Education as entertainment
It is that time of year again when four students from a Jamaican high school huddle together, listen intently to a question, sometimes consult each other, and then fire an answer as rapidly as they can - if they can - all on live, free-to-air television. It is, of course, Schools' Challenge Quiz, a competition steeped in history and packed with suspense, making television sport of that most precious of intangible commodities.
There is also the junior version of Quiz, as the contest is commonly called, and the youngsters also feature in another competition where education is made entertainment. It is Spelling Bee and again the tension, the skill level, the live free-to-air television component and focus on being 'bright' makes it a perennial favourite.
A large part of the fun is viewers trying their brains at barking out the answers before the students (in the case of Quiz) or hazarding a guess at the correct spelling (for the Bee). And glory be unto he or she who can do either better than the kids on screen in the glare of the lights.
As much fun as it all is, though, there is a fundamental flaw in making education entertainment. While there is no doubting that the students are 'bright', as we are wont to compliment youngsters who can 'do them schoolwork', Quiz and Spelling Bee are representative of narrow thinking about what education is. These programmes then bolster an already woefully skewed perspective of what is education, as we admire our young people's ability to figure out the spelling of words which are often seldom used in written or verbal communication, or recall some fact and regurgitate it in a split second.
It is not a case of me dismissing Schools' Challenge Quiz and Spelling Bee. Far from it. But they are part of restricting our appreciation of education to a concrete block when we should be thinking about an entire building.
Think of Quiz and Spelling Bee as game shows. They have a limited time in which to be completed (especially Quiz, which is timed down to the second, section by section) and they largely emphasise the contestants' memories and ability to perform publicly under pressure. While powers of recall, the ability to spell words correctly and deliver the goods under the pressure of public gaze and time in a competitive environment are admirable attributes, a crucial component is missing.
Critical thinking, which we sorely lack in a country which is long on people with oodles of 'subjects' and degrees, but woefully short on all this education having a positive income on the country's overall well-being and progress.
It is somewhat like when the Common Entrance Examination went fully multiple choice in the early 1980s and the composition was cut out, before Communication Task was introduced as a part of the revamped Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). Having students only shade in ovals and not write was a terrible thing which has affected the persons who went through a primary-level education system focused on 'passing' Common Entrance within that structure.
Without the critical thinking, the building blocks of education which Quiz and Spelling Bee serve up as entertainment become simply the ability to store information and figure out how words are spelt (when it gets to the unseen words; otherwise, it is still a test of memory, really). In other words, we are focusing on honing mental abilities which are easily substituted with a smartphone and data connection.
What the machines cannot replace is the focus of the mind which, at a very young age, is able to handle the demands and rigours of these contests where education is made entertainment. And that is where the arts come in - and here I mean performing arts more so than subjects like history and geography. For the arts are imbued with a sense of interpreting and even constructing reality.
So while the education-based entertainment programmes furnish the blocks, the performing arts can supply the building plan and sense of an expansive community where we can all pitch in to shape the society to benefit all.
This may sound a bit melodramatic and overly simplistic, but a society without a serious focus on its art is sorely lacking. And while we have a lot of entertainment, I am not convinced that we see a national role for it beyond distraction.
I once read a novel (it may have been James Michener's Space) in which the manned moon-landing mission was critiqued as being too limited, as once the objective of having a couple boots on that dusty surface was achieved, then space exploration was put on hold with so much left to learn. I think of Quiz and Spelling Bee in the same way - having excelled at that limited level, we do not push ourselves further.
Education can and should be fun, but it is presented as entertainment to the detriment of larger objectives than pressing a buzzer or regurgitating the order of letters in a polysyllabic word.