Ian Boyne, Contributor
Perhaps the highest value of a rounded education is the ability to critically unmask assumptions and presuppositions commonly accepted as natural, commonsensical, unquestioned. It is the ability to grasp what others miss, to make connections between ideas, and to surgically analyse issues.
It is an unquestioned and natural assumption today - especially in a developing society like Jamaica - that the primary purpose of education is to prepare people for the workplace and marketplace; to create a first-class cadre of creative, innovative, enterprising, scientific, technocratic people able to drive an economy to high 21st-century production and productivity.
We bemoan our poor performance in math because this means, worryingly, that we won't be able to compete in this globally demanding environment; that we won't be able to attract quality foreign direct investment to fuel growth; and we certainly won't be able to achieve our 2030 goal of obtaining First-World status.
Disappointing results in science and math spell doom for us - and they actually do. But we move from that correct premise to the dangerously false conclusion that we can neglect the humanities and social sciences, or place them low down the educational hierarchy, and still be successful. Because our definition of success is predominantly materialistic and quantitative, our view of education is largely instrumental, utilitarian and pragmatic.
No longer is there the dominant view that education is primarily about the development of the person and the creation of a virtuous society. It is about the development of the person for the market. It is this marketisation of society which has given us this perniciously limited view of education. Education today is largely an instrument of production.
BROADEN KNOWLEDGE BASE
In a provocative and illuminating essay in the September 2009 issue of Harper's Magazine, 'Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School', Mark Slouka makes the point: "What is taught, at any given time, in any culture, is an expression of what culture considers important."
I notice the discussion about education in Jamaica: It is overwhelmingly instrumental and market-driven. Now, don't get me wrong: It makes no sense - for the society or the graduates themselves - for us to be overproducing lawyers, political scientists, social workers, teachers when we don't have jobs for them and when we need more information technology specialists, engineers and other natural scientists.
We have to be realistic. We live in a real world. But our medical doctors, engineers, IT specialists need to know more than their own narrow technical areas. They need to know how to be good citizens. They need to know how to reason about politics, economics, sociology, philosophy and religion. They need a rounded education - not just an education that prepares them for their speciality. An education and a vocation is not to be conflated.
A democratic, pluralistic society demands an educated citizenry, not just one technically competent. Indeed, increasingly we are finding that for us to solve many technical problems and to bring innovation to our work, we require the ability to master complex issues - which demands rigorous thinking outside the narrow confines of our professional and vocational training.
Slouka puts it well in his Harper's essay: "'What do we teach and why?': ... We teach whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings; we teach, that is, in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals both sufficiently familiar with the world outside themselves to lend to their judgements, compassion and breadth (and hereby contribute to the political life of the nation), and sufficiently skilled to find productive employment. In that order."
EDUCATING WHOLE PERSON
Yes, in that order. We are not merely equipping people for the market, for the workplace. Yes, we are, indeed, matching training with skills in demand. Yes, we are training for development. But we are educating the whole person - teaching individuals to earn a living as well as how to live in society.
Continues Slouka: "Our primary function, in other words, is to teach people, not tasks; to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labour of forming citizens; men and women capable of furthering what's best about us and forestalling what's worst. It is only secondarily - one might say incidentally - about producing workers." A totally utilitarian approach has produced disastrous results in Western education.
Public discourse is impoverished when our school system marginalises critical reasoning and instead focuses on rote learning and the absorption of technical information. I am happy for the reintroduction of civics. But from primary school, we should be introducing our children to philosophy. If we want to nurture citizens who know how to assess information and intellectual options, we have to start teaching them from early.
One of the most regrettable things to me as a public commentator is to witness the appalling lack of simple comprehension by too many who respond to columns. Do this exercise: Read a few articles and columns in this and the other newspaper and then read the comments which follow. What has often struck me is not that people disagree with what I might write, but how little is really comprehended. You have to comprehend before you critique. You have to understand before you undertake analysis.
And when you listen to public discourse in Jamaica, even among 'educated' people, you see this lack of critical reasoning skills and lack of basic comprehension of ideas supposedly being critiqued. Our education system has failed even the 'educated'! There are many people who are quite highly qualified professionally, but who can't hold a serious conversation about anything outside their specialisation. In my view, they are well-trained professionally but not educated.
An educated person must have a basic grasp of the hard and social sciences, as well as, importantly, humanities, particularly philosophy and literary studies. Having mere scientific knowledge, for example, is woefully inadequate without understanding the philosophy of science.
EXPOSE THEM TO DIVERSITY
There was a furore over that so-called 'sex text' recently unearthed by TVJ news. Certainly, we need age-appropriate material, but the larger point is that children do need to be exposed to diversity training. Children need to be exposed to world views and, from an early age, to question and challenge their own received worldwide. In my view, religious education, for example, is a total misnomer if it does not introduce comparative religion in a seriously pluralistic way.
Religious education should not primarily be Christian education. You can have a Christian education class separate if you have to. This is a Christian majority culture, so I am not offended by teaching specifically Christian education in school. But there should be a genuine religious education class where people are compassionately and dispassionately exposed to Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, Baha'i, African primal religions, Revivalism, Rastafarianism, as well as a variety of Christian sects and cults. Religious education can't be about what Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Moravians and other established churches teach.
Children should be taught the main tenets of other religions and be introduced to their holy texts, in addition to the Bible. They should not be taught the Bible alone as the only inspired, infallible text. Other religions make such claims and they should be acquainted with those claims, too. I know Christians would be threatened by this. But they should so solidify their children in their Christian religion at home that those children should be able to properly assess the information they are given at school. An education is about broadening and deepening perspectives, increasing intellectual exposure, and developing in students a passion for lifelong learning.
How many persons read voraciously and consistently after they leave school - meaning when they are not forced to? How many are reading for the sheer love of learning, the thirst for knowledge, the passion to immerse oneself in the intellectual heritage of mankind? I increasingly encounter young professionals with first-class bachelor's or master's degrees who clearly have not read anything serious since leaving university. They have no clue about the world they live in and what ideas and concepts are being discussed even in their fields.
Sadly, I have also talked to university professors who don't recognise certain names prominent in their own fields, let alone related or other fields. Never has there been such an explosion of knowledge - and available on so many easily accessible platforms.
It's incredible how much information is available online. If you don't like books as we have known them, it's okay - there are Kindles, audio books, all kinds of tablets on which you can read easily and with absolute comfort.
MORE THAN RECOLLECTION
"A burgeoning number of researchers and educators believe that school should include more than remembering and analysing information," says an editor of Scientific American Mind in its September/October 2012 issue. In an article on 'The Education of Character', Ingrid Wickelgren quotes a developmental psychologist as saying, "Beyond grades, the ability to handle emotions and behave appropriately helps us deal with life. Self-regulation is a critical skill that needs explicit, intentional focus in the school curriculum."
Peter Bunting recently pointed out that a number of lotto scammers in the west are not the stereotypical poor, uneducated 'sufferer' type, but are well-schooled youth. That's what happens when you focus on training and neglect real education.
If education is purely utilitarian, do rich people who could live off inherited wealth need it? Do successful athletes need it, really, if they can obtain enormous wealth in their early 20s? When we say we value education, what do we really mean? Value it for what - for what income it can bring us; for being a passport out of poverty?
So if we can get that passport without the education and be assured of lots of money for a lifetime, like a superstar athlete or a mega artiste, do we still need education?
I think we need to get back to a classical view of education where virtue, love of knowledge, the development of good citizens and self-actualisation were paramount. Education is about more than a career and preparation for the market.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.