Education is great, right? It opens doors and alleviates poverty, creates opportunities and a well-informed public. As university students, we all value our education enough to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars each year for the privilege of gaining knowledge — but if you want to lower tuition, EMU, we won’t value it any less.
Education in Guatemala, especially in rural areas, is a different story. According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Guatemala spends 9.8 percent of its annual GDP per capita on education, compared to 19.8 percent in the United States. The position of teacher in Guatemala is in no way exalted; in fact, they must often resort to “skimming off the top” of school payments in order to make enough to get by.
For instance, a school activity might cost 3 Quetzals, but the teacher charges each student 5 Quetzals and keeps the additional amount to augment their pitifully low state salaries. The vast majority of children in rural areas, especially girls, drop out of school long before age 18. Those who do remain in school against all odds aren’t necessarily rewarded; the highly educated or proponents of education have been targets for assassination with each violent change of power.
What’s more, ancient Mayan culture and spirituality still live on in part because of the isolation they retain from modern culture. Education moves culture into more modern scientific thinking and away from spirituality that cannot be explained through empirical means.
Our group came face to face with the difficulties of education in Guatemala when we visited the Cloud Forest Center run by Rob and Tara Cahill in the Alta Verapaz region. They have built, from the ground up, a center which, among other projects, educates and empowers young women from nearby villages.
I have no doubt of the benefits of these lessons on the confidence and health of the future families of these women. It is important to keep in mind, however, that education is not necessarily a pleasant process when learning about a system slanted against you. To receive equal treatment as an indigenous person, one must give up certain aspects of culture in order to blend in, such as dress and language, or join the long and dangerous fight for indigenous rights.
Here in Guatemala, I am forced to rethink my vision of education more as a rocky, robber-filled road requiring 4-wheel-drive rather than a highway to a successful life. The destination might be the same, but the former requires a brave, determined soul and might not be reached in one lifetime. I see that education can be a source of danger rather than security.
I see that education can be eye-opening, often in a way that creates cognitive dissonance and unrest. I see that education might erode Mayan culture and languages rather than preserve them. I see that I cannot take my ideas about education in the United States and apply them directly to Guatemala because there are greater forces woven into the historical and cultural context.