November 29, 2014
The teacher dispute as a challenge
For the Herald
The strike accumulates two weeks and is beginning to be seen by some as wildcat
Some people like to say that Argentina is a savage country, where somebody can be hurled off a bridge for trying to pass a picket, where a bus-driver can be shot dead, where no brutality is beyond the soccer hooligans. We do not completely share such generalizations but there is a pattern of savage behaviour.
In the teacher conflict (which is by no means limited to Buenos Aires province) neither they nor the officials are the savages. But the strike has been dragging on for two weeks and is beginning to be seen by some as wildcat.
Or so the major newspapers and the trash television channels highlight the brick thrown by some jerk and some verbal threats from strikers without recognizing that the real Argentine savagery lies elsewhere and usually wears a suit and tie or farmer clothes on top of a four-wheel drive, growing richer and richer while they moan and evade taxes.
In this context the words of Buenos Aires Lieutenant-Governor Gabriel Mariotto should be framed when he proposes a law declaring education to be an “essential public service” which limits the right to strike in that sector. Some teachers were annoyed but this issue is not settled with annoyance but by seeking solutions to an extremely complex problem because (a) several million schoolchildren await the start of classes every year; (b) because much of the population sees the teachers as “using” them to gain salary improvements; (c) all the governments are seen by that same general public as inept, corrupt and only good for increasing their own pay or granting hefty increases to the police when they mutiny but who skimp when it comes to teachers; and (d) because they see the collective bargaining table as a place where both sides talk past each other rather than any rational negotiation.
The result is almost always the same and the inflexibility is dangerous — media fireworks, mutual snubs, an intense and risky irritability which clouds the reason and composure of governments, teachers and families.
This is when the uneducated Argentina in every sense of that word grows like a bad weed and passes to savage attitudes. Because to educate, the dictionary tells us, is “to develop and perfect the intellectual and moral faculties of the young mind by means of precepts, exercises and examples.” And also to develop good taste and “to teach the good habits of civilization and courtesy.” Everything lacking in this country today and which carries an extremely high social price which is paid by an entire people — governments, teachers and families included.
For his part Governor Daniel Scioli said that there is a “political backdrop” to this protest, which is absolutely obvious because education is politics in its deepest sense. For that same reason it does not seem that a decreed increase resolves the issue any more than court injunctions or docking pay from strikers.
The immense majority of teachers know perfectly well that, as in all professions, their colleagues can be good, excellent, dismal and even embarrassingly bad. As can be said for politicians, judges, lawyers, writers, chemists, dentists or any activity. It is therefore surely true that there are many idle, parasitic and abusive teachers but also many more who not only spend the hours they should teaching but also help their schools and their pupils out of their own empty pockets. There are also many more teachers who know that their place is in the classroom and feel painfully uncomfortable about not being there during the strikes. Many are veritable apostles in rural schools or in the middle of the jungle, as in Chaco’s El Impenetrable — heroes of our time because they do two or three shifts in wretched schools with children growing up in the infamous poverty there still is in Argentina. You have to know them to understand them and, above all, know how much take-home pay they earn.
You also have to understand the urban teachers who teach daily in gutted and unequipped classrooms working with the spoiled brats of parents confused by so much television trash, as well as many others from filthy slums and shantytowns — all swimming in a sea of inefficient bureaucracy and resentment.
All that is also part of Argentina’s complex educational world, which has still not managed to recover from the consequences of a ferocious dictatorship and a federal law like that of the Carlos Menem presidency, which atomized and practically destroyed all the best of the old educational heritage of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.
If the pay increase offers are really around 30 percent while the teacher union demands are 35 percent, it is absurd that no reasonable and civilized negotiation is possible.
And after that it should be time to recover the essence of education, a concept eliminated in the Menem decade,
And meanwhile we have to put up with the real savages insisting on Argentine education being in crisis while they brandish the PISA test results (which they neither understand nor take any interest in) as if they were the revealed truth. If Peronists are incorrigible, as Radicals, socialists and above all neo-conservatives like to quote Jorge Luis Borges as saying, then so are they.
The situation is serious and imposes the indispensable and urgent obligation to change, on the one hand, government attitudes which are closer to a bad pattern than to a wise one and on the other hands, the forms of teacher demands and protest, exploring new strategies which engage the children and their families positively.
Obviously, it is not easy and all easier said than done. But it is a challenge.