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Simón Rodríguez

The Naked Teacher


by Tomás Straka

What did the errant, naked teacher bring in his head? A vast educational reform, much greater than the one he had proposed in Caracas before leaving (we will stop at that later), and which also included his years of travel, classes and readings (...)

Notes on Simón Rodríguez, Latin America and its Bareness

The pairing could not have been more promising and yet, it could not have failed faster. Marshal Antonio José de Sucre, president of the newly created Bolivia, and Simón Rodríguez, Director of Public Teaching (which makes him one of the first ministers of education in history), could not manage to agree on anything. In only six months, Rodríguez would resign angrily, to the relief of Marshal Sucre. The episode, which in their biographies is seen as something more or less anecdotic, is nevertheless one of the most emblematic in Latin American history. Throughout this journey, we will explain why.

Rodríguez would be left "errant and naked," as he expressed in a letter, after the resignation. Sucre, for his part, would not come out of the Bolivian attempt any better: a couple of bullets to his right arm, an uprising and the danger of anarchy made him resign too two years later. But beyond the clash between the characters of the teacher and the marshal, which has occupied most historians, the core of the problem lies in something much larger and more complex: the foundation of a modern order in Latin America. In their ways, each of them invested his life to that purpose. And that is why their failures—the Robinsonian1 project in Bolivia was only one of them—span a much wider radius than that of their personal issues. We will approach Rodríguez in that key. His ideas may have been quite original, surprising us even today; his adventures and his humor make him seductive, a little picturesque, but his true dimension can only be seen from what he dreamed of, and from the seriousness and commitment with which he undertook its realization.

Rodríguez wandered “errant and naked” for putting his ideas to practice in a radical way. Naked, as we will see, in the sense of impoverished, and also naked in the most literal sense of removing the clothes, as he did—so the story goes—honoring his pedagogy. So, through the naked teacher, we will attempt to understand a continent and its schools, which two centuries later seem still exposed.

May God save us from fools and ignorants

It is easy to follow the quarrel between Rodríguez and Sucre because they both reported it to Simón Bolívar. As they had been placed in their chairs by a personal decision of the latter, they both felt compelled to explain to him what had happened. However, it was in a letter sent to General Francisco de Paula Otero, dated in Lima, on March the 10th, 1832, where Rodríguez gives us a broader account: “I went to Cochabamba on March the 26th on Sucre’s command, and there was so much nagging, persecutions and anonymous reports from Jámes and the clergy, that Sucre snubbed me and I had to abandon everything.” Ever since—he declares—“I wander errant and naked.” And he adds: “May God save us from fools and ignorants.” Two extraordinary phrases, even for a man who produced plenty of them, and which contribute to the cliché of the ‘misunderstood genius’ usually associated with the episode. There was some of that, undoubtedly, but things were far from being that simple.

For starters, Sucre was not exactly an ignorant nor a fool. He was the best general in the Liberator Army, and not just because of his tactical qualities, which proved to be outstanding, but for his administrative efficiency and for being, by far, one of the most cultured. In a time packed with conspiracies and coups, he almost always remained close to the law and civility. When it was his turn to rule, he avoided at all cost falling into the temptation of dictatorship, which was quite a vogue amidst the widespread mess that spanned from the Pampas to California. In view of the possibility of being considered a dictator by Colombia, he preferred to resign (but his enemies did not believe him and preferred to shoot him instead). Owing to his performance in the Treaty of Trujillo negotiations, in 1820, Sucre is regarded as one of the precursors of International Humanitarian Law, whose mercy principles he applied many times, as in the famous Capitulation of Ayacucho.

So when Rodríguez claims that he had to confront ignorants and fools, we cannot read this—as perhaps he himself did—as a confrontation limited to old-fashioned officials and priests, who did not understand him. It is true that part of the matter was about that, but we see that two men with similar thinking could get into profound disagreements over how to run things. Besides, we must also listen to Sucre: according to him, there was no way for Rodríguez to follow the rules, to account for the resources entrusted to him, and not to fight with almost everybody. His previous and subsequent actions suggest that these allegations are at least plausible.

That personality was, to a large extent, the cause of his errancy and nudity, but it also tells us things about the whole region: if those who advocated for establishing modernity had difficulty in sticking to the new institutionality, what could we expect from the rest! The errant’s biography tells us a few things about this.


It had all begun three decades earlier, in 1797, when Rodríguez was still a teacher at the Escuela de Primeras Letras de Caracas, and he decided to leave Venezuela abruptly. He was not to return. There is speculation that he was involved in the so-called Conspiracy of Gual and España, a rather radical revolution attempt unveiled that year in Caracas and La Guaira. But it is also very likely that the reason was his miserable marriage (Xanthippe, Bolívar would call his wife, "so he does not lack anything Socratic"). In addition, around that time occurred what we suspect was a tremendous family crisis, in the midst of which he gave up his first surname: Carreño. It is worth pointing out that he was the brother of musician Cayetano Carreño, and therefore, the uncle of Manuel Antonio Carreño—author of the famous etiquette book Manual de Urbanidad—and great-uncle of the pianist, composer and businesswoman Teresa Carreño.

He lived the following years under the identity of Samuel Robinson. Three decades of globetrotting, especially in the United States and France. He was a language teacher, a printer, a translator, and several other trades. With his eyes, he swallowed everything he had around him and all the books that fell into his hands. So when he decided to return to America in 1823, he was already a middle-aged man, full of experiences, perhaps with more doubts than answers about what had happened in Europe, but with a few ideas about what we could build in Spanish America. By then, the most famous and probably best-loved of his students, Simón Bolívar, was the most powerful man on the continent and the leader of a vast revolution, perhaps the most democratic and liberal left in the world after Waterloo. While Europe sought—or was pushed by the Holy Alliance towards—moderation, the egalitarian ideas of popular education, democracy and the abolition of slavery had a spokesman in Bolívar. These were the years when all the revolutionaries in Europe saw him as an idol and dreamed of coming to support him in his revolution. Robinson was one of them. He did not mind covering his bareness, although the prospect of a job excited him. He wanted to stop his errancy and to avoid that of the new republics.


What did the errant, naked teacher bring in his head? A vast educational reform, much greater than the one he had proposed in Caracas before leaving (we will stop at that later), and which also included his years of travel, classes and readings. Two conclusions are the axis of his project: first, that it is a mistake to believe that European models can be replicated in the region without paying attention to specificities (this is something in which his thinking connects with that of Bolívar). And, secondly, that it is also a mistake to believe that things are very well in Europe. Having seen the twilight of the French Revolution, the restorationist onslaught and the turbulence of industrial society, he was far from believing that "traficomania" and "each to himself and God for all" (he uses both phrases) were a good role model. We had to invent another one, one of our own. This is the thesis that he will summarize in Sociedades Americanas en 1828 (American Societies in 1828), with an apothegm that has become famous:

Dónde irémos a buscar modelos?...
—La América Española es orijinal ═ orijinales han de ser sus Instituciones i su Gobierno
═ i orijinales los medios de fundar uno i otro.
O Inventamos o Erramos2.

Then, he informs us what he means by erring:

…Error se toma aquí, por todo lo que significa errar ═

no dar con el punto o con el fin
no tener lugar fijo
que es desviarse
falso concepto3

The desire for invention is patent from the very design of the writing. Replacing continuous text with schemes full of brackets not only speaks of the typographer that he was, but also of another way of organizing the ideas. For those with pedagogical training, they might seem more like blackboard scripts, where he would prepare things that he would later develop in class (or vice versa, that they are things that he developed on a blackboard and then transcribed). In fact, it was there, in pedagogy, that he saw the best opportunities to invent things capable of saving us from errancy. From error.

The naked teacher

What pedagogy could save us from error? Moreover, what could a naked teacher—as almost all of them were in the region—really do? The teaching profession had never been well paid, as he confirmed over and over again in the flesh.

In his Consejos de amigo al Colejio Latacunga (Friendly Advice Given to the School at Latacunga), of 1851, he made one of the first calls for the social security of teachers, so that "vocation is not mistaken... for...INSPIRATION,/nor hunger! for an appeal to the Majisterio," and so that in old age educators do not end up ragged in a hospice. And already in his extraordinary "Current State of the School and New Establishments of It", elevated to the City Council of Caracas in 1794, he spoke about the low regard for educators, who were paid with anything, in the understanding that anyone could exercise the trade.

Well-trained, reasonably-paid teachers, with some security for their old age and their families, were to be the basis of the great social transformation that he dreamed of for the new republics. He was not inventing much: he, who had been one of Latin America's first ministers of education, was ultimately repeating the model of the first country to have had a ministry of education: Prussia. But the similarity did not go much further: those teachers, what classes would they teach? With what pedagogy would they impart them? On this matter, Rodríguez aligns himself with the great ideas of enlightened pedagogy. In his 1794 report, he asks for a school with resources, programs and teachers, at least, like those of Madrid; however, in the private lessons he taught he was far more radical, or at least as Bolívar recalled when he called him the ‘Socrates of Caracas,’ the ‘master who teaches with amusement.’ There is an anecdote that has been repeated many times: in 1839, he was seen naked at his school in Valparaiso, this time literally, while giving an anatomy class. The anecdote must be viewed with the warning of something that someone saw and told José Victorino Lastarria, who in turn referred it to Augusto Orrego Luco, who was the one who put it in writing in his Portraits (1917), from where several have taken it and all have repeated it without quoting the source. Being naked seems too much, even by Rodríguez's standards, but it may have a real basis (maybe he stripped to his undergarments) in his wish to foster an active education, based on experience and critical sense.

The Bolivarian cult has reduced Rodríguez, like Andrés Bello, to the sole role of ‘master of the Liberator.’ He was much more than that, as we have seen, but in his case, the relationship was fundamental. While Bello forged a prestige of his own in London and Chile, it was Bolívar who brought Rodríguez out from anonymity, welcoming him to Colombia (now referred to as Gran Colombia) and recommending him to Sucre for leading the education of Bolivia. The learnings from the ‘Socrates of Caracas’ were not only intellectual but also moral for Bolívar. When the wayward orphan who did not get along with the uncle he had been entrusted to escaped from his house at the age of twelve, he asked to go and live with his teacher. Nine years later, when the disciple was already a very young widower, they met in Vienna and toured France and Italy together. Once again, he provided emotional support in a time of crisis and guidance for his concerns. Not surprisingly, it was in the context of those long conversations that Bolívar’s Oath of Monte Sacro took place.

No wonder, then, that our ‘Socrates’ returned in 1823. What Bolívar says in the beautiful letter he sent him upon learning of his arrival ("You formed my heart for freedom, for justice, for greatness, for the beautiful") was a plan that he wanted to expand throughout all of Spanish America: To form restless, critical, active children, capable of thinking for themselves; to banish the cane, curb the Latin, and provide them with trades to earn a living; to open the school to all, regardless of their social class or gender, in what he called popular education; to organize a well-trained, reasonably-paid teaching staff who would enjoy the respect of society. In short, to lay the foundations for a new people.

We already know what happened in Bolivia. His auspicious pairing with Sucre foundered very quickly, and the errancies he wished to avoid—his as a naked teacher and that of republican education—continued. He spent the last twenty-eight years of his life globetrotting again, now between Chile, Peru and Ecuador. It was then that he published his works, particularly the two fundamental ones: Luces y virtudes sociales (Lights and Social Virtues) (Valparaiso, 1840) and the definitive version of Sociedades americanas en 1828 (American Societies) (Lima, 1842). He teaches with varying luck, keeps on arguing or scandalizing, as the Valparaiso anecdote shows (it could be false, but it gets told to this day...). Married again and with children at an older age, he must reinvent himself in other trades. He died in Amotape, Peru, as naked as he ever lived. And republican education—as he feared—also erred and continued, to a greater or lesser degree, with the bareness that he had wished to prevent. Perhaps the epigraph of his Sociedades americanas is the best message that the naked teacher left us as a result of his multiple clashes and our two centuries of errancy: "on this should Americans think/not in fighting each other."4 It is a fair criterion to start inventing and stop erring.