By Andres Oppenheimer
When people talk about Latin America’s biggest problems, they usually start by citing government corruption, crime and unemployment. However, one of the region’s biggest problems — compared to what I’ve seen in Asia and other parts of the emerging world — is its people’s failure to take education seriously.
I’m not talking just about the region’s governments’ failure to improve education standards, but about the people’s apparent indifference about the issue. A new poll makes it clear.
The poll, released by Latinobarómetro, a Chile-based regional polling firm, shows that education ranked last among the biggest concerns of most Latin Americans, way below the economy, politics and corruption.
Only 4% of Latin Americans cite education as among their countries’ biggest problems, according to the poll of almost 20,000 people in 18 Latin American countries.
In some countries, there is an even more alarming lack of public awareness about the importance of education: In Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, only 2% of the people cited education as a major national problem. In Argentina, Guatemala and Honduras, the figure was just 3%.
The absence of a culture of obsession with education is a key reason why Latin America has lost so much ground to Asian countries in recent decades. While in many families in Asia invest much of their time and money in their children’s education, you don’t see much of that in Latin America.
For example, there are 758,000 Asian students at U.S. colleges, compared with only 80,200 from Latin America, according to the U.S. State Department’s “Open Doors” report on foreign students.
Granted, Asia’s population is much bigger. But that doesn’t explain why families in many countries there send more of their children to the world’s best universities than similarly populated Latin American countries.
There are almost 24,000 students from Vietnam in U.S. colleges, compared with 14,300 from Mexico, which has a larger population and is much closer to the United States. And there are more students from Bangladesh in U.S. colleges than from Colombia, despite the fact that Bangladesh is a much poorer country.
Contrary to what I used to believe before I visited China, South Korea and other Asian countries, most Asian students are not sent to study abroad with their tuition and living expenses all paid for by their governments. They are mostly studying abroad with their families’ savings.
Likewise, the lack of a culture of passion for education in Latin America is resulting in dismal academic standards at elementary and high schools. And that’s likely to have worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic because of widespread school closings.
According to the international PISA tests of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science, the best performing students were in China, Singapore and Macao, while Latin American youths ranked in the bottom half.
What’s worse, some poor-performing Latin American countries, such as Mexico, have recently dropped out of the PISA test altogether. Instead of trying to measure themselves against the rest of the world and correcting its education challenges, the Mexican government has decided to go into full denial mode.
That’s a recipe for perpetuating poverty. Despite the latest spike in some commodity prices, the countries that are likely to be most successful in the future are those that export knowledge-based products, and not agricultural or basic manufacturing goods. Mental work will pay increasingly more than manual work.
What shall Latin American countries do? There is little hope that the solution to the region’s educational backwardness will come from governments. Investing in quality education means spending more on teachers’ training, a decade-long proposition that doesn’t help candidates win next year’s elections.
The solution is creating a family culture of obsession with education. Business leaders, the media and civic groups should invest in nationwide public-awareness campaigns to press their governments to improve their countries’ education standards.
As long as only 4% of Latin Americans cite education as one of their biggest priorities, their governments won’t be under pressure to pay much attention to it — and the region will continue to lose ground in the global economy.
Credit: Miami Herald