The Country That Stopped Reading

David Toscana, New York Times, March 5, 2013

Earlier this week, I spotted, among the job listings in the newspaper Reforma, an ad from a restaurant in Mexico City looking to hire dishwashers. The requirement: a secondary school diploma.

Years ago, school was not for everyone. Classrooms were places for discipline, study. Teachers were respected figures. Parents actually gave them permission to punish their children by slapping them or tugging their ears. But at least in those days, schools aimed to offer a more dignified life.

Nowadays more children attend school than ever before, but they learn much less. They learn almost nothing. The proportion of the Mexican population that is literate is going up, but in absolute numbers, there are more illiterate people in Mexico now than there were 12 years ago. Even if baseline literacy, the ability to read a street sign or news bulletin, is rising, the practice of reading an actual book is not. Once a reasonably well-educated country, Mexico took the penultimate spot, out of 108 countries, in a Unesco assessment of reading habits a few years ago.

One cannot help but ask the Mexican educational system, “How is it possible that I hand over a child for six hours every day, five days a week, and you give me back someone who is basically illiterate?”

Despite recent gains in industrial development and increasing numbers of engineering graduates, Mexico is floundering socially, politically and economically because so many of its citizens do not read. Upon taking office in December, our new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, immediately announced a program to improve education. This is typical. All presidents do this upon taking office.

The first step in his plan to improve education? Put the leader of the teachers’ union, Elba Esther Gordillo, in jail—which he did last week. Ms. Gordillo, who has led the 1.5 million-member union for 23 years, is suspected of embezzling about $200 million.


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