Education’s etymological roots lie in Latin – from the word educare which means to draw out. The right to education is now considered a basic human right under Article 13 of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Most countries now have some kind of compulsory education.
When did education start? According to Dieter Lenzen, president of the Freie Universität Berlin 1994, it began either millions of years ago or at the end of 1770″ I would take the broader view. We are a species that transmits knowledge and skills. In pre-literate societies, education was done orally and through observation and imitation. As nothing was written down, different versions could not be compared. When oral language was superseded by written symbols and letters, there was an exponential growth in what could be learned and transmitted. But there was also an insistence on orthodoxy. It is an instrument of power and non-literate societies could not compete with literate ones. (I have already done a post about the enormous significance of writing, The write stuff.) Literacy in pre-industrial societies tended to be concentrated in areas such as civil administration, law, trade, commerce; only a small part of the population could afford a formal education. The earliest known universities, or places of higher education, started teaching a millennium or more ago. But the mass education that we see nowadays is a recent phenomenon. In fact, UNESCO has calculated that in the next 30 years more people will receive formal education than in all of human history.
What I find almost impossible to grapple with is what should be taught at school and how to deal with all those problems we face I am divided between an idealistic side and a more pragmatic viewpoint. I firmly believe in the importance of passing down culture to the next generation I think that there is a core knowledge that citizens should possess. I’m afraid David Beckham Studies doesn’t fit in there. We have to know our Western history. But I am also passionate about learning about other cultures. Where can we find the time? There is just so much to learn. I am not a fan of what is happening in the Spanish educational system with this obsession with the autonomous regions. This is a step backwards. I am fascinated by an interdisciplinary approach. If you could combine maths, economics, history etc in one class, it would be fantastic. But it is probably difficult to organise in an education system designed for the masses. I am worried about the aversion to reading that many have youngsters have. Youngsters have so many alternatives, that it is very difficult to persuade them to sit down with a book. I remember a student telling me she couldn’t think of a single book that had moved her. I know that I may well never have read Shakespeare if it hadn’t been compulsory But forcing pupils to read doesn’t seem to be the answer. In Hollywood films teachers are able to inspire their students with their passion. The real world, however, is different.
It is also typical to hear about standard of education going down. I am not really sure about this. As I mentioned before, I am worried about the lack of reading. Concentration seems to be a problem both in school and when kids get home. Discipline is another serious problem. This is not just about teachers but it is a question of society. We need to be more demanding of kids. But I can also say that they now do more homework than I ever did. Parents are helping them more with their homework but maybe we are depriving them of the chance to learn things for themselves. We just have to make sure that their efforts are well-directed. I would like to be more ambitious but we need to concentrate on the basics – probably maths, the native language and literature, and a foreign language. We cannot forget the economic aspects of education. We live in a competitive world and it is impossible to ignore the effects of education on GDP.
I would like to end with a thought experiment. It may be completely unreal but it does serve to shed light about what we value in education. You can choose between two options:
- You can go the best university in the world and receive a wonderful education in the subject of your choice. However, you will have no certificate or proof of your having stayed there.
- You don’t go to any university but you are given a certificate as if you have graduated magna cum laude from a prestigious Ivy League university.
Which one would you choose? It’s not easy. You want the value of a good education but you also want the signalling effect of the paper qualification. There are many jobs where they wouldn’t even consider you without this type of qualification.