The Uses of University

“Okay wait, so you actually have to pay to go to your school in the United States?”

“Well yes, but I get scholarships to help me pay for it.”

“That’s not the point. The point is you have to pay to learn. You have to not only be smart enough to get in, but you also have to pay? How is that allowed? I don’t understand.”

A translated excerpt from a conversation I recently had with one of my classmates at the University of Buenos Aires (the UBA). This isn’t the only student I have encountered while studying here in Argentina who shares this student’s confusion. It mirrors my own when I step into the crowded halls at the Santiago de Estero campus of the UBA three days a week. Even after two months of classes, the demographics and day-to-day workings of my adoptive university leave me scratching my head and pondering questions far beyond those
sparked inside the classroom. In fact, some of the most interesting things I’ve learned have come not from my professors but from my fellow students.

One of my classrooms at the University of Buenos Aires.

One of my classrooms at the University of Buenos Aires.

At the UBA, education is free. The view is that if you are smart enough to get into the best university in Argentina, you should get to learn there without bearing any financial burden. Quality higher education is not a privilege, but a right. This is a view I think we in the United States would share but have yet to logistically work out. The right to quality higher education that the UBA upholds visually manifests itself in the demographics of its student body. I only have two classes at the university but they bring together some of the most diverse collections of people of which I’ve ever been a part. Individuals from all walks of life, all socioeconomic classes, and all ages fill the benches and desks of my lectures. The age spectrum in my classes alone spans from late teens-early twenties (the typical university age group), all the way to men and women in their sixties. It’s a
common thing for classes to start a few minutes late to allow those coming from jobs to arrive, rushing in the door wearing suits and carrying briefcases muttering apologies to the professor as they take their seats.

Working towards a degree at the UBA is a process to be taken slowly while one lives his or her life, not to be taken as a set section of one’s life that is never returned to again. Many of the staff members working at the offices of my study abroad program, for example, are finishing degrees at the UBA while they work for the program. Others have finished but choose to stay with the program rather than take their degrees and actively apply them. This is not to say they are throwing away the education they worked long and hard to receive. On the contrary, I think it demonstrates quite well the difference in the way Argentines view a college degree and how we in the U.S. might view it.

The halls of  the UBA are perpetually lined with colorful boards discussing the social issues of the myriad of student groups.

The halls of the UBA are perpetually lined with colorful boards discussing the social issues of the myriad of student groups.

Spend any amount of time at the UBA, observing things akin to what I’ve described and you can’t help but get the feeling that the idea that learning is a life-long process is much more literally understood here, than it is in the United States. Students admitted to the university in Argentina not only have a right to be there but also have a right to finish their degrees regardless of how many times life chooses to intervene and force them to pause, or how many years it took them to gain admission. These beliefs I find particularly interesting coming from a school with such a strong pre-professional atmosphere as Georgetown does. At Georgetown, and possibly throughout the United States, more often than not, university is viewed as a stepping stone to a successful career and fulfilling life, not as part of either of those things. As much as I understand the U.S. view of universities and agree with the need to be qualified in order to do a job of course, I can’t help but admire the Argentine view of the perpetual student.

Nor can I help but wonder if with this mindset, Argentine students get something out of their university educations that I and my fellow U.S. students might lack: a true joy of learning for knowledge’s sake and that alone. Sure in the U.S. we are encouraged to figure out what we like while in college rather than before we begin as they do in Argentina. Nonetheless, that preliminary dabbling is still done with the mindset that once you find what you like, you’ll study it so that you can do it professionally when you graduate. It is not done because learning as much as you can, about as many things as you can, while you have the pportunity to do so is a chance not to be squandered; and that makes me a little bit sad for us U.S. students. Maybe we should take a hint from our Argentine counterparts and really take to heart (and to mind) the fact that one should never stop seeking out knowledge no matter how many minutes, or years for that matter, late to class you might arrive.

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