The biography of the educator and pedagogue José Pedro Varela, the "Uruguayan Horace Mann"


José Pedro Varela was an Uruguayan educator and teacher, at the end of the 19th century, who represents an important stage in the history of education not only in his country but in all of Latin America. He was convinced that the wealth of the people, the health of men, and the happiness of mankind lay in the knowledge transmitted through the school.

Varela did not consider himself as the creator of a particular pedagogy, but he took and promoted pedagogical ideas of the historical, cultural, philosophical, political, and cultural moment in which he lived. He encouraged them and adapted them to his reality when necessary, transplanting them in a natural way so that they could develop there.

Like Sarmiento, José Pedro Varela, the Reformer of the Uruguayan School, was buffeted from 1860 onwards by the constructive tide of the United States. And it was at the side of the great Argentine, precisely, that Varela appreciated the scope of educational progress, a consequence of the industrial fever, and the value of the school as a lever, in that country, for all social transformation, a sort of universal panacea.

Varela was born on March 19, 1845, in the midst of the siege of Montevideo by the troops of the feudalism of Rosario; the son of Argentine emigrants of outstanding intellectual performance in the politics of the neighboring country, rooted here with families of old historical lineage. The first culture that José Pedro received, apart from the dogmatic of his time, was the one he collected from the books translated by his father for the library of El Comercio del Plata, a newspaper published by the famous Florencio Varela, his uncle.

When José Pedro was very young, his uncle Florencio was murdered in the streets of Montevideo by the hordes of Rosas, implacable persecutor of the combative Unitarians. Varela at the age of fifteen was a sales clerk, as was Sarmiento around the same age. But since commerce was not his forte, nor numbers his vocation, nor retail customers, reading was his most frequent escape. Varela would read. In six years he learned three or four languages. He educated himself.

In 1966, La Revista Literaria appeared, a tribune of the romantic youth of Montevideo, in which the pseudonym of Quasimodo hid the modesty of an almost corny poet at times and a serious essayist at others, of José Pedro Varela, an adolescent. And with the bundle of his production in hand, one day, he embarks for Europe with a fixed thought: to visit the island of Guernsey, the patriarch of his devotion, Victor Hugo.

José Pedro Varela (1845-1879) was a strong advocate of secular, compulsory and free basic education.
José Pedro Varela (1845-1879) was a strong advocate of secular, compulsory and free basic education.

A printing house in New York, upon his return, collected his poems in a volume, Ecos perdidos, and with it under his arm, he went to the Argentine embassy to meet Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, whose fame as a fighter for culture had transcended the borders of South America and was a man of obligatory knowledge on his way from or to Europe. Furthermore, Varela needed to orient his future life.

There, in the United States, by the hand of Sarmiento - as Varela himself says as a result of attending in his company a political conference of Miss Dickinson, fighting against Grant and, day by day, he was learning the secrets of the constructiveness and moral health of the American people. New eyes and new understanding then opened for the young Uruguayan. That image he had brought in his eyes, of a Spain, stifled by the clergy, reaction, and latifundism, in eternal ignorance and misery, seemed even more different to him now that he was comparing.

This is the theoretical tripod on which Varela would base his future normative concept: education of character, development of intelligence, the balance of faculties. But the purpose for both educators of the Río de la Plata is more concrete and realistic, expressed by Sarmiento and now repeated by Varela, a translation of the needs of the liberal bourgeois class that was rapidly being structured in that region: education and instruction as a source of production and wealth, of resistance against sudden social movements and of instigation and curbing of a despot or reluctant governments.

The young romantic that Varela was, however, had, in the beginning, his hesitations. This American constructive fever sounded to him too materialistic. In his first letters, there are many aspects that irritate him, for example, the liberation of women. But the better he lives and gets to know, the better he understands this reality. The streets and the theaters, the schools and the factories, the convenience, and the comfort, show him the ineffable secrets of this new society.

In the following letters - in the material of which his spiritual process can be perfectly followed - his reconciliation begins. It is a great comfort to him, for example, to hear President Johnson's words to the children of Washington: "Every son of his mother can be considered a candidate for the presidency". And so on and so forth in all other respects. Until, in the last letters, his conviction goes hand in hand with his admiration. The pact with Sarmiento and culture was sealed. All his thoughts, from now on, tend to awaken interest in the problem of cultural extension in all its aspects.

Varela was 24 years old when he returned from Europe and the United States to his native Montevideo in 1869. Fervently convinced of his educational mission, together with Carlos Ma. Ramírez, Elbio Fernández and some others, he founded the Sociedad de Amigos de la Educación Popular ("Society of Friends of Popular Education"), which would be his political base.

His works La educación del pueblo (1874) ("The Education of the People") and Legislación escolar ("School Legislation") (1876) condense Varela's thinking on school reform, which he directed as Minister of Public Instruction during the government of Colonel Lorenzo Latorre. In spite of his political antagonism with this dictator, Varela held the position at the head of the Ministry of Education until his death in 1879, when he was only 34 years old. Thanks to his project and the reforms he promoted, the Common Education Law, enacted in 1877, made basic education in Uruguay secular, free and compulsory.

In August 1868, Varela leaves the United States. He returns in the company of Sarmiento, elected president of the Argentine Republic, at whose table he is often a frequent companion. The commotion of Varela's correspondence published in Montevideo by El Siglo had prepared the environment to firmly attack and popularize education. 

The problem of education, through his enthusiasm, revealed in his correspondence and that he had injected to his friend Carlos María Ramírez, was now the compass of the studious Montevidean youth, who analyzed the social state as if he had just come to recognize it. In the country's countryside, rather than the influence of an existing school, the caudillos and gauchos prevailed as teachers; the respected school was the revolutionary experience; the content of their knowledge was the exploits of matriarchs and revolutionaries, the facts of war and witches' tales, and the school teacher, in short, was nothing more than a vagabond, considered public enemy number one.

When Varela arrived in Uruguay, yet another revolution had just triumphed. The discredit of the country abroad was such that an American congressman said that it was anything but a republic... The adventurers of the finances speculated with the economic insecurity of the government, cholera, the paralysis of the meat salting plants, the tremendous depreciation of the products of the country that had thrown down the exports, the imports immobilized in the deposits of the customs, the lack of circulating currency and a heap more of national misfortunes.

It is in that moment when Varela gathers all the Montevidean intellectuality, on September 18 of the same year, and dictates his first conference, transcendental act for the cultural life of the country. In it, he makes a lively analysis of the backwardness, of its causes, and an exaltation of that universal panacea to all the evils, like education, was considered. In this conference, apart from indicating the new and definitive trajectory of his life, he reveals the secret of that impulse and of his new poetry: Sarmiento. With the Argentine, he says, "I have acquired my enthusiasm for the cause of education and the general background of the ideas I intend to develop", that is to say, he had acquired everything.

Left: Varela with his friend Carlos María Ramírez. Right: manuscript in Varela's handwriting.
Left: Varela with his friend Carlos María Ramírez. Right: manuscript in Varela's handwriting.

Varela's lecture and articles incite the educational campaign. The Society of Friends of Popular Education, which was to play such a brilliant role in this crusade, was then founded. It was necessary, as everyone understood, especially the nascent mercantilism, "to put an end to the aristocrats and the plebeians into which they are divided", as Sarmiento stated, and for which Mann had fought through his common schools.

The Argentine president's impulse on the other shore served as an emulation to the youth of Montevideo. "The mission of the schoolmaster had begun because that of the army had ended," it was said, using Lord Braughman's phrase that Sarmiento liked to repeat in his speeches. The activity of the young people, with Varela at their head, continues to unsettle day by day this "sweet Arcadia", in whose countryside, Hudson had recently said, "the golden age was still late". Making culture still sounded like an apostrophe. The school was nothing more than that luxurious institution that served to show that one had it.

Concretely, what was the material and pedagogical state of the school in Uruguay at the time when the Society of Friends of Popular Education began its work? In the capital there was 1 pupil for every 12.25 inhabitants and in the interior of the country 1 for every 45.5; in the whole republic, 1 pupil for every 26 and one school for every 2000 inhabitants; data that do not coincide exactly with those used by the Society and Varela himself, in his propaganda. Nevertheless, they are sufficient to show us how absolutely precarious the school was and how little influence education was supposed to have in his time. There were no economic resources to attend to it, and the teachers, for lack of payment, were forced to abandon their posts.

Finally, add the problem of the discipline that was used, which ranged from the clean whipping of "the letter enters with blood" - a great pedagogical virtue of the time - through all the stimulants of humiliation: donkey ears, rag tongues, punishments with the ruler, grains of corn under the knees, gagging, mouthing, etc., to some of those used in the countryside, such as locking the children inside crates, and we will have an exact portrait of the Uruguayan school before Varela and his Society began their "arduous, penitential and hard work", although, to use the reformer's own adjectives, "fruitful, great, perhaps the greatest of those that offer a vast field of action to the intelligence and the will of man". And so it was.

For the barbarians who lived by stoking the cutthroats in the civil wars for the personal predominance of caudillismo, a school was, as for the devil, a cross. Varela dreamed of democratic political affirmation, creative tranquility, the construction and ossification of the country. He knew that the cultural work would be accomplished: For Varela, as well as for Sarmiento, the traditional was the hindrance, whatever its aspect, and it had to be fought to the death.

In spite of the obscurantism, the Society of Friends of Popular Education brought together progressive Montevideo. The educational campaign continued its growing intensification and the Society began its crusade inland. The Church intensified its attacks against the culture for such a cause and before the astonishment of an education that promised to be "without God". Varela was forewarned against its phantom. Spain had shown him the truth.

Daily scene of a school in 1890. Before his death in 1879, José Pedro Varela promoted the creation of schools in the rural areas of Uruguay.
Daily scene of a school in 1890. Before his death in 1879, José Pedro Varela promoted the creation of schools in the rural areas of Uruguay.

This struggle demanded a clear book that would serve as doctrine and propaganda, and Varela writes to that effect The Education of the People, donating the originals to the Society, which publishes them in 1874. A book written, "with a kind of feverish activity, as if he feared that at every moment unforeseen causes would come to disturb the tranquility of spirit and serene happiness" that encouraged him to write it, as he says, "far from being an improvisation, it is the result of six or eight years of study followed with unalterable constancy through all the events of life"; besides being a summary of works he has read in relation to this subject. Because of these features, its chapters are of unquestionable importance, from the first, "Aims of education" - a compendium of the American concepts of the time: Lalor, Webster, Mann, Canning, Harris, etc. - to the last of its chapters, the forty-first, on "Education of women".

In the six parts of this book (The Aims of Education, Democracy and the School, The Primary School, The Higher School, Instruments of Education and Conclusion: Kindergartens, Normal Schools, Universities and Women's Education), Varela sets out the theoretical foundations on which, more than reform, the creation of the Uruguayan school should be based.

With such education it is possible to reach a democratic government which for Varela is, without a doubt; "the most perfect of all those that men have adopted until now"; something that supposes the development of a universal conscience, "and universal conscience supposes and demands universal education", although Varela, quoting very rightly Laveleye, clarifies that to reach this democratic republic it is not enough to change labels -as Erenburg says was done in Spain when passing from the monarchy to the republic-, but it supposes creating that conscience that only by educating it is created.

This problem implies the need for education to be compulsory, without this meaning the violation of individual rights, since, like everything else, "freedom also has its limits; it is the social interest... the interest," he says, "that the source of vices, misery, crimes... be exhausted as soon as possible. Regarding the fulfillment of this obligation, in his two chapters (IX and X of the second part) he brings nourished data on the United States and also the study of the logical consequence: "together with the obligation," he adds, "to provide the means to fulfill it: compulsory instruction, free schooling".

Now, as a concept that must serve these ends, he says: Neither a dogmatic education (which he attacks with irrefutable arguments and always so current: "The State is a political institution and not a religious institution"; its functions are thus different: "The education given and required by the State is not intended to affiliate the child in this or that religious community, but to prepare him properly for the life of a citizen") nor a classical education closed to all analysis is the one that is appropriate. It is always important to specify what knowledge "should be given preference", because any crystallization is pernicious: "Humanity," he says, "has always been in continuous movement".

What does Varela think of the general organization of the school? That it should be one that knows how to adjust "to a rational order and take into account the learning capacity of the child". These are the ideas that summarize Varela's new sense of the school. But his boldness goes even further when he asserts -as we have seen- that children themselves should be their teachers, or when he states that it is a mistake "to believe that a study should be interesting and suitable for the child only because it is useful for man".

Inauguration of a rural school in the region of the departments north of the Río Negro, in the second half of the 19th century.
Inauguration of a rural school in the region of the departments north of the Río Negro, in the second half of the 19th century.

To carry out this school, Varela understands that what Claparède, some years later, would call the "sense of smell" is no longer enough, but that there are fundamental laws that govern it for its greater performance. Among them, Varela highlights the law of attention, the law of interest, the law of aptitudes and acquisitions, the law of staggering, and so on. 

According to the norms that these laws reach us, the respective programs should be carried out and the subjects should be distributed, being among them "Lessons on objects" of capital importance in its structuring, since, with this subject, all abusive memorization is broken and the child's personal observation of beings and things is introduced.

As far as methods are concerned, Varela's ideas are the synthesis of the most modern concepts of the American pedagogues of his time. He does not have, however, the superstition of the method, which for him is "nothing more than the simple external form, while instruction is the substantial", something that has been reaffirmed over time in spite of excessive methodization, which has wanted to make technique the substantial... 

Although it does not fail to advise its use, because not taking it into account exposes "all efforts to be useless". Finally, as regards the technical organization of classes and the concept of freedom and discipline, Varela conditions it to the problem of activity, aided by a meticulous American exemplification, through the principles of W. Tailor Root, whose most salient chapters on the subject he reproduces faithfully.

This elementary school must then be followed by a higher school that attends to the acquisition of knowledge and in which, according to the needs of each people, the knowledge that its generations will need is taught. Thus, for Uruguay, he answers with the Massachusetts program: "1° Physical sciences and useful arts. 2° Political and moral sciences. 3° Modern languages"; knowledge which, in Varela's opinion, was what the inhabitants of Uruguay needed in the last third of the 19th century.

As for the instruments of education, he studies school buildings (recommending, in this case, the construction technique of Bernard, Johnson, Bouillon, Randall, etc.), the land, problems of hygiene in general, tools and equipment, texts, popular libraries, teachers, etc., ending by pointing out as complementary instruments of education the need for school buildings, ending by pointing out as complementary instruments of education: kindergartens for out-of-school education, normal schools for the preparation of professionals, and universities, synthesis of culture, although with another purpose than that of forming privileged castes, and the need for women to occupy in culture the social rank that corresponds to them.

The first serious step that placed Varela in the progressive wing of the Society of Friends was when he had to break the tie with his vote in the discussion of whether religious education should be brought to school or not, opting for secular education. From that moment on, the war of the Church and the conservative groups against the Reform was unleashed, even declaring Varela as public enemy number one ... of the reaction, it is understood.

Urban school at the end of the 19th century after the acceptance of the Varela reforms.
Urban school at the end of the 19th century after the acceptance of the Varela reforms.

The Society had its school, the "Elbio Fernández", where the experiences were carried out and which had been building its cultural heritage with texts and translated works. Varela was the soul of the pedagogical work in general. His friend Ramírez recognized, in a chronicle of El Siglo, that Varela was "like the anvil and the hammer of the practiced works". Like all his friends, leaders of political clubs, Varela did not disregard this practice of civism. 

But he was a "principled" politician too loyal to the letter and the legal concept to succeed in the ups and downs and turbulences of his time; in such a hard and complex time it was not possible to make abstraction as it was intended; disillusioned by the frauds, tricks, and riots of his contemporaries; he closed his newspaper, La Paz, lacking the popular warmth and retired from the political and journalistic scene to his purely educational activity. He intended to meditate and specify the different aspects of reform in a book, and to hope that some providential one day would gather his illusions and give a form of law to his social premises for the future.

The political and economic situation in Uruguay from 1872 onwards had been worsening month by month. The unrest began to spread, especially in the productive strata and in commerce. This gave rise to popular exacerbation against the enlightened bourgeoisie, incompetent in government, which although it was the most educated group of men in the country, was also the most useless. The series of economic crises had been unsettling the country and creating an atmosphere of insecurity that was felt everywhere, at the same time disarming the country's administrative apparatus in the face of any external or internal contingency. The budgets remained unpaid, as did the debt quotas; social services were not fulfilled in any way.

In March 1876, after several revolts, Latorre became dictator. The work of moralization and ossification of the country, which the dictator proposed, in spite of being based on despotic procedures and the inflexibility of a barracks colonel, was immediately felt in the rapid constructiveness that he impressed in the most varied spheres of the national activity. From the resumption of relations with the countries that had broken them with Uruguay in the previous presidencies, to the economic problems: liquidation of the forced course, meticulous payment of the public debts, regularization of the budgets of expenses, to the codification and organization of the justice and police, protection of private property, etc.

Stamp printed by Uruguay commemorating the centenary of Varela's birth.
Stamp printed by Uruguay commemorating the centenary of Varela's birth.

Latorre responded exactly to a need deeply felt by the progressive bourgeoisie that wanted to overcome the colonial stages and the verbal code of the caudillismo lancero. It is understood, then, that in this rhythm of social expansion of the frontiers of nationality, Latorre did not leave out the problem of education and culture. The transformation of the school was fundamental for this social change that was taking place, especially to overcome the existing standards of living and to give a greater radius of action to private capitals, eager for a remunerative investment.

In August of the same year in which Latorre began his dictatorial government, Varela accepted the appointment of General Director of Primary Education, but not before having thought long and hard about his decision. In a note of March 76, to his former administrator of La Paz -now Latorre's Minister of Government-, Varela conditioned "the arduous sacrifice of legitimate scruples and well-founded resistance" to the service of public interests, but "without diminishing the dignity of the citizen and of man". And so it happened, in fact.

A group of leading intellectuals responded to Varela's call to undertake the task whose crowning glory was soon to be the Reformer, fulfilling his dream of making his law of Common Education effective and practical.

Three months after his appointment, Varela presented the manuscripts of his work titled School Legislation, written during the year 75, when he was retired from political activity due to the force of events. Tremendous and hard reality for the civilized, principled, and rebellious Varela. It has been rightly said that his fundamental life and work are produced in the midst of contradictions. "Liberal, he carried out his work within a reactionary political organization. Democrat, with proven faith and action, moves under the absolutist force of a dictatorship. He serves the interests of his people, and for this, he does not hesitate to claim the support of a regime that denies individual liberties".

What were the exact conditions, materially and intellectually, of the school before the Reform? According to the data provided by Varela himself, eighty percent of the new generations were growing up in ignorance, so why should we be surprised by the life we lead as a nation? In addition, and according to the 76 budget, the one that Varela rightly criticizes, only a mere $355,180 is spent on education, distributed whimsically among the departments and the capital. Varela, in his fair criticism, warns that in the budget the same amounts are used to provide 200 or 300 young people with a lucrative profession free of charge as to give instruction to 15,000 children. "The privileged are counted by tens and hundreds and the disinherited are found by thousands and by tens of thousands!"

Uruguayan pedagogue José Pedro Varela
Uruguayan pedagogue José Pedro Varela

The Varela law created the General Directorate of Public Instruction, with the authorities and tasks that we have seen. Varela immediately named the body of inspectors that he needed to make the work march in the departments, because the Reformer took immediately to the interior of the country the schools, systems, methods, that he used in Montevideo. He created numerous rural schools, which are really when they are born to institutional life.

He held assemblies and congresses of teachers and inspectors, one of which was of enormous importance because of the issues raised and resolved: differentiation of programs for rural and urban schools, characterization of rural environments, the content of the programs, timetables, subjects, etc. In twenty-one topics, the problem of the school in the countryside was raised, which, in truth, was nothing more than the transfer of the urban essence to the rural environment, with some minor adjustments.

To this work of extension of teaching and expansion of programs and methods, to which Varela gave capital importance - even introducing subjects such as Lessons on Objects, which were a sort of "puédelo todo" ("everything") of the North American systematization -, followed a vast and intense work of improvement of the professional capacity and preparation, not only through courses, assemblies, and practices - where many times Varela personally performed demonstrations - but also with new texts and books, especially with foreign publications, many of them translated by Varela himself. With them, he began the publication of the Encyclopedia of Education, whose first vast part appeared in September 1878, containing first-rate material, preferably from North American novelties.

Apart from this work, texts and teachers' salaries were standardized; the collection of income destined to the support of education was standardized by means of a property tax, especially for this matter; the almost non-existent school statistics were improved; the examinations were brightened by exalting the value of the school and public tests were carried out with enormous success and the people's intervention; and Varela was the animator, at all times, of his collaborators, the departmental inspectors, pioneers in the interior, of this message of the unveiled reformer. In a word, as a summary, it has been said that Varela created the teacher, the disciple, and the system, to which let us add the rents to sustain them and the climate to fructify this popular fervor for the culture that we enjoy.

Except for Varela's great illusion, that the effectiveness of the North American programs would change the national character, would suppress the traditional parties, would purify the electoral customs, the material and intellectual fruits of the Reform were soon visible and the most irreconcilable enemies recognized Varela's enormous, tiring and exhausting work. The seriousness of the work undertaken, his total dedication to it, and the honesty of the procedures put into practice, were the best helpers for the Reform to acquire transcendence and be respected. Varela's work, in every act and even in the least, tried to be practical: to give structure to what had no defined form, to make obligatory and free education effective.

And in the midst of these inculpations and deafness, he initiated the reform of the Uruguayan school.

Such arduous work demanded a physical effort greater than that of this exhausted and sick young man, who had "black and wavy hair, a round beard and bushy eyebrows, a clear forehead, slanting eyes, a prominent nose, and sunken cheeks". In spite of the fact that Varela warned that his life, gnawed by an incurable disease, was escaping through a crack, he did not cease his task.

The Reform demanded an immense effort and multiplied every day the task is undertaken. But Varela was not a man to sound the clarion call of retreat in the middle of the combat. He understood the need to leave the total architecture of his work standing. That is why he gave no respite to the hours, that was his way of life ... although he was dying. Such excessive eagerness, in this way, killed him sooner; barely thirty-four years of age, on October 24, 1879.

In those moments, in his bed, he was writing his Memoirs, which contain his last experiences and results. He was buried by Latorre with full honors. Aware of his death in Buenos Aires, his friend, and promoter, Sarmiento, when submitting his report to the Council of Education when he left his position as General Director, managed to report "the early death of the great oriental educator to whom his homeland has paid deserved honors for his work and assiduous dedication to the diffusion of education...".

A few days before his death, Varela learned that his dearest friend, Ramirez, who had even mocked him for his service to the dictatorship, publicly recognized the clairvoyance of his work, proclaiming him -a title that the whole country had already discerned- the "Uruguayan Horace Mann".

Source: This text is taken from the anthology 17 educadores de América. Los constructores, los reformadores (Ediciones Pueblos Unidos, Montevideo, 1945) by the writer and pedagogue José Aldo Sosa (1905-1983), known as Jesualdo. The article in Spanish is available online here: Part 1 Part 2. Photo credit: