Spring 2010


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May 4, 2010

As a native Venezuela, my primary motivation for applying to the PhD program on Comparative and International Development Education was the desire to equip myself with the skills and knowledge necessary for improving the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society and contributing to the human development of my native country, and Latin America as a whole. I was fortunate enough to be able to move to the United States when I was fourteen, and with the aim of returning in mind, I have taken advantage of the opportunities provided by the educational system in this country. Throughout my time here I have maintained a strong attachment to Venezuela, focusing much of my undergraduate and Master’s research on various political and social changes taking place in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Since 1998, Venezuela has become increasingly polarized and social tensions have escalated almost to a crisis point on a number of occasions. Recent years have seen an explosion in the level of violent crime, leading Foreign Policy magazine to dub Caracas the Murder Capital of the World (with 130 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants (Wigmore, 2008)).[1] President Hugo Chavez’s socialism for the twenty-first century has the potential to bring about significant positive social changes, as he has attempted with the enactment of over thirty different reform programs, or provoke further conflict, including a continued rise of political polarization and crime, the erosion of Venezuela’s fragile democratic tradition, and the strengthening of its culture of corruption. Andres Oppenheimer, a well known journalist for the Miami Herald, went as far as equating modern Venezuela to Civil War Lebanon, where an opposing faction or political party was represented in every other street corner. As such, he believed there to be a realistic fear of a possible breakdown of the social order in Venezuela, with the polarization of society reaching its boiling point (Oppenheimer, 2005).[2]

It is my firm belief that education represents one of the best ways of diffusing this explosive situation and can contribute to increased security for people from all social classes, and reduce some of the divisions between classes. For this reason, I intend to focus my studies on the educational reforms being implemented by the Chavez administration and explore the possibilities of using online higher education as a development tool. I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to learn the skills needed for success in today’s globalized economy, and am interested in how innovative programs such as the Masters in Development Practice, administered by ICGC and the Humphrey Institute in partnership with universities around the world, are forging new, cross-regional connections. Such relationships may help to foster greater understanding among people from very different cultures and backgrounds and encourage inter-regional dialogue and cooperation on some of the most critical issues we face today.

In order for such initiatives to succeed, and for the consolidation of peace and democracy in the region, Latin America urgently needs to continue and strengthen its recent emphasis on educational reform.  A 1997 report by the Inter-American Development Bank identified the lag in education as the single greatest obstacle to future economic growth in the region (Cited in Birsall, 1999).[3] Latin America today is one of the most unequal regions in the world. The promised trickle down effects of economic growth have failed to materialize, and in many countries the gap between rich and poor is actually increasing. This inequality breeds insecurity, increases social tensions and deepens divisions within societies. Education has been shown to be the most effective investment for raising both productivity and income among the poorest sectors of society and has therefore been identified as “the key factor for reducing the poverty, social tensions, and inequality that continue to plague the region” (Birdsall, 1999).[4] As stated by Anderson (2004), “education is one of the few sustainable means to equip humans around the globe with the skills and resources to confront the challenges of ignorance, poverty, war, and environmental degradation.”[5]

The biggest issue for Latin America is not the number of schools but the quality of the education they provide. The rich tend to educate their children privately, in schools equipped with the latest technology and textbooks whilst the public school systems often suffer from a chronic lack and/or misuse of resources. It is my belief that online education may provide a cost effective and efficient way of expanding access to educational resources to include even the most marginalized groups within a society. Inspired by the pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire, I intend to examine how new linkages can be made between the life experiences and priorities of students and the online revolution.  Information Technology is no longer the exclusive domain of the rich in Latin America, and cybercafés can be found in some of the most remote and sparsely populated areas.

Whereas much progress has been made in increasing access to primary education, it is the field of advanced and higher education where I believe information technology has the most potential to increase both the number of people with access to higher education and the breadth of subject matter and information available to them.  Some universities such as MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, Yale have uploaded class materials free of charge to the internet. Other websites such as YouTube EDU, and Wikipedia.com, GCFLearnFree.org, Free-Ed.net provide information and videos for individuals to instruct and inform themselves in a large array of subjects. The possibilities for cross-cultural learning and exchange provided by the internet are immense. While online education has grown as a for-profit enterprise in the United States during the last years, my policy concerns are focused on the use of online education primarily as a development tool for third world countries. Online universities are growing in some Latin American countries such as Mexico, and some offer a number of advanced degree programs, however, other countries have not taken advantage of these technologies. To my knowledge, in Latin America, no major non-profit development project on online education has been developed as yet.

I hope that, after obtaining a PhD in Comparative and International Development Education, I may be able to participate in the formulation of such an initiative. My objective is to work for the educational ministry of a developing country or as an instructor and researcher in South America or another developing country. I am also interested in working for a non-profit or international organization linked to educational policy making and implementation and exploring the possibilities for cross-regional partnerships in this area.

With this in mind I will also be focusing my research on some of the current, most radical reforms taking place in Latin American educational policy at the moment. I plan to continue my research into the educational “misiones” that have been implemented by the government of Hugo Chavez. These misiones attempt to bring about an educational revolution and bring access to all levels of education to the masses. Since their implementation in 2003, the misiones have graduated thousands of students who had previously been denied access to any form of education. According to the United Nations, Mision Robinson (http://www.misionrobinson.me.gob.ve/) reduced illiteracy by a million people in less than two years. Other education misiones such as Mision Ribas (http://www.misionribas.gov.ve/) and Mision Sucre (http://www.misionsucre.gov.ve/) focused on providing a rapid education for the masses from 6th grade to graduate school. The programs have increased their graduation rates on a yearly basis, yet critics argue that the quality of the educational system has been compromised by the creation of these quick education programs.

I am particularly interested in exploring whether these misiones are contributing to increasing stability and reducing insecurity within Venezuela. The Chavez administration is keen to instill socialist values and promote a leftist ideology through its educational programs. Curricula and materials are being altered to reflect the standpoint of the regime, leading to accusations of indoctrination and increasing resistance from some sectors of society. Thus, although reducing inequality through such educational programs may lead to an increase in security for those traditionally most marginalized by the education system, the misiones may simultaneously be contributing to the worsening polarization and division of Venezuelan society. This makes the Venezuelan case vital to the study of security and the construction of social peace within the region.

Education can radically transform a human being, it can awaken our consciousness and opens the door to innumerable possibilities and opportunities. Education, formally or informally, empowers an individual and sets him free from the chains of helplessness. It challenges us to question our preconceptions, examine our values and moral codes and can foster a sense of civic and moral responsibility. Through a high-quality education the linkages between our own lives, the economic and political systems and the environment in which we live become clear, allowing for greater understanding of the consequences of our actions and our position in global society. Ignorance breeds fear and misunderstanding, which can lead to conflict and instability. A good education, therefore, represents one of our greatest tools in our struggle for peace, security and greater understanding among people from all around the world.

For these reasons I believe that my goals and objectives coincide with those of the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change and the Compton International Fellowship. I firmly believe in the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach to education, receiving Bachelor’s degrees in Political Science, History, Sociology and Spanish from Ouachita Baptist University and an MA in Latin American Studies with an emphasis in Development from the University of Florida. During my graduate studies I was able to take courses in a number of subjects including economic development, gender and development, anthropology, political science and International Relations. My MA thesis focused on another aspect of the Chavez administration’s misiones, agrarian reform, for which I conducted my fieldwork on a number of agricultural cooperatives in the state of Monagas. I feel that my Master’s degree has provided me with a firm theoretical grounding in some of the main theories of development and the most pressing issues facing Latin America today. In addition, I was introduced to, and inspired by, the writings of Paulo Freire and theories of critical pedagogy and eco pedagogy. I intend to continue to develop my understanding of educational theory during the course of my PhD studies. By fostering social change through educational policy I hope that I will be able to participate in the construction of a fairer, more equal world, and bring real improvements to the lives of people in Venezuela and make the most of the fantastic opportunities I have been granted to help some of the poorest people in Latin America and begin to narrow the gap between rich and poor.

[1]  Wigmore, Barry. The List: Murder Capitals of the World. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2008/09/28/the_list_murder_capitals_of_the_world. Foreign Policy, September 28, 2010.

[2] Oppenheimer, Andres. Cuentos Chinos. Caracas: Sudamerica, 2005

[3] Nancy, Birdsall. Putting Education to Work in Latin America. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: 1999 Business Week America Summit, March 24-26, 1999.

[4] Ibid

[5] Anderson, Terry, and Fathi Elloumi. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca: Athabasca University, 2004.

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