The Times Literary Supplement

January 18, 2013

‘Modernizing Minds in El Salvador’

Héctor Lindo-Fuentes and Erik Ching

Modernizing Minds in El Salvador: Education Reform and the Cold War, 1960-1980

341 pp. University of New Mexico Press.Paperback, 25.95 (US $29.95)978 0 8263 5081 7

Few remember it now, but surely one of the strangest chapters in the cultural Cold War occurred in El Salvador, when a military government tried to replace schoolteachers with televisions. TV sets were wheeled into middle-school classrooms all over the country and “teleteachers” imparted classes from a broadcast studio outside San Salvador. All teachers’ colleges but one were closed; they were no longer needed. The scheme was so promising that Lyndon Johnson himself cut the ribbon on the new studio in 1968, extolling El Salvador as “the first nation in all the world with a complete educational television system.” “Some day”, he added, “we hope the United States can catch up with you.”

As Héctor Lindo-Fuentes and Erik Ching explain in this fascinating, off-beat history, American communications gurus (enthusiastically backed by UNESCO and the World Bank) conceived the plan as a way to teach marketable, “modern” skills to teens, not to teach them to think critically. The programme was supposed to be limited to twenty-minute lessons followed by discussions with a live instructor, but soon the flickering screen took over, especially during a teachers’ strike in 1971, when the authorities kept transmitting “as if to show the system could function without teachers”, the authors write. The irony of a U.S. protectorate’s instituting such heavy centralisation is not lost on them; Lindo-Fuentes and Ching draw a parallel with “the socialist idea of using education to create the ‘new man'”.

They also argue that the schools reform and other authoritarian projects — including a massive dam, which flooded over a hundred square miles of the tiny country’s best farmland — sharpened class tensions and helped push El Salvador into civil war.

After first supporting television as a didactic tool, teachers turned violently against it. The plan’s main architect, a brilliant and arrogant civil servant named Walter Béneke, was assassinated by guerrillas in 1980, and the broadcast studios were decommissioned and turned into an army garrison. Far from showcasing 1960s modernization theory, El Salvador demonstrated its folly.

–Roger Atwood