June 19, 2013
Is the education system educating?
By Ana Florencia Carotti -For the Herald
As Thomas Henry Huxley once cunningly said, “perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.” But is education currently teaching us to meet deadlines, work hard and commit? Or, as Sydney J. Harris affirmed, is it more concerned with making “one’s mind a pleasant place in which to spend one’s time?”
Five years ago, my mother was offered a one-year position in the city of Liège in Belgium. Being a close-knit family, we decided my father, my brother and I would go as well. We thought about a private school for English speakers; namely, the sons and daughters of European Union officials. Ultimately, the international school’s tuition and the fact that my parents wanted me to learn French convinced them to send me to a public school. And, having attended a pretentious private school my entire life, I was certainly dumbfounded.
My first impressions? Well, Ela, my Turkish classmate, arrived every morning in her family’s Bentley, driven, of course, by her chauffeur. And when she took off her coat, you could easily see the Louis Vuitton label. Yet, in our same class, there was Mustafa, a joyful Algerian who rode a bike and shopped at the flea market. We wore no uniforms and, having thought that they were meant to make all students equal to avoid any bigotry, I was gladly surprised to see how there seemed to be no social differences between these two paradigms.
With time, I learnt to handle myself in that unfamiliar environment. Always respecting the basic and scarce rules, such as the prohibition of wearing any kind of religious symbols, I soon began to fit in. Some rules, however, took me longer to learn. One day, I missed a class and the principal sent a letter to my parents informing them of my misstep.
I began to wonder… in my Argentine school I didn’t have the liberty of dressing as I pleased; yet, I skipped classes at least twice a week and, had it not been because I always share too much with my parents, they would have never found out. Interestingly enough, the words of Felix E. Schelling, “true education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success, the glorious inequality of talent, of genius,” led me to ask: today, schools make us become flocks of similar-looking figures who have been deprived of “the inequality of individuality” and, in the meantime, the fact that there seems to be no distinction between those who commit to their studies and those who don’t, might lead us to think that the “inequality of success” has also been lost.
I remember my time in Belgium and cannot help but think of how I never saw a student enquire as to why he had received a six out of 10 instead of a seven in an exam or paper. It seemed as if there was a clear-cut hierarchy which could not be defied by any means. Yet, in Argentina, how many stories of students, and even parents, questioning teachers’ grading have we heard? Admittedly, some teachers are truly unjust or even unfit for their jobs. But is anyone paying attention to their progress? Are they being evaluated? In Belgium, those examinations took place twice a year. A council of more experienced educators would attend different classes and evaluate the teachers’ performance. Therefore, these educators tested the teachers and the teachers tested the students. But it was never the other way around. Perhaps we misunderstood Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement that “the secret in education lies in respecting the student.” Or maybe we misunderstood what “respect” means. Do teachers respect their students when being unfair and letting themselves be guided by the students’ whims and humours? Or do they respect them when doing their job well and asking from the students the same commitment?
There are those who believe education will never fully educate. The educational process has long been the subject of many comments, both approving and cynical. Great minds have stated that education is the basis of any society. But others have remarked on how the educational systems constantly fail to truly educate. “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” said Mark Twain. “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality” said Helen Beatrix Potter. “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught,” said Oscar Wilde. These intellectuals seem quite eager to reject the educational system and praise those who are self-taught. In fact, according to Bertrand A. Russell, education is “one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought.”
Something must have made these prodigies think this poorly about the institution that is supposed to rise above all others. They all seem to agree that education inhibits freedom, originality and individuality.
This belief has contributed to the fact that, with the passing of time, educational systems everywhere have become more flexible and indulgent. But haven’t we crossed the line? Are we letting students become the masters of their own education?
The city of Buenos Aires has recently experienced the consequences of such distortion. Students all over the city took over the schools they attended and prevented anyone from coming in. By the by, in Argentina, these deplorable events have become so frequent that we already have a word for them: tomas. Allegedly, the aim of the protesting students was to prevent the authorities from moving forward with the curriculum reform. But, as much as one can agree with the students’ right to speak their mind, one should also realize that students are in no condition to determine the course of their education. Why? Simply because of the fact that they are still students.
According to UNCuyo professor Estela M. Zalba, “teachers often mistake the concept of respecting their students with just letting them do whatever they want,” probably because “today’s teachers lived times of great educational repression [National Reorganization Process (1976-1983)] and tend to see any imposition of limits as a form of authoritarianism.” To which she added: “This lack of limits and responsibility not only brings them problems in university but also in life… like when they drink and drive”.
So if Argentine schools are not teaching us to meet deadlines or to be responsible, what are they teaching us? To dress alike? To form flawless lines from the shortest to the tallest student?
Are these the bases of a society? How are we supposed to build a better future only on these grounds? Maybe it’s time we started listening to those, like Andrés Oppenheimer, who have long been telling us that “we could use some ‘constructive paranoia’” and start “imitating the developed countries, which are the ones that are immersed in an economy of knowledge.”
If today’s young generations are not being taught to be responsible, dedicated, and dependable, how are they supposed to teach these concepts to the young generations of the future?
It is a never-ending cycle. And, if nobody acts on it, the situation will surely worsen as time passes.