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Learning through Teaching: Thoughts at the Midpoint of DukeEngage

Posted by on June 25, 2015

As I reached the end of the first half of my tenure here in Cuzco, I grew curious regarding the state of education in Peru and its relation to my experience so far in Pillao Matao.  Below are the results of some research and introspection.  Enjoy!

“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” –George Washington Carver

In the United States everyone had equal access to primary and secondary education through our public school system.  Between 8 AM and 3 PM every Monday through Friday from September to May, save federal holidays, religious observances, and extenuating circumstances, American children are in a classroom.  In them they obtain knowledge necessary for future professions or at the very least what is needed to be a “well-informed citizenry” in the words of Thomas Jefferson.  While there remain alternatives to public schooling–charter institutions and homeschooling, for example–which may provide higher quality education than public options, the fact remains that every young American has a right, nay an obligation, to obtain a good public education.

This case is not so in Peru.  While public education is available to every citizen in theory, access to the facilities is sometimes hard if not impossible, especially for rural children.  This inequality of access leads to disparities in education attained by city and country students.  Another problem arises transitioning between primary and secondary school.  In the absence of a vocational school or university, many cities and districts treat secondary schools as surrogate intellectual centers, devoting many resources to the school’s success.  Students entering them from primary schools with fewer resources often feel out of place and have trouble adapting to the higher level of education, leading to increased dropout rates.

My experience at Pillao Matao has thus far opened my eyes to how much I took my public education for granted.  One obvious difference was in the commute to the school.  While I may have taken a five minute bus ride to my school back home, many of the students in Pillao Matao travel several hours from nearby cities like Calca or neighboring regions like Madre de Dios, staying with local friends during the school year in order to attend classes.  Though it speaks volumes about the lack of opportunities in the rural areas of Peru, the dedication of these youngsters and their families in pursuing an education is awe-inspiring.

More interesting than that, however, is the idea of education at Pillao Matao in comparison to other schools in Peru.  You see, in the states we learn early in our scholastic careers that everyone, regardless of skin color, religion, creed, or class, is the same and worthy of respect.  Peru’s education system does little to foster this acceptance in its students.  The worst part is the problem isn’t explicit, but rather implicit in nature.  For example, almost no school offers language classes in the local Quechua, instead focusing on Spanish, English, and other “Western” languages in their communication studies.  During plays and skits local culture is often parodied and portrayed in at best ambivalent and at worst scathing tones.  In other words the Peruvian education system seems to maintain a “West is Best” attitude, which negatively impacts the self-esteem of mestizos.  The subtle issue also contributes to resource allocation, with more educational assets going to more populated cities that coincidentally do not have large populations of indigenous people.  These problems and others often lead to local children staying away from public school.  Add to it the financial near-impossibility of attending private schools and you’ve got students not getting the education they deserve.

Pillao Matao, in this regard, is a beacon in the dark for rural indigenous students.  Not only does it offer free education for its pupils, but it also fosters self-esteem and confidence in the culture of its children.  Instead of shunning Quechua in foreign language study, it’s the only one taught to the students outside Spanish.  Stories used in class stem from Incan folklore and instill even deeper appreciation for pre-Columbian history.  Students feel satisfied in the work they do in part because they can be themselves while doing it.  In this sense, Pillao Matao opens a “golden door of freedom” for its students by nurturing their history and their heritage.  I’ve been blessed to work with some wonderful students the past few weeks and I look forward to sharing more about the classes I teach and lessons learned through the remainder of the trip.

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