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Commencement at the University of Puerto Rico

This is a time of crisis in the institution of the school, a crisis which may mark the end of the “age of schooling” in the Western world. I speak of the “age of schooling” in the sense in which we are accustomed to speak of the “feudal age” or of the “Christian era.” The “age of schooling” began about two hundred years ago. Gradually the idea grew that schooling was a necessary means of becoming a useful member of society. It is the task of this generation to bury that myth.

Your own situation is paradoxical. At the end and as a result of your studies, you are enabled to see that the education your children deserve, and will demand, requires a revolution in the school system of which you are a product.

The graduation rite that we solemnly celebrate today confirms the prerogatives which Puerto Rican society, by means of a costly system of subsidized public schools, confers upon the sons and daughters of its most privileged citizens. You are a part of the most privileged ten percent of your generation, part of that minuscule group which has completed university studies. Public investment in each of you is fifteen times the educational investment in the average member of the poorest ten percent of the population, who drops out of school before completing the fifth grade.

The certificate you receive today attests to the legitimacy of your competence. It is not available to the self-educated, to those who have acquired competence by means not officially recognized in Puerto Rico. The programs of the University of Puerto Rico are all duly accredited by the “Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.”

The degree which the University today confers upon you implies that over the last sixteen years or more your elders have obliged you to submit yourselves, voluntarily or involuntarily, to the discipline of this complex scholastic rite. You have in fact been daily attendants, five days a week, nine months a year, within the sacred precinct of the school and have continued such attendance year after year, usually without interruption. Governmental and industrial employees and the professional associations have good reasons to believe that you will not subvert the order to which you have faithfully submitted in the course of completing your “rites of initiation.”

Much of your youth has been spent within the custody of the school. It is expected that you will now go forth to work, to guarantee to future generations the privileges conferred upon you.

Puerto Rico is the only society in the Western hemisphere to devote 30 percent of its governmental budget to education. It is one of six places in the world which devote between six and seven percent of national income to education. The schools of Puerto Rico cost more and provide more employment than any other public sector. In no other social activity is so large a proportion of the total population of Puerto Rico involved.

A huge number of people are observing this occasion on television. Its solemnity will, on the one hand, confirm their sense of educational inferiority and, on the other, raise their hopes, largely doomed to disappointment, of one day themselves receiving a university degree.

Puerto Rico has been schooled. I don’t say educated but, rather, schooled. Puerto Ricans can no longer conceive of life without reference to the school. The desire for education has actually given way to the compulsion of schooling. Puerto Rico has adopted a new religion. Its doctrine is that education is a product of the school, a product which can be defined by numbers. There are the numbers which indicate how many years a student has spent under the tutelage of teachers, and others which represent the proportion of his correct answers in an examination. Upon the receipt of a diploma the educational product acquires a market value. School attendance in itself thus guarantees inclusion in the membership of disciplined consumers of the technocracy—just as in past times church attendance guaranteed membership in the community of saints. From Governor to jibaro, Puerto Rico now accepts the ideology of its teachers as it once accepted the theology of its priests. The school is now identified with education as the church once was with religion.

Today’s agencies of accreditation are reminiscent of the royal patronage formerly accorded the church. Federal support of education now parallels yesterday’s royal donations to the church. The power of the diploma has grown so rapidly in Puerto Rico that the poor blame their misery on precisely the lack of that which assures to you, today’s graduates, participation in society’s privileges and powers.

Research shows that twice as many high school graduates in Puerto Rico as in the States want to pursue university studies; while the probability of graduating from college for the Puerto Rican high school graduate is much lower than it would be in the States. This widening discrepancy between aspirations and resources can result only in a deepening frustration among the inhabitants of the Island.

The later a Puerto Rican child drops out of school the more keenly does he feel his failure. Contrary to popular opinion, increasing emphasis on schooling has actually increased class conflict in Puerto Rico, and has also increased the sense of inferiority which Puerto Ricans suffer in relation to the United States.

Upon your generation falls the obligation of developing for Puerto Rico an educational process radically different from that of the present and independent of the example of other societies. It is yours to question whether Puerto Rico really wants to transform itself irrevocably into a passive product of the teaching profession. It is yours to decide whether you will subject your children to a school that seeks respectability in North American accreditation, its justification in the qualification of the labor force, and its function in permitting the children of the middle class to keep up with the Joneses of Westchester County, New York.

The real sacred cow in Puerto Rico is the school. Proponents of Commonwealth, Statehood, and Independence all take it for granted. Actually, none of these political alternatives can liberate a Puerto Rico which continues to put its primary faith in schooling. Thus, if this generation wants the true liberation of Puerto Rico, it will have to invent educational alternatives which put an end to the “age of schooling.” This will be a difficult task. Schooling has developed a formidable folklore. The begowned academic professors whom we have witnessed today evokes the ancient procession of clerics and little angels on the day of Corpus Christi. The Church, holy, catholic, apostolic, is rivaled by the school, accredited, compulsory, untouchable, universal. Alma Mater has replaced Mother Church. The power of the school to rescue the denizen of the slum is as the power of the Church to save the Moslem Moor from hell. (Gehenna meant both slum and hell in Hebrew.) The difference between Church and school is mainly that the rites of the school have now become much more rigorous and onerous than were the rites of the Church in the worst days of the Spanish Inquisition.

The school has become the established Church of secular times. The modern school had its origins in the impulse toward universal schooling, which began two centuries ago as an attempt to incorporate everyone into the industrial state. In the industrial metropolis the school was the integrating institution. In the colonies the school inculcated the dominant classes with the values of the imperial power and confirmed in the masses their sense of inferiority to this schooled elite. Neither the nation nor the industry of the precybernetic era can be imagined without universal baptism into the school. The dropout of this era corresponds to the lapsed Marrano of eleventh-century Spain.

We have, I hope, outlived the era of the industrial state. We shall not live long, in any case, if we do not replace the anachronism of national sovereignty, industrial autarchy, and cultural narcissism—which are combined into a stew of leftovers by the schools. Only within their sacred precincts could such old potage be served to young Puerto Ricans.

I hope that your grandchildren will live in an island where the majority give as little importance to attending class as is now given to attending the mass. We are still far from this day and I hope that you will take the responsibility for bringing it to pass without fear of being damned as heretics, subversives, or ungrateful creatures. It may comfort you to know that those who undertake the same responsibility in socialist lands will be similarly denounced.

Many controversies divide our Puerto Rican society. Natural resources are threatened by industrialization, the cultural heritage is adulterated by commercialization, dignity is subverted by publicity, imagination by the violence which characterizes the mass media. Each of these is a theme for extensive public debate. There are those who want less industry, less English, and less Coca-Cola, and those who want more. All agree that Puerto Rico needs many more schools.

This is not to say that education is not discussed in Puerto Rico. Quite the contrary. It would be difficult to find a society whose political and industrial leaders are as concerned with education. They all want more education, directed toward the sector which they represent. These controversies merely serve, however, to strengthen public opinion in the scholastic ideology which reduces education to a combination of classrooms, curricula, funds, examinations, and grades.

I expect that by the end of this century, what we now call school will be a historical relic, developed in the time of the railroad and the private automobile and discarded along with them. I feel sure that it will soon be evident that the school is as marginal to education as the witch doctor is to public health.

A divorce of education from schooling is, in my opinion, already on the way, speeded by three forces: the third world, the ghettos, and the universities. Among the nations of the third world, schooling discriminates against the majority and disqualifies the self-educated. Many members of the “black” ghettos see the schools as a “whitening” agent. Protesting university students tell us that school bores them and stands between them and reality. These are caricatures, no doubt, but the mythology of schooling makes it difficult to perceive the underlying realities.

The criticism today’s students are making of their teachers is as fundamental as that which their grandfathers made of the clergy. The divorce of education from schooling has its model in the de-mythologizing of the church. We fight now, in the name of education, against a teaching profession which unwillingly constitutes an economic interest, as in times past the reformers fought against a clergy which was, often unwillingly, a part of the ancient power elite. Participation in a “production system,” of no matter what kind, has always threatened the prophetic function of the Church as it now threatens the educational function of the school.

Student protest has deeper causes than the pretexts enunciated by its leaders. These, although frequently political, are expressed as demands for various reforms of the system. They would never have gained mass support, however, if students had not lost faith and respect in the institution which nurtured them. Student strikes reflect a profound intuition widely shared among the younger generation: the intuition that schooling has vulgarized education, that the school has become anti-educational and anti-social, as in other epochs the Church has become anti-Christian or Israel idolatrous. This intuition can, I believe, be explicitly and briefly formulated.

The protest of some students today is analogous to the dissidence of those charismatic leaders without whom the Church would never have been reformed: their prophecies led to martyrdom, their theological insights to their persecutions as heretics, their saintly activity often led to the stake. The prophet is always accused of subversion, the theologian of irreverence, and the saint is written off as crazy.

The Church has always depended for its vitality upon the sensitivity of its bishops to the appeals of the faithful, who see the rigidity of the ritual as an obstacle to their faith. The churches, incapable of dialogue between their ruling clerics and their dissidents, have become museum pieces, and this could easily happen with the school system of today. It is easier for the university to attribute dissidence to ephemeral causes than to attribute this dissidence to a profound alienation of the students from the school. It is also easier for student leaders to operate with political slogans than to launch basic attacks upon sacred cows. The university which accepts the challenge of its dissident students and helps them to formulate in a rational and coherent manner the anxiety they feel because they are rejecting schooling, exposes itself to the danger of being ridiculed for its supposed credulity. The student leader who tries to promote in his companions the consciousness of a profound aversion to their school (not to education itself) finds that he creates a level of anxiety which few of his followers care to face.

The university has to learn to distinguish between sterile criticism of scholastic authority and a call for the conversion of the school to the educational purposes for which it was founded, between destructive fury and the demand for radically new forms of education—scarcely conceivable by minds formed in the scholastic tradition; between, on the one hand, cynicism which seeks new benefits for the already privileged and, on the other, Socratic sarcasm, which questions the educational efficacy of accepted forms of instruction in which the institution is investing its major resources. It is necessary, in other words, to distinguish between the alienated mob and profound protest based on rejection of the school as a symbol of the status quo.

In no other place in Latin America has investment in education, demand for education, and information about education, increased so rapidly as in Puerto Rico. There is no place, therefore, in which members of your generation could begin the search for a new style of public education so readily as in Puerto Rico. It is up to you to get us back, recognizing that the generations which preceded you were misled in their efforts to achieve social equality by means of universal compulsory schooling.

In Puerto Rico three of every ten students drop out of school before finishing the sixth grade. This means that only one of every two children, from families with less than the median income, completes the elementary school. Thus half of all Puerto Rican parents are under a sad illusion if they believe that their children have more than an outside chance of entering the University.

Public funds for education go directly to the schools, without students having any control of them. The political justification for this practice is that it gives everyone equal access to the classroom. However, the high cost of this type of education, dictated by educators trained largely outside Puerto Rico, makes a public lie of the concept of equal access. Public schools may benefit all of the teachers but benefit mainly the few students who reach the upper levels of the system. It is precisely our insistence on direct financing of the “free school” that causes this concentration of scarce resources on benefits for the children of the few.

I believe that every Puerto Rican has the right to receive an equal part of the educational budget. This is something very different and much more concrete than the mere promise of a place in the school. I believe, for example, that a young thirteen-year-old who has had only four years of schooling has much more right to the remaining educational resources than students of the same age who have had eight years of schooling. And the more “disadvantaged” a citizen is, the more he needs a guarantee of his right.

If in Puerto Rico it were decided to honor this right, then the free school would immediately have to be abandoned. The annual quota of each person of school age would obviously not support a year of schooling, at present costs. The insufficiency would, of course, be even more dramatic if the total educational budget for all levels were divided among the population from six to twenty-five years of age, the period between kindergarten and graduate studies, to which all Puerto Ricans supposedly have free access.

These facts leave us three options: leave the system as it is, at the cost of justice and conscience; use the available funds exclusively to assure free schooling to children whose parents earn less than the median income; or use the available public resources to offer to all the education that an equal share of these resources could assure to each. The better-off could, of course, supplement this amount and might continue to offer their children the doubtful privilege of participating in the process which you are completing today. The poor would certainly use their share to acquire an education more efficiently and at lower cost.

The same choices apply, a fortiori, to other parts of Latin America where frequently, not more than $20.00 a year in public funds would be available for each child if the 20 percent of tax receipts now destined for education were distributed equally to all children who should be in school under existing laws. This amount could never pay for a year of conventional schooling. It would however be enough to provide a good many children and adults with one month of intensive education year after year. It would also be enough to finance the distribution of educational games leading to skills with numbers, letters, and logical symbols, and to sponsor successive periods of intensive apprenticeship. In Northeast Brazil, Paulo Freire (who was forced to leave the country) showed us that with a single investment of this amount he was able to educate 25 percent of an illiterate population to the point where they could do functional reading. But this, as he made clear, was only possible when his literacy program could focus on the key words that are politically controversial within a community.

My suggestions may mortify many. But it is from the great positivists and liberals that we inherited the principle of using public funds for the administration of schools directed by professional educators; just as, previously, tithes had been given to the Church to be administered by priests. It remains for you to fight the free public school in the name of true equality of educational opportunity. I admire the courage of those of you willing to enter this fight.

Youth wants educational institutions that provide them with education. They neither want nor need to be mothered, to be certified, or to be indoctrinated. It is difficult, obviously, to get an education from a school that refuses to educate without requiring that its students submit simultaneously to custodial care, sterile competition, and indoctrination. It is difficult, obviously, to finance a teacher who is at the same time regarded as guardian, umpire, counselor, and curriculum manager. It is uneconomical to combine these functions in one institution. It is precisely the fusion of these four functions, frequently antithetical, which raises the cost of education acquired in school. This is also the source of our chronic shortage of educational resources. It is up to you to create institutions that offer education to all at a cost within the limits of public resources.

Only when Puerto Rico has psychologically outgrown the school will it be able to finance education for all, and only then will truly efficient, non-scholastic forms of education find acceptance. Meanwhile, these new forms of education will have to be designed as provisional means of compensating for the failures of the schools. In order to create new forms of education, we will have to demonstrate alternatives to the school that offer preferable options to students, teachers, and taxpayers.

There is no intrinsic reason why the education that schools are now failing to provide could not be acquired more successfully in the setting of the family, of work and communal activity, in new kinds of libraries and other centers that would provide the means of learning. But the institutional forms that education will take in tomorrow’s society cannot be clearly visualized. Neither could any of the great reformers anticipate concretely the institutional styles that would result from their reforms. The fear that new institutions will be imperfect, in their turn, does not justify our servile acceptance of present ones.

This plea to imagine a Puerto Rico without schools must, for many of you, come as a surprise. It is precisely for surprise that true education prepares us. The purpose of public education should be no less fundamental than the purpose of the Church, although the purpose of the latter is more explicit. The basic purpose of public education should be to create a situation in which society obliges each individual to take stock of himself and his poverty. Education implies a growth of an independent sense of life and a relatedness which go hand in hand with increased access to, and use of, memories stored in the human community. The educational institution provides the focus for this process. This presupposes a place within the society in which each one of us is awakened by surprise; a place of encounter in which others surprise me with their liberty and make me aware of my own. The university itself, if it is to be worthy of its traditions, must be an institution whose purposes are identified with the exercise of liberty, whose autonomy is based on public confidence in the use of that liberty.

My friends, it is your task to surprise yourselves, and us, with the education you succeed in inventing for your children. Our hope of salvation lies in our being surprised by the Other. Let us learn always to receive further surprises. I decided long ago to hope for surprises until the final act of my life—that is to say, in death itself.

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