Mexico City — To understand the significance of her return to high school 20 years after dropping out, you need to know a little about Maria de Lourdes Arguelles. And to grasp what makes this dramatic step possible, you also need to know about Open Education in Mexico - and that 1 million adults are now taking advantage of opportunities for advanced learning provided by the Ministry of Education and the National University.Lourdes is an upper-middle-class wife of a physics professor at the National University in Mexico City. She has two children, Rodrigo and Anapaula, who attend Queen Elizabeth II School, a private institution that offers some instruction in English as well as preparation for a Mexican university education.Like many young women of her class in Mexico City, Lourdes has always depended upon her husband for her needs. His prestigious position and dependable income enable her to buy chic clothes and costly cosmetics, to visit the salon de belleza (beauty shop) regularly, to scoot about in her own car, and to stage elaborate birthday parties for Rodrigo and Anapaula and an annual posada (Christmas pageant) in her neighborhood, with a live donkey hired for authenticity.Lourdes, her husband Juan, and their children live just across Insurgentes Avenue from the historic and exclusive San Angel district, among the most-preferred residential areas of the city. Their modern house (which they rent) is on a private street; it has a lovely garden, wall-to-wall carpet, a marble fireplace, reproduction French furniture, a few pieces of contemporary sculpture, a few inherited treasures, and such modern appliances as the color television set that is a magnet for their relatives when an important sports event is being telecast.If such an event occurs on Sunday, Lourdes orders pizzas or other carry-out food and ice cream, explaining, ''I told Juan when we married that I will never work on Sunday.'' Other days the meals are cooked and the house cleaned and tidied by a maid.Lourdes is the eldest daughter of a middle-class family. In Mexico, the middle class is an urban class whose prosperity derives from the father's salary, not from inherited wealth. Like the nouveaux riches in other countries, members of this class incline toward conspicuous consumption. They flock to weekend resorts (often called clubs) in places like Cuernavaca, where their children swim, play tennis, enjoy walled gardens bursting with flowers, and acquire not only the gastronomic preferences but often the somewhat arrogant attitudes toward their lower-class servitors which they deem appropriate to their superior situation.Lourdes's parents stressed education only for their son, who is now getting his master's degree.When Lourdes was 14 and had finished junior high school (here called secondaria), she quit school.''It's a good decision,'' her father assured her. ''You have too much schooling already. You're a pretty girl, and you will get married. Why fill up your head with learning you don't need?''Lourdes was then sent to California for a year to live with cousins. While there she attended an American public high school for a year and became reasonably fluent in English. Later in Mexico, she worked for an interior decorator and then as a secretary. She met her husband, Juan, through her sister Alicia, who had become his secretrary at the university.Alicia, meanwhile, had discovered that some young women attended university to prepare themselves for professional careers. She regretted that she had not attended high school. She re-enrolled in high school with the intention of qualifying for university attendance. She advised Lourdes , by this time married to Juan, to do the same.
But studying didn't appeal to Lourdes. She was enjoying exactly the life for which her parents had prepared her, and clung to her father's reasoning that pretty girls didn't need higher education.
Then in 1973, Juan was sent by the National University to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for postdoctoral studies. Lourdes, to fill some of her leisure time, took a class in American literature in Harvard's extension program for adults and became an avid reader. That year she met many men and women who derived pleasure from reading, and their enthusiasm was contagious.
Lourdes and Juan returned to Mexico eight years ago. There were no outward signs of the interest in learning that had been planted in Cambridge until two years ago, when Lourdes went back to high school.
From the standpoint of appearance, she blended in well with girls 16 and 17. But she was haunted by the prospect of failure after such a long absence from studying.
''And,'' she explained, ''I was definitely not the same as them in knowledge. I had had experience. I had traveled and read a lot.'' The classes seemed tedious, and Lourdes found the pace of the literature courses slow, while she needed more time in mathematics and science courses.
Happily for Lourdes, the Ministry of Education in Mexico has established an Open Education program that permits adults to learn at their own pace - offering the one-on-one help of high school teachers as often as three times a week instead of requiring them to attend classes. Credit comes by examination. Lourdes transferred into this program and hopes to get her high school diploma within two years. Then she plans to enroll at the university.
Asked why she has embarked upon this rigorous program, Lourdes, who is not professionally or intellectually ambitious, says: ''My father is retiring now, and he is not interested in anything. He just plays cards and watches TV. I don't want an empty life when I'm older. I don't want Juan to be bored with me when I look older. I don't want Rodrigo and Anapaula to come to me with homework and discover I can't help them.''
''Besides,'' she continues, ''Mexico is changing now. Education is the way to liberation.''
Lourdes is not a member of any organization advocating women's liberation as that term is understood in the United States. She does not want a change of situation. The liberation of which she speaks is wholly mental: liberation from the limitations and boredom of ignorance.
Other adults in the Open Education program of the Ministry of Education or that of the National University have different reasons for enrolling.
Says Teresa Quintanilla, a professor and administrator in the university's Open Education program: ''This is more exciting than the traditional way of earning a degree, which in Mexico is based mainly on rote learning. But in this program people are changing their way of learning; they are reasoning things through; they are learning by discovering.'' Professor Quintanilla says she is most closely involved with math and science teachers who are participating in the Open Education program in order to upgrade their skills and training. They choose the program because their working schedule does not permit them to attend regular classes in the university.
The recent devaluations of the peso and the drastic inflation in Mexico have been particularly hard on middle-class Mexicans (like Lourdes's husband, Juan) whose salaries have not kept pace with living costs. But Lourdes's experience illustrates what might be viewed as a welcome shift from materialistic to intellectual values, which are less subject to the roller-coaster ups and downs of the economy.
Now Juan is encouraging Lourdes, Anapuala, and Rodrigo to get all the education they can. He recognizes and supports the idea that there is more to life for women than the traditional preoccupation with physical beauty.