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The aims of education - revisited

Published:Thursday | April 26, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Keith Noel

We have all accepted that idea about the three Rs being the aims of education. You know, reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic are what that's all about. Someone who has a basic education is someone who can read at an acceptable level, write a fairly decent paragraph, and compute basic arithmetic problems.

We have taken it a bit further. We demand that the student be able to communicate with some fluency in the spoken language, and that spoken language is Jamaican Standard English.

There is a general agreement that English, that is 'standard' English, and mathematics are the 'basic' subjects in schools, and that everything else revolves around them. All else are either by-products of these subjects or cannot be mastered unless one masters these 'core' subjects.

In our society, we also tend to go a bit further, and we judge schools primarily by the achievement of their students in English and mathematics.

But why are we so sure that this is the best approach?

We know that we inherited our education system from Europe, and world rulers as its nations are, there must be something to be said for their systems. But we should remember that when the Europeans began to educate subordinate peoples, it was for the purpose of making them more efficient servants of their empires. The education was not, primarily (or at all), for the benefit of the subjugated peoples.

Even when, after slavery, the Church led the campaign to educate the masses, it tried as best as possible to copy the education systems of Europe, systems that were devised and honed over the years to suit the needs of Europe, not of the Caribbean.

But more of that anon.

What if someone disagreed with the basic tenets above? What if someone argued that the most important things that a school should focus on are: developing in students a strong self-concept, proper 'attitudes and values', and some 'physical' skills? Should they be laughed to scorn?

Holistic development

What if they argued that a 17-year-old who could read and write and do math at a fairly basic level but who was self-confident and proud, who had positive values and attitudes and who was an excellent tradesman and could handle himself in most practical areas, was 'well-schooled'?

And what if they went on to say that another 17-year-old whose command of written and spoken English was excellent, could do calculus and trigonometry, but who did not have a strong self-concept, had not developed many positive attitudes to society and other persons, and whose values were a bit suspect, had not been well served by his school? Would we scoff at them for saying this, or would we think that maybe they had a point?

I want to think that they do. And this brings us to another consideration. Despite the writings of many education philosophers and thinkers and of some education psychologists, the Western world continues to insist that schools churn out bright young people with remarkable linguistic and mathematical, and scientific minds but whose academic achievements are not matched in any way by their development as 'whole' human beings.

Reconsider assessments

I remember, as a principal, struggling to try to achieve this 'wholeness', to try to get my brightest students, who had gone through the academic mill, to really accept the idea that they should try to be their brother's keeper; to use their talents more to benefit those less fortunate than they were and not simply to amass money or to do what brought pleasure to them, at whatever social cost.

Our school system does not have at its core the creation of 'good' human beings - persons who are self-loving and ready to serve others and who are also productive citizens capable of producing. Rather, its main aim seems to be to turn out young people who can 'produce' and make money. The 'good citizenship' and 'wholesome individuals' aspect of the system is lagging way behind.

Ask anyone in the Ministry of Education who has anything to do with assessing the performance of schools, what are the most important things they look for when making their assessment?

Then tell me. Should we reconsider?

Even a little?

Keith Noel is an educator. Email feedback to and