Schooling in Latin America

The economic prowess of a nation is determined by a number of factors, such as natural resources, population size, historical developments, military power, social cohesion, and so on.  Other things being equal, one would imagine that having more of one factor is going to be better than having less.  In the matter of population size, this is in fact not totally true.  If having a larger population base is more economically advantageous, then the superpowers would be countries like China and India.  So far, history suggests that having a large population may in fact be economically disadvantageous in that limited resources have to spread thinly around.

With respect to human capital, the important aspects are the total number of people as well as economic productivity.  Whereas population growth or decline occurs slowly (unless there are wars or mass deaths), the productivity of the existing population base can be improved through education.  To quote from Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis' book Schooling in Capitalist America: "Why does education increase people's income?  The traditional explanation --- which we have labeled the technocratic-meritocratic perspective --- presents a simple and compelling answer.  Earnings reflect economic productivity.  In a technologically advanced society, an individual's economic productivity depends partly on the level of the cognitive skill level he or she has attained.  Each year of education increases cognitive skill levels, thus indirectly leading to higher income."  A rule of thumb is that every year of education may result in an improvement in productivity of at least 5%.  For society and as well as for individuals, education would seem to be highly desirable.  

Unfortunately, educating people comes at a cost.  Socially, an educational system is a major public expense.  Education, unlike a petroleum industry, does not yield direct revenues and is therefore subject to cuts and under-funding during periods of economic austerity.  Individually, people may recognize that having an education is economically beneficial in the long run but they are faced with the short-term need to be immediately economically productive and therefore drop out to earn money.

We will now cite some survey data from the 2001 TGI Latina study.  This is a survey of approximately 48,885 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old in eight Latin American countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.  Within this large survey, we are interested in those people who are between 12 to 24 years old.  Specifically, we want to know the incidence of those who are still enrolled in school by age.  We note that the question refers simply to 'enrolment' and does not distinguish among secondary schools, universities, technical schools, professional institutions or adult education classes.  The data are show in the chart below.  In most countries, school attendance is mandatory at least through the primary level (usually six years).  Thereafter, we see increasing drop out rates as people enter the labor force.  

(data source: 2001 TGI Latina)

From the viewpoint of a macro-level policy analyst, the focus might be to determine the optimal level at which resources should be directed towards providing education.  Too little resources obviously results in underachievement by the labor force; too much resources can also be wasteful.  After all, there is an infinite amount of knowledge to learn but only certain skills may be required for economically productive purposes.  For our purposes, we are more interested in differences in educational attainment among various segments of the population.

We begin with gender differences.  Looking back further into the history of Latin America, the political economy was originally ruled by men, and respectable women were expected to stay home and attend to the household duties.  Educational opportunities for women therefore did not exist, with the exception that upper-class ladies are expected to be refined and cultured.  In the twentieth century, women finally attained many civil rights, such as work, education, voting and running for public office.  But there are still some residual prejudices which are non-institutionalized but quite prevalent.  We cite as evidence the phenomenon of the telenovela Yo Soy Betty La Fea, whose success was undoubted due to the resonance with the realistic social situations that were portrayed.  In that telenovela, the heroine who has a university degree in economics was not taken seriously and could only obtain a job as a secretary.  If such are the expectations and treatments, then what is the point of that additional education?

In the chart below, we show the enrolment rates by age and sex.  After age 17, the school enrolment rates of women are slightly lower than men.  The between-gender gap occurs at 18 years of age at the end of secondary school.  This is very much a matter of expectations --- what are women expected to do?  Are they supposed to find a job as quickly as possible to help the family?  Or are they supposed to find a husband as quickly as possible to raise a family?  Or are they supposed to aim higher?  And if they wish to continue to higher education, will they realistically be permitted to succeed?

(data source: 2001 TGI Latina)

Another aspect of education is availability of resources.  Traditionally, education is a public service that is financed by government funds.  Some national constitutions mandate universal education, which means that compulsory education is offered to all up to certain levels.  Beyond those mandated levels (such as primary schools), the government also provides educational facilities to those who wish to and/or are considered to be qualified to continue further (e.g. secondary schools and universities).  Access to university education is typically not guaranteed universally; often, there is a competitive testing system in which only the 'best and brightest' are accepted into the limited placements.

For individuals, there are vast differences in resources.  Theoretically, universal education is guaranteed for all, at least through a certain level.  Unfortunately, there are vast differences in the quality of services.  This can be seen by comparing rural versus urban schools, or schools in affluent versus poor neighborhoods, or public versus private schools.  The quality differences begin with materialistic aspects (e.g. books, pencils, notebooks, laboratories, libraries, computers, physical facilities, class sizes) through human capital (e.g. teachers, counselors, administrators).  For the rich, quality education can be purchased through private schools, private tutors and foreign universities.

In the next chart below, we show the enrolment rates by socio-economic level (Level A = top 10%, Level B = next 20%, Level C = next 30%, Level D = bottom 40%).  Monotonically, the enrolment rates begin to fall off after 15 years of age by socio-economic level.    The explanation for these divergences is not clear cut.  Firstly, there is the economic argument, in which the poor are most often pressured to join the labor force as early as possible.  Secondly, the rich are better prepared through their own private resources to compete for those open university placements.  Thirdly, there is the meritocratic argument about inherited intelligence.  Thus, in a 1919 lecture at Princeton, Henry Goddard said, "... the fact is, [a] workman may have a ten year intelligence while you have a twenty.  To demand of him such a home as you enjoy is as absurd as to insist that every laborer should receive a graduate fellowship.  How can there be such a thing as social equality with this wide range of mental capacity?"

(data source: 2001 TGI Latina)

Another factor considered in the study of education is the relationship between generations.  In the study of social mobility, one focus has been in the relationship between the socio-economic status (in terms such as education and occupation) of parents and their children.  An inflexible social system in which ancestral class membership (such as royal lineage) defines all generations to come is stagnant and inherently perilous since changes can only come about with the revolutionary toppling of the entire system in all its aspects.  By contrast, a system with high social mobility may be more adaptive and responsive to changes.

In the next table, we show the enrollment rate by age and the educational level of the head of household.  The enrollment rate is consistently higher after age 15 among households in which the head of household has a university degree.  These data do not offer any specific explanation, of which many are possible.  The reason may be solely economic in nature, as we have seen before --- households in which the heads of household have university degrees are likely to be more affluent and therefore can afford to keep their children in school longer.  Alternately, someone with a university degree is more likely to see the intellectual, cultural, social and economic advantages that accrue as result of education and, even with other things being equal, would want their children to benefit from those advantages.  Education then becomes the manifestation and validation of their values, attitudes and cultural traits.

(data source: 2001 TGI Latina)

We will end with an extensive quotation from Schooling in Capitalist America:

Throughout history, patterns of privilege have been justified by elaborate facades.  Dominant classes seeking a stable social order have consistently nurtured and underwritten these ideological facades and, insofar as their power permitted, blocked the emergence of alternatives.  This is what we mean by "legitimation":  the fostering of a generalized consciousness among individuals which prevents the formation of the social bonds and critical understanding whereby existing social conditions might be transformed.  Legitimation may be based on feeling of inevitability ("death and taxes") or moral desirability ("everyone gets what they deserve").  When the issue is that of social justice, these feelings are both present, with a dose of "custom" and "resignation" as well.

In U.S. economic life, legitimation has been intimately bound up with the technocratic-meritocratic ideology ... Several related aspects of the social relations of production are legitimized, in part, by the meritocratic ideology.  To begin with, there are the overall characteristics of work in advanced U.S. capitalism: bureaucratic organization, hierarchical lines of authority, job fragmentation, and unequal pay.  It is essential that the individual accept and, indeed, come to see as natural, these undemocratic and unequal aspects of the workaday world.  Moreover, the staffing of these positions must appear egalitarian in process and just in outcome parallel to the formal principle of "equality of all before the law" in a liberal democracy.

This legitimation of capitalism as a social system has its counterpart in the individual's personal life.  Thus, just as individuals must come to accept the overall social relations of production, so workers must respect the authority and competence of their own "supervisors" to direct their activities, and justify their own authority (however extensive or minimal) over others.  That workers be resigned to their position in production is perhaps sufficient; that they be reconciled to their fate is even preferable.

The hallmark of the meritocratic perspective is its reduction of a complex web of social relationships in production to a few rules of technological efficiency.  In this view, the hierarchical division of labor arises from its natural superiority as a device to coordinate collective activity and nurture expertise.  To motivate the most able individuals to undertake the necessary training and preparation for occupational roles, salaries and status must be clearly associated with level in the work hierarchy ...

The linking of technical skills to economic success indirectly via the educational system strengthens rather than weakens the legitimation process.  First, the day-to-day contact of parents and children with the competitive, cognitively oriented school environment, with clear connections to the economy, buttresses, in a very immediate and concrete way, the technocratic perspective on economic organization, to a degree that a sporadic and impersonal testing process divorced from the school environment could not accomplish.  Second, by rendering the outcome (educational attainment) dependent not only on ability but also on motivation, drive to achieve, perseverance, and sacrifice, the status allocation mechanism acquires heightened legitimacy.  Moreover, such personal attributes are tested and developed over a long period of time, underlining the apparent objectivity and achievement orientation of the stratification system.  Third, frequent failures play an important role in gradually bringing a student's aspirations into line with his or her probable career opportunities.  By the time most students terminate schooling, they have been put down enough to convince them of their inability to succeed as the next highest level.  Through competition, success, and defeat in the classroom, students are reconciled to their social positions ...

In summary, the ostensibly objective and meritocratic selection and reward system of U.S. education corresponds not to some abstract notion of efficiency, rationality, and equity, but to the legitimation of economic inequality and the smooth staffing of unequal work roles.  Every society must and will reward some individual excellences.  But which ones they reward, in what manner, to what extent, and through what social process depend critically on how economic life is organized.  The predatory, competitive, and personally destructive way in which intellectual achievement is rewarded in U.S. schools and colleges is a monument not to creative rationality, but to the need of a privileged class to justify an irrational, exploitative and undemocratic system.

(posted by Roland Soong, 5/25/2002)

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