José Vasconcelos, A Legend of Mexican Education and Politics

José María Albino Vasconcelos Calderón was a philosopher, educator, lawyer, writer, and politician; he was born on February 27, 1882, in Oaxaca. In 1925 he published The Cosmic Race, one of his most influential books, in which he expounds some of his reflections on indigenousness.

José Vasconcelos, A Legend of Mexican Education and Politics
Mr. José Vasconcelos, portrait. Image: INAH

José María Albino Vasconcelos Calderón, born on February 27, 1882, in the city of Oaxaca, was a philosopher, educator, lawyer, writer, and politician whose life unfolded in post-revolutionary Mexico. To him, we owe one of the most ambitious national education programs in the history of Mexico.

He was the son of Ignacio Vasconcelos Varela and Carmen Calderón Conde; in his childhood, he lived in different cities of the country due to his father's activity; he attended high school at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City and obtained his law degree at the National School of Jurisprudence in 1907.

His writing skills were evident and to his pen we owe the following works: Don Gabino Barreda y las ideas contemporáneas ( Don Gabino Barreda and Contemporary Ideas (1910), El Movimiento Contemporáneo de México (The Contemporary Movement of Mexico (1916), La intelectualidad mexicana ( Mexican Intellectuality (1916), El monismo estético (Aesthetic Monism (1918), La caída de Carranza: De la dictadura a la libertad (The Fall of Carranza: From Dictatorship to Freedom (1920) and the essay La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race) (1925).

In 1920, Alvaro Obregón came to power and with him, José Vasconcelos became a rector of the National University of Mexico. From that position he conceived the University Department as a Ministry in itself; between June and September of that same year, he set himself the task of laying the foundations for the realization of a modern educational system, making efforts to return to the University the attributions and faculties that had been given to it in the law of 1910, while at the same time giving a greater opening for the teaching of secondary and higher education on a larger scale.

During his time at the National University, the Schools of Dentistry, Homeopathic Medicine, Engineering, and Higher Education were reorganized importantly; also the Faculties of Jurisprudence, Medicine, Chemical Sciences, and the National Preparatory School became directly dependent on the National University, which led to a review and modification of the curricula considered outdated or inefficient for the educational needs of the country.

As rector, Vasconcelos envisioned a campaign against illiteracy that was essentially a national crusade; for this purpose, he proposed the return of a federal Ministry of Education, since the state governments were incapable of developing and maintaining teaching programs at the local level.

In 1921, the 1917 Constitution was reformed to that effect, thus propitiating the birth of the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP). His time at the National University will always be remembered since the motto "Por Mi Raza Hablará el Espíritu" (For My Race the Spirit Will Speak) and its current coat of arms are due to Vasconcelos.

José Vasconcelos inaugurated the SEP on October 1, 1921, of which he was the first secretary. Upon his arrival, he organized the first large-scale national education plan in the history of our country. In his essay La raza cósmica, he spoke of the need for a philosophy that was proper to mestizaje, which should be the product of a total understanding of our culture; cultural nationalism was the seal he stamped on his promising educational crusade.

During his stay at the SEP, Vasconcelos laid the foundations of the artistic current known as "Mexican muralism" and commissioned several works from the first generation of great muralists: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco, which appeared in emblematic places such as the courtyard of the National Preparatory School.

Muralism, in the words of Carlos Monsiváis: "has been one of the most moving phenomena of a society in need of external and internal affirmations, on the hunt for pride and vindication, urgent for the recognition of its own abroad and in need of internal stimuli, of the confirmations of wellbeing that only exceptional beings provide. Optimal expression of what the Mexican Revolution engendered and propitiated in art and culture...".

In 1929, Vasconcelos presented his candidacy for the presidency of the Republic, as the opposition's standard-bearer; he lost that year's elections against Pascual Ortiz Rubio. In 1940, after a long absence, he returned to the country to take over the National Library; three years later he was an important part of the foundation of the Colegio de México, and, in 1953, he became a member of the Mexican Academy of Language. José Vasconcelos died on June 30, 1953, in Mexico City.