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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-04-2024 05:07

Give us more education

Though academe has been on iron rations for decades, with professors long being accustomed to having to survive on a pittance, the feeling that Milei had it in for the universities because he thinks they breed lefties gave teeth to Tuesday’s demonstrations.

If what happened on Tuesday is anything to go by, Argentina should already have one of the best-educated populations in the entire world, up there with the Singaporeans, Japanese, South Koreans and urban Chinese who compete for the top spots in the PISA international league tables. On that day, educational fervour reached fever pitch. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand that higher education be made a priority and bitterly attacked President Javier Milei for allegedly starving the country’s leading universities of funds and wanting to close humbler ones which were founded by Kirchnerites.

Though academe has been on iron rations for decades, with professors long being accustomed to having to survive on a pittance or, as is often the case, lecturing for free, the feeling that Milei had it in for the universities because he thinks they breed lefties gave teeth to the demonstrations which, needless to say, were eagerly supported by social justice warriors, Kirchnerites, Trotskyites and trade union heavies, whose reverence for learning is well-known.

Does this mean that all those who took part in Tuesday’s mass demonstrations are determined to make the most of what the universities have to offer them? Unfortunately, there is little reason to think so. In Argentina, education is regarded as a democratic right, something people should be given without having to pay for it, rather than a duty. This leads straight to the assumption that the country’s depressing performance in the PISA tests should be blamed on recent governments, not on the young people who remain unable to do simple sums or make sense of what they read, if they can read at all. As we are frequently reminded, “blaming the victim” is taboo.

Most politicians take all this for granted and agree that, to improve matters, the country should spend more of what money it has on education. Many previous governments have done this, to no measurable effect. Both here and in other parts of the world, some have put their trust in computers, telling themselves that if every school kid had easy access to the Internet, information would flow unimpeded into his or her mind. At first sight, this seemed commonsensical, but almost everywhere the results have been disappointing, which is why the multi-billionaires who made the tech giants prefer to send their offspring to old-fashioned schools in which laptops and smartphones are kept far from the classroom and antiquated artefacts such as printed books are still used.

Grossly unfair as it may seem to the many who insist that education is a basic human right, learning stuff – whether it be elementary mathematics or advanced physics, a difficult foreign language or even, if properly done, law – can require a great deal of effort and, after a certain point, a considerable amount of brainpower. This is why, throughout the world, policies that were designed to ensure that at least half of the local population could go to university led to the spawning of a plethora of easy options, often accompanied by the word “studies”, which are deemed suitable for the less talented.  One result of this is a multitude of diploma-wielding graduates who, to their chagrin, are either unemployed or doing ill-paid jobs they feel are beneath them.

The big difference between the East Asian countries that do so well in the PISA exams and Argentina, which is fast approaching the bottom of the table, is not that they spend far more on their educational facilities or boast governments that are more appreciative of book-learning than the ones we have had. It has to do with the attitude of the general population. In Japan, Chinese-dominated communities and South Korea, parents are more than willing to go to just about any length to make sure that their children do well at school.

They are also fully aware that education always has been, and will continue to be, a very competitive business. In those countries, the examination season excites as much public interest as football does in the rest of the world. South Korea falls silent, with planes being grounded and noisy construction work coming to a halt, in late November when the ‘Suneung,’ a ferocious university-entrance exam whose results will have a decisive influence on the future of most of the participants, is held. In Communist China, the ‘Gaokao,’ which according to some is the most demanding examination in the entire world and, needless to say, is anything but egalitarian, is equally stressful.

From an Argentine perspective, what these young Asians have to put up with is inhumanly alien. Here, the very notion that students at prestigious universities should be the brightest and hardest-working of the aspirants has long been condemned as an elitist heresy of the kind that attracts cranky right-wing extremists. Supporters of the way things are done here must also be appalled by the cruelty of parents who force their sons and daughters to study until well past midnight and then, accompanied by their neighbours, hail them as heroes when they come home after getting good marks in the Suneung or Gaokao.

Like it or not, this is the world we are now living in. To stay afloat, let alone get ahead, Argentina will have to compete with countries whose inhabitants take education really seriously. Having politicians and academics going in about how terribly important it is and the need to devote more resources to it is not enough. Unless the huge numbers of young people who are barely literate start behaving like their East Asian contemporaries, they, and the country they live in, will go to the wall.

Will big demos like those that shook the government on Tuesday make any of them change their mind, get their hands on some textbooks and then do their utmost to master what is in them? Probably not; school-age kids and university students have been led to believe that education is a big political issue, a matter those in power have to make a priority, not something which involves them personally. And, unlike their counterparts in less enlightened countries who cling to outmoded concepts, they do not feel duty-bound to do whatever they can to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for them, and their society, to prosper in a remorselessly competitive world.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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