By Taliésin Coward
“Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?” were the words spoken, and sadly not in jest, by former US President George Bush Jnr. In Ancient Greece, and also, for example in Australia in past generations, the first steps in providing an ‘education’ have been to, initially, equip students with some basic skills; chief among these were often reading, writing and arithmetic (somewhat amusingly referred to as the three ‘R’s). They are, of course, also essential skills for any would-be autodidact. The word ‘educate’ is taken from the Latin educare – to bring forth. As a teacher, one aims to impart knowledge and skills to help students ‘bring forth’ and develop their abilities.
A noble aim, but one that I fear is too old fashioned for many of the educational theories and practices of today. A more accurate description of the education process, as it is experienced by many students today, is perhaps not to bring forth, but rather to ‘stuff full’ (of paradigms, facts, but rarely genuine skills, it seems) in order to pass a test. For example, in my own experience, it is not uncommon to come across late-primary or early-high school students struggling with fractions and basic mental calculations (1 + ½), or to come across children with several years worth of schooling who lack fine motor skills and are still labouring under the impression that the best way to hold a pen is with one’s fist, rather than one’s fingers. (In their defence, it might be noted that they are, however, fully proficient in the ‘jab and swipe’ method of finger-pointing required to run touch screens.)
How is it that we have reached a point where vast numbers of ‘educated’ children lack the most basic of skills? Although there are many possible factors, one part of the answer is perhaps to be found in the biting examination of the English underclass mentality, Life at the Bottom, by retired prison doctor and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple. Whether you agree with Dalrymple’s observations or not, they make interesting food for thought.
Along with a general lack of value being placed upon education in modern popular culture, Dalrymple cites two highly destructive educational policies (unfortunately evident in Australia) centred on the notions of self-esteem (which can also be termed the ‘glass egos’ theory) and relevancy. The ‘glass egos’ theory holds that to correct a mistake, to tell a child that they have gotten something wrong, is damaging to their sense of self-worth and should therefore be avoided. An example I am aware of was of a student who habitually wrote a particular letter from the alphabet back-to-front. Gentle correction by the tutor was met with condemnation by the parent who was following their school teacher’s view that any correction should be avoided as it would damage the child’s self-esteem (a view the parent revised when it was pointed out that it was better to be gently and kindly corrected now, than to be the subject of ridicule – overt or covert – by one’s peers or employers later on).
Dalrymple suggests that not to correct mistakes at all, on the basis that it may damage a child’s self-esteem, sets a dangerous precedent, providing a shield behind which poor teachers can hide their lack of ability, and actively hindering good teachers from carrying out their job. Dalrymple notes that at one school, in order to protect the students’ apparently tenuous grip on self-worth, teachers were only allowed a set number of corrections, regardless of how many errors were actually present. If a student repeatedly made the same spelling mistake, for example, the error could only be corrected as long as the ‘correction quota’ had not been exceeded. Once exceeded, the mistake was not to be noted. The net result was that the students concluded their mistakes and the correction of them was both arbitrary and unjust.
Such approaches may go some way to explaining the poor level of maths and literary skills in evidence, but it doesn’t explain the ever-increasing lack of cultural and historical knowledge, which relates to the policy on relevancy. For example, if a child is asked to decipher the phrase ‘Achilles’ heel’, it would not be strange today if the answer came back, ‘wasn’t he played by Brad Pitt?’ Yet that same child may harbour serious doubts about the viability of the planet’s future, and therefore their own, from constant reminders threaded throughout various subjects on current politically driven topics. Dalrymple lays the blame for this on the notion – in order to make learning more engaging – that what people are to be taught should be somehow relevant to their existence (though how relevance is determined, and by whom, is a very thorny question).
As Dalrymple points out, the way this has been put into practice in England (and it is remarkably similar to Australia), can result in a child’s educational world shrinking to that which he or she already knows (or politicians/bureaucrats think they should know). One upshot, he suggests, is that students do not have, or value, a knowledge of the past (and therefore the possibilities of the future) but are focused on the present, and specifically their present; an idiocentric viewpoint. It also flies in the face, suggests Dalrymple, of the fact that an education (including the skills to be an autodidact) has been the route perhaps “…most frequently travelled – to social advancement”; a process that has seen many immigrants not only survive, but thrive.
Although perhaps the flaws of current educational thinking are not entirely new (if Lady Bracknell’s comments in The Importance of Being Earnest are recalled), there are excellent teachers within the system, devoted to providing a high quality of teaching, and who possess and radiate an infectious air of inspiration and enthusiasm.
The last word though, should perhaps be given to Dalrymple, who suggests that education is never just the job of an ‘official’ teacher alone. In order to make a difference, he suggests, it requires a community to prize and promote skills as valuable, and a responsibility to be taken by those who have an education to actively ‘bring forth’ a high standard of skill and ability, and to impart knowledge to those who do not.
Dalrymple, Theodor. Life at the Bottom. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. 2001.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest.
Source: The Greek-Australian Vema, January 2015