07 June 2005

Wednesday March 9, 2005
Unequal learning in our education system

As the cliché goes, kids say the darndest things. My older one, who admittedly will soon not be a kid anymore, had a particularly insightful thought the other day. “You know, Mum,” she said. “If I had stayed at school at home (in Malaysia), I would never have read half of the books I’ve read today.”

To explain, my daughter is in school in another country. I sent her away because I had begun to worry about the type of education she was getting, and the type of socialisation she was exposed to. I felt that, mentally, she was not being stretched, and that her creative instincts were being stifled, and that with some of her friends, she was becoming yet another mall-rat. So I sent her abroad to a rugged boot camp for a year and then continued her schooling in boarding school.

The thing about her little insight was that she was not saying it to feel superior to anyone. She followed this statement with another that made my heart clutch. “I feel sad,” she said, “because my friends who didn’t come over with me didn’t have this opportunity.” In that moment, my daughter, who sometimes makes me bang my head in frustration for her silliness and sheer teenage irresponsibility, displayed an understanding of the inequalities of the world far more than I ever did at her age, when I didn’t have half her privileges.

She understood, first of all, that she is lucky to have had the opportunity to study in an environment far more open than she would have had at home. She also understood that privilege costs her parents money, and it is something to be always grateful for. But she also understood that it was unfair that her friends did not have the same opportunity for whatever reason, and because of that, they may be losing out on something, and that was sad. She wanted the friends she had grown up with to move along in the world at the same pace as her, but that was not to be. I asked her if she ever discussed the books she was reading (for pleasure and as school work) with her friends at home and she said wistfully that she didn’t even try because it was so different from what they were doing. She is currently reading Dante’s Inferno, which she thinks is “pretty cool”.

When we think that education is the key to our children’s future, it seems unfair that not all children get a fair deal with it. It is one thing to give our kids the basics, it is another thing to try and unearth from them their true potential as thinking, living, breathing and creative human beings. And to do this, we have to expose them to as much of the world as possible, to allow them to assess, evaluate and judge for themselves.

But if our education system does nothing more than force-feed them what we think is right for them and leave them no room to explore ideas on their own, then all we are doing is creating a whole bunch of automatons who are not going to know how to live in this changeable globalised world. We will have people who are afraid of others, of taking risks, of things or people that are different from what they are used to. Without these types of challenges, our kids’ minds and indeed souls do not hone into the resilient mature characters we want them to be.

It is a system that only breeds inequality. If our education system leaves no room to think, and only one type of thinking is allowed, then discrimination against anything different will naturally set in. That’s the first type of inequality. Then the parents who don’t like this type of education will look for ways out of it, by firstly going to private schools within the country. This then creates another sort of separation and inequality, where our kids will then only mix with certain types of kids, and grow to believe that that’s all there is in the world.

Then the next step is for parents who can afford it (and more and more seem to be able to) to send kids abroad at earlier and earlier ages. This then creates even more separation and inequality with kids who have to remain at home, as my own daughter had pointed out. Instinctively, she had recognised that, despite the many years of friendship, soon the way she was being educated would start putting a wedge of difference with her old friends, and it would take enormous maturity and effort to not let those friendships fade. Ironically, in many ways, her current educational environment, albeit elite, stresses community service, and allows her to mix with a greater diversity of kids, and in this way does more to promote equality than her public education back home.

It’s an age-old subject, our education system. While the current discussion about too much homework is good, it still doesn’t do anything about our concept of education itself, especially that exams are still the mainstay of our system. We’ve only got one chance to get it right with our kids; how much longer are we going to blow it?