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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 08-08-2020 09:51

Culture matters more than computers

The technology that provides people with the equivalent of dozens of huge libraries is certainly marvellous, but only those who have already been fairly well educated are able to benefit from having the accumulated wisdom of humankind there at their fingertips.

To the dismay of parents who already have more than enough to worry about, millions of children are continuing to enjoy, or suffer, the longest holidays anyone can remember. While some have kept in contact with their school thanks to the Internet and, under the watchful eyes of their mothers and fathers, have managed to carry on much as before, others have had to rely on old-fashioned printed material and, at most, an occasional socially distant face-to-face encounter with teachers interested in how they are doing and if they have enough to eat.

Many specialists, among them Education Minister Nicolás Trotta, think the digital divide between the two groups is bound to make the gap separating the rapidly shrinking middle-class from the rest of the population still wider. No doubt they are right, though it will not be because, as they appear to assume, kids cannot be expected to learn much unless, as well as having a tutor close at hand, they have access to a personal computer or, failing that, a good smartphone. The technology that provides people with the equivalent of dozens of huge libraries is certainly marvellous, but only those who have already been fairly well educated are able to benefit from having the accumulated wisdom of humankind there at their fingertips. For the semi-literate, it is all just a messy heap of boring verbiage.

Encouraged by canny businessmen, many of whom sincerely believe that the artefacts they sell will make an enormous difference, governments not just here but in many other countries have told themselves that technology will enable them to improve the educational attainments of the poor so they approach those of the local elites. To this end they have purchased huge numbers of computers and then distributed them among schools in needy neighbourhoods.

At first sight, this makes sense. Youngsters raised in poverty will be able to sit, as it were, at the feet of the very best teachers in the land, which will surely allow them to catch up with their contemporaries from wealthier families who have books at home and may like reading them. Has this happened? If the available statistics are anything to go by, things have either remained much the same or gotten worse, as pupils are told there is no need to waste time remembering things they can find on the web in a twinkling.

This will not have surprised the men and women behind the “tech giants” whose products have changed all our lives and have certainly made the lockdowns more tolerable than they would have been three decades earlier. Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs and other denizens of Silicon Valley decided long ago, that until they were 15 or thereabouts, it would be better for their own kids to steer clear of the devices they put together and marketed in their millions. In their view, letting young people keep their eyes glued to a computer screen would simply distract them from more serious matters and, by jumping from topic to topic as it is so easy, and tempting, to do, they would learn very little of permanent value.

As they understood very well, getting an education is hard work, not fun. It cannot be turned into a game. And, while desperate poverty is definitely a drawback, throughout history many youngsters raised by families on the bread line or even below it have managed to do far better than others who had never wanted for anything. Though the difficulties confronting them were even greater than those faced by most of their equivalents in present-day Argentina, their parents drummed it into them that their personal fate was in their own hands.

This, by and large, is why in many countries children belonging to specific social groups in which education is an almost universal obsession, tend to excel in school while others, in which a more easygoing approach is favoured, fall behind. In the United Kingdom, pupils from poor families of Chinese and Indian origin on average score far higher than the white natives, while those of Caribbean ancestry, unlike black Africans who also do quite well, are among the laggards. In the United States, the trends are similar, with Asians, by which is meant students whose family roots are in India, China, Japan or Korea, outperforming everybody else to such a scandalous degree that some universities, among them Harvard, have been taken to court for applying a quota system similar to the one they once used to keep out those excessively high-flying Jews. 

These differences can be attributed to culture in the anthropological sense of the word. In some communities, parents are prepared to go to virtually any lengths to ensure that their offspring make full use of whatever educational opportunities there are, while in others all that book-learning stuff is not considered important. Among the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, the pressure on youngsters is such that after spending much of the day at an ordinary school they are liable to get sent to another establishment where they are force fed with still more knowledge which, it is hoped, will give them the extra edge they will need to get admitted to a top university. Many think this most unhealthy, but in their countries the poorest of the poor are convinced, in a way few Westerners are, that education really does hold the key to a better future. The notion that it is a “right” so if they do badly they are victims of injustice and are entitled to complain does not occur to them.

Until fairly recently, Argentina’s educational system was assumed to be superior to those of other Latin American countries and just as good as the ones found in Europe or North America, but then the rot set in; according to international test results, it is now worse than mediocre, comparable to countries in the Middle East or North Africa in which brutal conflicts are raging.

Would this change if more Argentine children had computers? There is no reason to think so. Here, as elsewhere, the basic problem has less to do with a shortage of electronic gadgetry than with the willingness or otherwise of young people to study seriously or of family members and other adults to create an environment which strongly encourages them to do so. Without a genuine cultural revolution, especially in the poorer parts of the country, Argentina will have no chance of overcoming her current socio-economic woes, let alone of making much of a go of it in a world in which the educational level of the population looks likely to matter even more than it did before the coronavirus pandemic devastated those economic sectors which do not depend on brainpower.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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