A Discussion with Father Rene Cardozo, S.J., Director of the Bolivian Jesuit Province, La Paz, Bolivia
July 18, 2012
Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in July 2012 undergraduate student Lisa Frank interviewed Father René Cardozo, S.J., director of the Jesuit Province of Bolivia. In this interview Cardozo discusses the various educational programs run and supported by the Jesuits and how they connect to its communication programs, the significant role of laypeople in organizations like Fe y Alegría, the place of technical training and social justice work in Bolivian education, and the impact of Jesuit education on Bolivian society.
What educational projects are run by the Jesuit Curia in Bolivia?
We have a great tradition and expertise in the field of education. We have three educational institutions. First, we have classical formal education in the schools of San Calixto, St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart, and John 23. Then there is Fe y Alegría. It's like a monster; I do not know how you can get a hand on it and govern it. It is very large: almost 500 educational units, nearly 8,000 teachers, more than 120,000 students. It’s almost a ministry. Also, they’re not only regular education, but also special education, technical training, teacher training... In all there are only four Jesuits in Fe y Alegría, more or less, and only one in the national office.
In the other Jesuit educational programs, are there also few Jesuits and many laypeople?
Yes, we passed the period where there are many Jesuits at a college, and now there’s one Jesuit at a school, and in the future we will see one Jesuit with many colleges. In any case, the field is enormous.
We have Fe y Alegría colleges and technical institutes. There are three that are in rural areas. It’s a great educational package. In the tradition of the Jesuits, we have always stressed the theme of education. At this time, where we’re looking to grow is possibly to create a university, because the province [Bolivia] does not have a university. Almost all have a university, but we don’t here because it requires many financial and human resources. There is debate on whether our Jesuit charism is about being deeply rooted in a venture, or rather if it is our charism to have mobility. There are many requests from the population for a university, and also within the company. It may not be useful to have a university but instead to work in an existing university that’s not from us, but where we can have influence.
But Fe y Alegría is thinking about this issue of having their own university for teacher training, which would just be the beginning, since there are other degrees that are more profitable.
Every action has to be well thought out to see if it is sustainable, if it is in accordance with our charism and our pedagogy. Yes, we need to get stronger in higher education so that it is critical, reflective, with social engagement, more humanistic. But the rules make it difficult, and now the government wants to have more control of the educational field.
Is the Curia responsible for teacher training, in addition to what Fe y Alegría does?
Yes, Fe y Alegría has its training programs, and also our schools. The company has a teacher training office.
There is also CEMSE, the Multi-Service Educational Center, which serves two complementary purposes: to provide services to public schools, and to train teachers. But now there isn’t a Jesuit presence except at the director level, so they work with laymen. It has a number of programs, dealing with ecology, production, art, health, and more. There’s a center in La Paz, two in El Alto, and also in Sucre and Oruro. They’re increasing their reach.
The parishes are also very important. We have 16 parishes that do not only sacramental services but also their own educational, health, and social development work. The parish is more direct; it’s a bridge to people.
Another important area is communication, which is huge. There is a network of nearly 30 radio [stations], a news agency, [Acción Cultural Loyola, ACLO] radio [stations], and [Fundación Instituto Radiofónico Fe y Alegría, IRFA] and the magazine. At one point there was a survey that found the communication of the company had 50 percent of the national audience. But for being so large, and all programs with their own directors, it’s difficult to coordinate.
I talked to Fe y Alegría about the ways in which education is, and isn’t, in the media. Is this an important topic in your communication services?
There’s a lot of variation. IRFA, Radio Institute Fe y Alegría, is used to teach literacy to people who cannot go to school. There are many people in the country that couldn’t go, and with the radio you can take it to the Chaco, while you work, and at home so you can listen and learn. But there are complications, such as when the government has said that we are now 100 percent literate, which is not true. You have to approach it differently, to educate not only for literacy but to widen the scope a bit, and offer it through the radio.
ACLO, in the south, is similar but from a more social vision. They focus on productivity in the country. They want to use the radio for these training programs, social reflection, organization, and education. They have taken the IRFA model to implement it in the south.
Radio Fides, on the other hand, was never an educational radio program. It is an informative program. The problem is that this kind of radio program usually has to be commercial, and then the tone of these radios is different. Education could be a part of that, but it's harder. It's the same with the news agency and the magazine, which are very open to different types of information. If there were more coordination we could say that we must have more educational content or social development, but it is difficult because every director has his own vision.
To get more into the educational programs of the company, in your opinion, how do human-Christian values enter the picture?
Very much! We don’t give just a classical education. It's not just knowledge and pragmatism. We want a more humane and humanizing education, to sensitize the spirit of the people for a more just, fraternal, and humane society, for a better life. The company's proposal is that it does not want to impose this. What we want is to awaken this in people, to awaken their critical, constructive, purposeful values and principles. It is an education that enlightens you to these concerns; it’s not passive. It is a philosophy diametrically opposed to the banking model, in which the student goes just to listen and is passive.
What are the elements needed to make education a mechanism for social justice?
I think the challenge there, on one level, is that education can be used in different ways. It is usually used to indoctrinate people. That's not so good; it's just message transmission. It may also be that the government says it wants to form their own people’s critical capacity. It’s possible to say "No, I want people to think, not only to think like me."
What changed with the educational reforms of 1994 in terms of ideology and pedagogical practice in this country?
The problem is that we’ve gone stumbling, wobbling. We had a variety of reforms, some more liberal, but what happens is that everything is based on the government. There is a very strict structure of teachers' federations that one government cannot change. For example, the previous reform really wanted to get away from the classical scheme and focus on skills, including vocational skills. They even removed the qualifications and steps, and that was more liberal because students were left almost to form their own education. Here in San Calixto they have this modular structure in which students plan their own studies, starting very early on. It’s more experimental.
Now, they’ve gone back a bit more to the banking system from before, with many proposals that aren’t very [realistic]. For example, the goal that students leave with practical and technical knowledge is admirable, but I do not know if it can be applied in all educational institutions. We need workshops, educational and technical training to do so. On the other hand there is the community model, with the boards in all schools, but that requires putting together a lot of particular ingredients.
What are some community education efforts in the schools of the Jesuits?
In schools, there is social action. For example, in San Calixto in their last years the students do a social service project. They go to a rural area and work with the community on projects. It has been developed further in the Colegio San Ignacio. But overall, it's just the students. Parents and teachers are not very involved.
There are also volunteers, students trying to have a more permanent social project. After school some may also have an experience of a year or less, working for the company. It allows them to get their hands on this vein.
Did you do something similar in your school?
Yes, we in San Calixto had these service trips, and in the last year, we worked on the weekends. In my house, we went to the hillside neighborhoods around La Paz. We did school reinforcement, visited families, and we had to go door-to-door asking what we could do to help.
What impact did this experience have on your personal and professional growth?
A lot. Everything is relative but, perhaps, if I hadn’t had this experience, I wouldn’t have thought of this social piece that always stays with you. Everywhere you go, you think about this experience. My decision to enter the company was, in part, for that. I do not know if I had been enrolled in another school whether the same thing would’ve happen. The students always have this dimension of commitment and service. That is achieved in our schools.
Sometimes the schools start something and the students take it on in a more permanent way, but I also think we can do a little more. Children do have this restlessness. It really impacts them to have this social service experience.
There is also the concern for the spiritual. In our schools you do have restlessness and interest in social issues, but the religious and spiritual parts are more distant from the students.
What are some of the most important challenges in the educational programs of the company?
There are many. The Colegio San Calixto has been around for 130 years, and the Sacred Heart will soon be 100 years old. We have formed good people, but it’s hard to see what impact we’ve had on society; that sometimes gets lost. It makes me sad sometimes because we form good people, but these people then have two options: either to leave the country, or stay here, gradually becoming corrupted because we are in a society with different values. We have not had an impact on the structure of society. I think one challenge would be how to focus more on the social and political structures, and have an impact.
Do the Jesuits, not just the students, get involved in politics, or not so much?
The company itself has had a big impact in politics. But when you talk about new generations, it may be less. We are now in a process in which laypeople are gaining more prominence in the Church itself. The new generations are more in the line of duty, almost anonymous, simple and unnoticed.
What do you think of this change between generations?
I think it's good. The new generations are more local and think from that local perspective, and they reflect better the reality of our country. The company must give their wealth on a local level and create these projects and dreams, but it will not be easy. The great works are from an older generation. In Fe y Alegría it’s the same. The Jesuits that are well known are the older ones. There’s now another way of presence, influence, and service.