Saturday, June 11, 2011

Education in Colombia and elsewhere: a conversation with Alan

My friend Alan responded to my recent blog post on the merits (or lack thereof) of school gardens, and had much to say about different education systems. He felt that whatever we can do to get kids (and adults) off their butts and moving around is probably good for bodies and good for minds. If even he and I, attending elite Chicago public schools all our lives, often felt bored and unmotivated sitting in a classroom for hours every day, how much worse must the case be for kids in the more typical, beleaguered schools of Chicago and other underperforming systems? At times I've even wondered if it wouldn't be better for many kids to simply learn at home, from their everyday surroundings, rather than go to school. Alan stressed that much of official schooling seems to be more about promoting conformity and order, and less about real learning and critical thought. He has been teaching in Japan for the past few months, and has at times seen this rigid social molding in even starker evidence than in the States.

I'm a bit torn about this issue of promoting independence vs. promoting conformity and acculturation. On the one hand, I firmly believe that true intellectual development involves above all interpreting and critiquing the world around you. Especially in the humanities, the goal of education is to help us become unique, thinking individuals. But on the other hand, I believe in the importance of tradition and collective values. We are not islands unto ourselves, and those who act as such ruin life for the rest of society (as evidenced by the irresponsible behavior of bankers and other neoliberal ideologues in recent US history). I recently re-watched the film "The Dead Poets' Society", which essentially depicts the tension between freethinking nonconformity and stolid tradition, and unabashedly comes down on the side of nonconformity. The only problem is that the late 1950s, when the movie is set, were the most prosperous age in US history, and from them came some of the most intelligent and progressive ideas and culture (rock music, groundbreaking films, desegregation, JFK and Bobbie Kennedy). For the past twenty years, on the other hand, individualism and lack of a sense of the collective have run rampant, and what have they gotten us? Economic crisis, unyielding chasms between political and cultural extremes, mass-produced films and music, and uncontrolled consumerism. So maybe the 1950s weren't so bad, despite the generalized emphasis on conformity

On a more personal level, some of our friends here in Colombia have lately been fed up with their children's alternative schools. These parents sent their kids to experimental pedagogical schools precisely because they didn't believe in the rigid sort of butt-in-seat learning practiced by many traditional schools. But now they are sometimes frustrated with a lack of discipline or direction at their kids' alternative schools. So of late I've been mostly exposed to the extreme of very free-form teaching that stresses the child's individuality, which can have the negative effect of creating adults that have little sense of their forming part of a larger collective. My friend Alan, on the other hand, is currently in the thick of a Japanese school system that can stifle individual thinking and creativity, which can easily lead to a stifled, stagnant society with few new ideas.

I've mentioned recently that the government in Colombia is proposing a new education reform to privatize more aspects of higher education.

An important aspect of the Colombian education reform is a model whereby students pay little or nothing during their time in university, but thereafter they pay back to the school a portion of their salary for a set period of time, say ten years. To give a concrete example, if a Colombian student were to study graphic design and find a well-paying job after college, she'd pay something like ten percent of her monthly income to her alma mater, during ten years or so. If she didn't find a job, or didn't make above a certain income, she wouldn't pay anything. I think this is an interesting proposal; in a society like Colombia or the US where not everyone can go to college, I think it's appropriate that those who are lucky enough to get a degree should contribute to fund college for others. A college education represents a significant bump in one's earning potential, part of which should rightly go back to the university responsible for one's increased income. And if it doesn't pay out in better income, you're not obligated to repay.

This brings to light a question about whether education is a private good or a public good. As I've pointed out above, education obviously has some characteristics of a private good. The individual who has finished college receives a tool that favors him in the future, as compared to if he hadn't gone to college. In this way education is clearly a private good. But on the other hand, everyone in a society benefits from a well-educated populace. Even if I myself didn't study medicine, I benefit from the pool of well-trained doctors in my city or my country. I also benefit from the increased economic activity, jobs, and tax revenue created by these doctors and other educated people. So in this respect, education and the prosperity it creates are clearly a public good, too.

Because education has this double nature of public and private good, I feel it's appropriate that the costs and responsibilities of education fall on both public and private shoulders. Obviously the student and his or her parents must do their part to take advantage of the education offered them, and it is also perhaps reasonable to expect them to assume some of education's cost. On the other hand, the ideal is that the State works to ensure that everyone gets a good education, just as everyone should get police protection and decent roadways. This is the model common in most of Europe, where widespread, free access to higher education has created prosperous, egalitarian societies. So perhaps the government should gradually work towards a final goal of paying for higher education for all citizens, but in the meanwhile, if not everyone is receiving education, it's reasonable to ask those who do benefit from college to then pay for others to benefit from it too.

Anyway, the Colombian government's new education plan, as well as a private financing model for education recently profiled in the NYT, has elements of this dual idea of increased public support to education, paired with private contributions from high-earning college graduates. Unfortunately, I fear that the government proposal is heavily tilted towards involving large private enterprise in public universities, and even dedicating more public money to private universities. If this is so, the proposal of having college graduates reimburse part of their education costs may simply be a responsible-sounding smokescreen to cover up a generalized privatization of public education. As the last linked article points out, such a privatization might increase coverage in some profitable technical fields like computer programming, but it can't assure academic quality or integrity (meaning critical, independent thought and inquiry). A largely privatized higher education system won't produce innovative entrepreneurs, well-adjusted, cultured citizens, or important basic research, all of which are key factors in creating a more prosperous, just, peaceful, and healthy society. For this and other reasons, the government's proposed education law has been amply rejected by professors, students, researchers, and just about anyone else in Colombia who knows about education.

1 comment:

  1. I don't want to convey a simple negative impression of the Japanese system. I was relating an experience I had that where a teacher was really harsh to a few kids, which stood out in part because the English classes I teach are usually fun and loose. I don't have nearly enough experience here to make generalizations (but I'm going to try).
    While I think that public education anywhere serves to program kids to be members of society (e.g. fixing their lives to a series of bells, teaching them the skills needed to be a competent laborer regardless of field), this socialization/instilling societal values is not entirely a bad thing, especially if the cultural values have real worth. For instance Japanese culture puts great value in collective harmony. All the students have cleaning time (there are no janitors), students are involved in serving lunch each day (lunch is taken to individual classrooms), and students are often very involved in after-school clubs, which foster discipline and keep kids in shape. In the big picture, Japan is doing some things right: The crime rate in this country is extremely low, and there isn't a crazy income disparity like you find in America and other oligarchies. But does the emphasis on test-taking (in order to get into the better high schools & colleges) and group harmony stifle creativity? Probably. And did Japanese cultural practices have anything to do with TEPCO and the government's inadequate response to the Fukushima meltdowns? Certainly a possibility.
    So what is the best ratio of socialization/crafting-of-productive-workers to intellectual development? I don't know. Maybe an alternative school that fosters discipline as well as intellectual curiosity?
    Also (bit of a side note) how intellectually-independent can public universities remain in this day and age?
    Thanks for sharing.