Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Manuel Belgrano, the educator

Manuel Belgrano (1770-1820) is often acknowledged as an active member of the Argentinian independence movement, a pragmatic military man, and an insightful politician. Having studied law in Spain, he was renowned as an illustrated economist at the Consulate of Buenos Aires for his reformist ideals, which were largely influenced by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. However, he is not usually remembered for his important initiatives and deep concern for education. Belgrano believed that the true wealth of countries was in their formation, and that the best way to promote industrialisation was through education. In 1799 he created the Nautical School, the Commerce School and the Geometry and Drawing Academy. He created the Commerce School to influence future merchants into working towards the best interests of the nation, and the Nautical and Drawing ones to provide the youth with prestigious and lucrative jobs. Those last ones worked under the same institution, next to the Consulate, so that Belgrano could easily supervise their development. Those schools worked for three years and were closed by the Spanish monarchy.
One of Belgrano's main ideals was popular and free education for all. For example, among the regulations for the Drawing and Nautical schools, he established that special consideration should be given to the 'natives' or indians, and to the orphans, as they were the most dispossessed people in our land. At a time when having a 'good' name was fundamental in the social array, Belgrano thought that a boy who went to an orphanage remained 'marked' for the rest of his life. In order to combat this situation, he proposed a scholarship system for the less favoured.
Belgrano was one of the first promoters of women's education in the River Plate. Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, he proposed the foundation of schools for girls, which was quite original for a time when women were banished from these activities. Although he did not look for 'intelectual' women, for he aimed at educating them with a practical bent for becoming mothers, he was nevertheless concerned with teaching them to read and write - quite revolutionary for the time!
To conclude, Manuel Belgrano was a clear example of commitment with the common good, particularly in the field of education. To him, education was a fundamental and necessary engine for the progress of a society. Though it is true that some of his views towards the less favoured groups may sound outdated nowadays - such as his views on the poor and women - it is important that we contextualise his thinking. In fact, for his historical context, he was certainly advanced and revolutionary in his initiatives, which indeed met considerable opposition at times. In view of this, we can regard him as the first initiator and promoter of free schooling and education for all. He was, in my view, an early believer in the transforming power of education and its potential for allowing learners to free themselves from social stigmatisation.

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