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07/09/2011 | Chilean students and their contradictions

Carlos Alberto Montaner

It’s understandable. Chilean university students have been on a tear lately. They — and, I suspect, those in any other country — want good study plans, accessible to anyone with a high-school diploma and paid not by them or their families but by the whole of society through the general state budget.

 

They assume, because the politicians have so assured them, that college education is a right and therefore a collective responsibility.

Less understandable is these youngsters’ hostility toward private universities, especially those that operate for profit. Many Chilean students not only want their education to be free but also oppose the idea that other students should pay for those services or that the universities that educate them should be profit-making institutions. Why? Because they believe that to make education a commercial transaction — to buy and sell education — debases knowledge and degrades its quality.

That reasoning is very odd. If private universities disappeared, all those students would end up in public institutions that are already overcrowded and generally inefficient, worsening the quality of learning and notably raising its final cost, which would have to be met with higher taxes.

Besides, it doesn’t seem true that private universities reduce the quality of studies. Here are three examples of the hundreds that could be cited: Harvard is the best university in the United States, and it is private. The best university in Spain is in Navarra, and it’s private. Francisco Marroquín University is the best in Guatemala, and it’s also private. I could name the 20 worst universities in Latin America and — almost surely — more than half are public.

In addition, one of Latin America’s worst failures is precisely the failure of its public education system. As Andrés Oppenheimer never tires of reminding us in Basta de Historias (Enough Tall Tales), among the world’s 500 best universities you can only find Mexico’s UNAM — and in the 200th-something spot. What makes these rebellious Chilean students think that by dumping their fellow students into public institutions they can improve the quality of learning?

No one can doubt the importance of higher education, but I don’t think that forming professionals is more important than feeding the population. On the pyramid of needs, feeding oneself ranks at the top. Why don’t Chileans propose that the production and distribution of food be gratis and provided by the state? The same logic that leads some to reproach the sale of education can be used to reject the dirty task of dealing with the feeding and survival of people.

And why not extend that reasoning to housing? Is there anything more dear to people than the house in which they live? How can we allow some heartless merchants to profit from something consecrated by the Constitution, which establishes that we all have the right to a decent home? If the students carefully follow the thread of their reasoning, they should demand that the state turn over to them, at no cost, the house each one desires.

Nothing in this makes sense. In fact, what the state should stress is improving the quality of elementary and secondary learning. The nucleus of our personalities is forged in the first 10 years of our lives, and in the seven following years — adolescence — we acquire the values and habits of behavior that will accompany us to the grave.

Those of us who have had the privilege of teaching in some universities know that the students who arrive at these high centers of learning have been molded by their previous school experience, and there is little that can be done to turn them into exceptional professionals if they don’t have a firm foundation.

Those who arrive with a good base, who are serious, studious and decent will be notable professionals and excellent citizens. Those who arrive with major shortcomings (some of them can’t write or speak coherently) and willing to obey only a single law, that of the least effort, will be cheaters and mediocre citizens — if they manage to graduate.

This reality tells us where we should put our shoulder.

Miami Herald (Estados Unidos)

 


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