Mises Wire

Government Schools: Power and History in Argentina

When analyzing our present society, it is easy to overlook state intervention since its mandates vary in all shapes and sizes. However, in only a few instances is it so clear as it is in education. This is manifested prominently when people talk about it, every time trying to impose their own agenda on what should be taught and how. Education as a concept and practice is misunderstood in this regard. We shall look at its meaning, the consequences of state intervention, and a short analysis of a case study.

The Spirit of Education

Education is usually constrained to formal education in institutions (both private and public). The kind of education taught in institutions is a critical one—that means systematized, discriminated, and ordered. This is in contrast with the spontaneous education that we engage in constantly as we live our lives. “Vulgar” or spontaneous knowledge is primarily unsystematized, given to us in a disordered form, and many times contradictory. In critical knowledge, contradictions stand out and are more easily subject to scrutiny.

Spontaneous education is conscious like any human action; it discovers new practical knowledge that is private and unique to each individual. Critical education, on the other hand, is public and theoretical; it is common in itself to any human being, changing only in form (for example, when theoretical knowledge is expressed in various languages, it strives to always mean the same but in different forms) and style (the particular way in which it is presented to us in its form). Both are pillars in the construction of culture.

Thus, when considering education, we can quickly infer that the education that concerns formal instruction is the one that deals with critical knowledge mostly. The meaning of education then is dual: spontaneous and critical. Pragmatically, both intertwine constantly (in school, we take classes that impart critical knowledge about the world and culture, but we also socialize in breaks with friends, which teach us social norms and conventions). However, in analysis, we can discern between the two. We can leave behind the conception that education is only imparted in institutions; education, just as culture, is created, acquired, molded, and forgotten all the time. Education can also be approached with the insight of human action. The future is uncertain; we humans act and discover that which was uncertain is no longer unknown but discovered in the process of action. In short, we act, discover, and acquire knowledge either spontaneously or critically. That is the meaning of education, the process in which we obtain spontaneous (practical and unsystematized) and critical (theoretical and systematized) knowledge.

Education as an acquisition of knowledge is of course affected by the people around us. All of them educate us in their own way: our parents usually teach us values, our friends usually teach us conventions, and teachers usually teach us theoretical knowledge. Thus, we can understand that formal education in institutions is only a fraction of what we learn in our lives.

Private, Public, and Subsidized Education

Formal instruction is either done in private or public institutions. Spontaneous knowledge does not concern us since we obtain it constantly without worrying about it. Critical knowledge is the one that comes into play with formal instruction.

In a private education system, institutions compete to satisfy the instructional necessities of the students. Critical knowledge, which could be any science and philosophy, is discriminated and selectively presented to us depending on the discovery process of entrepreneurship. We might want to stop here for a moment and explain. Institutions do not know what the needs of the individuals are since every need is exclusive to every individual. So institutions, in order to carry out their desired business, must offer a form of education that they think will serve the customer. Each institution will offer a different form of education since in a decentralized market, there is no a priori coordination; the coordination is a process that rises with the formation of prices by entrepreneurial action. The entrepreneurial action is sustained or eliminated by the test of profit and loss; institutions that are able to meet the demands of its customers generate profits, and the ones that do not, suffer losses.

Each institution offers a different product that is not knowledge but education. Knowledge exists independently of the ones who teach it, and it is not a tradable good like Socrates teaches to Alcibiades in the “Symposium” by Plato. We cannot exchange knowledge since all knowledge can be discovered by every human in its characteristic feature of the use of reason. Education is then the product of these institutions, not the knowledge itself but the transmission of it, selectively, in a specific form and style.

In public education, there is no product; the offer is not elastic in any way. The amount and quality of education is decided arbitrarily. There is no profit or loss that can indicate that what is being offered is demanded or not. In its arbitrariness, the public institutions do not bear costs for their mismanagement. Thus, they are not incentivized to improve. Teachers are not incentivized to meet the demands of their students since their post does not depend on the students’ approval but the political fight within the bureaucracy.

Public institutions are not the only thing to worry about. The state also interferes in private institutions, by setting mandatory curricula and regulating and inspecting these institutions. Thus, entrepreneurship is damaged and the process of discovery undermined.

Of particular concern are the subsidies given to private institutions where the state engages in redistribution and counterequilibrium measures. What does this mean? The subsidies are paid with taxes extracted from the economic society; the income of these individuals is then lowered so that they cannot afford what they would if they had their entire income. Then, some will be expelled from affording private education and forced to enter public or subsidized education that is controlled by the government. Private, freely chosen education will be out of their reach.

For the less fortunate, with their income slashed by taxes, they might have to devote all their time to work because their survival is at stake—the choice comes down to either eating or studying. People that would obtain a higher standard of living not only in the present but in the future are scammed and induced to engage in an activity that will not benefit them as much as others would. The subsidized education is then a redistribution of income from the poor to the well-off/high-income population. Completely private institutions can hardly compete with institutions that are subsidized or outright “free.”

The Genealogy of Argentine Public Education

Looking at a case study can help us understand this topic. Our subject of analysis will be Argentina.

The birth of the national public school system in Argentina came with the constitution of 1853. The constitution guaranteed the right to learn and teach, but the interpreters of it did not concur with what the constitution said. The so-called liberal interpreters thought that education could only be granted by the state, with full government control over it. In the pedagogical debates of the time, it was the “liberal” interpretation that came to prominence in public policy. The “Father of Public Education” would be, to Argentinian history and the people, President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. He was part of a generation of intellectuals that believed in social engineering top-down (from the state to society). That was the only way of achieving a stable democracy by creating what we can call the “citizen” man: a “democratic” man that above all else fulfilled his civic duties (that is, obeyed the state mandates), a man that forsakes all of his personal values for the values of the state, a man that lives and dies for the nation-state.

The aim of searching for the “citizen” man continued unfettered with the implementation of mandatory schooling in 1884 by President Julio Argentino Roca (the same president that set the peso as legal tender). With mandatory and monopolistic education, the Argentine government would ensure the decimation of all the cultural backgrounds of the massive numbers of immigrants that entered Argentinian soil in those times. It was not until 1958 (with the debate “Laica o libre”) that private universities would be able to issue university degrees.

Since its birth, the public school system was meant to be a “dogma.” The progressives would use their monopoly of the school system to social engineer “docile subjects.”

Conclusion and Closing Remarks on Argentina

In our days, the faith in the public school system continues, just as it was meant to be. Argentina’s future can change for the better but only partially until it is able to take down the dismal sacred cow of our time. Education thrives in liberty like all human action, it’s importance ever reminded to us by the ferocity with which the state defends its management. Only with great endeavor will these shackles be broken and the true freedom of teaching and learning be practiced.

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