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September 20, 2014
Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ignorance is not bliss

Buenos Aires province teachers held a massive demonstration in the city of La Plata on Wednesday, as part of a strike that today enters its third week.
By James Neilson
For the Herald

In their patriotic duty, teachers’ unions weaken Argentina

Lenin used to say that the best way to crush the bourgeoisie was to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation. From his place in the great central committee up there in the sky, the Bolshevik must be smiling when he looks down on Cristina’s Argentina. Taxes for those who are unwilling or unable to dodge them are higher than they have ever been and inflation is rising. And, to make the prospects facing the more cash-strapped members of the country’s middle class even bleaker that they already are, most of their children will be lucky indeed to get anything resembling a proper education. In several provinces, including Buenos Aires, which is home to well over a third of the population, teachers have been on strike for weeks and seem unlikely to go back to work any time soon.

Along with many other people, teachers are reluctant to let inflation eat further into their purchasing power, but as money is in short supply, provincial governments are understandably reluctant to cave in to their demands. Were they to do so, other public employees would be sorely tempted to follow their example.

Most people agree that teachers deserve to earn more, far more, but they also say that, in return, they should do a better job. Unfortunately, that is not what the teachers’ unions have in mind. Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, the people running them are strongly opposed to anything that smacks of discrimination between the high-flyers and the rest. This may seem perverse to outsiders, but it is perfectly logical. Union bosses feel obliged to defend tooth and nail what they think are the rights of all their members, especially the mediocre ones.

They are also, by and large, of a left-wing disposition and are therefore against what they call elitism. As a result, not only in Argentina but in many other countries, notably in the United States and Great Britain, teachers’ unions are doing their utmost to block reforms proposed by reactionaries who want youngsters to study far harder than they currently do and think it would be useful to reward the academically successful for their achievements even if it upsets the laggards. The unions want nothing of that; if they believe in anything, it is in uniformity of outcomes, so they do what they can to prevent bright students from getting too ambitious.

In East Asian countries that for many centuries have been greatly influenced by Confucianism, the situation is very different. Japanese, Chinese and South Korean youngsters, egged on by their parents, invest far more time and effort in soaking up knowledge than do their contemporaries in Europe, North America or, needless to say, Argentina. Their relentless approach is often criticized for not putting enough stress on creativity, but that does not deter them.

Why should it? They are convinced that hard work brings dividends. To the dismay of lobbyists for other “minorities”, the children of poor East Asian immigrants in the US and the UK do every bit as well as the offspring of upper middle-class whites. They often do much better. Needless to say, their keen awareness of the importance of education has not endeared them to the many they leave behind. As happened with the Jews almost a century ago, their competitiveness is greatly resented by those they regularly outshine.

In Argentina, the leaders of the teachers’ unions make much of their egalitarian sentiments. If they took them at all seriously, they would be reluctant to organize lengthy strikes that harm youngsters from poverty-stricken and usually bookless homes who have been brought up to think education is not for them. As the world moves deeper into the age of the knowledge economy, the functionally illiterate will have even fewer chances of making a decent living than was the case before when there were jobs aplenty for the unskilled.

Whether they realize it or not, and presumably it has never occurred to them, strike-happy union bosses are busily helping to build the nightmarishly unequal society they accuse right-wing economists of trying to bring about. Well-off middle-class children can go to private schools and, if they are lucky, have parents who will at least try to ensure they do not waste an opportunity to acquire the rudiments of an education. If the reports coming from the shanty towns are anything to go by, the children of “structurally” poor families tend to be less interested in learning than in hanging around in the hope of getting a handout or a nod from the neighbourhood drug dealer.

As well as claiming to be egalitarians determined to fight privilege in all its many manifestations, the fierier union leaders say they are nationalists who want to save Argentina from falling prey to the loathsome Yankee imperialists. Theirs is a funny way of performing what they assume is their patriotic duty.

It is widely agreed that, from now on, a country’s place in the international scheme of things will depend on the educational level reached by most of its inhabitants, so anyone who stops young people from going to school should by rights be the target of nationalistic wrath. The teachers’ unions are certainly doing their bit to weaken Argentina. Much as the men and women on strike may dislike the idea, according to the conspiratorial theories that many of them take seriously, they are inadvertently giving aid and comfort to those wicked “oligarchs” they imagine are out to keep their country poor.

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