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A group of indigenous parents in southern Mexico took to burning new school textbooks amid a furious reaction to their allegedly politicised content, gender-neutral language and lack of basic reading and maths material.
Just days before the start of term, some opposition governors are still refusing to distribute the texts, which aim to offer “decolonial” perspectives that are staunchly critical of capitalism and neoliberalism.
The texts were published less than a month before Mexican children return to school on Monday. Managed by a former Venezuelan government official and an educational director named Marx Arriaga, they draw heavily on Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed and a target for conservative criticism of leftist thinking in his home country.
One primary school textbook for 6-year-olds opens with a philosophical quote from Federico García Lorca, a gay Spanish playwright killed by nationalists in 1936, explaining he was killed “for thinking differently”.
The latest chapter in Mexico’s culture wars has deepened divisions over Andrés López Obrador, the old-school leftist president who has called the frenzied reaction to the new books “medieval”. His ruling party contests elections next year.
“Mexico is at risk from a virus that people thought was eradicated — the communist virus,” Mexican news anchor Javier Alatorre proclaimed in front of a dramatic backdrop of a hammer and sickle with education ministry officials. “They want to condemn Mexico to poverty, mediocrity and hatred.”
Social conservative groups have pointed to the reform’s possible legal violations, while an opposition party leader said parents should destroy the books or tear out contentious sections. Parents in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, burnt the new tomes last weekend.
Caught in the crossfire are the country’s 30mn schoolchildren, many of whom rely heavily on free government textbooks. Mexico’s education outcomes rank last among OECD countries and some public schools still do not have basic services such as electricity or regular supplies of running water.
Education is still recovering from some of the world’s longest school closures during the coronavirus pandemic while Mexico has had no standardised teacher evaluations since a 2019 reform by López Obrador.
In its defence of the books, the government says they prioritise teacher autonomy, the community and interdisciplinary learning. Defenders point out some of the alternative teaching methods are pursued by private universities and expensive Montessori schools and that previous textbooks contained errors.
López Obrador said the backlash has been fuelled by education publishers that lost multimillion dollar contracts. “This is a conservative campaign,” “It’s retrograde . . . [like the Spanish] inquisition — destroying books, burning books,” he said, adding the “majority” of public schools would use the new texts.
The Public Education Ministry (SEP) denies it did not consult widely on the changes or follow the necessary legal steps, but has withheld details of how they were put together for five years.
But the result, analysts said, is hard-to-follow material full of errors, a lack of basic language and mathematical exercises and irrelevant or highly age-inappropriate content.
Mexico’s new secondary schoolbooks use gender-neutral language such as “todxs” instead of the masculine plural todos for mixed gender groups, spelling that is rejected by the Real Academia Española, the global guardian of the Spanish language, and is the subject of intense political debate.
The backlash mirrors a push by Florida governor Ron DeSantis to block discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. Conservative activist group Unión Nacional de Padres de Familia won a case that could make use of the textbooks illegal, while several opposition-run states have said they will not distribute them.
Nuevo León state said it would use the primary school textbooks with complementary material but not the more “ideological” teacher guide books, while Chihuahua governor Maru Campos has asked children to donate their old books for this year’s students.
The split along party lines is happening as parties choose their candidates for general elections in June 2024. Some of López Obrador’s messages from his daily news conferences are in the books.
In one secondary-level book, children are taught that “a fundamental cause of the origin of inequality are neoliberal socio-economic models” and that in modern capitalist societies a small group “exploits” the majority. One teachers’ handbook puts Claudio X González, an opposition activist who López Obrador insults almost obsessively, on a list of intellectuals who “legitimised the whims of politicians”.
Teachers say there has also been little training in the new pedagogical approach.
Pedro Hernández, head of a primary school in Mexico City’s working class Iztapalapa district, said the lack of guidance on reading and writing would force teachers to develop their own methods, as well as change the timetable to accommodate projects.
“We’re talking about 1.5mn teachers in the country who are . . . only just seeing [these books],” he said. “The acid test . . . will be in the classrooms.”
Morena congresswoman Adela Ramos, who worked for years as a teacher in Chiapas, is a rare critic within the president’s own party. She said Mexico’s teachers have always had to be resourceful and will try to find ways round the books, but she still fears the consequences.
Schools will teach children “who to hate, who to believe”, she said. “Now no one has to correct the child because they have to remain exactly where they started.”