A Case for Cultural Change
"When I finally had the answer, they changed the question"
Today is Teachers' Day in Mexico and it’s a good time to share a series of ideas that a friend and advisor, David Konzevik, presented during a conference on Mexico’s future, where he highlighted education of our youth as the cornerstone.
Beyond structural reforms, in Konzevik’s opinion, what Mexico really needs is a true cultural revolution. In a similar line of thinking, I recently read an interesting book by another old friend, Jacques Rogozinski, currently Director of the Nacional Financiera (NAFINSA) development bank that offers similar arguments.
This revolution refers to the culture of lawfulness, effort and wealth, education, family, and the urgent need to strengthen an entrepreneurial culture to increase venture capital. Let's take a look.
Culture of lawfulness
Mexicans hold a world view that does not allow us to progress. First, the law is flexible and is made to protect the powerful. This conception makes it impossible for the culture of lawfulness to take root. Without the rule of law, it is very difficult for businesses and the rest of the economy to function.
According to the late economist Rüdiger Dornbusch, the problem with Latin America is that "developed countries have strictly applied flexible laws, while Latin American countries have flexibly applied stringent laws." This formulation hits the mark with Mexico’s institutional framework. To make matters worse, a lack of expeditious justice in Mexico opens the door for corruption and dishonesty.
Effort and Wealth
Another type of problem has to do with "defeatist" attitudes. Many Mexicans believe that "contacts" are the key to advancing and that effort and dedication matter little in moving forward in a system based on cronyism.
Mexicans’ concept of wealth is not as a product of one’s effort, but of exploitation, and as a result of this colonial outlook, they are addicted to titles of nobility and academic and social status.
In addition, because of this view of wealth, Mexicans are prone to take what does not belong to them. Hence, our number one problem is precisely a lack of security, despite the expense of huge amounts of resources to resolve the issue.
The topic of education appears frequently in this blog. The reason is very simple: human capital is the most important form of wealth, and strengthening it, enhancing the talents and capabilities of each individual, is the only way to develop our country from the bottom up.
The educational panorama in Mexico is one of the most serious problems we face. The performance of Mexican middle and high school students on a global level is mediocre. For example, in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Mexican youth perform below average in math, reading, and the sciences.
It is no coincidence that states with the poorest performance in education, such as Guerrero, Michoacán, and Oaxaca, are precisely those with the lowest quality teachers. And they not only violently refuse to be tested or replaced by more capable teachers, but they also seek to be able bequeath their jobs to relatives.
Meanwhile, universities are conceived merely as degree mills, instead of places to explore the universe and promote innovation. In the classroom, students learn to obey and memorize; the university is not a place that stimulates the imagination, creativity, and teamwork. School is a place that many youth abhor.
We could go on listing evidence of educational failure, but the results are plain to see: the lengthy sit-in of the dean’s office at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) by hooded, pseudo-student vandals, the closing of the roads leading into the city of Morelia by highway robbers, misnamed educators or “normalistas”: supposedly the future "teachers" of our children!; the vandalism by unionized professors and the "self-defense" units in Guerrero, etc., etc.
Given so much frustration, sadly, some youth decide to forcibly take over their schools and demand an academic degree, not a quality education; and some teachers demand a life-long and hereditary post, not the tools to guide youth to success in the 21st century. Some go to the absurdity of protesting because English is taught in schools, when this is the language of business and science throughout the world; each language that we learn opens our mind to other worlds and possibilities.
The problem is very serious and it is easy to complain, but it’s time to take action. We created the Plantel Azteca School 15 years ago, an educational model of academic excellence in an area with limited resources. More than a school, Plantel Azteca is a community of Mexicans working painstakingly for a better country.
More recently we founded Humanitree, where our mission is to provide the best resources the 21st century has to offer to children and their families to unleash their enormous potential and educate them with core values. Plantel Azteca and Humanitree are just two examples of how things can be done better, but many more initiatives are needed to change our educational model.
It's time to rethink human capabilities. Numerous studies have shown how creativity erodes with each year spent in a traditional school. Today's world requires autonomous individuals capable of seeking creative solutions to problems and finding more than one answer to a single question. We must also help young people discover their element.
It has been said a thousand times that the family is the nucleus of society, but sometimes the relevance of this is not understood. The family is the venue where the concepts, values, and outlook that shapes and guides us for the rest of our lives are forged. The Mexican family is a very solid nucleus, and this is good ... up to a certain point.
The problem with the Mexican family is that it is so close-knit that people feel unsafe or uncomfortable when they move beyond it. Many young people live with their parents until they are 30 and even 40 years old, and this comfort and lack of independence prevents them from forging their own destiny, pursuing their dreams, and taking risks.
I am not, in any way, talking about undermining the essential family nucleus and support network but rather to make parents aware that supporting children should have a limit. At some point it is good to let them sink and swim on their own; it is important that they learn to take risks and pursue goals. The family should be there for support but should not be a chain; the family should nurture and develop the highest values and encourage responsibility, not coddle diametrically opposed behaviors.
At the same time, we find an increasing number of cases of young men who have never had a father figure, because the mother is left solely in charge. Several studies suggest that these young people will be at a disadvantage in becoming productive members of society.
We should support the family so that it becomes a strong platform to launch dreams instead of a gilded cage that limits aspirations.
Traditionally, we Mexicans have little tolerance for risk. Without a willingness to face uncertainty, it is difficult to create well-capitalized companies. This apparently contradicts the view that we are a country of entrepreneurs. We are a creative people, but we are not willing to risk what we have in order to achieve goals.
In fact, this is a serious problem because, in Konzevik’s opinion, a country without businesspeople is doomed to economic failure. He points to Cuba, the former Soviet Union, North Korea and more recently, Venezuela, as examples of countries that did away with their businesspeople and their economies. In fact, the exodus of businesspeople from Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia also puts these countries at serious risk. According to Konzevik, the entrepreneur is an extremely scarce resource that we must protect and promote. Personally, I believe that venture capital is essential for the development of any country.
Unfortunately in Mexico, the entrepreneur not only lacks the most minimum support but also has to overcome obstacles created by our "public servants." These are the same people who enthusiastically bleed companies for the good of the "State," this abstract entity that, they assure us, will resolve the deficiencies in education and healthcare in our country!
But what is a businessperson and why is he or she so important? According to Konzevik’s definition, the businessperson is the economic agent willing to take uninsurable risks. By definition, we are speaking of those who take risks, visionaries ready to face uncertainty. In a rapidly changing world, the businessperson becomes increasingly indispensable, but not everyone can become one: there is a very specific DNA that defines this economic agent.
Therefore, if we want to have more companies and expand our economy, it is very important to foment Mexicans who are highly educated, willing to take risks, become independent, and innovate. With this in mind, we need a cultural revolution that would free our minds of the colonial concepts that explain our lack of economic dynamism.
Let’s seek change
Many of the failed cultural concepts and institutions that lead to failure are like a cancer that emerged from before the Spanish conquest and during the colonial period. They were first imposed by the Aztec conquerors and later by the Spanish as part of their medieval view of the universe. Unfortunately, these ideas have polluted the minds of the people of Mexico and the rest of Latin America for centuries, which is why they are so difficult to eradicate.
Cultural change is not something that can be achieved overnight. Even though this transformation usually occurs over very long periods of time, South Korea, Singapore, and closer to home, Chile, demonstrate that the cultural change necessary for companies to multiply can be achieved in a generation. But this involves a significant effort nationwide.
In Mexico we have no time to lose. Millions of youth need productive jobs that can only be created by businesspeople and their companies. We must instill in our youth a culture of respect for the law, of effort, dedication, and innovation and the willingness to take risks. But the latter also implies being more tolerant of error and failure. At the same time, we should teach young people to be more responsible and to face the consequences of their actions. We must eradicate the idea that there can be life-long and inheritable job positions, because this will only lead us to failure.
Wealth is not created by decree
In a world connected to the Internet, obtaining data on time is increasingly less important while the capacity to reason, imagine, and create is increasingly more important. Education is becoming increasingly less relevant and learning is becoming key. For Konzevik, education is what the professor provides and learning is what the student undertakes for him or herself. "You can transmit knowledge, but not wisdom. You can see Michelangelo sculpt David a thousand times, but you cannot reproduce it," Konzevik reminds us.
The old economy was labor intensive; the new economy is intensive in intellectual capital. The world is changing rapidly, and we have little time left to spark a cultural revolution in our youth. Collective wealth requires an environment conducive to the growth and expansion of companies and the development of businesspeople who provide the market with solutions that increase society’s well-being.
Find your Element
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