Mexico: Government Textbooks Spur Nationwide Criticism

In Feature Articles, Opinion & Commentary by Porter Anderson

Allegations of political indoctrination, distorted history, and flagrant errors are greeting Mexico’s new government-made schoolbooks.

A schoolgirl and her mother in Cancun. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Max Rastello

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘You Can Find Wrong Information on Every Page’
In late August, Publishing Perspectives interviewed International Publishers Association (IPA) president Karine Pansa on a disturbing case of a state government in Brazil attempting to leave the national school-content program and drive a self-devised curriculum itself, essentially sidelining its publishers. In that case—through a great deal of effort from the educational publishing community—a court order was attained, reversing the São Paulo state effort and returning the educational content system to its alignment with the national plan.

“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.”Associated Press, August 8

Today (September 13) in a separate instance, educational publishers in another major Latin American market are facing an extraordinary incursion into the textbook business by government interests, this time at the federal level—and in the world’s largest Spanish-language nation. The school content publishers of Mexico–a country with at least 125.9 million Spanish speakers–say they are facing a deepening crisis that may already represent a loss of some US$80 million in publishing revenue.

For this article, Mexican educational publishers have spoken with Publishing Perspectives on condition of anonymity, saying they feel unable to go on-record with their comments for fear of reprisals. Many international news media have been following the developing crisis for some time, logging the various stages of the situation’s development. Those articles quickly reveal some of the deeper concerns at play.

For example, on August 8, an Associated Press article from Mark Stevenson and Leon Ramírez in Mexico City reads, in part, “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. … 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.”

The school year in Mexico began on August 28. That’s when students, teachers, parents–and the Mexican educational publishing corps–opened these new textbooks created by the López Obrador government.

Political Currents, Pedagogical Controversies

Students at the Chapultepec Castle Metro exit in Mexico City. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Max Rastello

By late last year, the world press already was filled with the uproar over the López Obrador government’s moves against the National Electoral Institute, The New York Times‘ Natalie Kitroeff writing in February of this year of how “Mexican lawmakers passed sweeping measures overhauling the nation’s electoral agency, dealing a blow to the institution that oversees voting and that helped push the country away from one-party rule two decades ago.”

They secretly produced the new free textbooks. They acted treacherously. We could say that they are based on a very perverse strategy to destroy our culture and to educate our children away from abstract thinking; mathematics and physics; from history.Gilberto Guevara Niebla, Letras Libres, August 16

Strident accusations of “election fraud”—all too familiar in many book publishing markets today—roiled tens of thousands of protesters who took to the street to defend their election commission.

The textbook controversy now seems to many observers to go hand-in-glove now with those broader electoral power plays. The replacement of the publishers’ work by the government with López Obrador’s new textbooks triggers the shock it does, in part because a legitimate, informed process for the development of classroom content had been in place for 25 years.

As publishers explain it, in 1998, the Mexican government created a program in which textbooks would be provided free for students, and that became quite successful. Educational publishers submitted their schoolbooks for evaluation to the ministry of education, and teachers used a catalogue of the approved titles to select the best books for their classes, usually offered from between four and six books per subject.

Although the government’s purchase of these textbooks from the publishers wasn’t lucrative–publishers were paid what they describe as “10 times below market prices” based on the scale of of the buys–this program has been considered not only effective but also critical in a culture that has struggled to raise its educational statistics from a 1950s-era literacy rate of only some 50 percent of the population.

In statistics provided to us from a study conducted by the Universidad Iberoamericana, primary education students in Mexico–grades one through six–saw their deficiencies in language and communication rise during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic from 49 percent to 70 percent, and in math from 59 percent to 78 percent. In the PISA results from 2018, México is situated in a tie with Jordan, at No. 56, well below many European, Asian, and North American markets’ rankings. (PISA is the Program for International Student Assessment in math, science, and reading of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)

Nevertheless, this year has seen the introduction of the government’s own efforts in making new textbooks “from scratch,” as publishers tell it, virtually eliminating teachers’ ability to guide development or choose their class content. The new texts are, by the publishers’ standards, woefully and obviously inadequate. What’s worse, critics say, is the apparent effort by the government to make these textbooks a key channel of administration dogma–an effort to shape the students’ thinking on ideological and political terms.

At the Yucatan Times, an account tells of parents’ associations anger over the Secretariat of Public Education’s new textbooks’ alleged lack of mathematics training, anti-science stances, and political indoctrination to create a “favorable” view of the López Obrador administration “with communist content.”

Jane Arce at Barron‘s on August 27 writes, “New school textbooks promoted by the Mexican government have sparked a battle between the leftist president and opponents who have burned them and taken the case to the highest court. Critics allege that the books promote communism, homosexuality, and contain factual errors.”

Two days earlier, Christine Murray was writing for the Financial Times of indigenous parents in Mexico’s south burning the new textbooks, as some state governors declined to distribute them because they are, these opposition critics say, sharply critical of capitalism.

Gilberto Guevara Niebla

In an August 16 interview, the former undersecretary of education and commentator Gilberto Guevara Niebla minces no words with journalist Fernando García Ramírez at Letras Libres, saying, in part, “They secretly produced the new free textbooks. They acted treacherously. … If we want to categorically describe these textbooks and the project they contain, we could say that they are based on a very perverse strategy to destroy our culture and to educate our children away from abstract thinking; mathematics and physics; from history.”

Critics assert that the new textbooks were created and printed behind closed doors, supplanting the output and revenue of traditional educational publishers, developed with none of the pedagogical consultations and procedures used since 1998.

The outcome is strident objection. The newspaper Reforma is filled with criticism of the new libros de texto as the new school year gets started. Articles are headed “Educational Disaster”; “Goodbye to History”; “Change of Study Plan Criticized”; “They Warn What a Burden It Is for Teachers.”

López Obrador—his name shorthanded to “AMLO” in many press accounts—is reported to have had to justify positive references to guerrillas, news accounts defiantly arguing “Books Should Not Glorify Guerrillas.” Another article says that the president is recommending that in districts unhappy with his new textbooks, they should set up “flea markets” to distribute them.

Neither side, it seems, is sparing any chance to excoriate the other. On Tuesday (September 12), the Instituto Nacional de Transparencia—National Institute of Transparency—reached a deadline by which the president’s educational secretariat was ordered to respond to allegations of secret meetings in which the new textbooks were created. And one publisher points to news articles saying that López Obrador told hundreds of residents in the state of Guerrero that they will have the new textbooks “whether they want them or not.”

Publishers’ Complaints: Low on Quality, High on Ideology

A student at Mexico City’s Biblioteca Vasconcelos. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Jessica Pichardo

Some of the specific complaints provided by the publishing community say that “the real aim” of these textbooks is “ideological indoctrination. Individual freedom is criticized.'”

“We remain willing to give everything to support the education of our boys, girls, and young people. It’s just a question of allowing us to help.”Mexican Publisher

Amateurish mistakes, sloppy writing, glib and “grave mistakes,” we’re told “pack” these new textbooks with “mistakes of all kinds and science in general.” One comment to us: “You can find wrong information on every page.”

The Mexican professional educational publishing community is adamant that it has never opposed free textbooks, even with the purchase prices being disadvantageous to the publishing houses. They describe their workforce teams of teachers, educational specialists, illustrators, proofreaders, designers, working with editors to create a level of quality that now seems discarded, touching off the criticism surging through the population as it gets a look at these newly rolled out textbooks mandated for use by the government. An associated concern for some: those textbooks, writes Jon Jackson for Newsweek, are distributed by the Mexican military, which López Obrador had pledged to “send back to the barracks.”

While the Cámara Nacional de la Industria Editorial Mexicana (CANIEM), the Mexican publishing chamber, clearly is in a difficult position, its industry-wide voice may become one of the most formidable and potentially clarifying voices in the crisis. Broadly respected for its authority in book publishing–and yet finding its educational publishing sector caught in a remarkably loud nationwide debate–the CANIEM is likely to need the kind of support that the world publishing industry has provided to Canada’s educational publishers in their struggle to regain copyright integrity.

“Even in this environment,” one publisher says to Publishing Perspectives, “we remain willing to give everything to support the education of our boys, girls, and young people. It’s just a question of allowing us to help.”

In Guanajuato. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Maria SaMu

See also: Buchmesse’s 75th Year: ‘Frankfurt Academic’ Programming for more on educational and academic publishing issues at Frankfurt Book Fair.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Mexican market is here, more on educational publishing is here, and more on the freedom to publish and freedom of expression is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.