Gabino Barreda was born in the city of Puebla in 1818. He was a brilliant student, and
studied for a career in law, but never received his degree. At the age of 26, he changed
to medicine, and again excelled in his studies. Before he was able to obtain his degree in
medicine he joined the military forces against the American invasion in 1847. He worked as
an army surgeon in the same campaign and was a dedicated and hardworking surgeon. In 1848,
following this tour of duty, and before he finished his studies in medicine Barreda went
to Paris. His stay in Paris would be a cornerstone in his life. There he continued his
education, and became interested in all of the sciences. It was also in Paris where he was
introduced by his colleague and friend, Pedro Contreras Elizalde, to the philosopher
Barreda became intrigued by the ideas of Comte, and his philosophy known as positivism
would influence Barreda for the rest of his life. He attended Comte's famous Palais Royal
lectures on the general evolution of humanity before returning to Mexico in 1851.
After his return to Mexico he practiced medicine, wrote about medical topics, worked as
a member of the faculty at the medical school in the Districto Federal and Guanajuato,
holding a chair in Medical Philosophy, and later in Physics and Natural History in
Medicine. At the same time he was educating himself on the philosophy of Auguste Comte,
reading his 150 volumes of "Bibliotheque positiviste". In 1863 Barreda wrote his
first positivist essay entitled "De la educación moral" (About moral
education). In it he argued for a radical reform even a regeneration in order to instill
in future citizens an awareness of their moral as well as their political duties. In 1867
he delivered his famous address entitled "Oración cívica," the independence
day speech which gave a Comtean interpretation of Mexican history.
Barreda was appointed by Benito Juárez to a committee dedicated to the reform of
public education in Mexico in the fall of 1867. It was at that time that his positivist
ideas would become an important part of public instruction. Barreda believed that the role
of the church in the educative process should be minimized or eliminated. He believed, as
did the liberals of the time, that the church should concern itself only with questions of
religion. It was the responsibility of the state to indoctrinate its citizens in moral
conduct, and ethical standards (Scholes, 139). He saw the church as a barrier to science,
and put greater emphasis on logic than on faith.
Barreda took the positivist philosophy of Comte and shaped it into something which
would fit into the Mexican society and lifestyle. He felt that Mexico could only progress
if they were able to adopt a philosophy of Liberty, Order, and Progress. Liberty should
serve as the means, order as the base and progress as the end result. Order was recognized
as the most important value of the society, one that would bring the Mexican people out of
the chaos which had existed throughout the history of Mexico. Order within the society
could only be achieved if there was a homogeneous way of thinking. According to Barreda,
the way to bring this about was through the establishment of a mandatory system of public
education. In order to restructure the society, the educational system had to be
restructured. For Barreda, an educational system based on the sciences, and scientific
method was the answer to the problems of Mexico. (Vaughn, 130). The scientific method
should be the singular method for the education of Mexico's youth. He believed that the
struggle existed between a negative and a positive spirit, or in more concrete terms
between the conservatives and the French (representing the negative forces) and the
liberal republicans (representing the positive forces). Following the fall of Maximillian
and the strengthening of the liberals, Mexico was ready to reconstruct itself, and like
the Phoenix, be reborn from the ashes of a chaotic past. As part of this reconstruction,
he called for free education for all, and for books and materials to be provided for all
children regardless of their means. He also called for the establishment of a school for
both boys, and girls in any town with a population of more than 500 people. Additional
schools were to be built for every additional two thousand inhabitants.
This was an expensive project, and one which could not be taken on in full scale in a
country where the treasury was almost broke, and the people so poverty stricken that they
could not support such a major undertaking. In order to show that his ideas could be a
viable reality for Mexico, Barreda set out to found the Escuela Nacional
Preparatoria in 1867. With the establishment of this school, in the Districto Federal,
there came a reorganization of Mexican higher education in general. Gabino Barreda
remained in the position of director for the next decade at the Preparatory School. He was
a strong administrator who surrounded himself with well prepared instructors which was the
reason for the success of the program against tremendous odds. During this time there was
a great deal of public and political opposition to the curriculum, and a great limitation
of space and equipment, as well a opposition to the strict discipline of the program.
Mathematics was the cornerstone of the program at the Preparatory School. Barreda wrote
that mathematics is the best way to learn deduction and "its rigorous logical method
is the best preparation for later more complicated speculations." (Hale, 143). The
first two years were dedicated to math while the third year concentrated on astronomy and
physics. The fourth year was devoted to chemistry and the fifth included a controversial
course in logic which was taught by none other that Gabino Barreda himself. Logic was seen
by the positivists not in its traditional perspective as an introduction to philosophy,
but as a method of synthesis of the sciences. Courses outside of sciences were included in
the curriculum although they were of obvious secondary importance. French English, Latin
and Greek were taught, along with geography. Arts and Humanities were generally viewed as
spontaneous instead of systematic and thus deemed appropriate for the years of early
education or to be directed by maternal figures. The ENP, as it was called, instituted a
uniform curriculum for all of its students, regardless of their area of interest or their
desired profession. The teaching of sciences in a hierarchical order was designed to
create an intellectual order in the student and provides the key to the reconstruction and
ultimately the moral regeneration of the society.
Barreda believed in the philosophy of Comte, but he was not an orthodox positivist. He
never branched out to include the religious aspect of positivism. He never attempted to
establish a Positivist Church in Mexico, nor did he embrace Comte's religion of humanity.
He did accept the idea of replacing revealed religion with a proven or positive religion,
based on the worship of a real God, humanity, rather than an imaginary one. He envisioned
love, or social feelings, as the primary principle of morality. He saw love not as a
reward in itself, but as a tool for the betterment of the human race.
Under the Juárez presidency, the Preparatory School did well, and Barreda was
successful in introducing his philosophy. But in the 1870's during the period of
modernization, questions were raised regarding the necessity of unrelated science courses
to some courses of study or professions. Attempts were made in 1872, and again in 1874 to
make changes, or even close down the Preparatory School. Though the reformers of the
seventies failed in their efforts to abolish the ENP or the Board of Directors, headed by
Barreda, they did manage to influence the removal of Barreda, who resigned from the ENP
and accepted a diplomatic position in Germany in February 1878.
Gabino Barreda will be best remembered for his contribution to the educational system.
Although most of his ideas were later replaced during the Huerta dictatorship to include a
more round course of study including greater emphasis on literature and history, and
attempts to strike a balance between the arts and the sciences, his mark will be a
permanant one for the Mexican population. During his years at the helm of public education
the number of schools in rural Mexico significantly increased. The curriculum in the
elementary school was solidified to include: reading, penmanship, grammar, Spanish, letter
writing, arithmetic, the decimal system, physics, arts based on chemistry and practical
mechanic, linear drawing, morals, physical science, history and geography. This is a more
inclusive preparation than had previously existed in Mexico. He also is responsible for
making education free and obligatory for all children over the age of five. He organized
the educational system in an attempt to organize the social and political systems,
believing that if people received the proper organization in their education they would
have a greater tendency to have a more organized society. He was able to make strides in
Mexican education, but Mexico continued with its long standing chaotic way of life.
Gabino Barreda died in the capital of Mexico City in 1885. He will be most remembered
as an educator, statesman, and diplomat.
Hale, Charles A. The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth
Century Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1989.
Meyer, Michael and William Sherman. The Course of Mexican History. 5th
ed. New York: Oxford Press. 1995.
Porrua, Ed. Diccionario Porrua Historia Biografia y Geografia de Mexico.
Mexico D.F.: Ed. Porrua 1964.
Scholes, Walter Vinton. Mexican Politics During the Juárez Regime
1855-1872. Columbia:U of Missouri 1957.
Vaughn, Mary Kay. State, Education and Social Class in Mexico. DeKalb: N.
Illinois U. Press 1982.
Vazquez, Josefina. Nacionalismo y Educacion en Mexico. Mexico D.F. : El
colegio de Mexico 1970.
Weeks, Charles A. The Juárez Myth in Mexico. Tuscaloosa:U of Alabama
More on Barreda