as the president envisions it, one need go no further than the Fermin Toro School. The public institution is a Bolivarian school, one of 5,700 such schools named after the president's inspiration, Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century liberator. As such, officials see it as a crown jewel in the public school system.
Although the new curriculum is not yet being used at Fermin Toro, the school's approach is one that the government hopes can be used as a model nationwide. The focus is on art and culture -- and providing an oasis for 850 children, many of them from the poor, teeming neighborhoods in the city center. Whereas children once went to school for half a day, they are now taught and tutored from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The basics are taught in the morning. Afternoons are left to painting, cooking and theater production classes.
At the same time, students address teachers by their first names, and scamper in and out of principal Sierra's office, no knocking required. Not surprisingly, the system here has plenty of supporters.
"We never did this before," said Yanieles Salazar, 16, who said she's particularly happy taking cooking classes. "The teachers are cool. I can't say more. Everything is good."
It may seem hippie-dippy, but teachers said they are serious about their mission.
Ivonne Lanz, a math teacher and administrator at Fermin Toro, said the education system's values had veered from "what our founders wanted." She said the school is now focused on developing more "humane" citizens. And she said the workshops teachers attend were designed to produce a curriculum that would reflect those new values.
"We're the ones who are developing it," she said. "These are proposals that are being fixed, added on to and eliminated. And in the end, we'll have a new focus -- the new person the republic calls for."
In a country as polarized as Venezuela, such talk has generated near-hysteria among parents, particularly in middle- and upper-class districts, where distrust of the president runs high. Many of their children go to private institutions, but they are fully aware that the president has said those schools would also have to follow a new curriculum, or face being closed.
The parents' slogan, splashed across banners at rallies, is "Don't mess with my children." And at numerous parent assemblies, they often break into shouts of "No means no," a reference to a Dec. 2 referendum in which Venezuelans rejected constitutional changes that would have enhanced presidential powers.
"Reading the school material, you see the hidden Marxism," said Reyna Ordaz, president of the parents association at the Santiago de Leon School.
Another parent who has a son at Santiago de Leon, Adriana de Almea, agreed, saying: "That's what's worrisome, that they take over the primary educational system and wash their little brains and put in socialist ideas that we don't want."
Ecarri, who is a Chacao councilman, said the government's proposals emphasize the military and present a distorted picture of Venezuelan history, glossing over such unpleasant episodes as a failed coup Chávez launched in 1992. Ecarri asserted that Venezuela's educational system, which like most in Latin America compares poorly with Asian school systems, will fall further behind if the reforms go through.
"What characterizes this Bolivarian educational system is immense mediocrity, incompetence, recklessness and, more than anything else, irresponsibility in taking our children to a system that lacks even the most elementary norms that an educational system should have," he said.
Those who support changes to the educational system, however, say the opposition is trying to whip people into a frenzy in search of a signature issue ahead of November elections, in which Venezuelans will elect governors and mayors.
Luis Tascón, a congressman who was recently ousted from the president's party but remains a believer in Chávez, said the opposition is politicizing "a necessary modification" to the education system.
"They're trying to latch onto whatever they can," Tascón said. "They just want to fight. They don't have a reason here."
Chávez frames the education reforms as the latest stage in a series of steps that have improved Venezuelan schools. He recently moved Héctor Navarro, minister of science and technology, to the top spot at the Education Ministry, replacing the president's older brother, Adán, a former Marxist physics professor.
Last year, Chávez said that 7.4 percent of national income went toward education, up from 3.6 percent when he took office in 1999. He also said the student-to-teacher ratio is 28 to 1, down from 62 students per teacher in the 1999-2000 school year.
Sierra, too, praises the virtues of the Bolivarian system. She has been a teacher for more than 30 years and has little good to say about the way things were done in the past.
These days, she said, perhaps what she likes the most is the egalitarian nature of education.
"The idea is equality, that the student feel that this institution belongs to him," Sierra said. "I recall how teachers in the past would say, 'You students there and I'm here. You're the student, I'm the teacher.' Here, no. We communicate like a family."