What ed­u­ca­tion is ( or should be) all about

Vancouver Sun - - Issues & Ideas - BY MICHAEL BAU­MANN

Mil­lions of stu­dents world­wide re­turned to their classes last week — from the shade of a fig tree in In­dia to the cramped lec­ture halls of a Cana­dian univer­sity. This is a good time, per­haps, to re­flect on the ideals of ed­u­ca­tion.

So, why do we send our chil­dren to school rather than let them lead happy lives play­ing with their friends?

Be­cause that’s what our par­ents did when we were young? Be­cause schools are a form of sub­si­dized day­care? Be­cause all the other chil­dren are go­ing, too? Be­cause it’s the law?

I hope not. The rea­son we send them to school is to pro­vide them with an ed­u­ca­tion. And the pur­pose of an ed­u­ca­tion is to pro­vide the ba­sis for the fu­ture hap­pi­ness of the per­son re­ceiv­ing it. Not more and not less. In the be­gin­ning, of course, we don’t know where that per­son’s true tal­ents lie. So we will want the in­struc­tion to be as uni­ver­sal as pos­si­ble.

Con­se­quently our ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions hold four ma­jor re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

First, the teach­ing of the ba­sics: Read­ing, writ­ing, sim­ple cal­cu­la­tion, so­cial con­science ( e. g. ba­sic cour­tesy, punc­tu­al­ity, flex­i­bil­ity, tol­er­ance.)

Sec­ond, the dis­sem­i­na­tion of con­ven­tions as well as fac­tual and tech­ni­cal knowl­edge: “ Wa­ter boils at 100 de­grees Cel­sius.” “ China in­vaded Ti­bet in 1950.”

The third re­spon­si­bil­ity is the en­cour­age­ment of stu­dents by var­i­ous means, in­clud­ing fine arts and mu­sic, to use their an­a­lyt­i­cal, creative and prac­ti­cal fac­ul­ties when en­coun­ter­ing new prob­lems.

And last, the de­vel­op­ment of char­ac­ter and the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of hu­man val­ues, from sim­ple prac­ti­cal con­cepts like per­se­ver­ance and self- con­fi­dence to larger eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples like truth, free­dom, and jus­tice.

Th­ese are the ideals. What about the re­al­ity of ed­u­ca­tion?

Now, I think it is fair to say that ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions per­form fairly well with re­spect to the uni­ver­sal­ity re­quire­ment, i. e. the first two re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. ( This is not to say we are do­ing great: Con­sider the case of a fourth- year science stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia who didn’t know what the sci­en­tific method is.) How­ever, when it comes to de­vel­op­ing the mind and char­ac­ter we are ut­terly fail­ing our stu­dents and so­ci­ety.

The prob­lem lies in the eval­u­a­tion process. Eval­u­at­ing ba­sic skills and fac­tual knowl­edge is easy, and “ 2 + 2 = 5” is just as wrong as “ The cap­i­tal of Canada is Switzer­land.”

As­sess­ing fac­ul­ties that make us truly hu­man, on the other hand, is a teacher’s night­mare: How do you mea­sure cre­ativ­ity in, say, English com­po­si­tion? What is a “ good anal­y­sis” as com­pared to a “ bad anal­y­sis” in eco­nomics? How do you grade com­pas­sion in a stu­dent? What is the weight of hu­mil­ity?

It is true that as hu­man be­ings we have all de­vel­oped eval­u­a­tion strate­gies for the more com­plex sit­u­a­tions in our daily lives.

We all “ know” who is a ca­pa­ble politi­cian, a com­pe­tent doc­tor or a good mu­si­cian. We “ know” what is an ex­cel­lent book, a worth­while movie or a fine piece of art.

Our meth­ods are valid in that they mea­sure what we think they mea­sure, they are re­li­able in that they yield a sim­i­lar re­sult to­day and to­mor­row, and they are ( hope­fully) ap­plied con­sis­tently. Yet, our pro­ce­dures are of­ten highly sub­jec­tive, based on val­ues and opin­ions rather than facts.

Ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions cer­tainly do not want to deal with sub­jec­tiv­ity. Con­se­quently, the “ sen­si­ble” so­lu­tion for them has been an in­sis­tence on themes that can eas­ily be mea­sured on a met­ric scale.

For ex­am­ple, med­i­cal schools will gauge an ap­pli­cant’s ca­pac­ity for com­pas­sion by the num­ber of vol­un­teer hours the ap­pli­cant has served.

What’s wrong with that? For one thing, mere hours don’t say any­thing about mo­ti­va­tion. ( Is she vol­un­teer­ing only to get into med­i­cal school?) For an­other, you have to be able to af­ford to vol­un­teer. And yet an­other, by vol­un­teer­ing you might be jeop­ar­diz­ing some­body else’s le­git­i­mate liveli­hood.

The con­se­quence of th­ese de­vel­op­ments is an ed­u­ca­tional process dom­i­nated by con­tent as­sim­i­la­tion and exam re­gur­gi­ta­tion.

Noth­ing that is only re­motely com­plex can be posed as a stu­dent prob­lem any more sim­ply be­cause there might be many an­swers, or worse, no “ right” an­swer. In prac­tice, this means that teach­ers keep stu­dents busy with mind­less ex­er­cises while stu­dents blindly ful­fil their teach­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions.

Of course, this is not ed­u­ca­tion; this is obe­di­ence train­ing that does not re­quire the use of the crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties that dis­tin­guish hu­mans from other an­i­mals.

To be clear: I am not sug­gest­ing here that mere opin­ions should drive our eval­u­a­tion sys­tem; what I am ad­vo­cat­ing is to make grades less im­por­tant.

Think about it: What was your doc­tor’s grade point av­er­age in high school? What is the dif­fer­ence, in your knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing, whether you re­ceive a grade of 78 per cent or 88 per cent?

And con­sider that I met a PhD grad­u­ate who had never heard of the Age of En­light­en­ment. ( It made me won­der what he thought the “ Ph” stands for.)

While cur­tail­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of grades is not a panacea for all ail­ments of ed­u­ca­tion, it will get rid of two of its ex­cres­cences — sim­ple- mind­ed­ness and cheat­ing. This is im­por­tant. Why?

Be­cause just around the cor­ner hu­mankind will be con­fronted with a bar­rage of prob­lems un­prece­dented in the his­tory of this planet: Cli­mate change and over­pop­u­la­tion, food short­ages and pan­demics, ur­ban­iza­tion and pol­lu­tion, fi­nan­cial melt­down and mass- un­em­ploy­ment, and armed con­flicts over even the most ba­sic of our needs.

“ Tried and true” ap­proaches will not work any longer, and con­se­quently re­spon­si­ble de­ci­sion- mak­ers who have the in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity and the con­fi­dence to em­bark on pos­si­ble alle­vi­a­tion mea­sures will be in high de­mand. And for the rest of us com­pas­sion, tol­er­ance, and a rea­son­able de­gree of ma­te­rial con­tent­ment will be nec­es­sary to en­dure it all.

Proper ed­u­ca­tion will thus be­come cru­cial to our species’ grace­ful sur­vival. And pro­vid­ing just that is the re­spon­si­bil­ity we hold as teach­ers.

Michael Bau­mann has taught up­per level univer­sity cour­ses over the past 10 years. He re­turned his Ph. D. in protest to the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia in 2003.

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