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Varela, José Pedro (1845–1879)

Varela, José Pedro (1845–1879)

José Pedro Varela (b. 1845, d. 1879), Uruguayan educator. Varela's leadership proved essential in the country's development of free, universal, and secular education. His early contact with educational theory came from his father, who, in 1846, translated from the French the first book on pedagogy to be published in the Plata region. During a trip to the United States in 1867 Varela met Argentine educator and future president Domingo Sarmiento, whose writings on public education he admired. Under the influence of Sarmiento and the Bostonian educator Horace Mann, Varela decided to dedicate his life to Uruguayan educational reform.

In 1868 Varela published the first of many articles in the Montevidean press promoting free and universal elementary schooling. He became a lecturer on educational reform at the National University that same year. In 1869 he founded Amigos de la Educación Popular, which played a central role in the dissemination of his ideas. Through his newspaper, La Paz, he promoted progressive educational ideas and criticized the government of General Lorenzo Batlle. His most influential writings include La educación del pueblo (1874) and La legislación escolar (1877). In 1865 the first school with a curriculum designed in accordance with Varela's ideas was founded.

Varela's thinking on education centered on his humanistic beliefs: free and obligatory instruction for all citizens, regardless of sex, race, or social class; the development of a rational and scientific curriculum, as opposed to the traditional, scholastic orientation of the Spanish colony; the central role of the state in training teachers and providing for schools; and the intimate link between educating the populace and the emergence of Uruguay as an independent and prosperous country. The idealistic thrust of his ideas, like those of Sarmiento, was premised on the belief that the individual, empowered through education, would become an agent in the modernization of the region's social and political institutions.

In 1876 Varela was named president of the Comisión de Instrucción Pública, which drafted the important Ley de educación común (1877). His death at the age of forty-four did not impede the development of one of the most ambitious and successful systems of public education on the continent, which was based on his ideas.

In addition to his books on education, Varela wrote a volume of lyrical poems, Ecos perdidos (1985), which rates among the finest Uruguayan lyrical expressions of the period.

See alsoEducation: Overview .


Arturo Ardao, "Prologue," in Obras pedagógicas: La educación del pueblo by José Pedro Varela (1964).

Additional Bibliography

González Albistur, Jorge. José Pedro Varela: El hombre y el mito. Montevideo, Uruguay: Ediciones de la Plaza, 1997.

Tuni, Rubén Mario. "Los estudios culturales y el fin del siglo XIX." Confluencia 16, no. 1 (Fall 2000): 2-10.

                                      William H. Katra

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