Give Me Tools, But Teach Me How To Use Them: Thoughts On Education.

I’m angry at my education.

Okay, maybe anger is a strong word; the years I spent in school from the age of four to the age of seventeen were great and memorable, and – despite the complete absence of any sort of nostalgia towards school in my heart – I did enjoy my years there and I’m very happy with how it all turned out, but the truth is that I am angry.

I realize that this subject diverges significantly from the sort of thing I’ve been writing about in this blog, but I can’t keep quiet about my feelings on this any longer. I suppose this sort of passion comes from moving out of home and becoming more acquainted with the wider world; I’ve probably met people from about fifty different countries over the last seven months and I will probably continue to meet more during the next eleven, and the more people I speak to, the more I realize how ignorant I am.

Let me note that much of what I’m going to say here is based off of my experience with education in Paraguay. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold true for other countries as well; while I know that many people have had a much better experience than I did, I also know that most can agree that the issues I find in our current system exist in great part of the educational structures around the world, both public and private.

Now, I realize that a significant problem in your average public institution- and I’d venture to say private, as well – is severely stunted because there’s a gaping lack of qualified teachers. But this isn’t just a problem that has to do with lack of human resources, or even with the way our national education is still subconsciously affected by partisan bias accumulated over the past… oh, I don’t know, two hundred years? Education is a worldwide problem that is one of the biggest reasons (at least, the more tangible ones; there are, of course, vast moral/spiritual deficiencies that are the main source of mankind’s decline, but let’s not get into that here) behind the current chaos in the world. And within it, there are three obvious problems.

Firstly, the approach. I can’t tell you how many classes I’ve taken where the teacher’s entire modus operandi was to make us spend fifteen minutes writing down questions they dictated in a slow, monotonous tone, and then send us off to answer them by reading a text they provided. I have had entire subjects where the teacher didn’t once get up and explain what they were teaching us in an informed and engaging manner. The entire class consisted in us being able to pick out answers from seemingly eternal walls of text, and dutifully jotiting them down in nice handwriting. Don’t get me wrong: reading comprehension is insanely important, but this means that even if I somehow manage to memorize enough answers to pass the exam, by the next day my mind has completely forgotten what I’ve ‘learned’.

I speak here particularly about History, Literature, Science (and all its subdivisions), Finance, Administration and Sociology, because they are subjects I’ve had experience with. That being said, I’ve had amazing teachers in many of these classes who have gone against the norm and created an atmosphere that helped me retain more than 1% of the knowledge I passed with, but the overwhelming majority of my teachers were the question-giving, passive-dictating type.

Is it really that hard for teachers to feel motivated about their jobs? I’m sure many could argue that there are issues with wages that could help encourage educators to step up their game, but I’m inclined to think that the issue runs deeper than that. Teachers have given up on their students learning. They don’t like what they teach. They don’t know how to teach us. Somewhere along the way, we lost that passionate desire for sharing knowledge that fuels all those feel-good movies starring the classic character of the inspirational teacher that helps troubled youth get their lives together.

It’s like we’re locked in a box, or some other rigidly limited space that doesn’t really exist. Why are we so scared to leave our comfort zone? Is there something discouraging teachers from being creative with their students? I remember countless times when an idea was proposed in class, sometimes by the teacher themselves… to go on a field trip and learn about the rocks we’ve been discussing in geology, to watch the movie adaptation of that book we’ve been reading, to watch a documentary on WWII so we can actually see what’s being talked about… and then the issue is promptly dropped and never spoken of again. For some reason, we’re more comfortable with being bored and passive in class than we are with being engaged and entertained by the possibilities.

Is it lack of resources? I doubt it. At this point, almost no one can claim that they don’t have access to a TV or a computer of some sort (and if they don’t, then there are always alternatives… after all, a fieldtrip can literally be a block away from school and not require any money), and God knows kids are on YouTube or watching documentaries on their own – even reading (gasp!) – for their own entertainment. Why can’t school naturally embrace the tools students have already embraced (and in some cases, created themselves) and use them in ways that further our education?

Secondly, the scope. Speaking to friends where I live, especially friends from African countries, I realize just how stunted I am in my knowledge of the world. While we spent years studying the particulars of my country and South America in general in repetitive detail, as well as the collective and rather confusing history of Europe, I know next to nothing about Asia, Africa or Australia… which is ridiculous, because that means I don’t know anything about the overwhelming majority of the world.

I think we all know why this is. There’s no need to explain the primitive mentality that has somehow been carried down through generations. But kids nowadays know more about other countries from watching videos, reading and talking to people around them than from what they learn in school, and though it’s great, it’s also strange. What’s the use of school, then?

And it’s not just History I’m talking about… at least, not what we’ve come to understand as History. CrashCourse, some time ago, did a few videos on modern history (USA centric, but useful nonetheless), which were incredibly useful to me. In a time when the media is severely biased and most of the people around us operate under an understanding of the news colored by personal experience, many of us are at loss. There are almost no objective sources of information regarding things that happened over the last 30 years, though the things that happened during that time clearly have more influence on our daily lives than, say, the names of Christopher Columbus’ ships do. Yet while my parents may have been able to experience some of the things that caused the current international situation, I didn’t and therefore know next to nothing about it. But I’m expected to vote? To give an informed opinion? It’s no surprise that people talk about my generation like we’re lost and don’t care about the world… we know next to nothing about it, and it’s ridiculously hard to understand it when no one can offer a decent explanation.

We need to expand the way we teach students about the world. Yes, teach ancient history, because the pyramids and the Roman Empire were important and fascinating, but teach me about the current political parties too, and why certain countries are currently at war… these are things that I need to know NOW.

Thirdly, the point. What is education for? I remember people constantly saying that it gives us tools to function in the outside world. And yes, I’m glad I learned to add and subtract – even though I was also somehow taught to hate it instead of enjoy it – and how to read and write. I’m glad I can tell you the date my country was founded, even though I’m not really sure how useful that knowledge really is. But our discourse is strangely contradictory at this point. Thet gave us tools, but they didn’t teach us how to use them. They taught us how to write, but not how we should write. They taught us about the environment, but not how to go about saving it. They taught us about the world, but not how to embrace it. And we are lost, and while some lucky ones manage to find a way to use what talents they’ve been given, a vast majority gets left behind, to settle into a life of monotonous ignorance where nothing ever changes. Like father, like son… and hardly any progress.

We have reached a point where humanity will not survive much longer without people to work tirelessly in its name. We can’t afford to leave people behind anymore; times are changing and destruction is reaching its climax. Where are we going to get these people who will lead the way in education, engineering, journalism, art, science? People who will embrace diversity, desire peace, put the world’s needs above their own greed and realize that you don’t have to be famous to change your community? Let’s teach students to embrace their reality, to understand the forces at work in their society. And not like we’ve been doing it so far, with sudden, random acts of social action just to be able to claim that we’ve done community service. Let’s talk about Science, Math, History, and Finance in a way that teaches us how to use them. That the point is, and has always been, for people to become educated in order to help mankind and champion its development. The point is not to pass exams, do your homework, learn to sit still: it’s to figure out what role you’re going to play in the present and future of our planet.

I refuse to accept that my education was as good as it gets. That my children, and my children’s children, will groan when they have to go to school, and spend hours memorizing instead of learning. I refuse to accept that this educational system can’t get better. I refuse to go home and set the tools education gave me in a drawer, to be forgotten, just because I wasn’t taught how to use them.

Let’s talk about this. Let’s do something about it.

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