May 21, 2013
The agitprop academy
Once upon a time, education was all about older people teaching younger ones the values, knowledge and skills they assumed were needed for them to become respectable members of their particular society. That changed when large numbers of teachers decided that all Western societies, with the possible exception of some that were located in the more progressive parts of Scandinavia, were disease-ridden monstrosities, a disgrace to humankind, and that it was their duty to cure them of their many ills by waging war against elitism in the name of equality of outcomes, raising self-esteem and catering to the psychological needs of a rapidly growing variety of hard done-by “minorities”. Wealthier parents managed to keep their offspring out of the, to their mind, leftist social laboratories that were set up for such enlightened purposes by sending them to private (in the UK, “public”) schools, where they hoped their heads would be stuffed with reactionary notions, but for several decades most youngsters have had to make do with whatever they might get from state-funded systems run by people who are ideologically committed to what is derisively called dumbing down. By the time they graduate, it seems, many are barely able to read, let alone count beyond ten.
Argentina is at the forefront of this ongoing educational revolution. Cristina’s government clearly thinks that schools should limit themselves to training political activists. That is the view of her Education Minister, Alberto Sileone, a man who is widely regarded as an intelligent bloke and therefore presumably understands very well what he is up to. A couple of days ago, he lavished praise on high-school students who had taken over the establishments they attend in order to protest against letting a private company run the canteen, thereby striking a fierce blow against neoliberalism which, as we all know, is a truly dreadful creed.
Perhaps the youngsters will be given diplomas for having passed an exam in political studies. They certainly deserve them: Sileone said their small-scale version of the antics of the “occupy Wall Street” crowd represented “a triumph for democracy and a triumph for education”. That’s the spirit. A few more years of this, and Argentina will boast millions of young people who are skilled in the techniques of street fighting and are fully prepared to put what they have been taught to good use by trashing all symbols of capitalist iniquity that happen to catch their eye, stringing up bankers and other evildoers and howling abuse at enemies of the people.
A generation or two ago, public education, in Buenos Aires and its environs at least, was, according to the standards in fashion back then, considered to be relatively good, far better than in other Latin American countries and on a par with what was available in most of Europe. Since then, in the eyes of individuals who are incapable of appreciating the benefits of political indoctrination, it has become yet another disaster area.
If the results of international tests are anything to go by, Argentine youngsters learn far less about traditional subjects than do their counterparts in Chile or Uruguay, let along the high-flyers in South Korea or Finland. Indeed, they are hard put to keep up with their contemporaries in places like Tunisia and Azerbaijan, though allegedly they are slightly more scholarly than the kids from Kyrgyzstan who bring up the rear.
Kirchnerite pedagogues dispute these unflattering findings. They say the country’s alleged backwardness in this respect can be attributed to the inability of the foreigners who were responsible for drawing up the tests to appreciate that, in this part of the world, social realities are very different from those in countries that were spared the horrors of Carlos Menem’s decade in power. That no doubt is why the questions asked in the tests were all about reactionary pursuits such as reading, doing sums, and science. Had they included more practical subjects like the organization of political happenings for propaganda purposes, Argentina’s secondary school pupils, (the ones Sileone speaks so highly of, that is), would surely have given their contemporaries in North Africa a run for their money and left most others far behind.
Is Cristina’s government worried by the possibility that, even though Argentina is at the cutting edge when it comes to student sit-ins, it is among the laggards in just about everything else? It certainly should be, as it is generally agreed that the country’s future will depend in large measure on its ability to harness its inhabitants’ collective brainpower, a more valuable resource even than soybeans or shale gas.
What is more, led as it is by a lady who evidently takes great pride in her intellectual brilliance and has even told us that, on occasion, she feels she is channelling the great nineteenth-century writer, educator and president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, one might have thought that her government would have done its very best to improve educational standards. Needless to say, it has not. Under Cristina’s dispensation, Argentina’s once much admired system has continued its slide downhill in everything apart from political agitation which, the man in charge of it tells us, is what he thinks education should be all about.