The Country That Stopped Reading
March 13, 2013
EARLIER this week, I spotted, among the job listings in the newspaper Reforma, an ad from a restaurant in Mexico City looking to hire dishwashers. The requirement: a secondary school diploma.
Years ago, school was not for everyone. Classrooms were places for discipline, study. Teachers were respected figures. Parents actually gave them permission to punish their children by slapping them or tugging their ears. But at least in those days, schools aimed to offer a more dignified life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised by the response when I spoke at a recent event for promoting reading for an audience of 300 or so 14- and 15-year-olds. “Who likes to read?” I asked. Only one hand went up in the auditorium. I picked out five of the ignorant majority and asked them to tell me why they didn’t like reading. The result was predictable: they stuttered, grumbled, grew impatient. None was able to articulate a sentence, express an idea.
Frustrated, I told the audience to just leave the auditorium and go look for a book to read. One of their teachers walked up to me, very concerned. “We still have 40 minutes left,” he said. He asked the kids to sit down again, and began to tell them a fable about a plant that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a flower or a head of cabbage.
“Sir,” I whispered, “that story is for kindergartners.”
In 2002, President Vicente Fox began a national reading plan; he chose as a spokesman Jorge Campos, a popular soccer player, ordered millions of books printed and built an immense library. Unfortunately, teachers were not properly trained and children were not given time for reading in school. The plan focused on the book instead of the reader. I have seen warehouses filled with hundreds of thousands of forgotten books, intended for schools and libraries, simply waiting for the dust and humidity to render them garbage.
A few years back, I spoke with the education secretary of my home state, Nuevo León, about reading in schools. He looked at me, not understanding what I wanted. “In school, children are taught to read,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “but they don’t read.” I explained the difference between knowing how to read and actually reading, between deciphering street signs and accessing the literary canon. He wondered what the point of the students’ reading “Don Quixote” was. He said we needed to teach them to read the newspaper.
When my daughter was 15, her literature teacher banished all fiction from her classroom. “We’re going to read history and biology textbooks,” she said, “because that way you’ll read and learn at the same time.” In our schools, children are being taught what is easy to teach rather than what they need to learn. It is for this reason that in Mexico — and many other countries — the humanities have been pushed aside.
We have turned schools into factories that churn out employees. With no intellectual challenges, students can advance from one level to the next as long as they attend class and surrender to their teachers. In this light it is natural that in secondary school we are training chauffeurs, waiters and dishwashers.
This is not just about better funding. Mexico spends more than 5 percent of its gross domestic product on education — about the same percentage as the United States. And it’s not about pedagogical theories and new techniques that look for shortcuts. The educational machine does not need fine-tuning; it needs a complete change of direction. It needs to make students read, read and read.
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.
如今，上學的孩子比以往任何時候都多，但他們學到的東西少 得多。實際上，他們幾乎什麼都學不到。在墨西哥總人口中，識字的人群百分比在上升，但從絕對人數看，墨西哥現在的文盲人數多於12年前。即使掌握基線識字 能力（看路標或新聞的能力）的人數在增加，但看書的人沒有增加。墨西哥一度是教育水平較高的國家，但幾年前，在聯合國教科文組織(Unesco)對閱讀習 慣的一項評估中，墨西哥在108個國家中名列倒數第二。
儘管近年來取得了工業發展的進步，工科畢業生人數也在增 加，但在社會、政治和經濟領域，墨西哥正陷入困境，因為有那麼多的墨西哥公民不看書。我們的新總統恩里克·培尼亞·涅托(Enrique Peña Nieto)12月上任伊始就立即宣布了改善教育的計劃。這很典型。所有總統在上任之初都會這麼做。
他改善教育計劃的第一步是什麼？把教師工會主席埃爾芭·埃斯特·戈迪略(Elba Esther Gordillo)關進監獄，他上周就這麼做了。戈迪略領導這個擁有150萬會員的工會長達23年，她涉嫌挪用約2億美元（合人民幣12.44億元人民幣）。
她理應入獄，但把焦點放在老師（而非學生）身上的教育改革 沒有任何新意。多年來，教育部長的工作不是教育墨西哥人，而是應付老師以及他們的待遇問題。在墨西哥，沒人像教師工會那樣組織那麼多的罷工。而且，令人悲 哀的是，許多教師的工作往往是買來的，或是通過繼承得到的，他們自己的教育程度也不高。
所以，在前不久一次推廣閱讀的活動上，當我面對300來名 14、15歲的孩子演講時，我本不應對他們的反饋感到驚訝。“誰喜歡看書？”我問。禮堂里只有一隻手舉了起來。我在無知的多數人群中挑出五個人，讓他們告 訴我，為什麼不喜歡看書。結果是可以預見的：他們說話結結巴巴，嘟嘟囔囔，變得不耐煩。沒有一個人能說出一個整句，表達出一個觀點。
2002年，比森特·福克斯(Vicente Fox)總統啟動了一個覆蓋全國的閱讀計劃，他選了廣受歡迎的足球運動員豪爾赫·坎波斯(Jorge Campos)擔任代言人，下令印刷了數百萬本書，造了一座巨大的圖書館。不幸的是，老師沒有得到適當的培訓，孩子們在學校里也沒有得到閱讀時間。該計劃 聚焦於書本，而不是讀者。我曾看到一些倉庫里堆放着數十萬本被遺忘的書，它們本來應該在學校或圖書館裡，但現在只是等着灰塵和潮濕把它們變成垃圾。
幾年前，我和我所居住的新萊昂州的教育部長說起學校的閱讀 情況。他看着我，不明白我想要什麼。“在學校里，老師教孩子讀書，”他說。“對，”我回答，“但他們不看書。”我解釋了知道怎麼閱讀和真正看書之間的不 同，以及看路標和閱讀文學經典之間的區別。他說他不知道學生們看《唐吉訶德》(Don Quixote)有什麼意義。他說，我們需要教他們看報紙。
我女兒15歲時，她的文學老師在課堂上全面禁止小說類作 品。“我們將要讀歷史和生物教科書，”她說，“因為這樣，你們一邊閱讀，一邊能學到知識。”在我國的學校里，老師講授容易教的內容，而不是孩子們需要學的 內容。正是因為這個原因，在墨西哥（乃至其他許多國家），人文科學受到排擠。
但也許墨西哥政府還沒有準備好應對真正有文化的人民。我們知道，書籍賦予人抱負、憧憬以及尊嚴感。如果明天我們一覺醒來變得和芬蘭人一樣教育良好，大街上將會滿是憤怒的公民，而我們充滿恐懼的政府會自問：這些人從哪裡得到了超出洗碗工的教育？大衛·托斯卡納(David Toscana)著有《最後的讀者》(The Last Reader)一書。本文最初由西班牙語撰寫，由Kristina Cordero譯成英文。