Migrants see education as a form of self-defense

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Susan Meyers

More than half the citizens of Villachuato, Mexico, live in the United States, many of them in the small meat-packing community of Marshalltown, Iowa. The children of Villachuato migrants are educated in the United States and Mexico, with some changing nations and schools repeatedly by the end of middle school.   

Despite ever more bilingual and bicultural programs, tensions and misunderstandings between Anglos and migrants persist in Marshalltown schools.

The cause, says Susan Meyers, lies in the dramatically different ways in which Mexican and U.S. families view education. Though migrants strongly value formal education, it is more as a means of self-defense and status building than as a means to self-realization or economic improvement.

A Center Research Fellow and director of the OSU Writing Program, Meyers is an assistant professor of English in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film. Her study, Del Otro Lado: Constructions of Literacy in Rural Mexico and the Effects of Transnational Migration is a comparative analysis of attitudes toward literacy by Mexican-origin students and their families.During a year of field research in the village of Villachuato, Meyers discovered the close connection between that rural community and Marshalltown, which led to an additional summer studying the migrant situation in Iowa. Her time at the Center is focused on writing the book chapter based on the Iowa data.

The book “specifically asks how dynamics of a globally-networked economy might affect values and corresponding practices related to the Mexican school system. Further, if such changes have occurred, how are they being experienced by the teachers and students working in these schools, and how might these experiences impact students who migrate to the United States?”
While cross-cultural analyses of education are well-documented, said Meyers, they tend to focus on comparisons of language, education policy, and structure. Her study seeks to document and analyze local communities’ values and priorities in relation to formal and informal education, and to expand the field of rhetoric and composition through the international context.

Meyers’ work is grounded in an interdisciplinary approach that “resists the belief that literacy is aset of neutral, static skills. That is, literacy is not simply a process of learning to read and write that functions uniformly across all languages and socio-economic conditions.”

The danger of this view, said Meyers, is that it allows those in power to blame the victim when people in less privileged positions are not able to acquire literacy skills in a specific context. While the new multidisciplinary approach succeeds in treating literacy as dynamic and locally varied, it “has largely ignored the broader economic and political frameworks within which such practices exist.”

Meyers’ approach focuses on the ways in which local communities cope with and respond to official forms of literacy, particularly in regard to public schools.  Her research has revealed two important findings: migrant students and their families tend to see education as pragmatic, for example, equipping them to read signs in unfamiliar towns, and even serving as a means of defense against being cheated—“You don’t get tricked”; and they see education as an end in itself, such that a high school or college diploma is considered a family’s reward for the struggles required to educate a child quite apart from the importance of learning for moral, professional or personal development.

Recognizing these attitudes, said Meyers, is “crucial in order for U.S. educators to understand Mexican students’ experiences, responses, and relative successes in U.S. schools.”