It is common belief that Politicians and Civil Servants rarely agree on anything. Each one of them has an original and idealist view of the world and their sole ability to become the Archangel of change. But there are some time-tested and sure-fire slogans of change that’s universally used by all – Eradication of Poverty, Hunger and Illiteracy (not necessarily in that order). It is the staple diet that’s served during each election with varying degrees of intensity and theatrics. And each time, we the commoners fall for it hook, line and sinker and hope for that turning point in our march towards civilisation. After over a century living with this hope, it appears that we have almost relegated the foundation pillars of humanity in the hands of political machinery and absolved ourselves of any responsibility towards them.
It doesn’t seem as surprising then that half of the world’s wealth is now controlled by 1% of the population while the other 99% are busy collecting more hopes and dreams of change in their bottom-holed piggy-banks. Barring specific pockets globally, Poverty, Hunger and Illiteracy levels in most parts of the world is beyond alarming levels. Unless a drastic and immediate change is initiated, our children will inherit an even more morbid planet than us. So this begs the cardinal question – who will bell the cat? Who will finally rid us of these social evils? The political engine, our neighbours or US? I’ve taken a rain-check from Fantasyland and hedged my bets on the latter. Since each of these 3 subjects are critical and deserve individual attention, I have picked-up in this article what I feel should be addressed first given its direct impact on the others. LITERACY. A literate society is one that is not just able to read and write their names (which many systems conveniently classify as the measure of literacy) but is also able to consume basic information through mediums such as books, newspapers, articles, blogs, social media. It is this information that contains facts which empower each individual to think, distinguish good from bad and communicate it with those around them. This isn’t to be confused with Knowledge or Wisdom which are the adjunctive stages of basic literacy. The result is that we have a statistically higher population than the previous decade, one who can read and write but not a Literate society. Access to the world’s resources and policies is yet in the hands of a few while the others sit by the curb and either complain or comply. I have taken a small but important sub-system of our Society – Schools, the society’s sacred temple of learning, to gain a first-hand insight into the possible cause and effect of the “Literacy paradox”.
After the mother’s womb, schools are the first window for a child into his inner conscience. An institution with a 12-year journey during which a student acquires the tools to make an informed choice on how they wish to shape the remainder of their life. Given that a child spends a majority of his waking hours in the school, the teachers assume the role of parents in-absentia and help shape the child’s personal, moral and civic values. These cradles of learning are a place where we make lasting friendships that remind us of these values when we begin to sacrifice them at the alters of expediency. The parents entrust the Schools to make fine young men of their boys, confident young women of their girls. But after ticking all the right boxes and doing all the right things, our society today doesn’t seem to reflect the very values these institutions claim to or are supposed to instil. Based on my research covering many schools and their Principals, Parents and Students, I have come to the conclusion that the responsibility is safely placed both ends. In parts we failed the Education system and somewhere the Education system failed us. I present my findings under 3 broad categories as below:
- The Public School system across the globe has become the proverbial sacrificial lamb in budget cuts towards greater spending on “Defence” and “Fiscal Reform”. The limited budgets allow limited facilities and attract poor talent. It beats me on how we can expect a talented generation when the custodians of this change itself are so poorly informed. There are significant efforts being undertaken by various NGOs and well-meaning civil servants to engage greater student participation through free lunches and financial benefits but this only ensures a higher number of “bums on seats”. Does this do any more than churn out more children who can read and write alright but find themselves clapping by the wayside on the Information superhighway as their more privileged counterparts in expensive Private Schools go by? The statistics on Literacy rates continue showing an upward graph with each passing year but the Literary problem only gets bigger. Make no mistake in understanding that this is the generation that will vote for the next Government who will decide on your Social welfare benefits while you are in your Golden years! As proof, we just got “Trump”ed recently, didn’t we?
- The “Private Schools” of today are a paradise only for the elite given their high fees. In some, the eligibility is decided more by the student’s social class than his/her intellect. The lobbies of many of the Schools can put even a 5 star hotel to shame. While I don’t despise such display of wealth, its profound impact on the overall development of the student is concerning. It sub-consciously instils an “ us” v/s “ them” mindset and gives the children a false sense of superiority complex in their formative years which will only manifest as they grow older. The “false reality” within which knowledge is acquired will quickly dissipate when they step into the real dog-eat-dog competitive world (unless of course if the parents continue to fund their Ivy League B-Schools and beyond). Look closer and you will find many of the students “confused” of their place in the world after they step-out from the polished marble school floor and into the murky roads where their counterpart trained in the “school of life” is street-savvy enough to eat your child out of his/her plate. In popular parlance, its known as a “Social imbalance” and you know where it began.
- While the private schools have the facilities that they proudly showcase in their “School Tour” to prospective parents and students, I ask you to spend some more time in their Libraries. Harold Howe famously quoted once, “What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education.” In it you can truly smell the books that have stood the test of time. Many a times they won’t be any more than tombs of unused books serving only an ornamental objective. Browse through the books and see if it is the kind of literature that will shape your child’s thinking. Speak to the Librarian and see if the conversation leaves you truly inspired.
- Most of the above stems from a great extent to how these private schools are structured. These are well-oiled commercial enterprises that have “ROI to Shareholders” as their highest objective. Every businessman worth his Armani Suit today aspires to venture into the “Education business” given its lucrative ROI. It’s no wonder then the Principal’s Visiting Card” reads as “John Doe, Principal & CEO of ABC Academy”. The KPIs for most of these CEOs today are virtual platitudes such as “% of rank holders”, “% of students achieving 90% and above”. The parents happily shower more money on them and their annual targets are that much more easier met. I am not against commerce but the race to maximise profit interferes in the reform process.
One of my most memorable discussions on the subject was with the owner of a large group of schools. I was probing him on the very apparent lack of investment in progressive education models, investment in libraries, etc. His apathy was justified by his view that most parents of today view Schooling as nothing more than an “event” in the lives of their children. It is the mandatory go-to place after the child has turned 4 with the next age of intervention being 16 when they are ready for College. He found no greater interest by parents in the progression of their child so he too felt no compelling reason for eroding his ROI through avoidable expenses. This theory was put to test in my discussion with various parents and I did find it to hold true in many instances. I could attribute the reasons to many factors such as culture, parents’ stress and lack of personal awareness, etc. Some candidly admit to it while others seek solace in not knowing enough about the subject to comment. If this were in fact true, then does it not justify the theory that we are only abetting the same literacy paradox that our grandchildren will be a victim of?
- We were sent to school by our parents to learn what they learnt. But today, we live in an extremely unpredictable environment where we ourselves don’t know many of the answers. So the emphasis should be for our children to learn to question facts and find the most relevant answer. Research by various scholars has proven that the education system has not kept pace with the change in our society and continues to rely on the standard delivery models of the last 30 years! As a result, the outcome is a student and the society who cannot identify with one another.
- Schools today profess digital learning as the panacea to bridge the learning gap. Many schools have in fact switched their entire curriculum to digital whereas others have dual learning models of physical and electronic. Blackboards too have been replaced with Smart boards. The result is nothing more than a greater concentration (and investment) in the medium of delivery than in the content. Experts have long warned against the ill-effects of digital learning in the formative years (< 8 years) which impacts the students’ cognitive learning ability. I too am for orienting the children to the digital age but gradually and in time. There are growing list of schools in US which are working equally hard to reverse the trend by completely banning any digital asset in school AND in the students’ homes through a strictly enforced policy. The early results are encouraging with the students showing a greater love for learning, improved cognitive abilities and higher concentration.
Pursuit of Knowledge
- It is said that the love of learning and the love of earning never meet. The origins of this can be found in today’s education system which has become a well-oiled machinery churning out packaged products that can be marketed to prospective employers. It has un-intentionally interfered in the student’s learning process and educated him instead. The seeds for the (rat) race have been sown much early on and hence only a select few continue their lifelong pursuit of knowledge (that takes humanity a step further) while most find their position in the race. While schools have an endemic challenge, parents can do a fair bit in plugging the gaps.
- HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai has taken a very progressive step by launching various schemes such as 2016 as the Year of Reading and donation of free books to school libraries. In my many interactions with the school principals and the librarians, I find this to be followed only in theory and not in practice. As a case in point, the children are just asked or coerced to read 1-2 books a week that makes for impressive statistics. Ask the librarian whether the book being read by the child is befitting their reading level or their ability to narrate the story just read will draw a blank. The investments in digital reading mediums such as eBooks and Interactive books though sparing are so weak in their integration that most are never used. The quality and age of physical books don’t inspire the engaging and curious child to truly re-discover the love of the written word. I was quite appalled when a librarian proudly stated that they stock 50-100 books every 4 years! Initiatives such as those done by UAE and ones done by some progressive schools around the world cannot become a success if they’re not supported by equal (or more) participation by parents at home.
- If you were to question a class of 30 students and ask each of them what they want to be when they grow up, how many of them you think will want to become Teachers? And what do you think could be the reason for the relatively lesser show of hands on this profession? Besides the economics, its the value our society has placed on the honest pursuit of knowledge thats reflected in the teaching profession. This responsibility needs to be shared by all of us as individuals. Learning is a lifelong privilege and unless each of us truly gift ourselves this privilege, the quality of learning and the quality of society both have a very uncertain future.
The remedy to each of the areas above are many and depends on many factors such as culture/geography/affordability etc. However, there are some low-hanging fruits that apply universally and don’t cost anything which if applied can help bring a small change.
- Try devoting at least an hour a week towards volunteering in your neighbourhood public school /church/community and share your knowledge. Make a small contribution to sponsor any facility or donate a book to the public school library.
- Periodically assess if your child really knows “how to find the answers” than just “knowing the answers”? Rather than blaming the “iPad culture”, provide a stimulating environment at home that your child craves knowledge and interesting conversation more than interactive digital games. Engage with the teacher and share your views on areas of improvement rather than the other way around.
- Engage with the teachers and determine the benefit of digital learning and its extent of use by your child. Try to strike a balance where necessary.
- Take more interest in participating in little activities in your Child’s school and contribute where you can. It’s possible that a joint effort between the school and parents may just become the magic ingredient and you truly start experiencing the little changes.
- Make “pursuit of knowledge” as one of the primary objectives of your family. Be seen indulging more in literary activities such as reading at home. Share your views on relevant current affairs with them and engage them into debate. Parents are fine role models in moral behavioural aspects but many a time fall short in themselves first emulating what they want their children to be.
- Encourage your children to spend more time in the school library. Make it a point to meet the librarian in your next Parents-Teacher meeting or in one of your periodic school visits to see how you could contribute to help them spark an interest in your child towards reading. Take greater interest to see if your child is reading junk literature or quality literature that will shape his/her thinking. Spend quality time reading with your children by their bedside ever night and jointly experience the love of the written word.
The findings and views shared above are entirely mine and are not intended to hurt any particular school, community or individual. The subject in itself is quite complex and big and there would likely have been unintentional omissions my end. This piece aims not to provide a remedy but only to shed a little light on the malaise affecting our society and spur a dialogue on its cure. Let’s not leave this subject for the next opportunist Civil Servant to (
ab)use and fool us into submission. I am reminded of a quote by Lily Tomlin, “I said ‘Somebody should do something about that.’ Then I realised I am somebody.”
Yes, I am the Somebody. Researching and writing this piece has given me many insights and highlighted my own shortcomings which I will address using the tools I’ve posted above. YOU are the Somebody, who needs to introspect and create awareness to make the Civil and the School administration take responsibility in fulfilling their respective roles while WE together as responsible citizens and parents fulfil ours!
Here’s one on a lighter note to leave a smile on your faces. A press reporter once asked a politician, “Which book have you most gained from?”. The politician replied, “From the Cheque book!”. He clearly had his heart in his pocket and his hands, in yours!
(Jitesh Surjiani has over 20 years of international experience as a professional IT and Business Transformation Catalyst. Apart from being a lifelong learner, Jitesh is the Founder and CEO of Reademption and Change&. Say hello to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.)