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Education: Education cannot make us equal in fortunes but it can make us equal in aspirations

Jan 26, 2011, 1:38 PM

Education is the key to success, is a popular adage that you may have heard many times over. You may have been told this by a friend, teacher or by your parents in order to encourage you to take your education seriously and give you the hope that with a good education, success is guaranteed. I can rightly assert that many of us believe in this statement and with good reason.

If education is recognized as the key to human success then serious questions need to be asked about its present configuration in both process and substance. How can we get all the people of the world have access to education? Why is the school system in most countries failing almost half of the students? Why is the curriculum most of the time irrelevant to the task ahead in real life?

As a student myself whenever I reflect on my academic journey from primary education to university, I cannot help thinking about my former classmates and schoolmates who could not make it to where I am because their parents or guardians did not find the money to pay their school fees. Most of them as far as I could remember were hardworking, focused and determined. The only chink in their amour was that they did not have money. With money they might have been where I am or even further.

Such is the pathetic reality associated with the commercialization of education. When the key to success is auctioned the likelihood of the disadvantaged getting access to it is slim.  I must admit that as far as education is concerned I fared better than many of my former colleagues as mentioned above but that does not mean that I was better off. I was equally born and brought up in poverty. My story I believe, is a combination of good luck and destiny. Trouble with school fees had on several occasions threatened my education career but I always managed to survive. Even as you are reading this article, you can be certain that there are millions of parents out there somewhere in the world thinking about how to get the money to put their children in school and many more millions of students are faced with the same challenge. The problem is not only limited to poor countries. Even in the richer countries the financial cost of staying in school or university is a real nightmare.

The high cost of education is a potent threat to world peace and development. Imagine the millions denied the chance to acquire an education because of the cost attached to it. These are usually the less fortunate members of our society who to be honest need the key to success than the already successful, that is the rich.  They have all the zeal and will to be educated but the system rejects them when they needed it most. Besides, their potentials to contribute to human progress may never be realized. Yet the only crime they committed is to be poor. You will only understand this phenomenon better if you have ever met a dedicated schoolboy or girl who but for financial reasons was forced to leave school early. I am not talking about an abstract concept; this is a stark real life story.  

If it is true that education is the key to success, then governments all over the world must make it absolutely free. If we are really serious with creating a fairer, more equal and just world, education must be accessible and affordable to all. It must not be hijacked by the monopolists who continue to tell us that if we think education is expensive then we should try ignorance. Such a statement is obsolete and presents a narrow view of life and global prosperity. It had been used in the past to justify the exclusion of the vast majority of humanity from tasting the power of knowledge. However, for the sanity of the world today and for the sake of the future, we have to do away with such slogans of retrogression. Education must be de-privatized for the public good.  Neither must we be at the mercy of the philanthropists who say they will sponsor the ‘needy and deserving’. Tell them, we are all needy and deserving. Humankind should not be measured by output but rather by existence.  Every living soul deserves the best. The right to education must be a reality for all the people of the globe. It is not enough to organize international conferences in the name of the right to education; there should be a global commitment to free education. People must press their governments to this effect and governments must be responsive to the cause of the neglected.

The usual argument put forward by governments is that education is too costly a social service to be provided free of charge. Furthermore, they advanced the premise that should education be free, it will not be valued by the people. I believe you would agree that these arguments are mere escape clauses used by governments to shy away from their responsibilities. There may not be the money to fund free universal education but there is money and indeed enough money to build spectacular palaces and holiday resorts for the politicians and their corporate allies. Enough money to spend on campaigns, enough money to squander on arms and armaments enough to destroy the world many times over, enough money to finance senseless wars and enough money  for politicians  to send their children to the best schools available. And yet all these money is coming from the people. All the wealth on earth is created by us the people. Apart from our taxes, we are the workforce of any government or business and we are the ultimate market for all production. Without us nothing will work and there will be no life or opulence as enjoyed by the few. Thus it is only rational and fair that we demand our legitimate share of the enormous wealth that we create to be invested in educating our children. This is not socialism, this is not communism, this is ‘necessism’. This is the necessity for fair play that we have ignored for so long.

If you compute the wealth of the world as it stands today, you will realize that there is no lack of resources. The problem is the lack of political will to correct the knowledge gap between the rich and the poor. Countries which have taken the bold step of giving out free education for all have proved that it is a possibility. Interestingly enough, some of these are not the world’s richest countries in terms of material wealth. In my country, the Gambia, thousands of girls were delivered from illiteracy when the President of the Republic, Dr Yahya Jammeh declared free education for girls. The Gambia is not a rich country by any standards. The government just has the political will to educate their people. Such a laudable action from a small country like the Gambia has further embolden my belief in the possibility of free education in every country of the earth, big or small, rich or poor.  

Since we share the same destiny, there must be a ‘global education fund’ sponsored by all governments and under the auspices of UNESCO for the free education of all children on earth. This may seem to be a naïve and simplistic solution to our education challenges yet the current sophisticated system has failed and is failing. Moreover, a universal education system would help in the coordination of resources for research and human development. It would also reduce the tendency of private funding for institutions in the pay of the monopolists. Private funding has often been used to pursue research intended to benefit the interest of the few. Even whereas discoveries of potential benefits for the entire human race were the outcome as in medicine, the products have become too expensive for the poor. Furthermore, free and compulsory education can end or greatly reduce child labour. The “Cinderellas” being abused by unscrupulous industrialists would find no child on the streets to exploit if all of our children were in school.   

What about the notion that the value of education is in its price. The cheaper it becomes the less worthy it is. It would neither be cherished by the teachers nor by the students and parents. Therefore people should get it the hard way. Anyway, people all over the world are aware of and are performing their responsibilities to themselves and to their governments. Recognizing their right to education would by no means dampen down their spirit. If anything it would only strengthen their resolve to push further. In fact what we call free education is not really a gift but a package paid for by taxes from the people. To imagine that the people would mark down their own sweat is an illusion.  Let us be realistic, no people are expecting government to do everything for them but no government must expect to do nothing for the people. And if there is any area where government intervention can make a difference, it is in education. The people have done their part; the world must wake up to the plight of the majority.

 The school system in most countries is still based on the ‘survival of the fittest’ evaluation theory. In this case students are according to academic performance classified into the intelligent or fast learners and the so-called slow learners. Undoubtedly most students fall under the category of the latter and as such more students are leaving school with little satisfaction with their results. In some instances attempts are made to help them measure up to standard, even so priority is still given to the fittest that is the fast learners. The situation in some cases is so serious that many youngsters are afraid of school.

How can we make the world’s education systems more learner-friendly? As a student myself I have always wondered about what could be done to rescue those falling out of the system every year. Most are not failing because they are not bright enough. The issue is far more complicated than that. We need to re-examine the teaching and learning process   with special focus on the ‘trinity of schooling’- teachers, students, and parents. Teachers are arguably one of the most important players in the education chain, their success in transmitting the message to the learners is vital to the learners’ success. Indeed any failure registered is an indication of a breakdown in communication somewhere between the two. Teachers must be well trained, well motivated and well paid so as to enable them carryout their duties smoothly. They must be encouraged to like the job or else the job may not be done well. However, in many parts of the world the condition of teachers is not the least enviable. They hardly command the respect accorded to lawyers and doctors even though they are doing an equally important job. Even for their own students teaching is the last profession they would like to join in the future. We can argue that in many parts of the world teachers are not given the attention and consideration they deserve.  As parent substitutes entrusted with the molding of the young, teachers are crucial to a prosperous today and a better future. Their welfare must be paramount if we are to make any meaningful headway in education. Of course this does not mean that if teachers’ welfare is not adequately met, they should not perform. We shall comment more on their responsibilities later.

 Despite this apparent lack of regard for teachers, the education system and society expects a lot from them. We expect them to deliver and adhere to high moral values and ethics. When a teacher commits a mistake it is often taken very seriously. Just think of the many teachers accused daily of abusing their students whilst in actual fact they were just trying to do the best for their students. There may be some rogue teachers but many really want the best for their students. The huge pressure we place on them is to a certain extent to blame for the world’s failing school systems.

Having said that, I think it is time that teachers became more assertive in their job. Theirs is no mean task. They should be people who like the job and not force by circumstances. Teaching is too important a profession for the desperate. One way of achieving greater progress in the education system is for every nation to have a ‘two year national teaching service’ for all school leavers immediately after finishing school.  This army of volunteers would be under the supervision of professional teachers. Consideration for another job after completion of service should depend on the success the volunteers achieved in the national service. Such a program would allow everyone to have a direct stake in the education of our children and create an avenue for national sacrifice. It would also enable a great majority of future decision makers to have direct contact with the challenges inherent in the education system. The gains of this firsthand experience of the classroom situation and familiarity with the school system in general would go a long way towards making people understand the need for a robust and responsive education delivery system. The volunteers having just left school would bring fresh understanding of what it feels like being a student and thus armed with such knowledge they would indeed be helpful in the teaching process. The national service would also inspire people to take up teaching as a profession and respect teachers. And into the bargain, it will shift the education of our children from being the sole responsibility of teachers to a collective national responsibility. Another suggestion towards improving teaching is for teachers to spend their holidays doing the very things they are teaching their students. This would help them fill the gap between theory and practice and thus enable them understand more their area of specialization. Teachers really need to get out of the classroom if they are to teach real life relevant matters. For example, the agricultural science teacher might be good at telling students in the classroom about what makes a good fertile soil and yet he or she does not involve in any active farming. The geography or science teacher might talk about pollution when they may never have taken steps towards solving the problem. The world’s education system cannot be built on narration, we need action.

The other part of the trinity is the students and pupils. You need not be a parent or educationist to appreciate the central role played by students in the success of education. In fact they are the intended direct beneficiaries of the learning process. In order for students to make the most of the education system, they must focus in the first place develop the will to learn. They should see in education a chance to upgrade them and help humankind. After all what use is knowledge if you cannot use it to help others. In addition they should diversify their perception of learning and become more independent minded. It is not uncommon for students to base their studies on passing examinations.  This kind of studies restricts the students’ focus on what they have already been taught about rather than opening their minds to critical thinking.

Another area where students need to improve on is balancing their academic life with their social life. Many youngsters have fallen prey to peer pressure and forced into activities which compromise their education career. This is true for both those in the rich parts of the world and those in the poorer parts. Involvement in drugs, addiction to video games and films, street violence, and idling are some of the distracting forces militating against students’ performance in school. Students who are engaged in such practices have their concentration in the classroom dented and worst still they cannot do their home works as expected.  Nowadays perhaps due to these forces, the reading competence of the school going age group is in most cases the least satisfactory. There is great need for youngsters to realize that the film, sports, and music celebrities that they so dearly adore are people doing their work for a living. They are not in it for mere fun.

 Now let us get things right, of course this does not in any way mean that it is bad for students to have celebrity role models of the types mentioned above.  After all there is nothing wrong with a youngster aspiring to be a musician, actor, sports person or whatever. These are all important areas of human interest and without them planet earth would have been as lifeless and boring as the other plants. However, our youths have been so mesmerized with immediate pleasures that they are in some way unable or unwilling to take interest in shaping their future development. They should understand that at this formative stage of their lives it is vital to swap immediate enjoyments with hard work for future prosperity.

All work no play makes Jack a dull boy and all play no work equally makes Jack a dull boy. This is a famous proverb and you can understand the logic in it.  Students are in no way denied the right to enjoy themselves. Both the home and the school calendar are fraught with opportunities for legitimate merry making without impacting negatively on their schooling. Birthday celebrations, religious feasts, school sports, and drama, are some of the events in the home and school calendar that can make for our youngsters quest for socialization. The more the world’s student body learns to maintain a harmonious balance between play and work, the better for the future of our education systems.

I have so far discussed what I believe could be done by teachers and students to better our education systems. I shall now concentrate on what I think parents could do to further improve education.

Besides the traditional roles of preparing children for school and   monitoring their progress, parents can help their children do better. Already many parents are playing an active role in their children’s education but many more need a reminder. The best parents can do for their children is to help them to comprehend the value of education. For the will to learn will never be in the children if in the first place they do not understand or cherish education. Parents need to establish more dialogue with the kids. This could be done by parents if they not only stop at helping the kids with their school tailored work like homework or helping them study for a test but  develop their own timetable of roles and responsibilities expected of the kid, by the society. You never know that simple things such as encouraging a child to go to bed on time and wake up on time, learn to work with his\her siblings with little friction, develop the attitude of not being afraid of committing errors and being corrected, could go a long way towards making the child assertive and ready for the challenges at school. Parents must make the kids see at home the same seriousness attached to education as it is in the school.  And the communication line between parents and teachers need to be activated and strengthened. Regular dialogue between the two is crucial in assessing the kids, and drawing a collective effort towards establishing better education for all. 

If every parent can spare time to teach their children to read and write, the world would be better than it is now.

The curriculums of our education systems need to be both relevant and inclusive. We must design them in such a way that they are not limited to teaching only literacy and numeracy.  They must be relevant to our real life situations and also able to include the so-called slow learners. A curriculum that is made to deliberately jettison more than half of the school going age before they finish school is surely not the kind the world needs at this trying moment.

As a student myself, I cannot help thinking about what kind of education I am going through. I am not the least satisfied with what I have been through so far. From primary school and to now university, I have realized that the curriculum has done remarkably enough to develop my individuality. Without this personal development there was no way I could have written this article. However, the curriculum in my view has fallen far short of integrating my personality with my environment. You may find this strange or contradictory but as we go along you will understand what I am talking about.

From the beginning the school taught me to compete rather than to cooperate with my classmates by encouraging tests and examinations in which individual excellence was the desired outcome. The competition is such that you are tempted to hide useful information that could have made a difference if shared. Thus from the very beginning we are taught that in order to make it, we must rely on our personal competence. Forgetting that the best that humanity has ever achieved was through cooperation and not through competition. This early fascination with individualism sadly hardly dies out in us and is partly to blame for the mess the world finds itself in.   

Imagine how the world would be if we start teaching our children from the first day in school that their success would be evaluated by what they have achieved as a group rather than their individual output. This would help the children learn better and develop the culture of cooperation and team work from an early stage in their lives. In addition, the children of this philosophy would grow up to be men and women interested more in the community’s well being than pursuing their own selfish welfare. We must also from the outset make the curriculum practically responsive to our survival. No one must leave school without the skills to match the theories learnt. This will enable the world to have more potential job creators than job seekers.

An inclusive curriculum would help the slow learners to catch up with the fast learners. The objective must be to help those we think cannot learn, to learn.  If we restrict our focus on the gifted and look down on the ‘less-recognized’, then we will end up leaving behind a large chunk of the human family in our quest for a better world. Our curriculum can be simplified in such a way that it will arouse the interest of the students to get to the depth of the subject matter. For example, many kids consider mathematics; physics and other science based subjects as difficult because the curriculum treats them as special subjects making them unnecessarily abstract at least to the opinion of many average students. However, in real life these subjects are some of the most material of all school subjects. We do some mathematics in everyday life and with good accuracy. The rural child who spends part of  his day herding goats or the urban child who has to negotiate the busy street traffic of his neighborhood to school every day, should not find mathematics difficult but for the deficiency of our curriculum. What they do daily is all mathematics. Identifying members of the herd and calculating the distance to travel for good grazing land and the daunting daily stint of calculating when to safely cross a busy street in the rush-hour is equally no mean feat. It is real life mathematics and geography in the highest order, and yet the kids prevail. Just think of the many early school leavers around the world who went on to become some of the world’s most successful businesspeople. The above explains that the world’s children are not stupid, they just need a better curriculum to sail them through.

 I call on all stakeholders in the education sector the world over to go back to the drawing board and devise a more inclusive and learner-friendly curriculum.