A Plea to the Education Fairy

Despite all the resources and the wealth of information at our disposal through the internet, I do not believe that teachers will ever be replaced by computers. I don’t believe they ever should be.

You see, teaching is about much more than merely conveying information. It is also about more than simply helping learners to develop critical thinking skills. These are important, but if education only holds the development of knowledge and skills as aims, then it is in dire straits indeed. Because the unspoken aim of any education system is to produce that system’s ideal citizen, the system should, of necessity, place emphasis on developing a value system above all else. If it does not do this overtly, it is at least doing it implicitly, through its selection of what should be known and how it treats people.

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By the way, if we had any sense, we would see that Western education treats children as commodities. They are only valuable if they produce numbers of distinctions or if they excel on the sportsfield. Schools celebrate children’s achievements not because they value the child, but because success provides good marketing opportunities. There is something very twisted about that. I wish parents saw it. Society’s very infrastructure teaches young people to be either deeply insecure or inordinately arrogant. Either way, it devalues them.

My point, I suppose, is that even if you try to eradicate overtly value-driven schooling, values are still imparted by default. Just not ones we should like. Any social system that does not prioritise the acceptance of some sort of common value system is in real danger. I think that this is one of the many problems in Western education today: in the attempt to be politically correct and not offend anybody, we have removed values from education and focused only on knowledge and skills. I believe that had Western education worked as it should, there would be significantly less poverty and prejudice. People would care about social justice and would be skilled and willing enough to do something about injustices. Instead, we are teaching young people that their personal dreams and aspirations are all that matter, that knowledge is only valuable if it leads to furthering our own agendas. Feelings and values are at best whimsical and pitiable and at worst the domain of fanatics. I remind my readers of one of my favourite quotes, passed on to me by a colleague I greatly admire for her humility and commitment to education that confronts social injustices proactively:

Dear Teachers:

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become more human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

Haim G. Ginott (“Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers”)

It is possible for a school to promote a quite narrow value system and still produce liberal and socially aware students. Value systems – even narrow ones – are not inherently bad. They are only problematic if the individuals who practise them are not taught how to live those values humbly and respectfully. Everything depends on the teachers. You see, a good teacher should always fulfil something of a dual role: upholding the beauty and integrity of the system he serves on the one hand, and – because he realises that any attempt to create a perfect citizen is oppressive – undermining it with the other.

Furthermore, values are always first learned through modelling. The teacher must thus be a sound role model, sincerely cherishing and practising the values he espouses. Schools should be much quicker to hire men of good character over men with advanced degrees. Any of you who have been through a university (as well as, I am sure, many of you who have not) will be able to testify that some of the most brilliant minds you have encountered were terrible teachers. Conversely, those educators who made the most lasting impressions on us often touched us not because of their intellect, but because of their character. I cannot understand why schools seem to be the last places to understand this.

Of course, society is working against this truth too. Teaching is not regarded as an important job. It is the domain of tyrants, perverts and other social failures in popular culture. Few young people would be actively encouraged by adults to pursue a career in education. Instead, like I was, they will be told that they are wasting their brains (Really?! Do you want idiots to effectively raise your child?), or that there is no money in teaching (as if that should be the yardstick by which to measure the suitability of a career path). And so we end up, well, where we are: facing a crisis because good teachers are increasingly difficult to find. And the only solutions being implemented by government (by mine certainly, but I am sure by yours too) are systemic ones. They address assessment, and they change curricula, but at the end of the day – important as those things are – the true problem has been ignored. A good teacher will make inferior curricula work, and will effectively teach young people to be principled and to think critically, despite sub-standard end-point assessments. The real problem is a dearth of good teachers.

If I were granted only one wish by the Education Fairy, and could make any one change to world education, it would be this: I would ask for teachers to be valued by society to such an extent that only the most deeply principled men and women, only those who modelled whatever value systems their schools promoted with humility and integrity, only those who could have the maturity to reflect the beauty of their cultures and sub-cultures openly while simultaneously having the courage to teach young people to critique those cultural practises thoroughly and respectfully, only such people would be allowed to work with the world’s most valuable resource: its children.

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