Just now the furor over illegal immigration from Mexico is most wonderful a’boil, with much billingsgate and vituperation emanating from practically everywhere. Well and good. People should all afflict each other as vigorously as they can. I mean, why were we put on earth if not to be disagreeable?

Howsomever, I’ve received email telling me how poorly educated the Mexicans are. Hmmm. Maybe. You can make a case for it. I know that immigrant kids do terribly in school in the US, which augurs ill indeed. Most kids don’t read here either. Still, I found myself wondering just how bad the Mexican schools really are.

My stepdaughter, Natalia, aged fourteen and in the eighth grade, attends a public school in downtown Guadalajara, La Escuela Estatal Secundaria Manuel M. Dieguez Numero 7 para Senoritas. I am not an authority on Mexican education and cannot say whether hers is typical of urban Mexican schools. Nor do I know enough about American middle schools in general to make comparisons. The following are scans of pages from her texts of mathematics and biology accompanied by a few observations. I found them interesting. The translations are mine. Please excuse the sloppy scans and slow loads.

From Mathematicas 2 (ISBN 970-642-210-2)

“Consider two urns, one with 13 balls numbered from 1 to 13, and the other with 4 balls marked with the following figures: a red triangle, a red square, a black circle, or a black rhombus. How many combinations can be obtained by drawing one ball from each urn?

The possibilities can be represented by ordered pairs. For example, if from the first urn is drawn the ball marked with 2, and from the second, the ball with the square, the result is expressed thus: (2, square).The 52 pairs listed in the column to the left represent all possibilities…The probability of drawing an even number from the first urn is P(even) = 6/13 and the probability of drawing a red shape from the second urn is P(red) = 2/4 = &frac12;. If the two probabilities are multiplied, the following is the result:

P(even) P(red) = (6/13)(1/2) = 6/26”

Not Nobel math, but not too bad, I thought.

From Biologia 2, her biology text:

"An important property of phospholipid bilayers is that they behave as liquid crystals; the carbohydrates and proteins can turn, and move laterally…." Note internal hydrophobic tails and external hydrophilic heads. This is not too shabby.

In the next pages is an account of both aerobic and anaerobic respiration, the 36 molecules of adenosine triphosphate resulting from aerobic glycolysis, and so on.

Early in Biologia 2 is a treatment of the role of RNA, including the substitution of uracil for thymine, transcription as distinct from translation, and the functions of messenger, transfer, and ribosomal RNA. Polypeptides are described and peptide bonds mentioned, but not with the NH3-COOH dehydration synthesis. A typical vocab list: “Endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, endocytosis, ribosomes, cellular membrane.”

Then, “The synthesis proceeds only in the 5′-3′ sense, which means that the chain that is being copied is read…."

Also, (above) "DNA is formed by the union of five atoms: carbon (C), oxygen (O), hydrogen (H), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P). The DNA molecule can be decomposed into the monomers that form it. There are called nucleotides, each of which contains three parts: a sugar of five carbons, deoxyribose; the phosphate; and a nitrogenous base, either adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), or thymine (T). Two of these bases, adenine and guanine, are structures of two rings and are called purines, while the other two, thymine and cytosine, have only one ring and are called pyrimidines.”

All of this has a notable resemblance to real if basic molecular biology. I’m not sure that it is anything to be embarrassed about.

Biologia 2 has a 31-page section on human reproduction that is purely scientific as distinct from socially propagandistic. There is no indoctrination about homosexual rights or oppression of the transgendered. The coverage is detailed and complete, with cutaway drawings of the genitalia, detailed discussion of meiosis as compared with mitosis, primary meiotic division, secondary meiotic division with prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase nicely laid out; chromatin, centromeres, and centrioles explained, and so on at length. There is an explanation of the menstrual cycle complete with a graph of variations of body temperature; description of embryonic growth; a table of tissues and organs arising from endoderm, ectoderm, and mesoderm; and explanations of various venereal diseases and how to avoid them. The treatment is neither prurient nor prissy. It is just biological: Here is how the lungs work, here is how the heart works, here is how the reproductive organs work.

Consequences however are presented straightforwardly. For example, there is a photograph of a primary syphilitic sore, which doubtless persuades students that they don’t want any and, in the section of what we would call “substance abuse,” a photo of a badly cirrhotic liver, sectioned. There are no pretty pictures for the sake of having pretty picture. All graphics have a direct bearing on the material being studied.

It may be that all of this is now standard in the eighth-grade in the United States. For all I know, American texts may be more advanced. I can’t make comparisons with things I don’t know about. But these do not seem to me to be bad books. Certainly when I was an eight-grader we didn’t get much of this; when I went on a physiology kick, I had to find a university text.

Still, I have my doubts as to whether the big-city schools in America are greatly ahead of Guadalajara. Detroit recently had, and probably still has, a forty-seven per cent rate of functional illiteracy. Guadalajara doesn’t. If someone were inspired to compare the foregoing material with what students, if so they can be called, are learning in downtown schools in, say, Washington, DC, Chicago, and New York, I would be interested to see the results.

It will be said, correctly, that the cities of America are populated by extensive underclasses of blacks and Hispanics. True enough. However, they are still American kids (now or soon to be) who are learning nothing. Natalia would eat them alive. I have some familiarity with the suburban, mostly white schools of Arlington County, Virginia, just outside of Washington, because my daughters went to them. At least one of these schools served populations living in very pricey neighborhoods.

The girls came home with misspelled handouts from affirmative-action science teachers, and they learned about Harriet Tubman and oppression. Of the sciences they learned very little. I knew bright kids who had trouble with the multiplication tables. Yes, there are schools and schools, some better than others, and advanced-placement and such. I do not suggest that Mexico has a great school system, because it doesn’t. Yet Natalia, in her particular school, is better off than she would be in Washington, heaven knows, or the Virginia suburbs. Ain’t that something?

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.