Saturday, May 7, 2011

THE CENTRAL ROLE OF EDUCATION

Education is the one force that can change the world for the better or by its lack plunge us into disaster. In many parts of the world education is revered and appreciated as the one tool that can elevate an individual's standing in the world. Many leaders recognize that education benefits the whole nation.

Why is it that education is one of the areas that is short changed. Maybe you think teachers have it pretty good and there is nothing better than the life of a student (I share that last proposition). In our culture and that of the United States there is a resistance to spending more money on education and in times of financial stress educational cutbacks are not unusual.

Canadians and Americans have access to reports that we are falling behind many foreign nations in education. There is some concern and lots of reasons given. Some people, like me are quick to blame. Looking at it more deeply, it is not any one part of society that needs to accept responsibility, rather it is society as a whole. Successful politicians don't get elected by going against the wishes of voters and so it is fair to say they are responding to what the voters indicate they prefer. As a society we give our biggest rewards to entertainers and those who are able to manipulate money. We put a big premium on enjoying life rather than building for a better more purposeful life.

If there is some problem with education it must be somebody's fault. Teachers have it easy with long summer vacations. Politicians are greedy. But really the more people (who actually vote) value education the more you will see put into it.

What could be put into it? Of marginal value might be better facilities and tools (like computers). Of greater value might be such things as better teacher training, more salaries, a longer school year and perhaps most importantly might be a lower teacher to student ratio. I didn't mean to leave out more financial support for worthy students to higher levels of education. Every student is precious and could benefit not only themselves, but all of us, from closer attention. Although I do not believe fitting the job market is the only purpose of education we could better encourage students to identify their natural talents and to pursue a path that best suits their talent, allowing for societal needs.

In some locations there is a lot of talk about how bad teachers dominate educational discussions. Undoubtedly there are "bad" teachers as there are bad employees in every function. Part of that might be a mismatch of talent to available jobs, part might be there isn't enough parental understanding and support or enough incentives to attract the best talent. Unions are criticized for protecting bad teachers, but without them how many good teachers would give up and search elsewhere for a high paying job with more respect. I do not believe that all unions have a high priority of protecting bad teachers as it only reflects poorly on them. Teachers do need protection and support.

The ultimate purpose of education is to promote more fulfilling lives for individuals and to better deal with the many problems of society. I believe these two goals are compatible. Leaving the best education to those who can afford it means talent is not recognized, not developed and probably a misallocation of limited human resources.

As a nation we all (rich and poor, young and old) benefit from an educated worker, an educated citizen, an educated consumer and an educated voter. As a globalized world we have an opportunity to more effectively deal with truly global problems such as justice, arms control including nuclear, climate change, energy shortages, inequality. One of the obstacles is that we really don't understand one another. We don't necessarily have our best available brains working on the most serious problems or even identifying the highest priorities.

Education is very basic to all other functions of society. There are two ways to learn things. The first is the hard way, by actual experience which can sometimes even be fatal and certainly lead up many dead ends and poor choices. The other way is through the experience of others. All functions can benefit from training. As a global society becomes more sophisticated including more complicated problems training and understanding become more vital.

Some voters think that health care is the most vital function of a government. Doctors need to be trained and we need the most suitable talent available. At the same time an educated citizen would better understand the basic requirements of maintaining good health. Other voters are concerned we don't spend enough on defense. Again our military needs to have basic education, but perhaps more importantly we need to understand better the problems that lead to military confrontation. Food production is also important, but again we need education to improve our agricultural output and its influence on overall national health.

As parents how much do we support our children's education in such areas of encouraging good study habits, avoiding too many distractions and working with the teacher. As citizens do we denigrate teachers as a class? As voters do we question the priorities of our leaders and ask for clarification? Have we stopped learning?

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