The assignment: Visit four northern countries of South America and learn what you can about schools and schooling there from teachers, parents, pupils, and government officials.
The short report: In all four nations, a mighty struggle is taking place to fit the education offered (preschool through postdoctoral studies) to the special needs of each country.
It was Gala Garcia Feraud, minister of education in Ecuador, who most eloquently spoke of the "reality of Ecuador" -- of the need for what was taught in the schools to fit in more closely with the goals, aspirations, desires, and needs of his resource-rich nation.
In each country -- Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia -- the present school systems still have traces of classical French education: a preschool, followed by a basic primary unit, then a split at the secondary level between an academic stream and vocational training, followed by university work, primarily in theoretical physics, philosophy, and law.
"What's wrong with that?" I asked of all i met.
"We need economists, practical economists," asserted a professor at the University of the Pacific, Lima.
"I hire engineers with degrees in mathematics, but they can't program our computer," states a consultant for one of the largest structural engineering firms in Caracas.
"Our need is for engineers -- mining, agricultural, electronic, petroleum -- and all we get is civil, and these only knowing bridge building under ideal conditions," a consultant to Colombia's minister of education says.
And the director of an art gallery in Quito: "We know too little of our own history, our own glorious culture, and too much of the 'myth of European cultural superiority.'"
There are some similarities in these four nations -- mostly the negative aspects of the present school system:
* Rote memorizing and lecturing -- even to first-graders -- still continue.
* Of each million children who start primary school, fewer than half a million progress to Grade 4. Less than half of these enter secondary school. And fewer than 10,000 go on to some form of higher education.
* Many teachers have no training at all, particularly those who are themselves recent high school graduates and are posted to rural and village schools.
* There aren't enough textbooks to go around, and even the most basic learning tool of all is in very short supply -- white chalk.
* While village children get to school on time, many teachers come an hour or two late, and often do not show up for days at a time if sick or working at another job.
* Private academies, where fees are out of the question for all but the few economically elite, are almost the only route between secondary school and a university.
* Older college and university professors, trained in Europe one, two, or even three decades ago, have not updated their lectures or kept up with advances in scholarship.
But the picture is not all bleak -- in fact, an educational tour of these four developing nations is tremendously exciting.
"Sacred cows," a US-trained Peruvian economist exclaimed, "are an endangered species here."
And they are.
At the grass-roots level, informal education programs are prolific, imaginative, and reaching a population heretofore well outside the schooling mainstream.
Radio lessons abound, and are now part of remote village life.
Television, still floundering as an educational tool, is nevertheless finding its way into schools and colleges with "talking heads," if not with dramatic presentations.
Literacy programs are reaching the "unreachables." In colombia, every secondary school student must, as payment of his obligation for the privilege of receiving an education, teach no fewer than 15 adults to read or he will not receive his certificate of graduation.
In Ecuador, the literacy campaign has been taken from the professional educators and given to community leaders, and beginning texts include information essential to both the rural and urban worker.
History, geography, cultural trends, and even music are part of Ecuador's basic literacy campaign.
In Venezuela, an audiovisual kit including workbooks, textbook, records, and recorder can be purchased at a subsidized cost, and each teacher can charge pupils a moderate fee to take the course. The incentive? Each pupil, on completion of the basic course, can qualify as a teacher and teach his own pupils.
As the designer of Venezuela's ACUDE literacy program explained, "We feel more people will want to learn to read, write, and do arithmetic if they see, immediately, how it improves their financial status."
And in Peru, older women -- the most education-neglected portion of the population -- are being reached through Asociacion Peru- Mujer. This nonprofit organization, using in part the resources of Partners of the Americas, reaches into the poorest areas to help women attain basic literacy as wel as get vocational training.
At another end of the educational spectrum is another exciting change -- overseas scholars are coming back home.
I kept meeting them. That infamous "brain drain" has not stopped completely, but it has definitely been slowed to a trickle.
A brilliant young scholar, already serving a Venezuelan company with management skills and computer know-how, explained that he did not go abroad for his undergraduate years so that he could combine study with practical application at home. Now he is headed for a master's degree in computer science at a selective US university, taking with him his thesis project based on a national problem in the oil industry.
Eight mathematicians teaching at two Colombian public universities, all with advanced US degrees, said they would love to do more studying and teaching in the United States "occasionally" -- but "our commitment is right here."
A Fulbright scholar explained that many students still hope for advanced course work in Europe, and that the majority of those who go do not return. But he added that increasingly those who go to the US to study come back, even if only for a while.
Perhaps the most dramatic change of all is the strength of the public sector in schooling.
Yes, private schools are still the "most desirable," and continue to be the "usual" route to higher education.
Also, the older public institutions -- in each of the nations -- continue to harbor Marxists and socialists.
Yet I kept meeting sound scholars, devoted to teaching and to the development of their countries, who had gone only to the public schools and were "proud of it."
For Ecuador's minister of education, Dr. Feraud, this is the key to success for Latin American countries.
He laid out four problems facing Ecuador which are troubling his neighbors as well:
"The rupture between the traditional [theoretical] and the technical.
"The tenseness between humanism and the technical.
"The recognition that some primary and secondary schooling programs have negative as well as positive aspects.
"The inadequate teaching of natural science, local history, and political geography."
Again Dr. Feraud emphasized, "We must have a school system special to us. We don't know who we are, where we are, or why we are. This is our needed 'basics, ' our reality."
In each of these nations, only recently has there been recognition that the history to be taught should be local history, and that the indigenous Indian culture really has made a rich and positive contribution to current life.
Hence, I could find few books in school or university libraries which dealt with political and economic geography, that told colorful folk tales, or provided for chilren a dynamic discussion -- in simple terms -- of their unique heritage.
The schools and colleges have long been political battlegrounds, swaying with whoever was in power, and generally looking down on what was native while looking up to what was foreign, particularly the more theoretical educational aspects from Europe and the crassest forms of materialism from the United States.
Magazines, paperback books, movies, and even television programs flow into Latin American from the US -- and they are "B" grade at best. Many educators feel they are responsible (in part) for the lack of sensitivity to local culture on the part of the small, but growing, middle class.
Indoctrination and blatant propaganda have often doubled as curriculum material; school officials agree this has caused serious disruptions in sound scholarship.
But even in the politics-free subject of mathematics the tendency has been to use European texts which focus on memorization of number facts and repetition of classical theories and formulas. This is done despite the obvious need for applied math as well as the need to support creativity.
As Dr. Feraud admitted, "We're still learning to count pebbles, when what's needed are creative mathematicians to program our computers and help solve practical problems."