Popular Education in Nicaragua
By Marty Collier
Vol. 9, No. 1, 1987, pp. 7-9
“Watching the Nicaraguan popular educators reaffirmed my own experience that to do popular education, you have to start from people’s own experiences. In SALT this is what we do,” said Linda Martin, a staffer of Southern Appalachian Leadership Training (SALT). Martin is one of thirteen community workers and educators from Tennessee who traveled to Nicaragua in January to deepen an international relationship between adult, popular educators in North and Latin America.
What is popular education? Why have leaders from communities in the United States traveled to Nicaragua to learn about it?
In March 1980, less than a year after the Sandinista revolution overthrew the Samoza dictatorship, the new government fulfilled one of its promises: to help the majority learn to read and write–something never attempted under Somoza. In the enthusiastic response, 60,000 young people and teachers volunteered to leave their hometowns and participate as “popular teachers” for five months in the National Literacy Campaign. This massive volunteer effort reduced the country’s illiteracy rate from 50.3 percent to 12.9 percent, and won two prestigious awards from the United Nations.
Southerners joined the tour hoping to benefit from the award-winning approach being used in the continuing adult education work in Nicaragua Participants came from the Highlander Center, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Mountain Women’s Exchange, Southern Neighborhoods Network, Commission on Religion in Appalachia and other groups. Their common focus is work among poor people in the South. Their educational work–to enable participants to organize themselves to solve common problems–has objectives similar to those of Nicaragua’s popular education program.
The visitors were invited by the Nicaraguan Department of Education (MED) as part of a relationship fostered over several years between Nicaraguan popular educators and community-based organizations in the South. Since 1983 there have been several delegations of Latin American popular educators visiting the United States, and staff of the Highlander Center and other alternative educational centers in the United States visiting Nicaragua.
In 1986 many Southerners had the chance to meet Eduardo Baez, from MED in Nicaragua. His speaking trip
to the United States was coordinated by Highlander and led to participation in January’s tour by some of the same organizations and communities which had received Eduardo, deepening both the professional and personal relationships.
POPULAR EDUCATION is used in the Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign to teach math, science, and technical subjects to adults after they become literate. The method emerged from the reality facing Nicaragua after the Revolution: great shortages of formal schools and teachers, few technical schools in rural areas and a largely adult population with tremendous practical and political knowledge. These factors demanded an education process preparing people to make decisions, solve massive problems of production and agriculture, and at the same time respect their experience. These adults could not simply be lectured to or taught in traditional methods. Therefore a participatory, problemsolving approach was developed, based on themes from the people’s own history and revolution, which aimed to prepare the poor majority to participate fully in all aspects of society.
In Nicaragua’s educational method, study and problem solving are based on the life experiences and needs of participants–not on abstract concepts. Terry Keleher, a community organizer from eastern Kentucky, went with several other tour members to a northern region of the country. The group talked with peasants on a coffee cooperative who are in popular education classes. One of the peasants went through six levels of adult education and learned to be an accountant for the cooperative.
Keleher said of his trip to Ocotol, “I saw very sophisticated levels of community organization and democracy in this area. The stress of these educators was on knowing in order to change society. Education here is integrated into all facets of life–not compartmentalized like most of the formal education in the United States. The idea is not just to teach people basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic but to also help them understand their situation, and give them the power to change it for the better.”
In contrast to the United States’ “each one, teach one” approach to literacy education, popular education in Nicaragua is a group experience. Workers, students, peasants and housewives gather in small groups for two hours a day to discuss community problems and solutions. Reading and academic skills are taught through the examination of these themes.
The purpose of the lessons is to determine as a group how to solve the problems at hand and master the skills needed, including learning how to run the many organizations and businesses of which Nicaraguan society is composed. Anne Hablis, a staff member of Mountain Women’s Exchange (an educational and economic development organization in East Tennessee) attended a gathering of parents, children, and popular educators in a region southwest of Managua. She said, “I was impressed by the transformation taking place in people’s thinking. They [people in the adult education programs] had a commitment to the philosophy of the revolution and what it’s trying to accomplish. They are not just trying to master technical, educational skills. They had an awareness that through education they could solve community problems by cooperating with one another–not relying on somebody from the outside bringing them answers or information.”
The Nicaraguan educational approach places priority on preparing people to participate more fully in the processes that affect their lives. “Literacy and popular education are political, because all education is political,” Father Cardinal, the Catholic priest who heads–the country’s educational system, told the group. “It either maintains the status quo in the world, or helps build a new, more just social order. The aim of education in Nicaragua is to strengthen the orgnanization [sic] of people so they can really exercise their power and so that this revolution will represent their interests.”
Nicaraguans understand democracy as more than having elections for public officials. They consider democracy the opportunity to participate in solving their own problems and creating their own future. Luis Aleman, head of popular education programs for MED, explained that many cooperatives have been formed after the revolution, but farmworkers lack the reading, math and analytical skills needed to make financial and management decisions. MED has joined other government departments to develop special pilot educational projects addressing the learning needs which the farmworkers have identified as most important in their work. In a small country where owning land and producing one’s food is so important, these pilot projects are enabling farmworkers to live better and have more control over their future.
NICARAGUA HAS BEEN accused by the United States media and the counter-revolutionaries (“contras”) attacking Nicaragua, of using popular education to indoctrinate citizens. In response, Nicaraguan officials say indoctrination is not needed when the agenda is in the best interests of the majority. Facts, statistics and international awards bear witness to the reality that in Nicaragua the Sandinista-led government, duly elected by its citizens in 1984, has made tremendous strides in initiating a process in the interests of the vast majority–the very poor. Infant mortality, illiteracy, preventable diseases, and hunger have all been dramatically reduced in the last eight years, in contrast to other Central American countries neighboring Nicaragua.
Participation, and not indoctrination, is evident in
many of the current popular education projects underway in Nicaragua. A country-wide effort to combat remaining illiteracy is now underway. Churches, youth groups, members of cooperatives, housewives and workers make up the overwhelming majority of popular teachers who work in their own communities and workplaces to teach others with less experience. Nicaraguan literacy workers say a largely volunteer staff of many thousands of people, working in the same communities in which they live or work, would even be ineffective at an indoctrination campaign. The popular educators maintain that teaching people to read is itself a liberating act, that once people are literate, no government, political party, or religion can control what they read.
Another example of democracy at work in the educational programs of the Nicaraguan government is the production of educational materials. Many localities produce their own educational materials, orienting them to local needs. Linda Martin, also visiting Ocotol, reported that she was very interested in how popular educators put together their own educational materials (at the local level), as opposed to only using what the national office in Managua produced. She said, “I saw ways I could work with our program to help leaders develop their own curriculum materials for leadership development training.”
PROBLEMS IN THE NEW Nicaragua were not denied by people meeting with the visiting Southerners. In fact, Nicaraguan education officials had already raised many of the problems seen by tour participants. Representatives of the Ministry of Education admitted mistakes had been made and problems exist.
A major problem in MED, which the staff pointed out themselves, is that not all of the department heads and teachers are convinced of the importance of the popular education method. Many still feel education is a teacher imparting facts to ignorant people. The popular education staff must struggle against this kind of thinking, and provide positive proof that popular education works more effectively than the traditional approach.
Teresa Barajas, a Mexican who now has United States citizenship, does volunteer work in a low-income, Catholic community of San Antonio, Texas. She joined the Nicaragua tour to see how literacy education is done “from the base” because her church is planning a literacy program. “I found it extremely interesting that in Nicaragua they teach people about their history, what causes poverty,” she said. “At the same time they teach literacy they raise consciousness about the whole situation in their lives. They teach people from their own level of understanding; for example, peasants from the perspective of land, beans, and agriculture.”
Barajas visited the mountaneous region of Matagalpa, where much of the country’s coffee crop is harvested. She met with popular teachers and community members involved in adult education classes. She was impressed with the flexibility the popular educators used to make education meet their student’s needs.
Barajas discussed several problems she observed. She spoke frankly to many people on the streets, in restaurants and rural areas where the group visited. Being an outgoing, friendly person and fluent in both Spanish and English, she constantly gathered and shared information with Nicaraguans she met. She said, “I talked to common people on the street who felt their situation was still very bad. Some people do not see a lot of changes in their lives. They seemed to not have had the opportunity to learn why their situation is as it is. It is true that the ideals of the revolution have not been completely fulfilled. Undoubtedly the war and poverty they started with explain much, but not all the problems that still exist. There are still inefficiency and bureacracy.”
“The war is the main reason for many of the country’s major problems, like shortages of food, lack of personal income, and difficult living situations. This makes it difficult for people with problems to get to the top. There is still a big need to educate people about why problems exist, and who to go to with what problem.”
It was clear to tour participants that Nicaraguans have the consciousness, commitment and political channels to direct their own future, despite whatever difficulties and shortcomings exist. In addition, participants felt that the revolution is a participatory one in which the majority of the country’s people are involved to a remarkable degree in improving their country. Since the majority is quite poor, it has opted for a leadership and national program with priorities on redirecting political power and resources to the poorest sectors of society.
In previous periods in United States history those advocating greater power and resources to the poor have been labeled “communist” when they were promoting basically democratic political reformat Now in Nicaragua the charge of communism has also been used by the United States government and the “contras” to support a war in which over a hundred popular teachers have been killed, along with thousands of other Nicaraguans.
Participants saw that community service and education programs in the South and in Nicaragua are both being attacked by the same philosophy and political forces.
Many Nicaraguanas asked tour participants to take a message back: Tell the people in our communities the truth about Nicaragua, and do everything we can to stop the war against their country. They also asked us to continue the exchange created by the trip. They need help in obtaining valuable materials, such as pencils, raincoats and lanterns for the teachers who travel to rural areas with no electricity. They would love to come to the United States to learn more about our educational work and talk to people about their work. They encouraged participants to send others from our country to visit. The groundwork has been laid for many of these things to occur. Participants on the tour plan to meet to discuss what they hope will be an on-going, international exchange. More information about the trip and future plans can be obtained by writing the Highlander Center, Route 3, Box 370, New Market, TN 37820.
Marty Collier was a participant on the tour and is currently living in Nicaragua studying and writing about popular education. She has been a member of the editorial board of and has worked in popular education through the Southern Neighborhoods Network, P.O. Box 121133. Nashville, TN, 37212.