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.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Power of Being an Educator: Ernesto Sabato's view on Education

Ernesto Sabato, one of the most renowned writers in Argentina, has devoted his life to learning. First, he got his PhD in physics and, after working several years as a researcher in Europe, he came back to Argentina to start his writing and teaching career. Either as a student, researcher or teacher, Ernesto Sabato has always been concerned with education. After reading his essay on Education in Latin America, I realised how much he has learnt throughout his life and, most importantly, how much we can learn from this amazing words. One of the most interesting aspects of his writing is the fact that, even though he has always been involved in high education, he is really concerned about elementary education (both primary and secondary). He claims that such education is vital for the lives of our children and adolescents and that it is during those years that students learn the most: to become full human beings. That is why Sabato emphasises the importance of what students are taught during that period. What are we teaching to our students? What is the relevance and usefulness of what they are taught? Two questions that we, as teachers-to-be, need to answer.

Content is the main concern, if not the only one, of most of the school’s syllabi. However, is content everything our students need? Or are there other aspects that need to be tackled? In my humble opinion, I must admit that I do agree with Sabato. Even though content is important, it is by no means the only thing our students need. He calls for an integrative approach to teaching in which students are guided towards self-discovery and integration of what they have learnt into their lives. We should not teach English to our students but give them the learning tools with which they will go on learning after their schooling is over. He says that instead of knowledge students should be given only the essential contents from which they will build their own knowledge. Teaching does not finish when we give our students the information. On the contrary, teaching should start there. Information and content can be taken, nowadays, from many sources, but the ability to think, reason and criticise can only be incorporated if our teachers foster and encourage them. We do not need to teach our students every single thing we know but what we teach should be done passionately and with the intention to form full human beings as the main goal.

We are teachers but, above all, we are educators. We have the possibility and the responsibility to make the best out of the role we have chosen. Teaching only English can be the easiest path but teaching people how to make use of all the potential they have will definitely be more enriching both for us and for our students.

Not Information But Formation” is our main challenge, if you believe, as Sabato does, that education goes certainly beyond learning.