Excerpted from Madhu Suri Prakash <msp1@psu.edu> and Gustavo Esteva <gustavoesteva@terra.com.mx> Escaping Education: Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1998

Taming the Horror:

Overcoming the Reign of Educated Literacies

There is a spiritual culture and there is another literal culture. Alphabet is a false order. The alphabetic order is the biggest spiritual disorder: the disorder you can see in alphabetic dictionaries or literal, more or less encyclopedic, vocabularies which reveal the universal reductionism aspired to by literal culture (José Bergamin quoted by Alonso 1996).

If the popular, untutored culture disappears, so does the real poetic world… Written literature [depends] on a background of non-literary experience. But the reverse is not true: genuine oral-popular ‘literature’ can exist without literacy. If genuine oral-popular literature disappears, so too does the spiritual life (Alonso 1996).

Learning from cradle to grave under the expert instruction of the credentialed graduate, the "civilized," literate, educated, and developed people continue to be fabulously successful in destroying linguistic diversity. With the aid of hundreds of credit hours of canned instruction, the educated of the North speak only 1 percent of the 5,000 languages that survive temporarily on earth.

Those that survive are threatened by the depredations of progress, development, and education; by national schemes ensuring that the masses and the classes demand education in the mother tongue, with a smattering of bilingualism thrown in, if the State or local school boards are amenable to such suggestions.

Different, decentralized, more hopeful stories thrive at the grassroots.

The illiterate peoples of India still enjoy their lived pluriverse of 1,682 languages — alive, spoken, untamed, and wildly variant from one community to the next.

Twenty-three Mayan languages are still spoken in the parts of Guatemala where even the State dictatorship has failed to decimate this existing diversity through its educational system, public or private.

In the province of Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico, where three million live, many different cultures coexist: Amuzgos, Cuicatecos, Chatinos, Chinantecos, Chocholtecos, Chontales, Huaves, Mixes, Mixtecos, Nahuas, Triquis, Zapotecos, and Zoques, as well as Afromexican communities. Each of those peoples speaks their own language and all of them have important variants. Among the Zapotecs, for example, there are clear linguistic differences among those living in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the Sierra de Juárez or in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. And there are also dialectal differences from community to community, among the more than 7,000 communities of Oaxaca. (More than 100 variants exist alone among the Zapotecs.)

In desecrated and abused Chiapas, the uneducated enjoy their Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Zoque, Chol, and Tojolabal, despite educational curricula furiously promoting Spanish.

Central America, geographically tiny, keeps 260 languages alive.

In Nigeria, more than 400 languages have been counted.

The poor in non-industrial countries all over the world are polyglot. My friend the goldsmith in Timbuktu speaks Songhay at home, listens to Bambara on the radio, devotedly and with some understanding says his prayers five times a day in Arabic, gets along in two trade languages on the Souk, converses in passable French that he picked up in the army — and none of these languages was formally taught to him. He did not set out to learn these tongues: each is one style in which he remembers a peculiar set of experiences that fits into the frame of that language (Illich in Cayley 1992).

Similarly recounting the linguistic riches of the unlettered, Wolfgang Sachs muses over the fact that a "great number of these languages cling to remote places. They hide out in isolated mountain valleys, far-off islands, and inaccessible deserts. Others govern entire continents and connect different peoples into a larger universe" (Sachs 1992); the opaque "One World" of centralized, gigantic technologies — including those of Education.

In the pluriverse of Quechua, Aymara, and other peoples in the Peruvian Andes, voices singing of resistance to the linguistic and cultural erosion of education, write of the State’s Spanish culture imposed upon them through the schools and other institutions of the national economy:

Five centuries ago there arose among us a terrible plague from whose havoc we have not totally recovered, although we are very near a complete cure... The plague has not taken our world away from us nor our convictions, it has not changed our way of being. Even though we often speak in Spanish… (Grillo in Apffel Marglin 1998).

But they speak Spanish only with the outsider, Grillo, Rengifo, and other members of PRATEC tell us. With their own people, in the comfort of shared communities, among Insiders, the varying, hybrid tongues of the commons flourish, protected from the rules of expert educated grammarians and their schools, brought in all the way from Spain, where a luxurious pluriverse once flourished.

In the Iberian Peninsula, observes Andoni Alonso, a "huge variety" existed in the Spanish language during the late fifteenth century.

At that time Spanish took different forms in Navarra, Aragon, Extremadura, Andalucia, and elsewhere, while other languages such as Basque, Galician, and Catalonian co-existed within the country. The Kingdom of Navarra, for instance, was officially bilingual, recognizing both Basque and Spanish as established languages (Alonso 1996).

This linguistic pluralism was considered "natural" at the time, even by Queen Isabela, despite the Gramatica Castellana (Spanish grammar) dedicated to her by the grammarian Antonio de Nebrija (1444-1522).

Out of this natural "vibrant matrix," Illich’s historical voyages uncover, "there gradually precipitated official languages. . . guarded in the national academies of old nations and manufactured in the language institutes of new ones" (Cayley 1992). Nebrija played a critical role in one of the epochs of this history, proposing to Queen Isabela the necessity of unifying "the speech of the country to reinforce the unification of religion and political power that constituted the emergence of the modern European state" (Alonso 1996).

In the same year that Columbus sailed west to his "discoveries," Nebrija proposed to Queen Isabela the importance of engineering "popular edification and administrative control" of the "loose and unruly" speech of her people. The Queen, however, "demurred on the ground that her sovereignty did not extend to the speech of her subjects who were already perfectly in command of their own tongues" (Cayley 1992).

But "it was Nebrija . . . who had the future in his bones" (Cayley 1992). The next logical step in this process of the modern centralization of power created education as a "need" for learning the mother tongue. Perhaps even more important than the discovery of the "New World," this emergent reality of education grounded a new political-economic order. The rest is educational history, promoting the

certainty that children should be taught the proper forms of everyday speech, and teachers should be paid to deliver this commodity. Elements of homegrown speech recur, like weeds growing through the cracks in pavement, in the mouths of poets and dropouts, but speech that is designed, packaged, and administered predominates (Cayley 1992).

The history of education, like the history of the modern state, tells the tale of languages and customs submerged; of communities and traditions smashed when unacceptable to the State’s educators, grammarians, judiciary, and other arms of control and management. Key to progress or modernization, educators and other incumbents of the state continue to be fully implicated in the "colonization and domestication of vernacular speech by standard forms" (Cayley 1992).

Yet other incumbents of these institutions — multicultural educators — are currently promising to unmask and undo the damage done to subjugate the oppressed, the colonized; to make them disappear; to reduce them to the impotence of "cultures of silence."

Despite several centuries of educational management, the uneducated social majorities are not silenced, enjoying their rich "Babel" (Panikkar 1995) of tongues in their commons. To speak with educators and other functionaries of national bureaucracies, however, they are forced to enter the world of homo monolingus.


At the grassroots, the common people live, teach, and learn their tongues, intuitively swimming with such insights. The educated continue to call their knowledge "the superstitions of the illiterate and the uneducated."



Apffel-Marglin, F. 1998. The Spirit of Regeneration: Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development. London: Zed Books.

Alonso, A. 1996. A Spanish Ivan Illich. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 16 (5&6).

Cayley, D. 1992. Ivan Illich in Conversation. Concord: House of Anansi Press.

Panikkar, R. 1995. Invisible Harmony. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.