BY JUAN DE JESÚS BREENE
Some cultural time-honored traditions bring a smile and involve photos: that first day of kindergarten, leaving the house for prom night or an engagement proposal.
But Mexico has one that only stirs up images of pain and struggle for college students: the writing and approval of a graduation dissertation.
The paper is actually called a thesis, from the word in Spanish, and is a leftover from the days of yore, when European universities required bachelor-level students to write a dissertation as the final step in being awarded an undergraduate degree.
These “books” also had a practical purpose. In the universities of the past, the university library would receive a bound copy of the graduate’s thesis as part of the university’s perpetual collection, boosting the university’s holdings each year before printing became common, thus allowing future generations of scholars to consult them as part of the body of investigative research.
In Mexico, many university students of the past would have to live for four years with relatives in the cities of Morelia, Mexico City, Puebla or Guadalajara, as these were the only cities with universities up until the late 1800s. Monterrey did not even have a public university until 1933.
This rite-of-passage of “publishing” a thesis included a roster of bound copies: one for the university library, copies for each of the professors of the student’s panel of judges, another for the student’s advisor, one for the family to house in a place of
honor next to the family Bible and, of course, a copy or two for the student himself.
The graduate was likely male since Mexican universities only began admitting women in the 1940s and 1950s, and then, only at nursing and normal (teacher education) schools that were not incorporated into Mexican universities until the late 1960s
and even into the 1970s.
A Bachelor’s Degree, a licenciatura, was a prized attainment 100 years ago in Mexico, with only a small percentage of a privileged population able to place that title before their name. This degree was the highest degree in many content areas before the expansion of masters and doctoral programs in almost all fields.
Even today, for both medicine and law, Mexico still grants these diplomas as undergraduate degrees.
There was even a niche industry in the area around Mexico City’s Turquemada Street in the Obrera neighborhood where graduates would go to have their finally approved thesis printed and bound in a leather cover, with a title of gold-embossed letters, as well as the author’s name in slightly smaller print.
In addition to receiving the signed and embossed sheepskin diploma bearing the graduate’s photo, picking up the printed and bound thesis was a huge and costly
rite of passage.
A few of these encuadernación, or binding, shops still exist in what was once a thriving industry for the country’s universities.
While this certainly may sound like an interesting tidbit of academia from 150 years ago, it is not. Many Mexican universities continue to require a thesis today. In fact, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim recently pointed out that while other countries have evolved in their undergraduate studies, “here in Mexico, students complete all their coursework, only to have to still present and defend a thesis. It’s unreal.”
Most people would agree that it is doubtful what new knowledge or investigative research an undergraduate student is actually going to add to the world of academia, and for all practical purposes, the Mexican thesis of today has turned into a lengthy and stylized research-project, mostly a compilation of others’ research.
Like many other things in Mexico, this tradition has created a cottage industry of paid ghost writers and editors to help the university student fulfill this archaic graduation requirement.
Some more progressive Mexican universities will waive the requirement if the student has a certain grade-point average. Others will allow additional coursework as a substitute.
In Mexico, traditions die hard, but this is one that likely needs to be put to rest as soon as possible.