Purpose of education
Earlier this month, the Minister of Education Jerome Fitzgerald announced this year's BGCSE and BJC exam results. The Nassau Guardian's headline read, "Dismal exam scores continue." Dismal might be an understatement.
The results were abysmal. In response, the minister remarked that "we in the ministry are not satisfied that our graduates as a whole are sufficiently equipped or prepared for the 21st century workforce."
I find the minister's response just as troubling as the exam results themselves.
When it comes to education, I believe that the philosophy of many of our leaders has been wrong. For many years we as a nation have been told that the main purpose of education is to help citizens become employable. I disagree.
The main purpose of education should be to teach students to think critically about a wide range of important matters. This is not to be confused with training which is the acquisition of a skill, for example learning how to use a computer keyboard or learning how to cook.
It is important that we get a right philosophy of education, because our philosophy dictates our practices and policies. Getting a job should be incidental to education, not the main focus of education.
A person who is truly educated should have no problem getting a job. There are many more important reasons for a good education and why we should be concerned about our poor education system.
1. Education has intrinsic value. Education should not be seen as a means to an end but as an end in itself. If my rich Uncle Jack dies and leaves me a billion dollars and I never have to work another day in my life, there is still value in learning to read, to write, to count, to think.
2. Education is necessary for a healthy democracy. Every five years, The Bahamas engages in "the silly" season, i.e. political campaigns.
A look at the recent political campaigns would reveal the contempt with which many of our political leaders hold Bahamian citizens. While some politicians did attempt to address issues and offer solutions to some of our problems, many continued to pander to emotionalism, to utter witty one liners and to make personal attacks on their opponents.
Instead of holding our leaders' feet to the fire, making them accountable and calling them out on their propaganda, too many of our citizens were more concerned about which party held the best rally, which party had the best music or the funniest speakers.
An educated population does not fall victim to these silly and distracting techniques.
An educated population demands that its leaders address important issues. That our citizens failed to do this is a manifestation of our failed education system.
3. Education is necessary for freedom. Bob Marley sang, "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery." Many of our citizens are exploited because they are uneducated. Many years ago I worked as a bank teller.
Every week I had a customer who'd come to get his check cashed. When I asked him how much money he wanted to deposit and how much cash he wanted to take home, his reply was always, "However much you want to give me."
Had I been dishonest, I could have robbed him blind. I am sure many of his so-called friends did. For as long as this man was alive, he would be dependent on others. I imagine there are many others like him in The Bahamas who are at the mercy of others.
4. The quality of life in a country is directly related to the level of education of its citizens. (Note: level of education, not how many churches there are on every corner, or how long people spend praying.
We in The Bahamas think we can pray our way to a better society. Every year the United Nations publishes a list of nations with the highest quality of life: low crime rates, good medical care, gender equality, etc.
It is no accident that the countries like Finland, Canada and Norway that often top this list have very educated populations. Educated people believe in respecting other people and their property, in reason over violence, in opportunity for all people. That there is so much crime in The Bahamas (especially violent crime) is another manifestation of our failed education system.
It is crucial that we have a proper philosophy of education, because it influences our polices, in this case the curriculum in our schools. Many people argue that we should separate children who are academically inclined from those who are technically inclined.
The belief is that we should educate some students and train the others. (Remember there is a difference between education and training.)
They argue that we need to expose our "academic" students to calculus, Shakespeare, and history while we teach our "technical" students how to build cabinets, fix leaks and style hair. To this end, technical students should not be exposed to the beauty of art or music or see the grandeur of the English language as expressed in Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens.
Or learn the skills of debate and how to identify fallacies. We say this is not relevant to their needs. This is dangerous I believe. The result of this will be students who have skills but no education. They can get a job, but cannot argue a point, or appreciate the beauty of poetry, dance or art.
Who says a plumber, carpenter or cosmetologist should not or cannot appreciate the arts and culture? In industrialized countries with highly educated populations a great deal of attention is paid to the arts and culture. In The Bahamas we idolize our sports figures and politicians, but our cultural figures are largely ignored.
A good education system causes its students to realize that we study Shakespeare not because knowing his plays will make them employable, but because Shakespeare's plays allow them to experience the majesty of the English language.
We study art, not because it will get us a job at Atlantis, but because it shows us and allows us to express the creativity of the human mind. In short, a good education system awakens in its students a sense of awe and wonder and engenders in its students a love of learning for learning's sake.
Some years ago I read an article about Japan's enviable education system. In Japan, there exists a close relationship between schools and industry. The industry's message to the schools is simple: You teach students how to think critically and solve problems and we'll give them the skills to become mechanics, engineers, etc. when they get to us.
I believe that we should adopt this approach in The Bahamas. Schools should not be in the business of training students to be cooks and waiters at Atlantis or Baha Mar.
Schools should be in the business of teaching students how to think about important matters critically, how to have respect for themselves and others. Schools should create students with a sense of wonder and awe about the world around them, should spark in them a sense of intellectual curiosity, and foster in them a love of learning. In other words, schools should be in the business of teaching students how to be human.
The greatest indictment of our crumbling education system is not unemployable citizens; it's the boorishness, vulgarity and violence that continue to plague our land; it's an anemic democracy where visionless leaders throw a bone at a hungry and gullible electorate every five years.
We can equip our citizens with skills to take every available job in this country, but if we do not teach them how to be human and how to hold their leaders accountable, the decadence of Bahamian society will continue.
I agree with Minister Jerome Fitzgerald that this year's exam results are unacceptable and that our education system needs reform.
However, I disagree with him on the consequences of a poor education. For him, it means that we are not preparing students to be good workers in the workplace. For me, it means we are not preparing students to be human. There's a difference, and I submit that my concern should frighten us even more than the minister's.
educator for 20 years at SAC
© 2012 The Freeport News