The scenario depicted could not have been any bleaker. In his lecture today at the 20th International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC 2012), the former Secretary of Education in Puerto Rico, Dr. César Rey, offered a statistical radiography of the Country. It was devastating. The discussion that ensued, however, was profound and moving.
Puerto Rico was a 49% of dependency on state welfare, he started. “I do not think, that there is another country in the whole world with a (level) of subsidies as high as ours”. Among minors, 56% lives below the poverty line. This number is three times higher than in the United States, the sociologist and professor emphasized. Only 33% of the total labor force is active.
Although it is claimed that unemployment is at 17%, a conservative estimate by Estudios Técnicos (an economics think tank and consultancy firm) reveals the real number to be close to 30%. For every dollar, 28 cents come from the informal economy. Around 300 thousand people, primarily educated have left the country in the past ten years and 43% of those who stayed have thought about leaving in the next two years.
In turn, while the State invests approximately 4,000 dollars for every student in the public education system, it invests nearly $90,000 for each maximum security prisoner. “This country is unique. I ask you: don’t you think that these are signs of significant violence?” In many places, “the local drug dealer has more power to summon people than the teacher”.
It is true that we need to build an education that stems from the country itself, he emphasized. “And that is a stepwise process and it requires research. It also requires a horizontal outlook and that is difficult because it presupposes de-codifying ourselves as the managers of an educational project. It is a difficult process, but also a courageous one. It implies a lot of maturity.” All of this must be done and it is important. He also spoke of many other things that must be done, such as teaching and encouraging entrepreneurship from middle school onwards. However, he argued, what students experience in the classroom is something very different to their lives at home.
Following the Twin Towers tragedy in 2001, Dr. Rey attended an educational project about the violence of terrorism. They spoke with many students. He remembers perfectly the answer from a teenage girl who was asked what she thought about that violence.
“For me, violence is to have to pass by three drug sales points every day to reach school”, the girl said. “And I am embarrassed that my grandmother has to bring me to school every day”.
More recently, while carrying out interviews for research on the drug trade in Puerto Rico, a student leader from his school revealed: “There are two drug sales points in the school’s staircase and we have to consult them about everything that we want to do in the clubs”.
The worst statistic is perhaps the following: the Department of Education’s budget in Puerto Rico is over $4,500 million annually for a total of 1,435 public schools. Notwithstanding, there are nearly 1,600 drug sales points in the country that, paradoxically, generate more than 4,000 million dollars. “There are more drug sales points than schools”, Rey stated.
As a matter of fact, in more than 80 percent of these there is a minor present. “They are the ‘gate keepers’”, Rey points out. “They wear a (school) uniform although they don’t go to class. And that is an example of all the things we make invisible when we speak about education”.
Mónica Fernández, an academic at the University of Quilmes in Argentina, who was among the participants, intervened inviting others to reflect on the following: “Education is vital, it is very important. But it is not everything in life. Drug makes us not feel cold, not feel hungry, not to feel fear. That, perhaps, answers why so many prefer it to education. What can we do with this contradictory message?”
She added that at times she questions whether one should start to think about the body before the mind. What are the inalienable needs of the body? Which practices and exercises could never be eradicated? How can we avoid drugs destroying a society, without aiming for the impossibility of eradicating it?
Definitely, Professor Rey replied, we should also examine illegality and all other alternate forms of governance. “In the School of Public Administration, where I teach, there is not yet a single course on that topic in the curriculum. It must be created”.
It seemed like a simple question was left floating in the air as the conference room was emptied. (Who will that expert on illegality that can offer it be?)