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Barreda, Gabino: Prophet of Mexican Positivism

by Melanie D. Hutto

A native of Puebla, Mexico, Gabino Barreda was born in 1818, to a family of some means. In Mexico's second largest city, Barreda was undoubtedly the beneficiary of the influences of a city connected to the world outside Mexico. Puebla had long been a commercial center for ceramics and textiles some of whose designs bore the distinct imprints of contact with other cultures. The cathedral there was known for its facade of locally produced decorative tiles and its primacy in the lives of the people, and Puebla is notable for the clerical-political orientation of the city in its welcoming of the reviled Emperor Maximilian at the beginning of the French Intervention. Barreda might have been expected to inherit the conservatism and rigid Catholicism of his native city, steeped in centuries of tradition.

However, Barreda appears to have broken with many of the traditions of his upbringing, becoming not only a liberal but a devotee of Positivism. Barreda was an intellectual, with a predilection for outcomes based on logic; his major concern was the establishment of the sciences and logic as the basal philosophy of education. The rudiments of the Positivism that would flourish to the point of becoming official state doctrine 15 years later in Mexico (cientificismo) can be found in Barreda's educational values. He considered positivist principles necessary in order to educate "a new elite to guide Mexico in the positive era" (Hale, 1989). Curriculum was defined as "the encyclopedic learning of the sciences in an ordered hierarchy" that would establish an intellectual order capable of preventing anarchy in all its forms, and thereby lead to the moral regeneration of society (Hale, 1989).

Barreda received his primary education at a Jesuit school, matriculating to law school. He changed from law to medical school at the age of 26, and was considered a brilliant student throughout his academic endeavors. A part of Barreda's belief system included the subjugation of the individual to societal service. He cited as examples the educating of one's children, paying taxes, and military service, which clearly reflect one of the slogans of positivist ethics, "To live for the family, the country, and for Humanity." Therefore, an early hiatus from his medical studies was dedicated to service in the War with the U.S. A second hiatus resulted from the common practice among the elite of traveling to France for specialized course work in one's education. Barreda returned to Mexico in 1851, and completed his medical degree, but his sojourn in France had a tremendous impact on his life, for he had met and studied under the philosopher Auguste Comte.

Barreda met Comte through a mutual friend, Pedro Contreras Elizalde, described by some historians as the first Mexican positivist (Hale, 1989) and who later became Barreda's brother-in-law. Although positivism appeared in Mexico in 1860, it had little effect on educational policy until 1867 and on political ideas until 1878. Barreda attended Comte's Paris lectures where the principles of logic apparent in Positivism appealed to Barreda. Upon his return to Mexico and to teaching in the Medical School, he developed a version of Positivism that would work within Mexican traditions and culture. These precepts Barreda infused into his courses in physics, natural history, and general pathology.

One tenet of Comte's Positivism was a "Religion of Humanity." Barreda knew that a religion of humanity would conflict with the centrality to his compatriots of the Catholic belief system; he did not include that concept in his version of Mexican positivism. Barreda, like other Liberals of the day, wanted to prevent the Church from usurping the State's role as the guardian of public order, including education. Although Gabino Barreda himself viewed altruism and love as leading away from the individual and toward the good for all society, he recognized that most of his countrymen would disagree. In an educational environment in which the arts, humanities, and church doctrine were relegated to the status of secular electives, Barreda might well have expected the storm of opposition that would later challenge him.

Gabino Barreda delivered an Independence Day speech on September 16, 1967, in Guanajuato, the "fount of Mexican patriotism" (Hale, 1989) in which he described the process of viewing history as a science in order to explain the past and to predict the future. Having examined Mexico's history in light of a centuries-long movement toward "mental emancipation" (Hale, 1989), Gabino Barreda concluded that the next stage was a "social order guided by liberty and progress" (Weeks, 1987). He believed that this would bring about an inevitable "painful collision" of ideas, but that it would ultimately lead to the unification of "all intellects in a common synthesis" (Hale, 1989). He correctly forecasted at least the painful collision of ideas that would ensue. Meyer and Sherman (1995) ascribe to this Oracion Civica the beginning of Mexican Positivism. Juarez was in the audience and was impressed by the alignment of these ideas with his view of the concepts of Liberalism, and with Gabino Barreda's references to a "social reconstruction" at the end. This oration had clear political implications drawn from positivism, but they were not pursued by Barreda or anyone else at the time.

When Juarez and the Liberals came to power after the devastating French Intervention, Mexico had not yet determined the forms that education and other programs would take. Various factions had yet to coalesce to the point of being able to formulate directions they might take in the future. Juarez was perfectly poised to fill the vacuum with his ideas. He appointed Gabino Barreda to head a five-man committee to reorganize the entire education structure and to revamp public education according to Liberal philosophy. Gabino recommended that primary education be free and compulsory, for the first time. The laws provided for the establishment of one school for every town over 500 people, but this provision was not enforced, partly because of the political energy needed to help the ENP demonstration school in Mexico City survive (Meyer & Sherman, 1995).

Under Juarez, Gabino Barreda converted his old school, the Colegio de San Ildefenso, into the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (ENP) where he served as director from 1868 to 1878. The demonstration school based on Positivism opened on February 3, 1868 with 900 students (by 1874, there would be only 400 students). Although Gabino Barreda thought the Jesuit model for "instruction" was viable, he also thought it was incomplete. Barreda believed that instruction was only part of education, as well as believing that parochial schools neglected the teaching of logic and the sciences because of the conflicts with Catholic doctrine.

Gabino Barreda was a firm administrator who apparently hired talented and dedicated teachers. From the beginning, he faced the difficulties of inadequate space and equipment, public and political opposition, and a student body that resisted the strict discipline and academic rigor of the school. Justo Sierra was an early opponent of positivist education and the ENP (1873-74 published articles), but he was impressed by the discipline of the 400 students in 1874 when he visited the school. By 1877, he wrote articles in support of the principles, though he and Gabino Barreda again had serious disagreements during the debates over the selection of an appropriate logic text at the ENP. Somehow, Barreda was able to provide the inspiration to guide and support the Positivist philosophy and undergird the school through its formative years. The strength of his influence and the effectiveness with which the institution was imbued with positivist educational philosophy enabled it to survive the controversies of the early 1880s. Furthermore, the institution had regained its former preeminence in national life by the 1890s,which is a tribute to Gabino Barreda (Hale, 1989).

The curriculum he instigated was based on Positivism. Barreda considered the scientific method to be the solitary effective way of knowing, with mathematics being the best way to learn deduction. Because the education of the individual was to lead to a reconstruction of society, Gabino Barreda expressed the belief that every man [sic] should prepare for a profession. He rejected handicrafts and technical labor as unprofessional, once again running counter to the local culture from which he originated. All academic subjects were aligned for their usefulness in the world of work. Barreda insisted on the interrelation of all phenomena; therefore, education was to be homogeneous, uniform, and rigorous, regardless of one's career path, in order to prepare everyone for the new society. In some ways, the effect was to broaden education for all students (i.e., no early specialization and the inclusion of the sciences), but the arts and humanities were subjugated to the sciences. This was a major departure from the usual curriculum which was more specialized and placed less emphasis on the sciences. In 1869, Gabino Barreda paid homage to the arts, however, by commissioning Juan Cordero, the well known Mexican artist, to paint a mural at the ENP for a national art competition (Ruiz, 1992). The mural includes Comtian Positivist slogans such as "Know in order to foresee, foresee in order to work." The mural was impaneled in the main staircase of ENP as "Triumph and Study over Ignorance and Sloth" (Meyer & Sherman, 1995). It was characterized by Gabino Barreda as symbolizing the "voluntary subjection of science to love" which reflects Comte's premise that art is an ideal representation of fact or reality.

Juarez and Barreda proposed that the model of the ENP become the national model for schools. However, the ENP was continuously attacked on both practical and philosophical grounds, from inside and outside the government, by the Liberals and Catholics, and by students and parents. The Catholics thought Gabino Barreda was replacing Christian ethics with Comte's secular ethics of humanity, which he denied, saying "we are seeking to reawaken belief and moral values" (Hale, 1989). In addition, the Positivist model was very expensive. Because most of the students were affluent residents of Mexico City, the ENP was not a viable option for most rural youth. Gabino Barreda believed strongly that the leaders of the new Mexico would come from Mexico City's affluent families, and that Positivism would provide the kind of education they would need if Mexico were to realize its potential. Barreda may have been elitist.

Positivists viewed the individual as an integral component of a social organism, eschewing the customary idea that the development of the autonomous individual was the focus of education. However, Gabino Barreda could not convince the newly affluent middle class to divest itself of the materialism that had taken hold. The dream of Juarez and Barreda for the widespread use of the Positivist model for schools "never trickled down" (Ruiz, 263) and in actuality, the pedagogy in primary education did not change, even though Juarez was given credit for the credible results propagated by Gabino Barreda at the ENP. The debate over a logic textbook spilled over from the debate in the legislature, which resulted in the forced resignation of Gabino Barreda in 1878. The "reformers" who had opposed him were influential in having him named Ambassador to Germany in 1878. The curriculum was diluted soon after Gabino Barreda left the ENP in 1878.

Although Barreda himself claimed to be apolitical, his version of Mexican Positivism was used to attack the Liberal tradition, with the end result that Liberalism became more progressive. Later, Gabino Barreda's premises of Positivism were appropriated by Porfirio Diaz to provide the rationale for his dictatorship. The positivist philosophy appeared to support his plan for a "centralized, capitalized, and authoritarian state" (Weeks, 1987). Diaz was delighted with the pronouncement by the cientificos that Mexico should pass through a "period of administrative power" (Meyer & Sherman, 440) before it would be ready for democracy. Diaz's Minister of Finance, Limantour used positivist rationale to reorganize the country's finances, including a shift from silver to the gold standard throughout the nation.

However, in 1910 Jose Vasconcelos claimed that Positivism failed to gain permanent foothold in education or politics because it "failed to realize that 'the poetic sense' is not just a primitive stage of the human mind which the natural sciences have outgrown" (in Romanell, 1952). In the early years of the Revolution, the first threat to the cientifico philosophy of education was delivered, when President Huerta's Secretary of Education, Garcia Naranjo, began an assault on positivism in education. Even then, the sciences were not abandoned but were balanced with the arts (Meyer & Sherman, 1995).

The influence of Barreda was felt throughout the century by positivists and later became a persistent theme of Agustin Aragon's Revista positiva in 1900-1914. Barreda had several brilliant students who revered him. Porfirio Parra led 25 other students in establishing the Asociacion Metodofila "GABINO BARREDA" in 1877. They published Gabino Barreda's writings as the best example of their group purposes. Gabino Barreda himself helped form the Sociedad Metodofila which published the works of Darwin and positivism. A deep and incisive analyst, Barreda opined that although Darwin's experiments were not scientifically rigorous enough to prove many of his hypotheses, his work would be the basis for a positivistic approach to testing those hypotheses (Raat, 1985). Agustin Aragon, an engineering student, was attracted to Positivism through these publications. Aragon and other Positivists idealized Benito Juarez primarily because of his relationship with Gabino Barreda, and it was Barreda who claimed their greatest loyalty. The band of followers who influenced the political and educational thinking into the 20th century also included Gabino Barreda's son, Horatio, who further advanced the cause of positivism (Raat, 1985), and his brothers-in-law Jose Diaz and Francisco Covarrubia who were partly responsible for his appointment by Juarez. Jose Diaz Covarrubia was the Minister of Justice under Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada.

The influence of Comte in Mexico is due primarily to Gabino Barreda, the founder of the ENP, to a small group of Barreda's disciples, and to students between 1867-1877, and after 1900, to the writings of the more orthodox positivist Aragon (Hale, 1989). Still today, publications honor Gabino Barreda with anniversary editions (e.g., Aztlan). Barreda was a man of contrasts, known variously as the "Prophet of Positivism" (Raat, 1985), "progenitor and major advocate" of positivism (Hale, 1989), and a "vile supernumerary of bad government and poisoner of education" (in Weeks, 1987). Nevertheless, Barreda's influence on Mexican education and political systems lasted beyond his death in Mexico City in 1881, and into the early years of the 20th century.


Hale, C.A. (1989). The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth Century Mexico. NJ: Princeton University Press.

Meyer, M.C., & Sherman, W. L. (1995). The Course of Mexican History, 5th edition. NY: Oxford University Press.

Raat, W. D. (Ed.) (1985). Mexico: From Independence to Revolution, 1810-1910. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Romanell, P. (1952). Making of the Mexican Mind: A Study in Recent Mexican Thought. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Ruiz, R. E. (1992). Triumphs and Tragedy: A History of the Mexican People. NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

Tenenbaum, B.A. (Ed.). (1996). Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. NY: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Weeks, C. A. (1987). The Juarez Myth in Mexico. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Short Biography, in Spanish


Essay on Barreda

"Oración Cívica"