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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 17 | Noviembre 1982



Sequel To The Literacy Campaign: Adult Education In Nicaragua

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“We have consolidated a permanent school for a permanent revolution…, where campesino teachers will prepare the teachers of the future, where the newly-literate will become literacy workers, where the people will continue teaching the people.” (Carlos Tünnermann, Minister of Education, “El Nuevo Diario”, 8/20/82)

The literacy crusade which Nicaragua carried out from March to August of 1980 is well-known throughout the world. The continuation of that crusade through the Program for Adult Education (or Basic Popular Education) is less well-known. Nonetheless, the efforts which Nicaragua has made and continues to make in this field received prestigious recognition this past September 2 when the country was awarded one of two “honorable mentions” on the occasion of the Irak Prize, awarded by an international jury under the auspices of UNESCO.

At this moment, throughout the length and breadth of the country – in neighborhoods, in factories, in military barracks, in prisons, etc. – approximately 20,000 grassroots teachers can be found giving instruction to more than 150,000 Nicaraguans.

Why has this great number of adults, who must work, who have families and who have to care for their children, decided to learn to read, write, do arithmetic, and improve their cultural level, now that the literacy crusade has ended? And why are there others to whom improving themselves culturally means nothing, so they display no interest in Adult Education?

Many Difficulties, Many Challenges

Among the adults who are studying in the Adult Education program, both in the countryside and in the city, men are outnumbered by women. In lower-class urban neighborhoods and in rural areas there are also many children, who work during the day as newspaper vendors and shoeshine boys or who help in the fields. As there is a great scarcity of schools in the interior, classrooms are not always available. Although a campaign aimed at insuring that all children finish at least four years of schooling will begin next year, the effort at present is to try to resolve these deficiencies through the Adult Education program.

In the countryside…

As Nicaragua is an agricultural country, and as campesinos have traditionally been the most culturally marginalized segment of the population, it is no surprise that the majority of adult education pupils are found in the rural areas. The literacy crusade began the process of teaching campesinos how to read and write, allowed them to emerge from their isolation and to learn something of the world, and helped them relate to their neighbors (in the interior of Nicaragua farms are often very far apart). But the crusade in itself was not sufficient. It is not easy, day after day, after ten or more hours of toil, to take up one’s books and devote several hours to a task whose immediate benefit cannot be clearly discerned. Nor is it easy to have a neighbor, one’s equal, as a teacher, and possibly to fail in his or her eyes. During the literacy campaign the presence of a brigadista, a young person from the city, helped greatly in overcoming this sense of shame.

Nicaragua’s overall situation at present, especially in border areas, is not conducive to attendance in Adult Education. Campesinos can be heard to remark, “When the Contras come, the first people they’re going to do away with are those who work and study in this education thing.” The threat has a certain logic. In Adult Education classes people read about and discuss the country’s problems, their past history of exploitation, the Revolution, and its projects. Those who teach the classes generally also work at other voluntary tasks (health, the militia, etc.). All this is well-known to the counterrevolutionary bands. In the north their threats against education and educators have already been carried out. Over the last few months, four persons working in Adult Education – teachers and their technical assistants — have been murdered in the border department of Jinotega. The counterrevolution has also launched a campaign of terror by kidnapping teachers and their assistants, forcing them to promise that they will not go on engaging in “politics”, and confiscating the materials which they carry to remote villages. In one way or another such terror bears fruit. Either because of fear or the inability to work due to lack of materials, more than half of the pupils in this area have stopped attending classes. Not to quit in such circumstances requires a high degree of dedication, among the teachers in particular.

In areas farther from the border, another element that negatively affects adult education (though more indirectly) is some of the religious sects. Using arguments which keep people unorganized, e.g., that “the end of the world is near and war will come as God’s punishment,” such sects impede all efforts at cultural advancement. Why go on studying, producing and defending the country if everything is soon going to come to an end?

But not everyone backs down, becomes tired, or takes fright. There are many, many adults who have come to realize that there is something they can do, something to transform their lives, and who exert themselves, day after day, to do just that. They know that they cannot go on living as before, that small improvements (a health center, a cooperative) will come. They also realize that they must participate and help their neighbors (some out of Christian belief, some from political conviction). As a general rule, those who are most active, who respond most positively, are those who participated directly in the insurrectional struggle.

In the city…

How is adult education carried on in the barrios of Managua, Nicaragua’s capital? On the whole, Adult Education in the city does not differ radically from that in the rural areas. Here too daily attendance at class requires an immense and continuous effort on the part of the students — students who are working men and heads of families, married women responsible for the care of a home and numerous children (generally more than five per family), single mothers and women whose husbands have abandoned them. Often a person will begin a semester and then quit because of one problem or another (the illness of a child, difficulties at work, or simply fatigue). The mobilization of reserve battalions of the militia and their deployment in border areas in response to military threats also have unfavorable consequences for adult education. After returning to the city from two or three months of work in the fields, many pupils abandon their classes because of the impossibility of making up the lessons they have missed.

Nevertheless, in certain respects the incentives to go on studying are greater in the city than in the countryside. In the city, knowing how to read and write increases one’s chances of finding work and of obtaining a better-paying job, and of course allows one to read the newspapers (which are easier to obtain in the cities). In other words, for a large number of pupils the desire for personal betterment plays an important role in the decision to participate in adult education. However, after some time has passed, and as the result of formative discussions which are part and parcel of the educational program, such personal motives are gradually supplemented by a collective desire to understand one’s education as an instrument for changing one’s environment, whether it be the factory, the neighborhood, or the city.

The “People’s Teacher”: A Revolutionary Creation

We have already mentioned the figure of the “people’s teacher” (maestro popular) as the coordinator of and person responsible for a group of adult education students. These are not teachers in the traditional sense, for in Nicaragua necessity has led to the invention of something new. Nicaragua’s educational system has broken with the idea that a teacher is only someone who has graduated from teachers’ college or who has undergone specific training as an educator.

“People’s Teachers” basically emerged out of the dynamic of the Literacy Crusade. During the final phase, as the deadline for bringing the crusade to a close neared, acceleration of the pace of work became an urgent necessity. In one particular area it occurred to the people working in the campaign that this could be done by entrusting to the most advanced student in the community the task of monitoring the campaign’s progress. From this experience the “People’s Teacher” was born. This was a vital innovation which allowed literacy training to continue after the brigadistas returned home. For the teacher, social consciousness, class identification, and the willingness to work are more important than educational level attained. A clear sign of that willingness is that they carry out their work without receiving any payment.

The basic responsibility of the teacher is to direct the process of adult education; for this reason he or she is generally called a “coordinator”. The average teacher directs or animates the activity of about five persons (the average group size in the countryside) or 10-15 pupils (the average group in the city).

These groups form the Popular Education Collectives or CEPs. A CEP may meet in someone’s home, on a farm, in a church, in a school, or at a place of work — wherever people come together for the purpose of study.

Experience has generated ways of resolving some of the problems which the coordinators must confront. It has been noted, for example, that it is difficult for a coordinator coming out of a barrio to teach workers in a factory. Lessons must be adapted to the environment in which the students live and work, in other words, to their origins, concerns, and problems. For this reason someone from the factory is usually the best person to serve as a coordinator among his or her colleagues at work.

Other problems have been brought to the surface as the level of difficulty of the program’s content has increased. After basic literacy training, the students advance to a higher level each semester. During the first semester of 1981, along with basic literacy, the first level of adult education was given, followed by a second level and now by a third. Some of the coordinators emerged directly from the Literacy Campaign. Others, especially among the campesinos, have attained only a second or third grade level of schooling. For that reason, after Level 2 of Adult Education was instated, some of the coordinators began to feel unsure of themselves, at times being surpassed by their own students. In addition, the realities of the Nicaraguan countryside make it necessary for many CEPs to include several levels at the same time. Although this is convenient for the students in terms of distance to class, it makes the job of the coordinator much more difficult.

The program of adult education guarantees the continuing formation of coordinators through weekly or fortnightly workshops. The work supporting and orienting these coordinators falls to the “promoters” (promotores), who are charged with overseeing all of the coordinators in a given barrio or rural area (comarca). Although the teachers are given assistance in pedagogy and methods, experience has shown that such assistance does not compensate fully for the low level of many coordinators’ basic education. This has naturally had a significant influence on the implementation of the program. For example, it was hoped at first that by completing four years of Adult Education students would have the equivalent of six years of traditional primary schooling. However it has been seen that, especially in the countryside, Level 3 objectives have not been reached, and it will be necessary to proceed to a fifth and even a sixth level. As it has been observed that pedagogical limitations on the teachers’ part can have a negative impact on the students and are one of the reasons why many students quit, present policy is to improve the teacher’s training by raising their basic educational level.

“People’s Teachers”: Two Examples

Maria Lourdes lives in Zone 6 of Ciudad Sandino, a poor barrio where she has been working as an Adult Education coordinator for two years.

At the age of 13 Maria Lourdes went to the mountains to teach a group of fifteen campesinos living on a coffee farm near Matagalpa to read and write. She now gives classes nightly in a barrio school to 11 neighbors from Zone 6. At the school there are an introductory-level Collective (Basic Literacy), a Level 1 Collective, and two Collectives each at Levels 2 and 3. Among the coordinators, three have been active in teaching ever since the Literacy Campaign. The other three also took part in the campaign, but subsequently left teaching and have returned to become part of the present cycle. In contrast to the days of the crusade, teaching is now only one among many tasks in which these teachers are engaged.

“During the morning I do my chores at home”, relates Maria Lourdes, “in the afternoon I study, and in the evening I give classes. I’m also a member of other organizations, the Juventud Sandinista, I help with AMNLAE and the CDS, and I teach catechism to children making their first communion. All that means a mountain of work. But I’m always moving ahead. I’m now teaching Level 3 students”.

“It’s easier to teach the higher levels, because the students already know something”, she asserts, comparing her experience in the crusade with her present work. “Besides, now that we have three levels, each student is grouped together with others of the same ability. Before, those who didn’t know anything were grouped together with those who were more advanced. And even though the material we teach now is more difficult, the method we use is practical and simple. We prepare our classes and if some problem crops up, we consult the promotor, so that when we face the students they don’t doubt our ability. Up to now I haven’t had any problems because all the questions I’ve had have been cleared up in the workshops or with my promotor. We coordinators also help each other”.

The workshops are the place where the coordinators are trained: “In the workshops the work carried out, the level of attendance, and the students’ progress are all evaluated. The program for the following two weeks is also decided upon. Criticism and self-criticism on the part of the coordinators are very important. There are still people who don’t know how to constructively criticize the mistakes that we make and therefore end up hurting their fellow teachers. But we’re learning. The biggest problem we’ve had has been attendance, especially at the beginning levels. There were days when only 3 or 4 pupils would show up at each CEP. I think it was because people had to get used to the fact that classes would no longer be given in their homes, and they would have to go somewhere else. Sometimes we have to push them in order to get them to attend twice a week. At Level 3 attendance is better. This also depends on the coordinators. It’s our job to encourage people, to make them see that if they complete primary school they can go on to become the country’s future technicians. At times we’ve gone out with other students to track down those who don’t attend. This makes them feel more committed to attending the classes”.

The best experience that a coordinator can have is to watch the progress of his or her students. “I have had the good fortune that no student of mine has been kept back. It’s nice to see that, although we coordinators are neighbors of our students and often younger than they are, there’s a lot of respect. I’m 15, and the youngest of my pupils is 19, the oldest 40. In addition to respect, they have confidence in us. When they don’t know something, they ask. Yes, this is a fantastic and beautiful experience”.

Maria Lourdes believes that organizational and program deficiencies in Adult Education are being overcome. “During this last semester there have been no problems. Prior to that the materials would come full of mistakes, with big words and badly written. The students were left confused. In the workshops this was evaluated and the errors were corrected. Yes, we are improving”.

Her plans for the future? “Next semester I will be working as promoter of the zone. I would like to prepare myself to be a teacher. I like what I’m doing now a lot and want to dedicate myself to it completely”.

In another neighborhood…

Formerly a residential area of private entrepreneurs and Somocista functionaries, Las Colinas continues, even after the victory of July 19, to be one of Managua’s prime residential areas. A large number of foreign embassies along with a lesser number of government offices have been installed there, side by side with the homes of the well-to-do from industry, commerce and the professions. The continuance of a mixed economy in Nicaragua means that there is a strong private sector in the country. Much of that sector lives in Las Colinas.

Despite the neighborhood’s wealth, many of its people have not had access to education. These are the domestic employees, formerly called “servants”, now “home workers” (trabajadores del hogar). Their function is to do the domestic work in the homes of the rich. The political pluralism which exists in Nicaragua, along with the unemployment assailing the country’s economy, have not allowed the elimination of this kind of work. Nonetheless, the new social policy being implemented by the government has brought many concrete improvements in their daily lives. One of these is Adult Education.

From the beginning, the CEPs in this neighborhood had to confront many problems. To begin with, the barrio lacked an appropriate place to hold classes. The majority of the area’s residents also lacked the consciousness necessary to encourage the education of their employees. More serious, however, were the obstacles which employers put in the way of their domestic employees’ attending classes in the CEPs.

Miriam is a 28-year old woman who has been working in domestic service for 16 years, seven of them in Las Colinas. She was taught to read and write in the literacy campaign and since then has participated in Adult Education. Miriam was one of the people who pushed most strongly for the organization of a union of domestic workers in the neighborhood and she is now a representative of that union. Since May of this year she has been working as a coordinator at the Introductory Level — teaching her friends to read and write while she herself attends Level 3 classes to improve her own ability.

“The most difficult part has always been getting permission for the women to attend classes. During the afternoon hours there is always a lot for them to do, and in order to avoid problems with their employers (including firings), the coordinators set the time of class form 8 to 10 in the evening. This is really hard on us because we begin our chores at six in the morning. But with this schedule at least they allow the women to attend. Some of them say that it’s impossible to open the door when the women return at such a late hour — and the majority of us don’t carry keys. In other homes the custom is to dine at 8 or 9 in the evening, and of course they must be served. Although a law limiting the work day to 10 hours has been approved, the majority of the employers don’t bother to obey it, and they make us work 13 and even 14 hours”.

Miriam and some of her colleagues have managed regular attendance at the CEPs by taking a firm stance with their employers, trying to make them see that in a revolution everyone has a right to better herself or himself especially workers and campesinos.

“The employers ask us, ‘What are you going to do in these CEPs? These girls are a bunch of loafers, and the teachers are all communists who are going to brainwash them. Forget this education! You’re only going to talk politics to them. They’re never going to learn what they didn’t learn as children’. They tell us, ‘You cannot be more than you are.’
Although we know that in Adult Education they talk about politics, we are in Nicaragua and our whole life is politics. Besides learning our ABCs, we need to learn and inform ourselves about what’s happening today, and about what happened before. This is what they call history. So that they can’t go on exploiting us”.

In Las Colinas what impresses the observer is the cheerful atmosphere and the affection that the students have for their coordinators. Here they have succeeded at working as a collective. One does not witness the classic scene of the teacher standing in front of the class with the pupils just answering questions. The questions, the concern over what is being taught, spring forth from the students themselves and they try to resolve them. The coordinator are only guides, helps, coordinates.

“We are very happy with this way of teaching”, says Miriam, “because here we’re all equal.” The students call the teacher “profe”, a short and affectionate form of “professor”. It’s just that for years we dreamed of going to school, of having a teacher who would teach us and who would talk to us about many things of which we are ignorant. We even dreamed about being scolded when we didn’t pay attention”.

The women’s workbooks — simple notebooks made out of newsprint — are kept clean and are cared for as though they were a treasure. Their contents are interesting. One student complains that they talk too much about agriculture, the countryside, how to prepare ground for planting. Another helps her to see that the majority of people who are taught in Adult Education are campesinos. The resources necessary to edit a text for Managua are not available.

Each of the higher levels is in charge of training, advising and overseeing the level below it. The two levels get together monthly to evaluate and improve the organization and content of the program.

This structure is about to undergo a significant change as a result of the regional decentralization program being put into effect in the country as a whole. Although this will not affect its overall functioning, it does imply the regrouping of certain entities in order to combat bureaucracy. The Vice-Ministry of Adult Education as such will cease to function. Over the long term what is being sought is a greater integration of Adult Education into the regular educational system.

Up to now, Adult Education, a program created after the Revolution and imbued with revolutionary content and new pedagogical principles, has functioned with relative autonomy from the rest of the education system — a system inherited from the Somoza era. A thorough transformation of the Nicaraguan educational system as a whole, however, will take much more time. It is simply not possible to bring the ongoing process of education to a halt for one or two years and say, “We’re going to change everything and start over.” One has to work with the system which Somocismo left behind.

The integration of the two systems, to be accomplished in various stages, is just now beginning. The experience gained in Adult Education will contribute much to the renovation of Nicaragua’s educational system. The pedagogical principles which today orient the education of adults will go on to guide general educational as well.

A right, a Necessity, a Tool

In a long interview, Eduardo Báez, Departmental Subdirector for Adult Education in Managua, defined the principles of adult education and its significance for the new Nicaragua as follows:

“The Literacy Crusade — a complete innovation for our country — provoked the investigation of and search for other educational experiences, especially those of countries that have undergone revolutionary transformations: Cuba, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. We also studied the experiences of a number of organizations which have carried out basic literacy training in Latin American countries, for example in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. Here in Nicaragua we naturally took up, analyzed and studied the theories of Paolo Freire. Thus the method adopted and the very conception of the method are not a pure creation; rather, the experience of Nicaragua was nourished by other experiences and adapted to the realities of our Revolution in 1980.

“The adaptations made of these experiences had to take into account the real rate of illiteracy in Nicaragua’s rural areas and cities, resource limitations, and the dispersion of the population across the breadth of the country’s complex and broken geography.

“In addition, the adult education program has maintained a state of permanent evaluation. Month after month contest and structure are analyzed in order to make suitable alterations. This is a way of guaranteeing that the program responds to the interests of the grassroots sectors. Evaluation, discussion and adaptation must be continuous and permanent. To do it any other way would negate the transformative character which the Revolution possesses.

“It should be emphasized that the experience of other countries, together with the experience that Nicaragua has acquired, improvised, and tested, now permits us to make a modest contribution to other countries, which, in turn, will have to make adaptations of their own.

“In Nicaragua we consider Adult Education to be a response to a historic demand of the poor classes which never was satisfied. For centuries, poor people were marginalized from everything. They were denied the right to education, for just like its predecessors, it did not suit the interests of the Somoza system to allow the majority to gain access to schooling. The Sandinista revolution, by contrast, took up this demand from the moment the guerrilla struggle began. Already in 1967 one of the basic points of the Sandinista Front’s Program of Government was to fight for the eradication of illiteracy.

“We are not talking, therefore, of a question of charity or of a romantic quest. Education is a right acquired by a people; furthermore, it is a necessity for that people and their revolution to develop. For the first time in its history, Nicaragua is beginning the difficult task of emerging from underdevelopment. More than arduous, such a task would be impossible with a high rate of illiteracy and with the cultural level which we encountered in the country at the moment of the victory. Adult education thus has a strategic importance for the development of the economy as well as for the people’s material and moral well-being. One cannot talk of raising productivity without first raising the cultural level of the workers.

“Finally, in carrying out this program we start from the premise that there is no pure, aseptic, apolitical or neutral education. Every educational system has as one of its objectives the reproduction of a definitive ideology. In this sense, Adult Education has become a tool for the political education of our people, an education whose primordial aim is to achieve a more active and effective participation on the part of everyone in the revolutionary process.”

Without this active participation, the Nicaraguan revolutionary process can neither continue to exist nor advance, especially at this moment of spiraling external aggression. As the Vice-Minister of Adult Education stated at a meeting in Mexico, “the Adult Education program is oriented toward the majority in regard to its teachers and promotores, its contents, its aims; and even the enemy sees this, for the activists in adult education are found on the lists of those whom the Somocista bands have condemned to death.”

Those who are attacking Nicaragua today, those who are trying to destroy this program of grassroots education, know very well that a people that is literate and aware is a people that will never again be subjugated.

Original language – Spanish

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Sequel To The Literacy Campaign: Adult Education In Nicaragua
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