March 5, 2013

Mexico: "The Country that Stopped Reading"

Mexico gets relatively little coverage in the United States English-language media despite its immense importance to the future of our country. One reason is because the population is so aliterate -- not illiterate, just apathetic about reading and writing. (This spills over to the Mexican-American population.)

A Mexican novelist writes:
The Country That Stopped Reading 
By DAVID TOSCANA 
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. 

The PISA scores show Mexican doing mediocre overall, but with tiny proportions of high scorers, well behind a somewhat comparable country like Turkey in coming up with an intellectual elite.
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.

I'm amazed he could find her to arrest her, since she spends most of her time at her luxury homes in California.
She ought to be behind bars, but education reform with a focus on teachers instead of students is nothing new. For many years now, the job of the education secretary has been not to educate Mexicans but to deal with the teachers and their labor issues. Nobody in Mexico organizes as many strikes as the teachers’ union. And, sadly, many teachers, who often buy or inherit their jobs, are lacking in education themselves.

Many public school teaching jobs in Mexico are hereditary sinecures. If you die, your heir has the right to step into your job. If he doesn't want a teaching job, he can auction it off to people who do.
During a strike in 2008 in Oaxaca, I remember walking through the temporary campground in search of a teacher reading a book. Among tens of thousands, I found not one. I did find people listening to disco-decibel music, watching television, playing cards or dominoes, vegetating. I saw some gossip magazines, too.

Welcome to the future of America!
... But perhaps the Mexican government is not ready for its people to be truly educated. We know that books give people ambitions, expectations, a sense of dignity. If tomorrow we were to wake up as educated as the Finnish people, the streets would be filled with indignant citizens and our frightened government would be asking itself where these people got more than a dishwasher’s training.

You just lost Jeb Bush there with that last paragraph, Senor Toscano. Why would he or his friends in Mexican politics want a Finnish quality electorate? What's in it for him and his? Would George P. Bush be talked up as future Presidential Timber in Finland?

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mexicans right now are obsessed with trash TV, pitbull fights and deep-fried junk food. As you pointed out a while back, Mexico is now second most obese nation on planet and will soon be first. It will be the first country on planet where more people die of diabetes than heart disease.

But, hey, it's all okay because as Marco Rubio says "they're natural Republicans."

Glossy said...

Low-IQ people do read. I ride the NY subway every day, so I can even tell you what they read exactly. Urban fiction, tabloids, the Bible. Also religious instruction, especially the Our Daily Bread booklet.

Steve, I don't remember you ever writing about urban fiction. My impression is that it's not like Tyler Perry's stuff at all. I think it's raunchier. It must be a huge business. Yes, I know, it's black, not Hispanic, but the implication that the left tail hardly ever reads is wrong.

What do I see mestizo laborer and maid types reading? Celebrity mags for women, tabloid newspapers for both sexes.

agnostic said...

I tried 30 minutes of googling to find that list of 108 countries whose reading habits UNESCO studied a few years ago -- no dice. Not even a name of the article, or anyone else citing it, other than this NYT column.

Does it exist?

Anonymous said...

well behind a somewhat comparable country like Turkey in coming up with an intellectual elite.

Turkey is developing a very respectable arms industry, it's intelectual elite ws made of sabbateans crypto-jews.

countenance said...

... But perhaps the Mexican government is not ready for its people to be truly educated. We know that books give people ambitions, expectations, a sense of dignity. If tomorrow we were to wake up as educated as the Finnish people, the streets would be filled with indignant citizens and our frightened government would be asking itself where these people got more than a dishwasher’s training.

May I posit an alternate less pernicious less convoluted theory?

Peasant Indo/Mezo people have low IQs. Why does there need to be some sort of "government conspiracy" to keep them dumb when they're born dumb?

BTW, I think I have identified the dead epicenter of the low information undertow universe: The Wendy Williams Show.

Anonymous said...

At convenience stores and laundromats in Colorado I've seen Mexican women just sit and stare. For hours. No apparant need for any diversion - books or anything else.

They're probably more vibrant drunk though.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there's an HBD factor here, aside from general IQ.

Nahuatl wasn't put into writing until the Spanish introduced Roman script. The Mayans had their glyphs, but their civilization had long since entered its decline when the Spanish arrived.

In this context, those cognitive faculties associated with written language in particular might not have been as adaptive in pre-Columbian Mexico as in contemporary Europe or East Asia.

This is all speculation--I don't know if there's anything to it. But it seems like it's worth asking.

(A natural question that follows--how do the literary inclinations of Mexicans today compare with those of other societies--in sub-Saharan Africa, for example--that came late to the written word?)

ogunsiron said...

When a black person is reading a book in the subway or bus here, it's almost always the Bible.
It drives me nuts.

I remember from when I was little that girls and women in black africa were very, very fond of romance novels and of a type of book that I've never seen in north-america: it's basically like a comic book or a graphic novel but in each box you have an actual picture. The theme was always romance.

Jeff W. said...

This article has some Finnish content when I was least expecting it.

Your Finnish readers looking for Finnish content should be advised to read every Sailer article carefully right through to the end.

J said...

It is really amazing that there is almost no editorial industry in Latin America. A new novel by a Latin writer is considered a big success if sells 3000 books. You visit a Latin home and the only books are obligatory school texts. Yet the first printing shop in America was set up by Spanish Jesuits in Paraguay in early 1500s.

john marzan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is easy to explain. The intellectuals and smart people are all in the USA picking grapes and doind jobs that Americans will not do. If we deport them and build the wall, Mexico will become the smartest nation in the world. It is that simple!

eah said...

Big deal. They're all planning to move to America anyway where Obama will welcome them and tax 'the rich' in order to provide the welcomees with something close to a first world lifestyle.

Besides, at least they won't be going to Oberlin and majoring in KKK.

Anonymous said...

1. Mexico's PISA scores are badly misleading. The PISA people doing selections don't understand that the wealthy upper-class super-white schools are the lesser ones and the public admission-test driven ones produce the better students. It works the same at universities; the more ramshackle, the better, the fancier, the worse.

2. Mexicans nurture a healthy contempt for authority from a very young age. Give them a test that doesn't count and they're much less inclined than Americans to try, much less Chinese.

3. Mexican inherited and sold teacher sinecures were abolished by law last year. Let's see if it sticks before we give up on reform. Imprisoning known criminal and tacher's union chief Elba Esther is serious progress.

4. Who are the Turkish equivalents of Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, and the like?

5. Mexicans have an extreme culture of self-criticism comparable to the USA. Complaints like those of the author here are expected, but not to be taken literally.

6. Mexicans in Mexico read a lot. Mexico City and the provincial capitals are full of good bookstores. The class of Mexican that migrates to the USA is the class that doesn't read. A Mexican with a college degree on average has the same material quality of life in Mexico as an American college graduate in the USA. The unskilled laborers are the ones who made bank moving north; lately even those are coming back.

7. @Anon Nahuatl was written by the Aztecs. Several codicies of history and poetry survived the Catholic inquisition's attempt to burn them all. The Aztecs didn't have the whole language available to them; they borrowed Maya glyphs for the common concepts and phonemes and made up ad hoc ideographs for the rest. They were well on the way to a standardized Mexica written language.

Nevertheless, Maya and Nahuatl are completely unrelated languages. The Aztecs migrated to Mexico only two centuries before the Spanish. Most of the genetic material in Mexico that isn't Spanish comes from non-Aztec nations with a longer history of awareness of writing.

Neither those nations nor the Europeans of the time had any culture of literacy outside the elites.

Reg Cæsar said...

It depends what the definition of 'book' is.

I attended a panel discussion years ago at the Weisman Museum on the U of Minn campus, the subject of which was, who were the world's biggest consumers of comic books and graphic novels. The only contenders were the Japanese and the Mexicans.

It was held (appropriately?) in a new Gehry building. And the three academics on the panel had hairstyles that matched the Three Stooges. One was even Dr Fine! (Though he didn't have Larry's hair.)

Anonymous said...

Now that books are more or less passe' amongst the internet generation (they get their intellectual stimulation through blog such as iSteve and trawling a plethora of eclectic online links in their quest of curiosity and first for information, prose stylists and 'amazing did you know?' facts, have Mexicans by-passed the book stage of literary evoltion altogether and have they gone en masse on the net?
Are they big net surfers?, wha sites interest them and waht do they look at?

Reg Cæsar said...

Would George P. Bush be talked up as future Presidential Timber in Finland??

Maybe, maybe not. The presidency is a ceremonial position, an elected royal. But with some foreign policy power. If he were half-Russian, perhaps, or half Swedish.

Finland is like Mexico in one respect: she lost a big chunk of land to a neighbor.

countenance said...

Reg Caesar wrote:

It depends what the definition of 'book' is.

In 2007, the Virginia Department of Health was trying to find a way to educate Hispanic immigrants to the state about the dangers of STDs and statutory rape. They eventually settled on something called a fotonovela, which is essentially a picture book with lots of pictures and simple language.

Yet, we expect these people to sustain our Social Security system.

Anonymous said...

I am a devout reader, and I taught reading in Texas public schools for a few years before moving to Mexico long ago. That hardly qualifies me as an expert but I would like to rebut some comments.

Mexicans who can afford it send their children to private schools in part because of the decline in the quality of public education. It wasn't always so horrible, in fact once there were plenty of good schools and even some exceptional ones. That is no longer true, and you can blame corruption and greed for the incredible demise. I once took a trip with three young school teachers, and not one of them took a book with them. They were unable to discuss literature at any level. Not one of them knew which states bordered the United States.

I tried for an hour but was unable to find the UNESCO reading habits study, but I don't dismiss the idea that Mexico lags far behind. To accentuate the claim that the country is in educational dire straits I present the newly purchased president, Enrique Peña Nieto. At a book fair during his campaign he was unable to name a single book he had read except "...parts of the Bible." Further pressed, he named a book but then attributed it to the wrong author.
It's what I call misleading by example: Hey, I don't read and I made it to the top. In the United States the president bragged in a book about being a pothead in Hawaii, but believes marijuana should remain illegal.

I don't think a big change in Mexico is imminent because of the unionized slugs that somehow ended up in classrooms. Who is going to replace them? Good public schools are as unlikely to exist as the ever elusive democracy some addled Mexicans continue to babble about. It's a country flooded with Coca Cola, and lacking even a drop of public drinking water. It's a country with the world's richest man, and where millions of desperate people are more concerned with what they can find to eat than what they can find to read.

cato said...

"Nevertheless, Maya and Nahuatl are completely unrelated languages. The Aztecs migrated to Mexico only two centuries before the Spanish. Most of the genetic material in Mexico that isn't Spanish comes from non-Aztec nations with a longer history of awareness of writing.

Neither those nations nor the Europeans of the time had any culture of literacy outside the elites."

That may be, but analogies to the distant past don't really work. Europe, and other cultures with a written language, had, at that time, an overwhelmingly rural population. Scotland was the first country to pass laws requiring people to go to school (late 1400s)
But it was not necessary to read to get through life successfully, for most people. Europe's trajectory from a mostly illiterate population, to a literate one, has been intertwined with profound evolutionary developments (in the cultural sense.) Nowadays, being rural, or even poor, is rarely an excuse, even in Mexico. If they really want to read, they can get reading material. Same with "poor" people here. If there's a problem with that, they why the hell do they savage library funding before anything else? Ny parents owned very few books--no money for that--but I went to the library. I also read the World Book Encyclopedia voraciously (we did own a set).
In Mexico, and most of Latin America, people have a ready made literacy meme all set up and ready to go. If they ignore it, it means they have no intellectual curiosity to speak of.
Speaking of libraries, a Chilean once told that Latin American countries--he was speaking mostly of Mexio, ubt included other--have ittle impetus to maintain archives and organized records concerning their history. Most institutions that did that for the "Latins", were American or European.

el supremo said...

@Anonymous 12:21
4. Who are the Turkish equivalents of Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, and the like?

Orhan Pamuk, who won a Nobel Prize and is regarded as one of the great contemporary fiction authors, and has had multiple books that sold very well among educated people in the US.

There is plenty of reading and writing going on in Turkey, although not all of it gets out of the country due to the limited number of translators and the global book market. Turkey also produces plenty of indie drama films, who screenplays can be seen as an extension of literary writing. Turkey also has a very strong newspaper market - working class men sit around in cafes and read the paper regularly.

I know Turkey gets a bad rap on the right due to its ongoing problems with the EU, but if you work or spend time there it is an industrious, reasonably well run society whose citizens generally maintain a civil environment and run plenty of civic organizations. Its far more pleasant than Mexico.

Anonymous said...

Could it have something to do with the visual word form area? That part of the brain which greatly speeds up reading.

Mesoamerican civilizations had writing (of sorts, Aztec may be pro-writing) but literacy was not particularly widespread. It was restricted to nobles and priests.

For the vast majority of Mesoamericans there wouldn't have been any selection for improved function of the visual word form area.

Peter Frost had a good article about the VWFA but he didn't find any data that included ethnicity, so we don't know for sure.

Anonymous said...

The class of Mexican that migrates to the USA is the class that doesn't read.

Good point.

They eventually settled on something called a fotonovela, which is essentially a picture book with lots of pictures and simple language

Fotonovels also existed in North America in the 1970s, but never caught on. They were usually adaptations of movies or TV episodes, with actual stills from such. Unlike comics, they had no real art, and were no substitute for the movies themselves (made available by cheap video in the 80s).

Anonymous said...

In Quebec it's common to see not one single book in a French-speaking person's house. It's not a part of the culture to read.

Anonymous said...

"They eventually settled on something called a fotonovela, which is essentially a picture book with lots of pictures and simple language"

And a happy ending for daddy and his girl! Gracias Papa! (I think it's aimed at teenagers - and its a lot better than the stuff aimed at UK teenagers, which focuses on condom use to prevent STDs and failing that, emergency contraception to prevent childbirth.

http://contentdm.unl.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/comics/id/195/rec/21

Anonymous said...

The first step in his plan to improve education? Put the leader of the teachers’ union, Elba Esther Gordillo, in jail


That's always a useful thing to do regardless of whether you want to improve education or not.

Anonymous said...

"Who are the Turkish equivalents of Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, and the like?"

The Turkish equivalent of Octavio Paz is a very pleasant middlebrow Turkish man who holds a mid-level managerial position in a Turkish embassy somewhere, and who is polite and literate, but not terribly bright.

The Turkish equivalent of Carlos Fuentes is this pretentious babbling moron who sits in a cafe in Izmir all day long holding forth about utter horseshit, and everybody else in the place laughs at him beside his back.

The Turkish equivalent of Juan Rulfo is just some Turkish street-sweeper dude who once made up an amusing story to tell to this girl he was trying to seduce.

That's about it. Mexican literateurs are not a very impressive bunch, not even the allegedly impressive ones.

Carlos Fuentes? Lou Costello was a better writer, and a sharper thinker.

Anonymous said...

They seem to have stopped breeding too, at least compared to before.

Spike Gomes said...

Anonymous:

That's something I was always curious about, the paucity of French-Canadian literature, given the amazing amount of lyrical skill that exists in their music. It's funny that their greatest poet had an Irish surname instead of being a Tremblay.

Anonymous said...

French-Canadian literature?

Oh, you mean like Jack Kerouac (or Ti-Jean, as I prefer to think of him, and as his family called him.)

Read "Maggie Cassidy" sometime. It absolutely sings. Doesn't matter what Jack's passport said; culturally, he was a French Canuck, and he ruled OK.

Anonymous said...

When I moved from New Jersey to California in the early 80s, I noticed that few Californians, even if college educated, had much of a personal library compared to what was typical in the Midwest and on the East Coast. I chalked it up to the climate. When the weather is awful for much of the year, reading is a great way to spend a chilly evening.

I would also say that Mexican society seems to have very few introverts. The "bookish" personality seems nonexistent.

I've known a wide cross-section of people over the years, but I don't think I have ever known anybody who read actual books for pleasure who did not have an IQ of above 100. Even people who read romance novels have had above-average intelligence in my experience, even if they never went beyond high school.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of that movie SEVEN with Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. Freeman's character is walking in this great library at night and sees a group of security guards (all black) who just sit there all the time playing cards at a table. He remarks to them "all this vast and wonderful knowledge here for you guys and all you want to do is just play cards". The guards look at him like he is a space alien and shrug.

Some cultures and races just don't value knowledge, education, learning and inquisitiveness.

commonwealth contrarian said...

Is reading all that important anyway?

East Asians don't read either and they seem to be doing ok.

As long as there are white people in the world doing most of the creating and thinking reading isn't that important for most of the planet's population.