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OP-ED | 18-02-2022 22:22

Children are the future

Education is the key issue for Argentina, in any medium or long term.

Ongoing problems might not even deserve that overused word “crisis” if we compare them to the Argentina of 20 years ago and yet the current malaise is in many ways worse because it comes accompanied by a perhaps uniquely deep despair about the future. A bumper tourist summer, possibly the highest growth rate ever last year, a huge collective sigh of relief over the avoidance of default for now (which may or may not end up as another “peace in our time” moment like Munich in 1938) and even the return of classes in recent days after two years of pandemic disruption are doing little to turn around a largely negative public mood. According to the recollections of Maud Cox in her latest book reviewed by this newspaper last weekend, the darkest years of Argentine history in the 1970s almost invariably began each time with an idyllic summer.

Previous eras of Argentine life may have been grimmer (not least half a century ago) but the experience was generally not projected into the future – on the contrary, the mentality tended to be: “It could not possibly be worse than this” with hopes pinned on a new government (whether more generous or more responsible than its predecessor) or a change in business cycle. Despite a relatively benevolent global economic cycle nowadays, most people do not see either this or another government as promising any solutions – Frente de Todos may be hopelessly adrift but Juntos por el Cambio is not defining a road map of any kind while other alternatives such as the libertarian maverick Javier Milei are gaining ground at the expense of the two main coalitions without acquiring the critical mass to become electorally competitive.

Perhaps today’s biggest worry is the future rather than either past or present. After two decades of this century, people are seeing the upward social mobility characterising the 20th century as permanently interrupted with hard times looming for the next generation of youth, over two-thirds of whom would like to live elsewhere, according to some surveys. The roots of that pessimism are very hard to pin down to any single cause such as the chronic inflation which heads many lists of public opinion concerns, as currently measured by the pollsters – if that inflation is “multi-causal” (Martín Guzmán dixit), then far more so this malaise.

But if the future is the problem, perhaps it can also be the solution. If Jawaharlal Nehru said over 60 years ago: “The children of today will make the India of tomorrow,” also describing them as “the future of the nation and the citizens of tomorrow,” surely much the same is true of Argentina today. Amid all the post-pandemic traumas of a frustrated citizenry this particular week has already seen some children returning to school preparatory to a school year of 190 days of classroom attendance, beginning in this city the day after tomorrow and the following Monday nationwide.

This reminder of the return of schooling does not so much serve to banish pessimism as to insist on education as the key issue for Argentina in any medium or long term rather than a more abstract contemplation of the future. Given a backdrop of teacher strike threats, we cannot even take the return to classes for granted, let alone this automatically solving the future in any way. That future is now, in terms of educating the next generation.

The aim of this editorial is to insist on the urgency of this debate rather than to steer it in any particular direction. Some might see education as such a categorical imperative that it justifies the most drastic means to leapfrog a system with many roots in the 19th century straight into this century. Others might recognise the deficiencies of an overpopulated teaching profession of around 1.2 million (a third of the United States total with less than a seventh of the US population) whose technological skills are often inferior to the children they are supposed to be teaching but shrink from any brutal demobilisation, concentrating on teacher training as the key to a qualitative leap.

But whatever the answer, it should not just be seen as a question of educational policy according to the familiar syndrome of leaving things to an often dysfunctional state and then blaming it for everything. Civil society needs to become deeply involved, offering innovative and disruptive solutions to a complacent state, if we are to have a truly modern and democratic society with modern and democratic education.

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