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The Democratic Merits of Selective Schools

SANTIAGO – Where do Latin American elites come from? If the magical realist fiction once so popular in the United States and Europe is any guide, they belong to one of the 14 families (yes, that is always the number) that since colonial times have owned all arable land – along with everything else.

But reality is more complicated than fiction. In most Latin American countries, the traditional ruling families learned long ago to share their place at the table with a different kind of elite: the urban, professional, and educated graduates of the region’s top public schools and universities. In Chile, however, that may be about to change.

Chile’s Instituto Nacional, a fiercely competitive secondary school for boys, is as old as the Republic itself. With no fees and an entrance system based entirely on merit, students from middle- and working-class families comprise the vast majority of the student body.

In last year’s college entrance examinations, 22 Institute students were nationally ranked – far more than the nine who studied at the second most successful institution, an expensive private Catholic school run by the Church’s conservative Opus Dei organization. The Instituto and its counterpart for young women, Liceo 1, have educated 18 Chilean Presidents and four of the last seven, including the incumbent, Michelle Bachelet.