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October 25, 2014
Sunday, August 17, 2014

Quality education and quality reading

By Mempo Giardinelli
For the Herald

Back to this column, fully aware of the spiritual distances which travel imposes. It has been fascinating to see how this country follows such moving reunions as Ignacio Guido Montoya Carlotto with his real family while various birds of prey hover over the skies of this nation, offering the opposition renewed opportunities for verbal gaffes. Which brings me to my subject of reflecting on education in Argentina.

At the 19th International Fair to Encourage Books and Reading, annually held in Chaco’s provincial capital of Resistencia and ending yesterday, thousands of teachers, librarians and students gathered together, as they have done for almost two decades, to debate the present and future of reading and education.

In an atmosphere unimaginable for the metropolitan pace of life, over 50 intellectuals from all over the world annually discuss the policies and strategies to make Argentina once more a society of readers capable of fighting ignorance. Thousands of educators, writers, poets, researchers, social scientists, librarians, communicators and academics from various disciplines fill theatres, auditoria, universities, schools and libraries sharing an unshakable conviction — that education also needs the promotion of the best literature as the most suitable means of raising competent readers. Education and reading go hand in hand — it’s not about reading any old text but the best.

If in all these years there has been so much work to restore reading in this country, now is the time to raise the bar, based on the idea that there is nobody better to orient good reading than teachers and librarians when they are well trained because then, and only then, their training and skills convert them into guides for knowledge and conduct.

If it is recalled that 30-40 years ago this country was a slaughterhouse, that 20 years ago we were a society with no idea of the amount of stealing and asset-stripping going on and at the start of this century (in 2001) we were on the brink of vanishing as a nation, it is easier to understand the enthusiasm of the thousands attending the already proverbial Chaco Reading Forum, who are aware of how very much we have changed and for the better with the merit not belonging to any single government. In recent years there has been a growing concern over the quality of education, with every sign that it will continue to be a focus of future political campaigns — and about time. But that is because today Argentine schools are no longer the corner of the neighbourhood where children go to drink milk or eat a piece of bread once a day, as was the case as little as 10 years ago. Today the school is no longer the people’s canteen but the natural place to discuss the quality of the education for the next generations.

Meanwhile reading is no longer that other missing person so difficult to restore to the national agenda. Today reading has been reinserted into the awareness, the imagination and the daily life of this country and that in turn poses quality requirements which have to be met book by book.

For many years the tenacious preaching, alternative information, courses, workshops and seminars of these fora have developed concrete programmes. Hundreds of grandmothers reading to the young, dozens of authors going out to schools and mass editions stimulating teachers and students with new strategies have all created an awareness of the social and political importance of reading. This has contributed to today’s Argentines reading far more than the previous generation, as well as the development of multiple policies. Of course, there is plenty to do. The National Reading Council, designed to co-ordinate efforts and investments, never came into being. And the Second National Reading Survey, which was to be held every year, was never sufficiently disseminated, as happens in so many countries, thus enabling NGOs to work on this issue. And that is serious considering that this nation is being subjected to an implacable bombardment of misinformation designed to sow hatred and resentment.

From Chaco we have launched the slogan of raising the bar for what is read. Because fundamental to any reading policy is not only convincing society to read or achieving a mass readership. That is important but what is really significant is that society reads quality texts, the only ones guaranteeing good educational quality.

It is thus necessary and urgent to keep the fashions and impositions of the market at a distance, returning to Great Literature. Towards that aim, reviving the reading of the classics is an imperative — both the universal classics and those of Argentine and Latin American literature. Hence the stress on reading less potboilers and more classics — less new stuff and more works of proven quality. Experimentation is all very well and fine but not at the expense of our 17 million school children.

The Chaco Fora have proposed a school system less permeable to the self-interested suggestions of the publishing market. The state should determine the diversity and quality of the reading of schoolchildren nationwide via ministerial orientation. And that is a wake-up call for the neglect and distractions of state political action.

Criticizing today’s education is a reactionary political practice by the most retrograde sectors. They try to make society believe that educational problems and deficiencies come from now due to the sheer malpractice of the national government when the truth is that these problems have been around for at least the last 40 years and are the inheritance of the dictatorship and the disastrous political decisions of the 90s when study plans were decentralized and teacher salaries reduced by 13 percent.

It is clear that not all is well with education in Argentina in qualitative terms but its quantitative improvement is notable and in all honesty both perspectives should be considered. If less than 50 schools were built in the 1990s throughout the country, over 1,500 have been constructed in the last decade. That naturally brought new strains of every type, as could not be otherwise, affecting the educational quality of the present.

That is why raising the bar for the quality of reading is recommended. Because only by reading many good books do you educate a nation for the democracy and social justice for which we all yearn.

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