Friday, February 3, 2012

Society in Transition -- Educational Reform

A consensus of opinions, vociferously expressed in articles, lectures, talk shows and informal conversations, holds that educational reform is the key to society’s salvation, the lifeboat that can take us from our dismal present towards a brighter future. Without educational reform we are doomed to sink into further decline, decadence and, ultimately, chaos, to be plucked like a rotten fruit by the forces of darkness watching and waiting for just such an opportunity. In any gathering, whether between people on the highest rung of the social ladder or among ordinary citizens, talk invariably turns to the urgent need for educational reform and the disastrous consequences of not putting it into effect without further delay.

Conversations abound with nostalgic references to education as it was in the past and lament the standard of education on offer today, occasionally touching on the reasons our educational institutions have sunk to such abysmal depths, with their lack of quality, low standard of educational output and the yawning gap separating them from the realities and innovations of the age. But rarely, if ever, is the reader, viewer or listener of these plaintive symphonies apprised of what alternative model of education the lamenters are proposing in its stead. This article shall try to sum up, very briefly, the main guidelines we should follow when embarking on educational reform. I believe the first requirement is to formulate a clear vision, a declaration of intent, as it were, that would be based on the following simple formula:

The educational institutions aim to imbue the sons and daughters of the society of the future with the values of the age and with the qualifications that would enable them to make effective, creative and positive contributions towards achieving progress, social peace and quality of life at all levels. The most important values of the age that our educational institutions must plant in the minds of society’s children are:

- A love of pluralism in all its material, intellectual, sectarian, religious, political and cultural aspects as one of the most noble and beautiful realities of life, and a respect for its results, the most important being otherness and cultural and religious tolerance;

- A recognition of the universality of science and knowledge and an awareness that they are the cumulative legacy of humanity as a whole;

- The extirpation of all the seeds of fanaticism;

- A respect for human rights and the rights of minorities, and an acceptance of the imperative need to elevate the status of women, who make up half of the human race not only numerically but in terms of their role and contributions;

- An appreciation of progress and a deep respect for science and knowledge;

- A sense of the common humanity shared by all peoples and a love of art in all its forms;

- A recognition of the sanctity of human life and a respect for work.

Task forces composed of men and women experienced in all related fields, drawn from both inside and outside the educational establishment, must be formed to translate that vision into educational programmes. It is also necessary to study and address the reasons why the majority of those enrolled in the educational process are bent on completing the journey from primary to preparatory to secondary school to university. On the one hand, society does not need so many university graduates; on the other, it is in dire need of skills in many domains that are not acquired through a university education.

On a recent visit to Finland, a country experts consider to have the best educational system in the world today, I met one of the leading personalities in the field of education. She told me that in her opinion the problem is not whether education is free or paid - in Finland education is free from elementary school through post-graduate studies, even for non-citizens. Rather, it is the failure of many educational systems to attract society’s young people towards vocational schools where the training they receive can serve society in ways that university graduates cannot.

Speaking as one of the architects of this highly developed Scandinavian country’s educational policies, she added that no society could possibly need more than one quarter of those enrolled in the educational process to graduate from university; it needed the remainder to train as skilled workers in various areas of specialization. If the educational policy succeeds in directing a quarter, or, at most, a third of its young people towards a university education and three quarters or two thirds towards modern vocational training, society would not only receive all the contributions required for its advancement, it would also be able to provide free university education to its most brilliant students. 

Although the prescription set out in this article appears simple on its face, its application is far from easy. To begin with, it needs a large number of qualified people to lay the groundwork for the required radical reforms. Theirs will not be an easy task, for they will face ferocious resistance from those forces within the society whose vested interests are safe and sound only if things remain as they are.  

There is no doubt that the political will to effect these changes in order to provide the only lifeboat that can rescue society from its present predicament is of paramount importance.

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