Having been a teacher of sorts, I share this concern.
Winston Churchill in his memoirs, My Early Life, said “By being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys . . . I got into my bones the essential structure of the normal British sentence – which is a noble thing. Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English; and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.”
All of us accept, as certainly we must, that due to the ever increasing amount of knowledge, it becomes necessary that what was regarded as being the contents of the standard school curriculum a hundred and fifty years ago, will not necessarily still suffice today. I do not think that anyone today would expect girls only to learn how to read and write, some needlepoint and housekeeping, and expect them to be adequately equipped for modern life, any more than drumming some Euclid, Latin, Greek and history into boys would be sufficient. The fact is that the exigencies of our times require that both boys and girls be taught different skills today, in order to equip them for life after school.
My proposition is that we have, despite the understanding that more is required today as far as learning is concerned than was regarded sufficient fifty or a hundred years ago, as a society (certainly in South Africa) lost the culture of learning. Instead we have inherited a culture where people are now educated to become idiots with education. What I mean is that the education of some decades ago that resulted in a reasonable amount of general academic knowledge which equipped most of us to deal with life by applying what we had learnt, has now been replaced by a substantially more practical approach, in terms of which people are required to be equipped with ever-ready skills which they can apply immediately. In other words, we are training people to be lawyers (which is what I know a little bit about), by expecting them to know some law, instead of training people to be lawyers by teaching them to understand and deal with the philosophy behind the law, and then applying that philosophy to any situation that arises.
Let us take it back a step. In what is probably the best definition of “education” I have come across, B. F. Skinner states that education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten. In other words, education is what you take with you that enables you not to deal with any given situation by simply reacting in a form of pre-programmed reaction, but by dealing with the situation sensibly and intelligently based upon your reference framework. It was, in the idiom of (again) Sir Winston a situation where education was the tool that enabled you to actually do the job. Now we train people to do a job. Outside of that training, too many people are unable to deal with what they are confronted with.
Today we are constantly bombarded with the mantra that people must be invested with life skills. If one needs to be taught life skills, to my mind it signifies only one thing: One lacks sufficient education to deal with life on a day to day basis. As far as I am concerned, this is the result of doing away with what used to be called a liberal education, i.e. an education based on book learning. No more Latin, Greek, history and a seemingly increasing inability to read, has resulted in a situation where people have reference frameworks limited to television, and for the younger generation Mixit.
Let us return to Sir Winston. He expresses himself as being grateful for having acquired knowledge of the essential structure of the English sentence. This must necessarily mean that he learned to communicate effectively. All communication for us, and I specifically refer now to persons who have the normal faculties and are possessed of the normal five senses, must eventually be reduced to language. Even if I were to attempt to make myself understood by using gestures, the person to whom I am communicating, would interpret my gestures by defining them in terms of language. Linguistically speaking, if I may borrow from De Saussure, when you see a tree, you term it in your subconscious “tree”, or “Baum” in German , or when you see a motorcar, you term it “car”, or “Auto”.
Now, at a subconscious level, it is our ability to communicate that enables us to understand. Our ability to describe accurately what we are dealing with, and to then assess what to do about it. If we lack this skill, we lack the skill to deal with life and the situations that arise every day in our interaction with the world, hence the need for “life skills” to be taught. Increasingly the academically more responsible universities in South Africa are introducing intermediate years in which students are both taught to deal with their future studies by giving them a better foundation, and also assessed in order to ascertain whether they should in fact proceed with their chosen courses. Considering that this has never before been necssary, it is a clear indication that the school system is not giving the prospective university student a sound grounding from which to proceed with tertiary studies.
Having said that, I want to refer to some examples of writing from a final year class at a university where I taught. Now bear in mind that these students are on the verge of graduating and being inflicted on an unsuspecting society out there, the majority of whom do not have degrees, and therefore in some two or three months’ time will be looking up to these newly graduated individuals as being “the educated elite”. I also interpose here that these are final year law students (because that is where my experiences lie) who will receive a professional degree, and at worst be allowed to practice law independently after two more years of pratical training, for some less. Here follow the examples (the typos, number and concord errors etc. are not mine):
• Referring to the legal position of hindu marriages in South Africa, which are not yet recognised formally, the student writes: “The Hindi Marriages Act governs Hindu marriages.” This is all very well, except that the act referred to is an act of the Indian Parliament, not the South African.
• Consider this sentence: “Women’s rights in Islam have encircled an optimistic approach.” What does this mean?
• Bad news for those of us who are fathers: “Research have shown that a loss of a mother is more dramatic than the loss of a father.” • “Although all types of child abuse is to be shunned upon . . . “
• Statistics quoted stating that 59% of women in prisons had given birth to their first child while still teenagers. All very well, except that the statistic quoted is in respect of women in Canadian prisons, while the assignment dealt with women in South African prisons, and the statistics were quoted as though applicable to the South African situation.
The question that arises is what is the cause of this problem. Have parents abdicated their obligation to actually encourage children to acquire knowledge beyond what is required to satisfy the immediate necessity of acquiring a passing grade? Is it the fault of the curriculum children follow at schools? Do we blame the information explosion that has resulted in children being bombarded with so much information that they simply refuse to absorb any of it?
I think it is a combination of all three. How do we address the problem? Organisations that are not subject to the limitations of state regulation in respect of their involvement can adopt programmes to assist specific schools in their communities to give children more than the minimum requirement. What I envisage is a system in wherein people can broaden their reference frameworks. The problem is, unfortunately, exacerbated by a government that due to more and more such input by non governmental agencies (necessitated by an increasing lack of available resources), abdicates more and more of its social responsibilty. The vicious circle continues.