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La Educación
Número: (123-125) I,III
Año: 1996

The Liberal State and Education

From the late 1870s onwards, Latin American countries in general, and Central America in particular, entered a new phase of economic organization. Even though the essence of the ideological parameters was similar for all Central American nations, the implementation of these ideas was quite different in Costa Rica. While Liberalism in the rest of the isthmus seemed to provoke the strengthening of repressive mechanisms inherited from the colonial period, in Costa Rica it was associated with a search for consensus for the exercise of power.1

A practically limitless agrarian frontier, a small and fairly homogeneous population—in racial and cultural terms—no tempting richness (such as gold or silver), and limited social polarization are key elements for explaining Costa Rica’s evolution from colonial times to the establishment of the Liberal state. No serious social problems nor demands for order or repression were made upon the state apparatus. Coercive mechanisms such as the army were therefore weaker in Costa Rica than in the other Central American countries. Of course there were other problems, but Costa Rica, nevertheless, succeeded in maintaining a high degree of social and political stability.

During the first decades after political independence from Spain, achieved in 1821, the gradual process of implementation of Liberal postulates encountered no major shock or friction with existing power groups—including the Roman Catholic Church—which might have been reluctant to lose ancient privileges or attributions. The formation and consolidation of the state started with no strong ties to or remnants of an “Ancien Regime.” The lack of a solid and profitable export commodity during colonial times had precluded the formation of a rigid social structure. This fact also allowed the early expansion of a new export crop, coffee, without major resistance from any social group. Costa Rica was already experimenting with coffee in the second third of the nineteenth century, while the other Central American countries were still attached to colonial crops such as indigo.

Full development of the coffee industry led neither to the collapse of traditional land holding schemes nor to significant changes in the structure of the labor force. In contrast to other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and El Salvador, Costa Rica did not need a revolution to consolidate coffee expansion.2 However, the process of consolidation of the state and the prosperity brought by the coffee industry did create some friction among different interest groups, in particular between the state, the Church and the municipalities.

In the 1880s, the Liberal ideas finally crystallized as a coherent and rational political project. The Liberal reforms, aimed basically at the institutional rather than the economic level, settled, once and for all, the supremacy of state control over ecclesiastical and municipal influence.3

At that time, Costa Rica was remarkably different from the other Central American countries. Land and labor structures allowed more egalitarian, less rigid social interaction. The search for civilian solutions to dynamic social problems discouraged the predominance of the armed forces. Whereas the other Central American countries depended upon repressive institutions to impose their political projects, in Costa Rica the search for agreement prevailed over coercion.

A variety of factors favored profound and long-range reforms during the 1880s. This process was facilitated by a prosperous economy.4 Rising coffee prices in the international market provided the financial resources for reform. The educational apparatus became the special focus of interest and the Costa Rican government wisely promoted education reforms as the best practical manifestation of the consensual option. The body of educational reforms carried out between the years 1885 and 1889 represented a prelude to the modernization of the whole society. In the new scheme, education acquired weight and significance on account of its role as a generator of consensus. The new structure was designed with the main objective of turning education into a mechanism for social control and reproduction. Its reorientation was, at the same time, compatible with the requirements of the economic structure which demanded a certain degree of specialization and skill in the labor force.5

Economic expansion required, likewise, men of law to guarantee legal land possession, commercial transactions, and the financial activities of the state. Lawyers played a vital role in the early stages of the Liberal experience. Most of them belonged to the same oligarchy they defended. Others from a more humble origin usually became intellectual allies of the dominant group.

In Costa Rica, as in other Latin American countries, the educational system was structured in a fairly polarized manner: on the one side, compulsory generalized primary education; on the other, superior education for the governing elite. In the middle, a weak and narrow secondary schooling.

During the period from 1890 to 1914, Costa Rican primary education experienced an impressive expansion. Schools, teachers, and students more than tripled in number in that time.6 Such growth demonstrated that the Liberal goal of generalizing primary education was being accomplished. Nevertheless, qualitative development had lagged behind numerical expansion. The deficiencies and scarcity of teaching personnel, parents’ reluctance to comply with educational duties, and inadequate contents of the curriculum in primary education had been major issues since the 1880s. By 1914, these problems, though tempered, still haunted the educational sphere.

In contrast to primary education, which was designed to encompass society as a whole, secondary education was very elitist. The main goal of secondary education was to filter a few well-trained individuals into higher education so that they could join and improve political and technical groups in the future. Therefore, this level of education was given the best possible infrastructure, curriculum, and organization.

With regard to higher education, government officials reflected an aspiration to improve the School of Law and to create new professional schools. However, judicial studies absorbed most university income as well as the scarce intellectual output provided by the highly elitist secondary school system.

Social dynamics created increasing pressure in educational matters. Population growth, the development of the economic structure, growing demands for new skills, the spread of the notion that access to education provided a path to upward mobility, the desire to integrate new pedagogic and philosophical ideas, the need to strengthen the bonds of nationality, as well as the aspiration to rely more and more on education to reproduce and legitimize—through consensus—the established order, placed increased pressure on education.

In a country where periodic reforms tended to diffuse problems that which might otherwise become insuperable, and where gradual change led to comparatively smooth and rapid structural change, educational issues represented a relevant political and ideological priority.7