Event Summary: Promoting Education for All in Latin America

September 30, 2008

Jorge Cela, S.J., spoke on "Promoting Education for All in Latin America: Fe y Alegria's Experience and Inspiration" at a lunch event at the Berkley Center on September 30, 2008, with Gaspar LoBiondo, S.J., senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center as commentator, and Katherine Marshall, Berkley Center senior fellow, as moderator and organizer. The central theme was the insights and lessons offered by the extraordinary experience of Fe y Alegria, the Jesuit-led network centered on education "where the asphalt ends," in other words, in the poorest communities.

Jorge Cela leads the Federation of Fe y Alegria, a complex and far-reaching public-private partnership working on education in 17 Latin American and Caribbean countries, all the way from preschool to university level. Fe y Alegria has over 54 years of experience and bold ideas and goals for the future. He came back again and again to the imperative of providing quality education for every citizen as a moral and practical challenge. Fe y Alegria sees itself as a major player in bringing home what can be done through its focus on the importance of community involvement in schools, continual focus on excellence, and integration of a focus on values woven throughout the ethos and curriculum of the 2,600 Fe y Alegria schools, educating over 1.2 million people.

Cela also described Fe y Alegria's recent efforts in Chad; in most of Latin America Fe y Alegria's Catholic and Christian origins fit well within the cultural landscape. In Chad, the communities are almost entirely Muslim. Yet Fe y Alegria, which by its core philosophy responds to the community and its wishes and values, fits perfectly and the program there is a success.

The September 30 discussion was an exciting discussion because Fe y Alegria, relatively little known in the United States, represents a bold and creative response to abysmal education in many poor Latin America communities. Cela stressed repeatedly that a good education is a fundamental human right and that, in the twenty-first century, every citizen has the right to live in an educated society. Thus, quality education is a right, not an option, and quality applies not only to test results but to the quality of the community that is created and the values that are imparted. For Cela, education is a public good, an obligation of the society. Education is a project of society, not of the government. And in plural societies, plural education systems, involving public and private, secular and religious, must be integral parts of the system.

This obligation becomes more and more important in our changing, complex, and fast moving world. Quality is about both results and about process. What kind of person and what kind of society is education producing? For Fe y Alegria, an inclusive society, with new concepts of productivity, is what the challenge is about. Most education in Latin America, he said, has a values deficit, and the most important challenge for Latin America is equity. Some societies have indeed built equitable societies around quality education: he cited Cuba and the Asian tigers. Latin America needs to mobilize to do the same.

Latin America is the world's most unequal region, with 40 percentĀ of the people considered to be poor; education is the key to reducing the gap between rich and poor. Father Cela took off from this imperative to the significance of the boundaries of public and private in meeting the challenge of education.

Cela closed with a thought-provoking parable. He referred to the notion of the "salt of the earth" and related it both to the Christian faith and to the work of Fe y Alegria. Salt is important but it needs to be provided in the right quantity. With too much, food tastes salty. The ideal for salt is to bring out the flavor of food, its savor, its best qualities. Likewise, for Cela, Christianity can help bring out the best of human potential and Fe y Alegria can help to improve the quality of education by its example and its commitment to its values.

Please send questions or comments to Katherine Marshall (km398@georgetown.edu).

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