Book review of Tanalís Padilla's Unintended Lessons of Revolution: Student Teachers and Political Radicalism in Twentieth-Century Mexico (2021)
by Finn West
Published onDec 12, 2022
Book Review: Unintended Lessons of Revolution
Unintended Lessons of Revolution: Student Teachers and Political Radicalism in Twentieth-Century Mexico,by Tanalís Padilla (2021). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), officials of the newly formed revolutionary state turned to education, particularly in rural areas, to produce a unified citizenry. To undertake this massive initiative, educational officials founded a network of rural normales, boarding schools where campesino and indigenous students were trained as teachers and then dispatched to educate and lead their communities into the modern era. In Lessons of Revolution, historian Tanalís Padilla traces the century-long history of the normales through what she argues is their contradictory institutional logic: rural schools that were designed with an eye to state consolidation often paradoxically became hotbeds of radical organizing for agrarian justice, political reform, and even militant movements. In probing the conditions that pushed these rural normales towards radicalism, Padilla shows how the lessons of the Mexican Revolution are passed on, sometimes unintentionally, from one generation to the next.
To flesh out this history, Padilla draws on archival materials (official documents, records, textbooks, student essays, and more) along with over 50 oral histories that she collected through conversations with normalistas, or graduates of the normales. Even as both conservative and revolutionary forces shaped this institution, Padilla foregrounds those graduates who pushed for radical change, because, as she writes, “their perspective, their struggle brings into sharp relief the power relations that created the past and produced the present, puncturing the dominant narrative that sees teachers primarily as a reflection of an officialist leadership” (p. 16).
To show how a radical political consciousness emerged within the network of the normales, Padilla probes four interrelated processes. First, rural pedagogy connected individual learning to collective agrarian justice. Second, campesino and indigenous students had to navigate the contradictory identities of farmer, peasant, worker, student, and mestizo (a person of mixed indigenous and Spanish heritage), within an institutional context that banned native languages. Third, in order to achieve individual upward mobility, students had to mobilize collectively and strike so as to secure the state resources necessary for their schools’ proper functioning. Fourth, after graduation, some normalistasmoved to cities to pursue better-paying jobs. Yet others, Padilla writes, “pursued justice relentlessly, willing to lose life and limb in the process,” even joining the militant guerrilla movements of the 1960s (p. 6). Along these lines, scholars of work and labor may learn from the connection that Padilla draws between collective bread-and-butter demands for institutional survival and those for broader and more radical political change.
The chapters move chronologically. In the first half of the book, Padilla traces rural education through three transformations, from its origins as a revolutionary-state initiative of national consolidation in the 1920s, to a radical project of socialist agrarian justice in the 1930s, to the government’s austerity measures in the 1940s and the normales’efforts to organize against them. In Chapter 1, Padilla discusses a number of influential figures in the federal Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), whose pedagogy took shape as it launched the first 35 rural normales. Their educational mission was one based on “action pedagogy” (learning by doing), combined with rural modernization. In effect, the normales were forged by connecting labor and learning, agricultural and academic development, and collective and individual interests.
While initially training teachers as “education missionaries” to unify the campesino and indigenous population under a national identity, the rural normales took a radical turn during President Lázaro Cárdeñas’s socialist projects of the 1930s. Chapter 2 follows students mobilizing their bargaining power by creating the Mexican Federation of Socialist Campesino Students (FECSM) in 1935, which allowed them to make demands on the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP). Chapter 3 chronicles the conservative pushback of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) against socialist education during the 1940s. Meanwhile, students in the FECSM were able to translate “the say [that] students had in quotidian school norms into political power” at the same time that they organized against the PRI’s defunding of socialist education (which includes the normales) and its abandonment of support for the rural poor (p. 70). Chapter 4 continues to describe the reactionary move against rural education during the 1950s, particularly by the Catholic Church, which sought to wrest control over the national curriculum.
Chapters 5 and 6 document the resurgence of student radicalism in normales during the 1960s, setting the stage for the student movement in Mexico City, which the state violently suppressed later in that decade. Padilla analyzes the FECSM-organized strikes and the federation’s lists of demands in order to show how normalistas combined the approaches of the Soviet-based old left with those of a new left based on post-WWII revolutions in Cuba and elsewhere. Chapter 7 describes the state’s efforts to curb the political power achieved by normalistas in the 1960s. As part of the 1969 education reform, the PRI closed nearly half the rural normales and dissolved the student union. In Chapter 8, Padilla discusses the students’ attempts to reconstitute their union and examines their growing militancy in the 1970s, as some graduates abandoned hopes of working within the system and joined armed guerrilla movements instead.
Finally, in the Epilogue, Padilla describes the neoliberalization of education, as the SEP was decentralized and the early-1980s debt crisis resulted in widespread privatizations. Against this backdrop, Lessons of Revolution opens and closes with a description of a group of students who were on their way from their rural normal to a protest in Mexico City in 2014, when their bus was attacked. 43 students were disappeared. Their compañeros immediately mobilized the normales’ extensive network and protested, blaming the state for the violence. As Padilla writes, “the state’s 2014 response to [the disappearance of the] Ayotzinapa [normal] students illustrated that if there was anything new in the twenty-first-century PRI, it was the extent to which it was infused by organized crime. The normalista youth who unintentionally laid this bare to the world did so because of their long-standing radical tradition” (p. 253).
Lessons of Revolution will be of particular interest to scholars of education, and especially its intersection with organized labor, statecraft, institutional dynamics, political consciousness, and revolutionary ideals. This book will also be useful for its narration of twentieth-century Mexican history through the lens of rural education.
Finn West is a graduate student in anthropology at Cornell University, where he studies the politics of fire and forest management in the western United States.
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