Friday, February 19, 2010

Paula Varsavsky

In one of my previous posts, I told the sad story of how my university denied funding for the visit of a noted Argentinean writer Paula Varsavsky to our campus. We are suffering from a budget freeze caused by the refusal by the governor of Illinois to cover the state's debt to our university. My whiny and angry post brought very good results. Not from the governor, of course, but from the writer herself. Paula was so kind that she offered to come to our campus on her own dime. More than that, in order to do so she refused a paying offer of a visit from another school.
I was very excited to have Paula come to our university and speak to our students. Our student body does not come from rich backgrounds, so the cultural exposure the students have in this tiny Midwestern town is minimal, at best. My students have no knowledge of the military dictatorship in Argentina, the dirty war, the desaparecidos. They never heard of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo or of Jorge Luis Borges. The Falklands war (or la guerra de las Malvinas) means nothing to them, either. I know that it sounds incredible that such kind of ignorance can exist in the world, but, sadly, this is true.

In this sense, Paula's visit was a godsend. Our students got an opportunity to meet a real Argentinean writer (who has been translated into English) and hear first-hand about the experiences of a female writer in the post-dictatorship Argentina. Paula is a great public speaker, and her talks are always a lot of fun. We had a bit of a scare early in the day when there was a campus-wide power outage. I felt terrified that the campus would close down because of it and I would have to tell the writer that she came all this way for nothing. Thankfully, the lights went back on in a while.

I wish the administration of all educational institutions realized that you cannot offer good education if it is completely detached from the world around us. Our students need to be exposed to a wide variety of cultural experiences, without which the very idea of a university education becomes one huge joke. They need to meet writers, artists, politicians, and academics from all over the world. They need to discover that the world is huge and does not consist only of the limited realities they are familiar with. American students in general suffer from a grievous lack of knowledge about other cultures, other countries, world politics, international issues, etc.

As teachers, we make heroic efforts to bring this knowledge and these experiences to the students. But nobody else seems to care much. The President announces that colleges need to "cut costs." The governor defaults on the state's paymens to universities. It's like nobody realizes that our students cannot avoid being the citizens of a globalized world. There is some basic knowledge that they need in order to be able to do that.

Thanks to Paula Varsavsky's kindness, we have been able to offer this opportunity to our students. But if we have to continue running on no resources, the intellectual future of American students looks very bleak.

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