In Venezuelan Schools, Creating 'a New Man'

Students at the Fermin Toro School in Caracas, where the curriculum extols the socialism of President Hugo Chávez, participate in a martial arts session.
Students at the Fermin Toro School in Caracas, where the curriculum extols the socialism of President Hugo Chávez, participate in a martial arts session. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 19, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela -- At the sprawling Fermin Toro School, students take classes that extol President Hugo Chávez's brand of socialism and highlight the menace posed by the imperial power to the north, the United States.

Teachers file into workshops every afternoon to celebrate the government's self-sustaining economic model and its superiority over Washington's "neoliberal" one.

In virtually every activity at the school, administrators say, the goal is to help create "a new man," instilled with communal values, filled with love for the republic and ready to battle "internal or external aggression" against Venezuela.

"What's the kind of citizen we want?" said Principal Juana Sierra, who has pictures of Chávez and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara arranged under a glass desktop. "A Venezuelan who's highly humanistic, with solidarity, who knows his history, who knows the Venezuelan Indian, who knows all the resources the fatherland has, who knows the history of oil, about why we're so dependent, about why we're underdeveloped."

The school here in Caracas exemplifies the Venezuelan government's approach to education, one that amounts to the latest phase in a decade-long revolution that has seen Chávez steadily extend his influence over the legislature, the judicial system, local governments and the military. Officials are planning to overhaul schools and install a curriculum that hails collectivism over individualism and socialism over capitalism, with an emphasis on what Chávez perceives as Washington's desire for world domination.

The government, however, has encountered a hitch: a growing movement of irate parents and educators who already turned back a government education reform effort more than six years ago.

"What worries us is the politicization of Venezuelan education," said Antonio Ecarri, who heads an education commission for the affluent Chacao district of Caracas and speaks frequently to parent assemblies.

"The curriculum is more about ideology than about shaping citizens," he said. "Venezuelan society has been steadfast in opposing the educational reform, and on the implantation of models that inject our children with ideology."

The 550-page curriculum, which was first leaked in September, has been temporarily shelved, though the government did not explain why. The Education Ministry, meanwhile, did not respond to requests for an interview. But Chávez has not wavered in his plans. He recently said in a speech that he might hold a referendum in 2009 to win approval for education reforms.

"The new curriculum marches forward," he said. "Those who criticize shouldn't just criticize but provide ideas. Of course we're moving ahead on this, but we're open to debate."

To glimpse the future, as the president envisions it, one need go no further than the Fermin Toro School. The public institution is a Bolivarian school, one of 5,700 such schools named after the president's inspiration, Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century liberator. As such, officials see it as a crown jewel in the public school system.

Although the new curriculum is not yet being used at Fermin Toro, the school's approach is one that the government hopes can be used as a model nationwide. The focus is on art and culture -- and providing an oasis for 850 children, many of them from the poor, teeming neighborhoods in the city center. Whereas children once went to school for half a day, they are now taught and tutored from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The basics are taught in the morning. Afternoons are left to painting, cooking and theater production classes.

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