Jordan Levy is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Western Ontario. His research interests include political anthropology, ethnography of the state, transnational migration, and development policies in Latin America. A selection from his prize-winning paper, “Schoolteachers and National ‘Public’ Education in Honduras: Navigating the Reforms and Re-Founding the State,” is featured below.
The political crisis provoked by the June 2009 military coup in Honduras continues, with a deepening of neoliberal state projects that have drastically reduced funding for basic public services. A revealing case in point is the current government’s attempt to decentralize and privatize the country’s national public education system, while demanding new academic standards and blaming schoolteachers when these projects fail to materialize. In my paper I examine how Honduran schoolteachers navigated these neoliberal reforms to the education sector during the first school year of their application, 2012. By exploring the entanglement in which schoolteachers find themselves in their everyday work activities, I examine the ways in which they are reading the political landscape in light of post-coup governance and popular attempts to “re-found” the state by re-writing the constitution – a political project advanced by the anti-coup social movement and its allied political party.
Schoolteachers are principal leaders of this movement and new political party in Honduras. As educated professionals and local intellectuals who deliver a state service that connects with different aspirations of the Honduran population, schoolteachers are intimately aware of popular desires for social and political change. As front-line state agents responsible for training a labor force and uniting the nation around common values, teachers also represent the authority of the state in certain contexts, albeit in a more benign manner than the armed forces or national police. Yet schoolteachers are also members of the underpaid working class and one of several vulnerable groups in post-coup Honduras. In their everyday work activities they often resist particular policies of governance that they disagree with, placing them in conflict with certain state projects. I therefore conceive of schoolteachers as state agents who hold contradictory positions, and individuals who embody the blurred meeting point between “state” and “civil society.”
As the largest group of public sector workers in Honduras, schoolteachers are people whose daily activities and labor struggles support the expansion of state services in general. Most of those with whom I work studied in the normal schools during the 1970s and 80s – a period when the state sought to expand the education sector. As promising normal school students they studied under government-sponsored scholarships. These same teachers then experienced the Magisterio (the teachers’ professional association) as a “career of the poor” – the opportunity for individuals from humble (urban) backgrounds to become professionals and experience all of the responsibilities and benefits their positions entail. Today Honduran teachers are reflecting on their own life histories in conjunction with the recent history of the expansion of state services under the ousted government of Manuel Zelaya. They want at least that same level of support from the state, but have not been receiving it since June 2009. At international conferences for teachers in neighboring countries they see public education systems which they believe work well – returning to Honduras with arguments about the progress and good governance that is occurring now in ‘sister republics’ El Salvador and Nicaragua. As both products and producers of a national public education system, Honduran schoolteachers have developed a vested interest in state services. All this contributes to reasons why Honduran teachers recognize the usefulness of the state, and are defending public education and state services in general.
This paper forms part of a larger research project on Honduran political culture and state formation that investigates how resistance to post-coup projects of governance can occur from within the state itself, by examining the roles of schoolteachers as state agents. My analysis is based on a year of ethnographic fieldwork among schoolteachers at their places of work in the southern Department of Valle. The research for this project builds on five months of fieldwork in the same region directly before, during, and immediately after the coup of June 28, 2009. The ethnographic analysis of how teachers resist, conform to, and implement these new laws reveals their attempts to influence (1) what public schooling should be like, (2) what is considered proper use of government resources, and (3) what type of state the movement should (re)create in Honduras.
My arguments aim to denaturalize “the state” and highlight its variability through time and across geographic space. Rather than assuming that there is a single process of state formation, recent literature emphasizes that there is a variety of processes of governance in different historical and social contexts, and that state formation does not begin and end with grandiose political projects or obvious examples of state power, but occurs through everyday prosaic activities. Yet ethnographically informed studies of how challenges to various state projects occurs from within the state itself are still limited, especially for Latin America.
I found that although Honduran schoolteachers reject the overall neoliberal spirit of the education reforms, there are still certain elements of these new laws they find useful for meeting basic schooling needs in the context of widespread poverty and political uncertainty. My ethnographic examples show how teachers necessarily implement aspects of the reforms, and in the process, enact their own visions for what the state in Honduras could be like – one that fulfills realistic promises and meets certain basic needs of the majority.
Prosaic activities in local schools are one way that legislation becomes a lived reality. Yet the implementation of any new legislation is never a straight-forward matter, as those responsible for carrying out policies have their own lived experiences and political opinions which influence how they interpret the significance of laws and approach how to best enact them in varied local contexts. Such important aspects of state formation merit sustained ethnographic analysis, especially in Latin American countries experiencing the deepening of neoliberal development policies, as is the case of post-coup Honduras.
These state agents find themselves entangled in a complex web of bureaucratic mandates where they need to develop strategies to keep their jobs and find ways to carry out their commitment to offer national public education in the name of the state – even when the current government has reduced its own commitment to that project.
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