The Buenos Aires City government’s top education official, Soledad Acuña, made herself the target of a firestorm of abuse by pointing out that most young people who want to become teachers come from somewhere near the bottom of Argentina’s socioeconomic pyramid and that, when undergoing training, they are subject to leftist political indoctrination. For saying such terrible things, zealous Kirchnerites wanted her to be arraigned before a body set up to look into cases involving “discrimination, xenophobia and racism,” but while her strictures may have been a bit unfair to teachers who try to do a good job in extremely difficult circumstances, she did have a valid point.
In Argentina and many other places, including the United States and the United Kingdom, teachers’ unions dominated by political activists have a stranglehold on much of the profession and – being more interested in their own priorities than in education – they do their considerable best to keep standards as low as possible on the pretext that, if they are high, laggards, many of whom will be from poorer families, will be unable to keep up. From their point of view, schools should subordinate everything else to social engineering and strive to narrow the gap between bourgeois pupils who have been brought up in homes with plenty of books and those whose parents are, at most, semi-literate. For them, egalitarianism entails levelling down.
This is a serious problem because there has never been any doubt that children really do have different abilities. Some find it easy enough to master the intricacies of their own language, those of others and quite advanced mathematics, but large numbers do not, which is why in many school systems, streaming begins at an early age. And though it is widely agreed that education is of vital importance and “merit” deserves to be rewarded, making this compatible with “social justice” – as understood by activists who want equality of outcomes, and not just of opportunities – is clearly impossible.
To complicate matters still further, we live in a world in which “knowledge industries” are growing at such a frantic pace that they are already overshadowing the traditional ones which, for their part, are also getting more and more automated and therefore require fewer unqualified employees. The first victims of this inexorable trend were factory workers in Europe and North America whose incomes have hardly changed in real terms since the 1970s, but they now include a growing proportion of men and women who until quite recently belonged to the comfortably-off middle class. This suggests that for the foreseeable future income differences between a small minority of individuals who are well-educated, well-connected, good at a lucrative sport, have what it takes to become a popular entertainer or are simply lucky enough to inherit money they can invest, and the rest will widen at an accelerating rate.
For egalitarians who want education to erase differences, whether these are innate or the result of social factors, the evident fact that economies the world over depend increasingly on brainpower to provide them with the engine they all need is something they would like to see go away. However, if they insist on denying what is staring them in the face, their country will be certain to fall further and further behind others, as indeed Argentina has been doing for several years now. The way things are going, she will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Even before the pandemic struck and most “unessential” people found themselves confined to quarters, the teachers’ unions liked nothing better than keeping schools closed for weeks on end. Since late March, almost all have remained that way. Food stores, casinos, barber shops and even many restaurants have been able to open, but instead of campaigning to get their members back to work, Argentina’s teachers’ unions are determined to prolong the longest school holiday ever until everyone has been properly vaccinated. Neither they nor their supporters are interested in the fate awaiting the millions of children who are being deprived of what most will desperately need if they are ever to escape from the wretched poverty which is engulfing them.
As many have been pointing out of late, Argentina once boasted a school network which was on a par with those of far wealthier nations. But then the rot set in. Over half a century ago, the French writer Pierre Kalfon was so shocked by the meagre salaries paid to the mainly female teachers in state-run schools that he unkindly made them members of what he called a “lumpen-bourgeousie.” Such a situation should have motivated enough alarm to bring about sweeping changes but the money that was steered towards the sector soon melted away leaving things much as they were before.
In Finland, a country whose educational system is much admired, teachers are chosen from among the very brightest students. As a result, theirs is an elite profession. Here, as Ms Acuña reminded us, the reverse has become the case. This suits the unions fine – in a way, their attitude is understandable. They are against anything that smacks of elitism and, like their counterparts in much of the US and other countries, they concentrate on defending the interests of their weakest members by preventing them from getting sacked for being too ignorant, too lazy or too unprepossessing to teach. They also see themselves as social justice activists whose mission is to stamp out any manifestation of inequality that may catch their eye.
Are they really leftists, as Acuña says? If they are, they have nothing in common with their alleged ideological comrades in Communist countries past and present who, while they had no qualms about including in the syllabi hefty doses of propaganda, were thoroughgoing elitists when it came to upholding basic academic standards and regarded education as so important that anyone rash enough to ask teachers to go on strike would be quickly despatched to a penal colony. Much the same is true in China today. The rigorous demands the government makes on schoolchildren, and the ferociously competitive exams they must pass in order to get into a decent university, would horrify not only our union bosses and Kirchnerite militants but even most of their ideological foes, including, perhaps, Soledad Acuña herself.