Costa Rica's high literacy rate is a source of pride for its citizens. Even in troubled economic times, more than 9 out of 10 Costa Ricans are literate, a figure that tops all other Central American countries -- as well as the United States. This astonishing educational success is often explained with talk about good financing, new programs, and effective teaching. But the fact that Costa Rica has virtually no minority population may explain the success even more -- though the rapid influx of Nicaraguan refugees threatens to change that.
Manuel Antonio Hern'andez, director of curriculum development, says, ``About 92 percent of Costa Rica's 2.5 million population are literate, up 4 percent over the past eight years. In all of Latin America, only Cuba and Chile have a higher literacy rate.''
``Ticos,'' as Costa Ricans call themselves, prize their education. Walk the outskirts of San Jos'e early in the morning and you'll see flocks of cheerful, uniformed youngsters parading to class. Then return to the same schools in the evening, and you'll see young adults finishing the education they regretfully stopped before finishing.
The government has helped nurture this enthusiasm and dedication. Since 1949, when Costa Rica abolished its small Army, education has been largely funded with money that would have been for the military. Today, about one-fourth of the budget goes to education.
Mr. Hern'andez credits most of his country's success to the traditional techniques and high standards of teaching which the schools maintain and the pride that Ticos have for education and culture. Several programs have also contributed to the high standard of literacy, he says.
Recently, new schools have been built in remote rural areas and new young-adult education programs have been started for those who have not received an education. Minister of Education Eugenio Rodr'iguez founded a National Reading Center, whose main objective is to improve the reading of the population at all levels. Earlier this year the government distributed a million free textbooks to all schools with funds from the US Agency for International Development.
In 1986, Costa Rica plans to ``nuclearize'' many of the nation's almost 3,000 schools into geographical groups to share materials, methodologies, and one another.
Another significant reason for the country's high literacy rate traces its origins back before the Spanish conquistadors. In all of Latin America, Costa Rica alone was devoid of large Indian populations. As Lee Weiler, owner of Hotel Don Carlos and former director of Country Day School, expresses it, ``We can't pat ourselves on the back too much about our high literacy rate when you realize that we don't have minority populations in this country.''
When the conquistadors settled Central America, they developed those areas having a large Indian population first. In countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua, however, the Europeans taught their own population and left the Indians to their own form of education, which rendered a large segment of the population illiterate.
Costa Rica, which lacked this large Indian base, was treated as a frontier area. When it was finally settled, it was inhabited by a primarily Spanish population that did not intermarry with Indians and became the working-class population. When a formal school system became necessary, the settlers were able to educate a homogeneous group with little difficulty.
The education system of Costa Rica is up against several significant problems that could lower its high literacy rate. Nicaragua's economic difficulties have caused many of its people to migrate north across the R'io San Juan into their neighbor's peaceful territories. More than 250,000 Nicaraguans are thought to be living illegally in Costa Rica, while about 20,000 are here as refugees. There has never been such a large influx into Costa Rica, even in the last days of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somo za Debayle.
So Costa Rica now has a large number of Nicaraguan students as well as students from Cuba and El Salvador, especially at the primary levels.
Hern'andez says that while refugee students have problems adapting to a new educational and social environments, there have been no serious problems.
Costa Rica also has several major economic problems. It is one of the world's most indebted nations per capita ($3.6 billion overall). To ease its economic problems, Costa Rica received $198 million this year from the US, more per capita than any other nation except Israel.
Despite the economic problems, the morale of the country is very high, and it is unlikely that the large education budget will be cut.