Once a matter of national pride, the Argentine educational system today has become a microcosm of the challenges confronting the rest of the world, and as such is an unwitting heir to the West’s unresolved ideological legacy in education, the origins of which have been blurred by time and distance.
Despite the fact that Argentina has the 3rd highest literacy rate in Latin America (99.2% after Cuba and Uruguay), and spent 7.1% of GDP on education in 2010 (approximately US$21bn) the nation is experiencing “an educational tragedy” in the words of the former rector of the University of Buenos Aires, Guillermo Jaim Etcheverry.
There can be no doubt that the system faces problems. Teacher union strikes are common for a variety of reasons, including salary disputes, violence in the classroom, and a lack of respect in society. Schools are also crowded, despite an official average 13:1 student/teacher ratio, with morning and afternoon shifts, while the poor state of maintenance of many buildings is obvious.
In the year 2008, only 48% of Argentine teenagers would finish secondary school (UNICEF). And although registration for universities grew 33% over a ten-year period, out of every 100 new university students, only 10-12 will eventually receive their degree, a statistic that has remained stagnant since the turn of the century (CEPP). Employers express discontent at the level of preparation of the incoming workforce and according to a recent IBD report, 80% of businesses in all sectors believe that secondary education is key to changing this trend.
From these declarations and statistics, it is clear that something must be done, but there is no social consensus as to what. Education itself— what is education? Why do we educate? – has become the subject of discussion, and the conceptual framework on which this society bases the criteria for an ‘educated’ population.
The ‘Discovery’ of Childhood
Education, as we know it, is basically a derivative of the ‘discovery’ of childhood. The idea of a period set aside for the development of the immature human, evolved in Europe over a 200-year period starting near the end of the Middle Ages and culminating in the Enlightenment. Before that, children would learn through first-hand observation of the tasks, habits and responsibilities of adults.
But for the mechanistic world view developed and propagated between the 17th and 19th centuries by Descartes, Locke, and Newton, children suddenly became the focus of attention, and childhood was understood as “a function of adult expectations”. In response to this new awareness, the social concept of family took root, although the reality of the family, like that of childhood of course, had always existed. Families now took on greater social significance as the unit charged with child welfare, health and survival. Indeed, our modern concept of what a family should be is derived from this period.
According to historian Colin Heywood, society at this time typically promoted a utilitarian view of the child—taking the “economically useless but emotionally priceless” child and making something of him/her. There also was an economic incentive for taking especial notice of the child, as parents wanted to ensure their “capital”—home, business, savings—was safe. This shift in the way society viewed childhood and the family took place on many levels. As Norman Davies, Oxford historian, writes “It can be traced in the dress and iconography of the times, in the invention of toys, games, and pastimes specifically for children, in changing morals and manners; above all, in a radical new approach to education.”
Schools vs. Education
Though schools have existed since ancient Greece in one form or another, they were conceived as places to spend free time; the word ‘school’ originally meant ‘leisure’. The subject matter studied in medieval schools linked to the cathedrals was limited to such empirical knowledge fitting to the student’s station in life, such as monk or knight, and did not always include reading, writing, or arithmetic. What was novel during the period of the discovery of childhood was the systematic application of schools as instruments for ‘education’ or the ‘forming’ of the child, and the implications this had in the development of class hierarchies in the West.
Although those children who did not attend school could not be considered ignorant nor even illiterate, the relationship between literacy, wealth, and occupation that marks the economic emergence of a ruling elite in Western civilisation and the social inequalities which accompany that phenomena run “like a red thread” through the history of education. In other words, those who went to school belonged to the ruling class; those who didn’t, were ruled. Only when the economic realities of the Industrial Revolution transformed Western society was ‘education’ thought of as a possibility for the masses. Little by little, the lower classes were able to improve their social position and ensure that their children, in turn, would be educated.
Public education for the masses was originally financed by rich industrialists, as Heywood describes: “[the manufacturers] risked compromising the future quality of the industrial workforce…however reluctant the rich might have been to subsidise the children of the poor, they could hardly ignore the fact that the young embodied the future of their society. They would therefore have to devote some resources to what would now be called investment in human capital [emphasis added] to produce the next generation of workers and soldiers.”
Education became the principal activity of childhood, an activity taken for granted nowadays: “The ideals of the Enlightenment made huge claims for their policy of investing in schools. It would, they believed, reduce crime and disorder, make workers more productive, and…instil moral values in the ‘great unwashed’…even today most people admit to some residual faith in the more modern notion of education as an emancipatory force.”
Most thinkers or educators during this period were content “with the notion that schools should reinforce existing social hierarchies” rather than undermine them. In other words, children who attended school would be constantly reminded what their ‘estate’ was, the duties of said estate, and the “labour and craft appropriate for that estate”. Lawmakers ‘knew’ what was best for the masses, and although the working classes might let themselves be educated, it was thought that schools and teachers would have to help parents raise their children “in a responsible manner”, and avoid transmitting the idea of an “artificial equality”. In other words, schools were harnessed into helping lower and middle class families raise their children in a way that would perpetuate the awareness of their socio-economic reality.
It was at this moment in the evolution in education that Argentina as a nation came into being.
The Argentine Educational Crisis
After the yoke of Spanish colonialism had been thrown off, Argentina strove to define its constitutional mission and national identity, a process which was made more difficult by economic pressures created by the Industrial Revolution in the rest of the world. In short, Argentina struggled to invent itself while competing with existing world economic structures.
As a result, many social programmes that were part of the colonial Spanish regime carried over into the new national policies of different Latin American states. Education was no exception. The organisation was based on the cathedral schools developed during the Middle Ages—largely developed for forming the ruling class, clergy and lawyers, heavily steeped in the Roman Catholic world vision, and propagating a mainly Euro-centric version of history. Indeed, Argentine history was not included in the syllabus of schools until the turn of the 20th century.
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (that mean mug on the $50 note), the main proponent for public schooling in Argentina, was heavily influenced by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, especially Benjamin Franklin, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Horace Mann. Seeking to impose their ideas in Argentina (but without regard to Argentine reality), he opened public schools for basic education, made education available to women, and removed religious education from the public curriculum, declaring: “We need to make a school out of all the Republic.”
Although born and bred in Argentina, ‘the son of the Revolution’, Sarmiento could not overcome his horror of the country’s indigenous peoples. His legacy as the ‘Father of the classroom’ loses moral stature when his achievements in favour of Argentine ‘progress’ are considered alongside his lesser-known elitist and racist policies: “If you don’t want to educate them out of mercy, educate them out of fear.” Although he was willing to educate the masses regardless of race or class, he nonetheless was concerned about the possibility that Argentina, once inserted in the capitalist world, would fall into decay due to the influence of these ‘barbarians’: “Not only the Indians, but the gauchos and the immigrant population could all be carriers of this contagion.”
Eventually Sarmiento came to the conclusion that “an education directed towards those values compatible with work, production, and the order which guarantees them” would overcome the negative effects of these peoples. He erroneously envied Anglo-Saxon America, asking: “Why was it the Anglo-Saxon race that hit upon that bit of the world which fit its industrial instincts so well, and why did the Spanish have the misfortune to land in South America where…they found abject and meek Indians that perfectly matched their lazy masters in their backwardness and ineptitude. Where is Divine Providence in this?” There is no mention of the massacres of indigenous peoples carried out by the colonising forces of different nationalities in North America.
After Bartolome Mitre’s (the mug on the $2 note) presidency (1862-68), the social character of education had been determined, with schools for different groups reinforcing the duties and function of their respective social stratum just like the European model. Mitre founded the Colegios Nacionales, elitist secondary schools with a humanistic orientation, where graduates would eventually seek a university degree or political activity.
But by the beginning of the 20th century, the unidirectional purpose of the Colegios was deemed insufficient and reforms were enacted to allow for the creation of industrial schools, where the education of a burgeoning urban population, the result of increasing immigration and rural abandonment, could occur. An initiative to close these schools was made on the parliamentary floor, alerting representatives to “the dangers of an education that will create more expectations in all social sectors than what is recommendable for the oligarchical conservative order.” This initiative was called down as ‘anti-democratic’, but other similar acts were made and enforced; schools eventually incorporated vocational training, but those who undertook it would be directed away from pursuing university studies.
The Second World War reinforced Argentina’s role as an industrial nation and the boom in production of local products and the elaboration of raw materials gave the country the boost it needed to incorporate education at all levels and for all citizens. But it wasn’t until Juan Domingo Perón’s first term in power that education began to occupy a place in the Argentine identity. He wanted to create a specific type of man, a specific type of Argentine, where “social justice functioned as a condition for all educational intervention”.
According to Perón, the enemies of this intervention were obvious: “The oligarchy, the great adversary of the Argentine people, those who live off the efforts of the working population.” Though his educational programmes were more political than lasting, due to the social and political upheaval that followed his presidencies, nonetheless, his legacy can be felt today in the three tenets defining the national identity—literacy, citizenship, and job security.
War on Thinking
Argentina’s modern history is dominated by the military dictatorship of 1976-83, and nowhere can the devastating impact of this era more evident than the area of education. From the point of view of the fascist de facto government, a system of education should “serve the needs of the nation and consolidate the values and aspirations of the Argentine being.”
This basically meant that any previous educational order was suspect as a potential factor for subversion; in the words of then Minister of Education, Ricardo Bruera: “There is a public subversion known to all, which has penetrated very deeply in the educational system and we call it ‘institutional subversion’. Argentina has suffered from the institutionalisation of the perverting of our values, which is reflected in the mental make-up of our students.” (Clarín, 1976)
The proposed values were “western, Christian, and capitalist”, a clear return to the oligarchical principles that traditionally marked Argentine education prior to WW2 and the Peronist reforms. The ‘Noche de los Lapices Rotos’ (The Night of the Broken Pencils), when military personnel kidnapped, tortured, and murdered ten secondary schoolchildren in 1976 at the outset of the dictatorship, can only be understood as an enforcement of official government education policy during this period. The imminent threat perceived by the military junta was not only a literate population, but a well-educated, thinking population, the result of generations of workers enjoying social mobility through different government programmes. Therefore, education, as the tool to socio-economic improvement for the masses had to be weakened because, as one monument in the Parque de la Memoria attests: “Thinking is revolutionary.”
If any broad educational opportunities were left after the military dictatorship was routed, the subsequent neo-liberal governments took care to destroy them, dismantling vocational and technological schools, switching funds earmarked for public projects and education to ‘private’ endeavours, privatising state industries, and in general leaving the lower and middle classes bereft of one of the best ways to improve their situation, while favouring the classes that could already afford to pay for education, a trend still in place today.
This tendency was reflected worldwide as state policies stripped societies of educational, health, and diverse welfare programmes, all in the name of the ‘free market’. There are few nations in the world that, having embraced neoliberalism, are not undergoing some degree of financial or social decay, including educational programs that are defunct, but which reinforce social and financial hierarchies.
Yet in Argentina there is still a great awareness of recent history; only one generation ago, ‘literacy’ and ‘job security’ had been considered practically a right to which all Argentines had access. The intensity with which the reforms were received from the mid-twentieth century and the ferocity with which they were subsequently overthrown is alive in the Argentine memory today. The current educational situation reflects the struggle to re-socialise schools; that is, to reinsert schools in the reality of Argentine society at all economic levels.
However, increasing investments in education and technology (government financed netbooks, for example), or social programmes (such as food allowances per child and salary hikes for teachers), while helpful, do not address the problem at its source. The present educational model is still based on obsolete ideologies dating from a period in Argentine history when the social and economic needs of the country had not yet been defined, and were established to favour the oligarchy. The foundations of the system are built on an ‘imported’ reality which has little to do with the national concerns, and embraces derogatory racist attitudes, little adapted to the plural nature of modern Argentine society.
The elitist, exclusive context in which the educational system in Argentina is played out is a reflection of a world where learning is still the province of the leisurely and privileged, a tool with which to distinguish the rich from the poor. The current educational crisis represents a world-wide paradox: on the one hand, the ever-increasing difficulties which the lower classes face in order to receive what society for more than 200 years has taught them to believe is necessary for their personal and professional growth; and on the other hand the factions in society which create those obstacles in order to maintain the lower classes in their place.
The relative brevity with which Argentina has experienced this paradox in recent years offers a unique opportunity to the rest of the world to recognise those tendencies which have led our educational system to falter, and fail our children—an opportunity to return to the classroom, as it were, and to learn from our common past, regardless of how distant and despicable.
Important exceptions are the works of Maria Elena Walsh, author, folklorist, and singer, and Maria Teresa Andruetto, first Hispanoamerican winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award. While Walsh’s Irish father introduced her to classic English literature for children: Mother Goose, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, etc, works which, no doubt, influenced her lifelong efforts to ‘educe’ (not educate) Argentine children, Andruetto claims that “there are no specific themes for ‘children’; just ways to approach them.”
Some recent publications for children are suspect as commissions specifically written to fill a market niche, not truly reflecting the nature and spirit of Argentine children, and not arising from the Argentine experience, like Walsh’s ‘Manuelita, la Tortuga’ or ‘La Vaca Estudiosa’ or Andruetto’s ‘El Caballo de Chuang Tzu’. One explanation for this is that due to continual social and political upheaval over the past 150 years, Argentines simply have not had much time to ‘discover’ childhood for themselves. Walsh described this as “crawling backwards.”