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Improving Argentine society: teen-agers speak out

How do you make an ideal society? The question was posed to a high school civics workshop in this working class Buenos Aires suburb.

The responses offer a glimpse of the outlook for Latin American youth coming of age at a time when the hope of new democracy is clouded by economic despair:

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Retire factory workers at the age of 40 so young people will have a chance to work.

Make it safer to walk on the streets again so a guy doesn't have to take his girlfriend out on a date with two or three other friends.

Clean up city streets and parks.

Teach better manners to children in the home, so that when you offer your bus seat to someone everyone else doesn't look at you strangely.

The answers reflect the declining economy, in which unemployment and crime are on the rise and public coffers have gone bust leaving streets dirty and in disrepair.

The workshop, offered by the grass-roots organization Conciencia (Conscience), is a lively break in an education system that has rarely if ever permitted students the opportunity to voice opinions.

Students are divided into groups of six and must come to a consensus on what an ideal society is and how it can be achieved. A practical exercise in democratic procedure, the workshop starkly contrasts with past civics education.

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``I taught during the military period,'' says Lidia Greco de Schauman, a teacher at the Instituto Padre Marquez. ``They used to teach how things should be and that the Constitution guaranteed certain rights. But because no one could exercise them it was all an abstract and boring discussion.''

Ms. de Schauman's high school class, at a Roman Catholic school, had been on a waiting list for months before the popular Conciencia civics workshop arrived for an afternoon last month.

Although the issues of divorce - which was legalized in Argentina this year - and capital punishment often bring discussion groups nearly to blows, the most controversial topic here was the jobs issue.

When the youth proposed early retirement to make way for a younger generation of workers, another teen-ager from this community, which just had a factory closure, asked: ``How would you feel if it was your dad?''

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