I am a daughter-in-law (nuera). I popped in to my in-laws to pick up some medicine on my way home. They live across the road in another block of apartments.
Only a few years before my newly-wed parents went to enjoy the highlights of the small farming town of Taihape, New Zealand, my newly-wed parents-in-law went to live in the village of Monesterio in the hill country of southern Extremadura. My father-in-law was opening a pharmacy, while my mother-in-law was going to her first teaching position in the newly opened, and first ever secondary school of the village. For the first time, local children who couldn’t afford to go to other towns to study, were going to receive higher education. She had many adult students in her classes.
In the nineteenth century it was estimated that illiteracy in Spain was between 80% and 63%. Some site higher numbers. The early part of the twentieth century saw a lot of work done to turn this around. By the 1950’s, it had improved by about 15%. Statistics of school numbers, teacher training and resources are too depressing to even mention. Suffice to say, the political elite of the nineteenth century did not consider education of the masses to be important. Spain was a country of cultural poverty.
I like to sit with Pilar and Antonio, my parents-in-law, and hear their stories of life in the village. The village she describes sounds like something from the nineteenth century or worse. There was almost no street lighting, or running water or electricity. There were open sewerage drains.
The years of living here in Spain, and especially in the South, have taught me to appreciate the legacy of an education system. As early as the 1930s, pre-school, créche and kindergarten were being introduced in New Zealand. New Zealanders were enjoying high literacy rates and free education.
‘Every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers’.
Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser in 1939
My generation reaped the benefit of these policies, as did my parents and my grandparents. When I huff and bristle about the antiquated Spanish education system that my children are currently learning in (it literally makes me cry), and wonder at the lack of resources and professional development of the teachers, I have to remind myself that when Peter Fraser was making this speech, Spain was in the depths of a civil war. Any advances that had been made in education were being undone.
Following the war, under the dictatorship, large parts of the population were plunged into poverty once again, if they had ever left it behind in the first place. I was talking about the state of villages and poverty during the dictatorship with my daughters’ teacher during the summer. We had coincided in the same small village to escape the heat of Seville. She is my age and her family, like the majority of Spanish families today, have their roots in a village somewhere. She told me that her mother, my mother’s age had she been alive, had died young as a result of the complications brought on by infant malnutrition.
Spain had also suffered another form of malnutrition: the mass-exodus of great minds and teachers, seeking political exile. Thousands of teachers were sanctioned, transferred and 6,000 were banned from teaching altogether. Into the vacuum stepped Franco.
While the majority of post-war New Zealanders were enjoying the cushion of wealth, trade and security, the efforts to improve ordinary folks’ opportunities and health in Spain, had been suspended or even reversed.
But not for everyone. Franco’s new state education, policies aside, did at least create opportunities for some and my father-in-law is a result of it. His brothers and he were among the first of his family to go to high school having earned scholarships and backed by a very canny and hard working dad. His grandmother had sold shoes and carried them in baskets on a donkey. Her grandchildren were to become surgeons, heart specialists and pharmacists.
That Spain has turned so much around in forty or more years has to be acknowledged. It currently has a literacy rate of 97% and New Zealand 99%. Yes, there is much work to be done to change people’s ideas of what learning is all about, but however flawed, I take my hat off to Spain and I challenge myself to be a contributor, a quiet activist for change in small ways that I can. I do this so that the legacy of learning that has been the springboard for everything that I have ever achieved is passed on.
Head image: https://twitter.com/historiacolor/status/566298156078747648/photo/1