We began the day with a lecture by retired historian Carlos Naranjo. He offered us a brief history of Costa Rica’s system of education, which along with the health-care system, is one of the pillars of Costa Rican society. Yet its history is relatively recent. While Harvard University was founded in 1636 and Roxbury Latin in 1645, Costa Rica did not have a university until 1814, and did not have primary schools until the 1840s. Before then, the well-to-do would hire private teachers to prepare their sons for professional careers. The coffee boom provided the miracle that allowed Costa Rica to invest in education. In 1886, with the “Public education law”, the government made primary education free and mandatory for all children. Government officials even hired foreign teachers, especially from France and Switzerland, to educate and train the first Costa Rican teachers. In 1888 the prestigious Liceo de Costa Rica, and the Liceo the Señoritas began sending graduates to Europe. Some of them came back to Central America and eventually founded in 1915, the Escuela Normal, the Costa Rican institution that trained the best teachers in the country. Graduates would go on and teach in both urban and rural areas, and some of them studied in Chile with the Chilean poet and Nobel Prize laureate Gabriela Mistral, who, highly committed to early education, had created in Chile its first kindergartens. The first maternales, as they were called, appeared in Costa Rica in 1923. Almost all Costa Rican literary figures of this period were committed teachers who saw education as the key to social mobility and to the creation of a prosperous and healthy nation. The University of Costa Rica, founded in 1940, quickly became one of the best universities in Latin America. It was almost free but had a very hard and demanding entrance exam. Nowadays, this prestigious public institution still charges about $200 per semester. After the 1948 civil war, and the abolition of the army, the CR government was able to invest even more on education. By 1950 all primary and secondary education in the country had become free and mandatory, and schools had been created all around the country to serve the entire population. New universities were created in 1970 to absorb the new high school graduates: Instituto Tecnológico, Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, and the Universidad Estatal a Distancia. Things changed with the global economic crisis of the 1980s. The long period of prosperity created by the coffee trade ended, and due to lack of funding, the quality of primary and secondary education began to decline. Coffee gave way to tourism as the primary source of revenue, and tourism forced the government to invest in the country’s forests to protect its biodiversity, one of the principal tourist attractions. With less money to invest in education, education began to be privatized. Private universities of lesser quality and less demanding curriculums began training teachers. While it took 7 years of hard work to become a teacher in a public university, it took only 3 years in a private institution. Graduates of these private colleges, with much less pedagogic preparation, would end up teaching in rural areas. In urban areas, on the other hand, new and prestigious private schools, with better economic resources, would offer a better education than the less-well-funded public school system. Nowadays 87% of students who get into prestigious public universities come from private schools. The sad consequence: growing inequality in a society that had been in the past much more egalitarian. Carlos Naranjo is very concerned about the future of his country, and he is very critical of the current president and his populist rhetoric on how to fix the country’s problems. For Naranjo, a good education system is the key to having a community of informed, discerning, critical, and productive citizens, and thus the key to having a healthy democracy.
We then heard from Juana, a 27-year-old musician of Afro-Costa Rican ancestry. Her father is from Limón, a Caribbean town, rich in Afro-Caribbean traditions. Limón gives meaning to her life in part by providing a bridge to Africa, the land of her ancestors. Juana feels that humanity, separated and afflicted by chaos and conflict, has forgotten that we all belong to one people who originally came from this continent. Juana had us spend a few minutes reflecting about the conquest and colonization of the Americas and its consequences, and about who we are, where we come from and where we are going. She also asked us about American and Costa Rican culture, its traditions, and its roots. For her, multiculturalism is fundamental to understanding our societies. We must be proud of who we are, we must approach other cultures with respect, we must share and value our cultural differences, and we must regain our contact with nature, because we are nature. She approaches music as medicine, as spiritual nutrition. Music is sharing the fire we have inside to heal ourselves and to heal others. Her favorite means of musical expression is Calypso, a style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. Juana played for us the first song she wrote, in Limón’s honor, the land of her heart, and another song when she joined us for a Caribbean lunch at the beautiful house of Henry Soto Murillo and Teresita Camacho Víquez, the owners of the Instituto San Joaquín de Flores.
Henry and Teresita were so impressed with our students when they first arrived at the Institute on June 6 (with their Spanish-language skills, their general knowledge, their intellectual curiosity, and their manners), that they decided to invite them that same day to their house for a farewell lunch before our departure on June 18, something they rarely do. Henry and Teresita are both scientists. Henry is a geneticist who taught for many years at the Universidad de Costa Rica. They are also a multi talented couple. Henry sings classical music (he is a baritone working currently on a piece by Beethoven) and plays the cello. Teresita has run the Chicago, New York, and Istanbul marathons, and keeps running. They are also amateur architects. They designed both their house and the Institute where the boys took their classes. They have hundreds of trees in their property, a river, and thirty goats that provide all the milk, cheese and dulce de leche they consume. They also love to cook and the “rice and beans” with chicken they prepared (Caribbean style) was one of the best meals we had during our stay in the country. We were very grateful for their generosity.
After a tremendous thunderstorm that took some of the boys by surprise, we returned to San Joaquín de Flores to pack and get ready for our flights to Miami and Boston the following day.