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Gustavo Esteva

Fugitive State: Gustavo Esteva’s Deprofessionalized Learning


by Federico Pérez Villoro

In this context, Gustavo Esteva (Mexico City, 1936 – Oaxaca, 2022) [...] considered that education brews a hierarchical dependence on the powers in office. He believed it was not a matter of reforming public policies or designing new educational models but of building alternatives to education—namely, processes to recover people’s enthusiasm for learning.

The "deprofessionalized" critic and activist Gustavo Esteva passed away in 2022, at 86.

Courtesy: Desinformémonos.

In 1997, the State Forum of Indigenous Peoples of Oaxaca reached a conclusion that should not come as a surprise. After a year of internal discussions, the participating communities declared that schools are the main instrument of the State against the native peoples. This inexcusable truth permeates Mexico's colonial society still to this day. During the following months, some communities shut down their schools and expelled their teachers. This is how the “deprofessionalized” activist and intellectual Gustavo Esteva told the story. He passed away in March 2022, after dedicating his work to the critique of educational institutions.1

It would suffice to recall the abolition of “Indigenous languages” as a control strategy during the viceroyalty.2 Or the punishments implemented to induce the unlearning of the native language of the Zoque people (self-named O'de püt) during the 1930s and 1940s.3 Or the misleading rhetoric of “intercultural” education in recent years, which has revealed itself as a mask of the dominant integrationist model. However, listing examples bears the risk of circumscribing a sustained structural problem to historical particularities. What is crucial here  is that education, exercised as a political framework that imposes order in service of a centralized power, contradicts the possibility of a plural society.4

Let us consider that, presently in Mexico, one of the main criteria for acknowledging the rights of an Indigenous person—as an identity category attributed by the State itself—is the speaking of a native language. In contrast, schools have been a severe mechanism for Hispanicizing Indigenous peoples.5

Through linguistic devastation and other deculturalization processes, schooling has prevented the passing down of endemic knowledge among Mesoamerican communities and the sustainable care of their territories.

Scarcity and False Meritocracy

In this context, Gustavo Esteva (Mexico City, 1936 – Oaxaca, 2022), who renounced the possibility of becoming Secretary of State during José López Portillo’s presidential term,6 considered that education brews a hierarchical dependence on the powers in office. He believed it was not a matter of reforming public policies or designing new educational models but of building alternatives to education—namely, processes to recover people’s enthusiasm for learning.7

A fugitive from academic rationalism, Estava’s search for learning autonomy went beyond semantics, addressing the economic foundations that organize capitalistic societies. He argued that the shared notion of education as a necessity arises when we assume that desires exceed the individual capacities to satisfy them and the social possibilities to produce enough goods and services. Once the economic principle of scarcity is introduced as the undisputed value that organizes the distribution of resources, the need for private and governmental entities to manage them is established.8 Scarcity raises a problem of choice in the face of the supposed needs, in contrast to the temporal and material resources available. This conclusion that we now take for granted—Esteva explains—assumes that resources are unlimited while the means to obtain them are limited, fostering our most avid competitive drives. We want more than we can have. If indeed issues arise from the distribution of endless goods, the individual challenge is transgressing the given conditions. This logic also applies within the educational paradigm: as the scarcity of schools is set, schooling becomes coveted as the main currency to prepare us for life.

The stability of the State, thus, requires the homogenization fed by schools as the endowers of knowledge aimed to urban individuals. “But by the early seventeenth century a new consensus began to arise: the idea that man was born incompetent for society and remained so unless he is provided with ‘education,’”9 reminds us the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, who was also a close colleague of Gustavo Esteva. Within the metric of the “ideal” human model that governs industrial societies, people's capacity to draw knowledge from concrete experience—our investigative curiosity—is supplanted by the impulsive consumption of pre-manufactured knowledge.

Therefore, the real offer of educational institutions resides in legitimizing competitiveness under the ultimate mandate of capital. The product acquired is the certification of the very consumption process optimized for productivity. Education came to mean—as Illich would say—the inverse of a “vital competence” to become an “intangible commodity,”10 readily available to those who can afford it. In this way, schools administer a meritocratic fiction in a cycle of endless demands that perpetuate the unfulfillable promise of individual development. For instance, in Mexico, less than 20% of the population get to attend university and only half of those actually practice the profession they studied.11 However, the pedagogical trajectory from elementary school to high school is professionalizing. It projects higher education as the space allowed to produce knowledge, thus invalidating the vast bulk of the population.

It is convenient to attribute Mexico’s social conflicts to the lack of access to education, as a responsibility of a State that should provide civic resources. Although it is valid to demand from the government what it has promised, these requests somehow reaffirm the authority of the very system we seek to escape. Furthermore, they disorient the deepest will to dismantle the exclusionary “certainties” that outline the idea of a country according to the Western mold. The “imaginary” Mexico that Guillermo Bonfil Batalla warned us about still steers the nationalist mast.

The colonial function of schools was strengthened when education became free and mandatory in France, one hundred years after the Revolution. The French nation continued to be forged through the expansion of French as the only “full” language.12 This imperial tendency required cultural uniformity as a globalizing meeting point and, therefore, the subjugation of other linguistic expressions. Louis-Jean Calvet describes the self-assumed moral obligation devised by the dominant apparatus to justify its systems of oppression. The self-assigned “civilizing duty” implemented by the educated elites generated an internalized contempt for “local languages.” This was promoted in schools through the following method: Every morning, teachers handed students a coin marked with a cross. This “symbol” charged the pupils with the responsibility of “freeing themselves” from the shameful object by passing it on to their classmates that they caught speaking a language other than French. By the end of the day, the last holder of the coin had to do forced cleaning chores.13 Today, Esteva reminds us that “the educated in the North speak only 1 percent of the 5,000 languages that temporarily survive on Earth.”14

Isidro Martínez: 'Fray Pedro de Gante, maestro de los indios' (1890). Oil on canvas.

Courtesy: Pinacoteca Artemio del Valle Arizpe / Universidad Autónoma de Coahuila.

Escaping Education

In their book Escaping Education: Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures, Madhu Suri Prakash and Gustavo Esteva tenaciously present the possibility of escaping the educational regime. The invitation is clear and opens a gap beyond modern arrogance. Rejecting education—they suggest—requires us to stop assuming it within the framework of human rights: those cultural codes available to the minority, which reduce the human condition to the individual scale, “the minimal unit of several abstract categories.”15 The regulation of elementary ways of coexistence arose some two hundred years ago with the end of the French Revolution and the configuration of Nation-States as a sovereign logic. After centuries of social devastation, these agreements between “developed” countries were reached to uphold a global order dependent on market forces.16 The intention here is not to undermine the potential of human rights as one of the few defense mechanisms in the West against authority abuses, but of recognizing them as the “juridical expression” of recent customs. These conventions have little to do with those of communities, which are rather organized from an inherited ancestral sense of shared obligations and rotating roles: “The destruction of the conditions of a subsisted good life is required to create education and the other ‘needs’ of a very specific, culturally determined, life style—now established as a universal goal, transforming every man and woman into a needy subject with rights or claims for the satisfaction of those ‘needs.’”17

Communal ethics are resilient and the regenerative processes by which communities protect their relationships with life endure. Of course, rejecting school is not a possibility for everyone.

Autonomous Zapatista school (2004).

Courtesy: Andrés Bedia.

For instance, the paralyzing effect of resisting the assimilation of Spanish is clear, in the face of the economic dispossession to which native peoples have been subjected. As anthropologist Benjamin Maldonado has extensively registered regarding the cultural displacement of communities in Oaxaca: “In the face of impoverishment, the colonial language was required to know how to move within the imposed world.”18 Despite recognizing the devastating effects of the national curriculum structure, repelling the “civilizing” pacts is no easy task.

An authority that embraces schooling as the legitimate path to improve living conditions produces a sense of dependence that is difficult to break. As the entities qualified to standardize criteria, attaching more value to certain social and epistemic canons over others, schools discipline students to obey civic norms with the promise of employment and a good reputation as a reward. The punishment is programmed incompetence. Prakash and Esteva remind us that the subordination seeked by educational institutions to neutralize behavior and reaffirm the need for their own existence is well portrayed by Jules Henry in his essay Vulnerability in Education.19 This anthropologist from the United States argues that the stability of modern societies is built upon people's vulnerability, reaffirming the role of its institutions in preventing failure: “Thus society will protect us only if we consent to be relatively defenceless.”20 This instilled fear is the “pulse” of schools, Henry writes, and it allows them to avoid any threat that might result in their transformation. In fact, he goes on, “the people who are in the positions most strategic for social change are usually the most vulnerable.21

The fugitivity that Esteva advocated is also a return or “a rootedness with the place.”22 It was not until 1989, when he moved to San Pablo Etla in Oaxaca, that he began to disengage from the world of ideas, from the “western horizon of intelligibility.” In his backyard, in this Zapotec village where his grandmother was born, Esteva grew most of the food he consumed. This principle of scalar adaptation, of localized proportionality with the concrete place where one lives, drove his behavior and thinking. He did not preach a universal model.

Breaking away from education begins by assuming that the learning resources are sufficient according to the means available to obtain them.23 We must dismantle the absurd disproportion between the developmental appetite and the material frontiers of a sustainable life. From there, we can seek out alternate forms of well-being beyond the seduction of capital. Such distance from education, of course, does not hamper people's eagerness to learn.

On the contrary, deprofessionalizing learning means rejecting education as a process separate from everyday life, where knowledge is fragmented into disciplinary disciplines to be quantified and graded. Instead, an unschooled society would insist on self-regulating experiences as processes of care and cultural strengthening. As we learned, also from Illich, it would “encourage reliance on personal experience and the emergence of transient and dispersed associations, in which decisions are made by those directly affected and where common purpose often arises only upon the very instance of its achievement.”24