What education is ( or should be) all about
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.