The school of life Ian on Sunday
By Ian McDonald
September 28, 2003
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Why do we send the children to school? What do teachers hope to achieve when they instruct the children? What is the purpose of education?
I hope these questions remain “alive” in the minds of parents, teachers and Ministry of Education authorities and are not perceived as the sort of questions which need never be asked because the answers to them are considered self-evident.
The truth is that schooling is all too often seen as a boring waste of time by both children and teachers. Ask a selection of the more intelligent, least brainwashed children what they think of school and they will reply that it is mostly boring, doesn’t teach them anything useful for real life. Ask teachers willing to tell the truth and they also will admit to boredom and going through the motions in a system which is ordained and inflexible.
Boredom is a terrible condition. For materially secure children it is bad enough but combined with poverty it is a recipe for national disaster.
Boredom means that the mind is lying fallow, ready for weeds to grow. It means that the body is slackly unoccupied. It means life is being wasted. If guidance at home, and education at school, are being properly conducted boredom should never exist.
But the fact is that boredom is the order of the day in most young lives. A prime reason for this is that most children have not picked up the habit of reading which is by far the best antidote to boredom so far discovered. In such circumstances, thank God for television and video games to relieve the boredom and perhaps excite a spark of imagination now and then.
Compulsory education basically should have three purposes: to make good people; to make independent citizens; and to bring out in each person his or her personal best. But lip service only is paid to such fine sentiments. The reality is more accurately captured in a stinging article the great American journalist and social commentator, H.L. Mencken, wrote in the American Mercury in April, 1924, when he pointed out that the aim of public education is not “to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence...Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim....is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizen, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States...and that is its aim everywhere else.”
The school system as it has developed everywhere, including the Caribbean seeks to herd and categorise children and narrow their thinking and knowledge into patterns which suit the norms of the regulating authority. Schools fix habits of reaction to authority, seek conformity, frown on critical judgement and assist in determining future roles in society by establishing cumulative records based on rigid syllabus examinations.
Within this hidebound, dull and restrictive system, which is by now impossible to overturn, parents and teachers must do what they can to break the mould and make education a more interesting and more productive part of growing up. When I was in Canada recently I read an article by the excellent Globe and Mail columnist, Spider Robinson, in which he deplores the start of another school year in which the children will “once again be reined in and locked away for nine months in a place where almost nothing they’re compelled to learn will be of any perceptible use.” In his column spider Robinson gives a partial list of utterly essential life skills which schools do not make a point of imparting:
* How to do simple household plumbing and carpentry. I don’t mean making an ashtray in Shop, I mean how to make the damn tap stop dripping.
* How to build a fire. How a 90-year-old man splits firewood.
* How to balance a chequebook - and what to do when it cannot be balanced.
* How to fill out a tax return.
* How to start a business, how to operate a business, how to fold a business.
* How to drive - not as a short extracurricular course, but as a serious, in-depth, year-long study, with simulators, intensive training in proper emergency reflexes, and tours of morgues and burn wards.
* First aid, basic and advanced, for common emergencies.
* When to kowtow to a bureaucrat, and when to bully him.
* How to bully a bureaucrat. (One of the most under-appreciated skills in the western world)
* What to do if you’re arrested. What not to do.
* How to spot the lies in an advertisement, speech, newscast or newspaper column.
* How to spot the traps, cons and loopholes in a legal contract.
* How to find the third harmony in a song.
* How to apologise.
* How to cool conflict, calm rage, defuse tension, keep a crowd from becoming a mob. How to handle a drunk.
* When and how to demonstrate; the rights, and obligations, of a demonstrator.
* When and how to meditate. Anything whatsoever to do with spirituality.
* How to deal with a racist, religionist or sexist joke.
* How to make a difference in local politics. How to organise, generally.
* How to type! And use a computer effectively as a serious subject.
* How to research. How to use the library, newspaper morgue, museum, courthouse, town hall, people. And, oh yes, the Internet.
* Some of the important universal truths of the universe, that are not self-evident, and don’t’ seem to fall in any particular subject’s jurisdiction. Here’s one, for instance, that for some ridiculous reason can take a man decades to figure out on his own: Anger always - always - turns out to be fear disguised. If you’re enraged, you’re terrified.
* Or here’s another that actively contradicts some of what they taught you in physics: Shared pain is lessened, and shared joy is increased. If I’m hurting, and I share it with you, somehow we end up with less than half a hurt apiece. If you share your joy with me, somehow it more than doubles.
* And another, so counterintuitive you might never stumble across it without help: when you’re at rock bottom, at the very end of your rope, the thing to do is find somebody worse off, and help him.