October 2, 2007

Profs Disappointed in Argentinian Science Ed.

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Normally, Earth science students and faculty gather once a week to hear the latest updates on plate tectonics and radiometric dating techniques. This week, however, they were treated to something different. Visiting Professor Victor Ramos of the University of Buenos Aires spoke on his views on the broader subject of science in South America from an Argentinian perspective. He tied together aspects of economics, politics and social history to illuminate how science in South America has changed over the last century and what its prospects are for the next.
The importance of an accessible, developed and protected education system became the theme of the lecture that most resonated with Cornell’s own mission and future.
Ramos repeatedly emphasized that an educated and developed populace may “take generations to obtain but to destroy is very simple.” The most passionate story told of such destruction took place at the University of Buenos Aires on July 29, 1966. La Noche de los Bastones Largos, or in English ‘The Night of the Police Batons’ was a military and police response to a faculty and student protest of increased censorship and restricted self-governance at the university. The event was named after the batons used to beat the faculty and students as they were taken out of university buildings, where they had gone for cover.
According to Ramos, “1,300 professors — all the best and mostly from the sciences — resigned and left soon after.” From that period on through the economic and political crisis of 2001, Argentinian science remained stagnant and missed many of the scientific revolutions that occurred in the late 20th century.
It was not always this way. At the end of the 19th century, Domingo Sarmiento and Horace Mann, the famous American educator, aggressively built an obligatory, free public education system with well-funded primary and secondary schools, teacher’s colleges, libraries and museums. Within decades, a literacy rate of 20 percent rose drastically and the newly founded University of Buenos Aires became one of the premiere universities in the world. Argentina also became one of the wealthiest nations in the world with a GDP greater than Australia or Canada. The Argentina of 1960 was known as the Argentina Era Una Fiesta (was a party), but by 1967, scientists along with many other intellectuals were rushing out of the country. Patrick Taylor grad said, “I’m surprised how quickly Argentina’s prosperity waned, especially academically.”
Since the beginning of the new millennium, Argentina has steadily been increasing its scientific output, but its future is still uncertain. Ramos concluded his presentation with a series of remarks that were drawn from the discussion: “Free and public education is the only way to an egalitarian society, and a lack of democracy leads to censorship and inhibits free thinking that effects scientific output.” Most frustrating, Ramos said that even though there is funding right now for many research fellowships, there are not qualified applicants from decades of a failed education system. Prof. Riccardo Giovanelli, astronomy, who grew up partially in Argentina, said that Argentina was “the most disappointing promise of the 20th century; the one country outside of the mainstream Europe and US that had the opportunities and could have made it but didn’t.”