My Upbringing in the Cult of the Republic

Celia Coll
5 April 2015

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As many of you probably know, I grew up and was educated in Uruguay. As many of you may not know, Uruguay is by excellence one most stably secular states in the world. Our celebrated president José Batlle y Ordóñez   made sure of this in 1918. Given this and the fact that I am the product of a mixed marriage, there was not much by way of religious or political education in my upbringing. Or so I thought. Secular states often pride themselves in providing children with an education which will give them with the tools to choose their religious and political leanings for themselves. Furthermore, in Uruguay, it is illegal for a teacher to speak of her religious or political preference in class, since this is taken to indoctrinate young minds. So it is held that the product of the Uruguayan state educational system is not indoctrinated in any way. Of course, this holds if the fact that loyalty to our own republic and to the idea of the republic is drilled into our youth’s minds religiously from as early an age as possible is overlooked entirely.

In Uruguay, it is imperative that every citizen undergoes two ceremonies: the promise of allegiance to the flag, and the oath of allegiance to the flag. These take place at the ages of six and thirteen, respectively- and every school in the nation holds the ceremony on our national hero’s birthday. Failing to swear allegiance to the flag means that one is unable to matriculate in university. Many jobs also require the certificate obtained from undergoing the ceremony. No one finds this strange where I come from. Indeed, the acto patrio in Uruguay is a staple of primary and secondary education. During each and every fecha patria (a bank holiday which commemorates a milestone in the history of the republic) every student in the country sits in their school’s auditorium as the festivities take place. The acto patrio opens with the school’s music teacher playing a march in B flat minor on the piano. Everybody in the auditorium must then stand up to presence the entrance of the three flag bearers and their precious burdens. Needless to say, it is a great honour to be chosen as a flag bearer. Only the pupils with the highest marks and in their final year at their school are eligible, but I digress. Then everyone proceeds to sing the national anthems and marches. In the same order, each time. Between songs teachers and students recite the historical facts behind the fecha patria. With the same words, each time. The republic is thus venerated with Sunday mass-like solemnity.

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Of course, not everyone is awe-struck by these sombre processions. Many pupils see the acto patrio as an opportunityto shirk from lessons and to sit at the back of the auditorium giggling with their friends. The cult of the republic gets to them through other methods. It’s now necessary to talk a bit about how history is taught in Uruguay. I could bore you with all the sundries and fictions I learnt about the life and times of Artigas, our national hero, but I would rather focus events of world history you’ve all heard of. In year five of primary school, the Uruguayan history syllabus focuses on revolution. We first study the French thinkers, then the French revolution, and finally go over some details of the American Revolution, to then talk about the wars of independence in Latin America (our own especially, of course). I regret to inform you all that I was well into secondary school when I learnt that the American Revolution happened before the French and that my precious Voltaire had in fact been influenced by John Locke, an English philosopher. The programme is designed so that pupils’ sympathies are aligned not with the revolution which was prompted by taxes, but the one which appears to have been motivated by fine philosophical minds. Of course, this is an overgeneralisation, but the truth remains that we are taught to hold the less mercantile republic (the one which resembles ours a bit more) in higher moral regard.

Now back to how this affected me. I must emphasise that like most Uruguayans, none of this seemed odd to me throughout most of my life. I was quite happy to believe that my desire to bring a bayonet to the head of anyone who didn’t share my republican values was the product of the most rigorous and calm reflection. Don’t get me wrong, I still share and respect these republican ideals, it’s just that now I am aware that I have been conditioned to do so- and I didn’t begin to intellectualise these values until a few months ago. However, I don’t necessarily think it is morally reprehensible of Uruguay- or of any other nation, in fact- to do this conditioning. Uruguay as it exists now first appeared in the late nineteenth century because the British needed a buffer state between Brazil and Argentina. I think that within reason, such conditioning in primary and secondary education is necessary in order to give people a sense of national identity. We do, at the end of the day, have the rest of our intellectual lives to question these things. The moral of this whole story I think is that it is often the things we take the most for granted (in my case the fact that the most desirable sort of state is a republic which focuses more on the socio-political and less on the economic) are the things we should analyse the most carefully. After all, neglecting to accept that we have all have been conditioned to think in a certain way and to critically examine our own political preferences under this light is what leads to dogma.

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