Valid education in a community setting

For Sasil Sánchez Chan

In these unprecedented times, during which COVID-19 has highlighted the many failings of political organisations calling themselves Nation-States, one issue stands out. This issue has always provoked debate, not only between official organizations, but also between main providers and recipients: formal education.

Primary education as an educative model comprises of different levels corresponding to cognitive stages and learning which, ultimately, conforms with a systemic process validated by educational institutions. This is seen as the official demonstration of the academic level that has been attained, consequently permitting students the opportunity to progress to higher levels.

Learning via the systemic model of formal primary education is a way of perpetually replicating the colonial model. Therefore, formal primary education is yet another example of the intersectional discrimination experienced by the Indigenous Peoples. In this sense it should not be a request, but a demand, that knowledge-based education– something that up to now has not been implemented in an educational setting – is a right and a requirement.

Whilst the Head Office for Indigenous Education (DGEI) serves as the official means of ensuring the education of the Indigenous People in Mexico, it has been limited in terms of its method since its inception, 42 years ago. If things were different, the guarantee or the right to education of the Indigenous People would not have been as severely affected, even during these troubling times we are living in today.

Due to the pandemic, one of the first institutions to enter into lockdown in the Yucatán, Mexico, was every instance pf primary education, with the limitations on in-person teaching. It was therefore necessary to come up with new ways of acting and teaching based upon two main premises: from home and using technology.

This new way of teaching caused other issues to resurface, issues which the Mayan people – as well as the remaining coexistent people in Mexico – were already facing, pandemic or no pandemic. The backwardness and shortcomings of a system which, since its creation, has instilled upon us the idea that education is something that can only take place in a classroom is reaffirmed by westernised and colonialised textbooks, methods and knowledge. These methods, in turn, have convinced all government agents in Mexico to agree that the models, knowledge and wisdom of the Indigenous People could not be part of formal classroom education.

The home-schooling model, an emergent adaptation to the lockdown situation, requires not only access to technology such as computers, mobile phones and high quality internet – which consequently necessitates the installation and receival of wired or wireless signal, or the availability of mobile networks – but also requires that students, or at the very least their parent/ guardian, have sufficient knowledge to use and employ this technology as requested by teachers. Consequently, keeping Mayan communities in mind, communities where mobile networks may not reach, or families do not have the means to buy a computer or smartphone, what chance did they have?

Many children stopped attending class due to a lack of both technological and communicative resources. This situation has led me to think about re-evaluating how the lockdown circumstances would have been handled in communities if education were germinated, operated and developed from another setting: with Mayan knowledge, community, and identity as the starting point. What would the requirements have been? Which tools would have worked? What educational themes and ideas would there have been, even in the face of the health situation?

One should consider an educational model that does not require classes on culture or Mayan language, but that instead reproduces oral tradition and considers matters that arise from the observation of nature, from ancestral knowledge, from direct practice, from the natural philosophy of every village, from the world view of each culture. This would involve, of course, other types of educational figures and themes: the jmeen [sages and makers of knowledge], herbalists, midwives, cooks, corn growers, musicians, craftsmen, sages of orality, writers, actresses, amongst others.

To be based on a community model would not mean completely excluding the educational subjects of the current system, as knowledge can be acquired in many ways, and literacy through books and classrooms is only one of many ways of becoming literate. A community model would involve a comprehensive plan with an emphasis on Mayan knowledge; considering, from the outset, that the code of communication would be the mother tongue of each community. In the case of the Yucatán this would be the Mayan language, which would thus guarantee the perpetuity of a language currently threatened by low or non-transmission to the new generation; it would also be important to have Mayan-speaking teachers in order to achieve the most effective results.

This possibility of structuring community educative models which include principal people and participants from Mayan communities would not only ensure a preservation of knowledge, but would also involve a re-establishment of identity, of the standing of the people, self-validation, and would give them some autonomy within the world.

Considerations of this scenario arise from the idea that parameters imposed to validate knowledge, a teacher, or a school need rethinking. How can one construct a school without four walls? The freedom to create learning from other contexts is feasible as long as minds are open to shaping these possibilities.

If the only learning methods in place do not recognise Mayan tradition as valid, the efforts to unpick the threads that for years have kept the strong bonds of discrimination and underdevelopment around the Mayan people are futile. In the end it is not translations, inclusive spaces or Indigenous Schools that are needed. It is both a right and a requirement that there should exist a Mayan school with Mayan knowledge, teaching and education.

-Sasil Sánchez Chan is editor of the Mayan language section of the literary magazine Al Pie de la Letra [To The Letter], edited by the School of Humanities at Modelo University, in the Yucatán; she is also coordinator of the bilingual (Mayan/Spanish) reading and literacy program SOLYLUNA working in Yucatán communities, and editor of K’iintsil, the Mayan language back page of the peninsular newspaper La Jornada Maya [The Daily Mayan]