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  • Reading in Questions and Answers:The Catechism as an Educational Genre in Early Independent Spanish America
  • Eugenia Roldán Vera

In this essay I attempt to illuminate the relationship between a particular kind of book and its readers. Using the category of genre as a tool that allows me to bring together elements of textual analysis and empirical research of reading practices, I will study the ways in which a series of educational manuals of "useful knowledge" oriented readings and were actually read in early independent Spanish America. Published in London in the 1820s by Rudolph Ackermann for a Spanish American audience, these manuals were written in a question-and-answer form, by virtue of which they became widely known as "Ackermann's catechisms." I shall explore the question-and-answer form in its historical, discursive, and material dimensions in order to show how the category of literary genre can be useful to understand processes of transmission and appropriation of knowledge. After a brief overview of Ackermann's publishing enterprise for Spanish America, I will discuss how the category of genre may enable us to understand reading practices in general. Then I will consider the particular characteristics and evolution of the question-and-answer genre, in order to situate Ackermann's catechisms in the context of the expansion of elementary education in early nineteenth-century Britain and Spanish America. In the last part I explore the ways in which this genre shaped [End Page 17] actual practices of reading, learning, and use in the case of Ackermann's catechisms. Drawing on my broader interest in processes of transmission of European science in independent Spanish America, I will focus on the implications that these practices had in particular for the transmission and transformation of knowledge about nature and the natural sciences.

Educating Spanish America

In November 1825, the English teacher Richard Jones, recently settled in Mexico City, wrote a pessimistic letter to his father-in-law, the educator Joseph Lancaster, in which he commented on the state of Mexican society. After describing the street celebrations that followed the defeat of the last Spanish troops in the country, Jones lamented:

This is certainly a very important thing for Mexico, they have nothing left now undone but to drive the grand enemies and the only ones remaining to the country—Ignorance and Superstition—the second of course will follow the first, and the first I fear will yet swallow up the liberty and conquer the country again if not speedy measures are taken to attack it with all the energy possible. . . . A few [laws] . . . and the diffusion of Mr. Ackermann['s] useful books throughout the country [are needed so that] the people in about one hundred years may become a different race, but it will be a difficult task to eradicate the prejudices and superstitions which have been augmenting for 300 years [of Spanish domination].—The present race must first become extinct, the entire mind must be transformed and they must be moulded anew.1

For the son-in-law of the founder of the monitorial system of education—of whose writing skills Professor Lancaster would not be too proud—the only way to consolidate the precarious political freedom of the new republic was education, in all its forms. He himself went to Mexico to work for the promotion of the monitorial system of education and spent the rest of his life doing that, as a teacher or as a government official. He was not isolated in his views about Mexican society: in fact, his politically incorrect statements were shared by many among the intellectual elites of the former colonies, who proclaimed that under the Spanish domination Spanish Americans had "had a very limited habit of thinking," and that they had made very little "active use of their mental faculties."2 The conviction that only education and the diffusion of knowledge would ensure moral and [End Page 18] material prosperity was widespread also among these groups. All possible means to contribute to this civilizing mission were therefore welcome; yet it is still curious that Jones conferred such quasi-redemptive power on Ackermann's books, by then a novelty in Mexico and in...


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