In the early colonial era, education by the Roman Catholic Church served a minority of wealthy landowners who, though illiterate or barely literate, sought schooling for their sons in the manner of Spanish aristocrats. The notion of education for a privileged few reflected a rigid, hierarchical social system that distinguished between the man of letters and the man who worked with his hands. The distinction between manual labor and more "artistic" or creative pursuits became deeply ingrained in the value system and affected the educational system as well. The high prestige attached to traditional and philosophical studies channeled resources and talent away from technical and scientific fields at university levels and produced curricula at the primary and intermediate levels that ignored the vocational needs of most of the population. In an abstract sense, the highest ambition was to be a pensador (thinker), a man of ideas, an intellectual, rather than an inventor or a técnico (technician).
Those who helped shape the struggle for independence and the new constitutions of the early nineteenth century were inspired by the liberalism of the French and American revolutions. Simón Bolívar, who studied in Europe, was greatly influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and by the French educational system. Such features of Venezuelan education as the degree of centralization, the rigid structure of schools and curricula, and the gaining of knowledge through logic are directly traceable to French practices.
The issue of free, public, and compulsory education at the primary level first arose during the independence struggle. After the initial declaration of independence in 1811, Bolívar issued a series of decrees concerning free education. But by the time of his death in 1830, most of the programs he had proposed had not been implemented. However, the ideal of free, universal education had become inextricably joined to the name of the national hero, and this ideal has since permeated Venezuelan educational policies.
The real beginning of free public education, however, did not come until 1870. Antonio Guzmán Blanco issued a decree in which he recognized compulsory elementary mass education as the responsibility of the national, state, and local governments. The Guzmán regime went on to organize the administration and financing of the school system, establishing the Ministry of Public Education and the first normal schools for training primary school teachers. In 1891 the National University of Zulia in Maracaibo was created, followed in the next year by the National University of Carabobo in Valencia. But these ambitious beginnings came to an abrupt halt. The National University of Carabobo was closed shortly after opening and did not reopen its doors until 1958. The National University of Zulia, closed in 1904, did not function again until 1946.
The long dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez, although generally indifferent to education and repressive of student demands, did bring about the reestablishment of cordial relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church and encouraged church-supported education. Gómez served as a patron to a number of intellectuals who were sympathetic to his regime and increased the support for the national university in Caracas.
During the decade after the death of Gómez in 1935, concern for teacher training prompted the establishment of a new institute for the preparation of intermediate teachers, the National Pedagogic Institute in Caracas. The period also witnessed an expansion of public schools to rural areas. During the trienio, a number of teachers' unions grew up. The Pérez Jiménez dictatorship (1948-58), however, represented a low point for education. The regime constantly interfered with and intermittently closed universities in response to perceived opposition among students and faculty. The budget for education was cut and the number of students entering and graduating from the universities declined.
The return of democratic government in 1958 brought leaders committed to improving both the quantity and the quality of educational opportunities. A number of new universities opened throughout the country, agricultural extension services reached out to Venezuelan farmers, and imaginative education programs broadcast on radio and television further expanded opportunities for learning. In fact, it is generally acknowledged that it was only after 1958 that the ideals and goals of Guzmán Blanco began to be systematically pursued. At least six years of primary school were compulsory until 1980, when the Organic Law of Education was passed. This law provided for compulsory preschool education and nine years of basic education, but the implementation of preschool education reform has taken longer than originally intended.
For the upper class, the growing middle class, and those members of the lower class with upward aspirations, an academic education has been indispensable. For this reason, the secondary schools, which prepared students for the universities and subsequently for white-collar jobs or academic careers, were more popular than other intermediate-level schools, such as technical schools or training institutes. Despite government efforts to promote vocational education, university students continued to display a preference for the professions that have always been prestigious and popular, and not for the newer technical fields where the need was greatest. This presented a problem in a country that was more industrialized than most in Latin America. In an effort to alleviate this problem and to enhance the prestige of a technical education, since 1969 the government has facilitated the entry into the university system of students from a variety of sources, including those students with a technical education degree. The changes injected a high degree of flexibility into the education system from 1969 on.
At the same time, the social distinction that has always existed between private and public schools, particularly at the secondary level, has intensified as a result of the expansion of public education. Although the public or official schools often enjoyed better financial support and, as a result, newer equipment and more highly paid teachers, a private-school education still carried far more prestige in the minds of many Venezuelans. In light of the cachet bestowed by affiliation with a private school, some teachers split their time between the two systems.
Since the mid-twentieth century, the natural sciences have been emphasized in education as international organizations and private foundations have cooperated with the national government in promoting research. The social sciences have been greatly influenced by work done in the United States, especially in the area of economic development.
Overall, Venezuela was among the most literate of the Latin American countries. The literacy rate among Venezuelans fifteen years of age and older was 88.4 percent in 1985. The government distributed training materials such as books and tapes throughout the country in an effort to encourage those who could read and write to assist illiterates in acquiring these skills.
Basic education consisted of nine years of compulsory schooling for children six to fourteen years of age. For those continuing their education, the system offered two years of diversified academic, technical, and vocational study at a senior high school, which could be followed by various types of higher education--junior college, university, or technical institute. In addition, adults were encouraged to participate in special night classes conducted at all education levels.
Venezuela's education system, as measured by the number of schools, teachers, and size of the enrollment, expanded rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s. Enrollments at all levels increased substantially, as did the numbers of schools and teachers at each level. Primary enrollments rose by over 30 percent and secondary by over 50 percent, while university-level enrollments nearly doubled, the latter a reflection not only of population growth but also of the opening of new schools and the easing of entrance requirements. The best-known and oldest university was the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas. Many of the country's political leaders received their education there, and several of the political parties began as student groups on the Central University of Venezuela's campus. To the west, Maracaibo was the site of the private Rafael Urdaneta University and the public Zulia University. The public University of the Andes was located in Mérida. Carabobo University in Valencia, Eastern University (Universidad de Oriente) in Sucre, and Midwestern University (Universidad Centro- Occidental) in Barquisimeto were all public universities.
Shifts in the economy affected Venezuela's technical education needs. Until the economic downturn of the 1980s, the shortage of skilled workers and managers was a main concern of government planners. Skilled personnel were needed to operate what had been a burgeoning and technologically sophisticated economy. To fill the gap, Venezuela recruited many skilled foreign technicians, expanded its technical education facilities, and sent Venezuelans abroad for training, particularly in the United States and Europe. With the economic decline of the 1980s, however, rising unemployment replaced the continuing lack of technically qualified personnel as the primary manpower concern, and the emphasis on technical education was reduced.
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