MEXICO CITY – There are few places where the debate over school textbooks has gone so ballistic in such a short time as in Mexico, where opponents are hurling cries of “communist” and "fascist’ at each other.
The series of about three dozen government-written, free textbooks will be required reading for first through ninth grades in every school nationwide, starting on Aug. 28.
News anchor Javier Alatorre claimed the new schoolbooks written by the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador are trying to inject “the virus of communism” into kids.
Government supporters, meanwhile, have compared the opposition to Hitler, after opposition party leader Marko Cortes suggested some of the texts should be destroyed. Temperatures have run so high that López Obrador has instructed officials to hold a series of news conferences to answer questions about the new texts.
The debate reveals how starkly divided Mexico is between die-hard supporters of López Obrador, and those who hate him.
“What is really being revealed in this conflict, this debate, is how polarized Mexican society is,” said National University sociologist Ishtar Cardona Cardona, who has reviewed most of the textbooks available so far.
And the ideological debate has obscured the bigger fact that the new texts introduce a whole new teaching method, something never before done in Mexico, where in the past, each administration updated the texts but kept the subjects largely the same.
No longer will there be separate lessons — or textbooks — on subjects like math, reading or social studies. It's all mixed together, into multi-subject stories or projects, intended to give a more hands-on “experiential” learning process.
There are some embarrassing errors; one grade-school textbook suggested ¾ is greater than ⅚ and shows an incorrect date of birth of the national hero Benito Juárez. Yet another diagram suggests Mars is closer to the Sun than the Earth is.
And there is a strong anti-capitalist tint to some of the lessons.
There is little doubt that the officials in charge of compiling the textbooks do wax nostalgic for the old Soviet Union. One of the two officials proudly bears the first name “Marx,” and the other previously worked for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“The Rabfak, the schools for workers in the former Soviet Union, were considered spaces of knowledge. The dream is that Mexican middle schools and their textbooks can achieve that quality,” according to the forward to the seventh grade language arts book.
But Cardona notes that those references “really say more about the I-don’t-want-to-grow-up ideological nostalgia” of the officials, than any real call to revolution.
Some parents agree, like Juan Angoa, who sells belts and wallets at a Mexico City street market.
“This is just pure politics,” said Angoa.
Angoa, whose kids have already graduated from high school, thinks the debate distracts from the bigger problem, which is that while textbooks are free, uniforms, supplemental books and activities aren't, representing a challenge for low-income parents.
For Luz de Teresa Oteysa, researcher at the Institute of Mathematics of the UNAM, the books seemed to have been created without much care, lacking the necessary content for kids, and were poorly proofread, despite any potential new method or approach used.
“Regardless of the government’s ideology or the type of government we have, mathematics must be taught, and even more so, a government that claims to be left-wing," she said.
But it is true that you can find plenty of references to capitalism being bad in the textbooks, as early as the fourth grade.
One chapter in the fourth grade sciences-math-history textbook is titled “The deterioration of nature and society under capitalist culture.”
Multinational corporations, consumerism and imported food are all depicted as inherently bad.
That is a concern for parents like Husim Pérez Valladares, whose daughter is entering kindergarten this year.
“There has never been so much concern about textbooks,” Pérez Valladares said as her daughter played on a bench next to her. “They're saying there are a lot of subliminal, pro-communist messages” in the books.
What is perhaps more significant is that the texts tend to rewrite history and include the political stances of López Obrador’s administration as gospel.
For example, most historians agree that Mexico’s “Dirty War” — a counterinsurgency effort by Mexican soldiers and police against leftist rebels — ran from about 1965 to 1995. By 2000, Mexico’s presidents began investigating crimes of the past.
But the new textbooks say it ran from the 1950s to 2016, just two years before López Obrador took office. (While López Obrador often invokes Cuba and rebel movements of the past, he has done very little that is overtly leftist during his tenure.)
López Obrador dislikes mainstream media outlets, and it shows. One textbook tells children “if you are looking (for reliable information) on the internet, the webpage’s address should end in .edu, .gob or .org.” That excludes most newspapers in Mexico, which use “.com” addresses for their online editions.
Cardona says this is not the first time an administration’s biases have crept into mandated school textbooks.
“I grew up with free textbooks that talked about the current president or the one before,” said Carmona. “This is a defect of Mexico as a country. Putting yourself in the textbooks is nothing new.”
The more serious problem, Cardona says, was the rush to get the error-prone textbooks finished before López Obrador leaves office in September 2024.
“The problem is that these books were done in a hurry,” she said. “Why did they try to do it so quickly, so carelessly? Because we’re nearing the end of the administration … it’s now or never.”