Thursday, 16 May 2013

What's wrong with our education system?

To answer this question one has to understand what exactly our education system is meant to deliver.

Is it meant to deliver technically competent graduates and college students with the right academic skills needed to land  a productive job in the real economy?  Or is it meant to deliver in addition good citizens capable of participating in life beyond its economic aspects to render life on these islands a positive experience?

I have more than a mere impression that whilst our system is delivering academic knowledge probably as good as systems in other successful countries, we fall way behind in helping our students come through our colleges and university with a sense of good citizenry.

There is too much emphasis in our curriculum on academic content, often far beyond the level in other countries ( e.g. our MATSEC A levels contains stuff that students in other countries cover in their degree studies).  But there is little or no content meant to educate beyond academic knowledge.   The Systems of Knowledge content is too little and focused only in  the 2 years between secondary school and university.   Such content should be an integral part of the curriculum from primary to degree.

In economics there is a prevailing school of thought that our traditional measure of GDP and GNP is largely insufficient to capture and measure the richness and quality of life of citizens.  There are many studies which try to include other measures beyond strict economic measurements to capture the quality of life, with such measures often referred to as Happiness Index, Life Satisfaction Index, Well Being Index, Life Expectancy Index and such like terms.

When measured in such terms invariably Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands finish very close to the top of the rankings.    These are countries that include  in their education curriculum strong content related to education for being good citizens.

I have just finished reading a formidable book on this subject by Jeffrey Sachs titled THE PRICE OF CIVILIZATION.   I wish to share its message about the importance of teaching our students to be Mindful Citizens of a Mindful Society in all its facets:

Mindfulness of self:

The need for personal moderation to escape becoming slaves to mass consumerism and to understand that once our basic need of food, shelter, clothing and education are attended to, additional consumption does not automatically lead to more happiness.  Other non-economic factors can contribute better to additional happiness. These include good governance, more trust in the community, a happy married life, and sharing quality time with family and friends.   This teaches how to protect ourselves from the false attractions of conspicuous consumption, bombarded as we are by aggressive marketing techniques trying to sell us solutions to needs we do not really have.   As one expert put it  " living doesn't cost much, showing off does"

Mindfulness of work:

Unemployment and the risk thereof is the single most important source of unhappiness.  Students need to be thought the importance of  productivity and flexibility in order to protect their rights for job security, vacation time, training and development and information about the employers' corporate affairs and corporate governance standards.

Mindfulness of knowledge:

This is meant to make students aware of the complexity of the economy and that only scientific and technical expertise can help 7 billion people on an overcrowded planet causing unprecedented ecological stress, survive and prosper whilst meeting the aspirations of its inhabitants.  This involves scientific breakthrough for high yield food production, renewable energy sources, recycling of industrial materials and efficiency of resource use.   The experts cannot and should not be allowed to issue solutions to these problems without the involvement of informed public opinion.

Mindfulness of Others:

Happiness cannot be achieved if extreme social differences are allowed to live shoulder to shoulder.   The rich and high earners must understand that paying fair taxes is a price they have to pay to live in a civilised society. Whilst a market economy is needed to deliver efficiency and growth, society must be mindful to guarantee a minimum standard above the poverty trap to those who genuinely cannot participate in the economy.

Mindfulness of nature:

This is not a tree hugger's plea.  It is an imperative for survival when the earth's air, water, land, and climate are all under threat.  Market forces cannot address these threats.  They are more likely to exacerbate them as the need to register short term gains often come at the expense of long term sustainability.

Mindfulness of the future:

Citizens need to be educated to move away from their political leader's mind-set that the future is till the next elections.  Citizens must learn to hold their leaders accountable for taking decisions that are front loaded with sugar but back ended with costs.  We cannot give tax cuts but fail to make necessary infrastructural investments.   We must not build comfortable parliaments before we build efficient road systems.    We must not promise expensive heath care system which is supposedly free but inaccessible to those that really need because of long waiting lists.

Mindfulness of politics:

We cannot have a society that accepts unquestionably the serious democratic deficit through an unregulated system of political party funding.   US politics are in the grips of strong business lobbies as America suffers from the dead end of corporatocracy as politicians are more loyal to their financiers rather than the public that elected them.  Malta desperately needs to follow the best European practice in this regard to ensure that we have governments for the people and not vice-versa.

Mindfulness of the world:

Recognition that today's world is deeply inter-connected and that no significant event in part of the world leaves the rest of the world untouched.  The collapse of Lehman Brothers in the US caused an international financial crisis.   SARS and H1N1flu viruses did not respect national borders.   Carbon emissions in the US and China cause environmental problems in Africa.   Terrorism, instability, extreme poverty, hunger, climate change and shifting global power are common agenda affecting all countries, rich and poor, and can only be solved through international co-operation not beggar thy neighbour policies.

Through learning about a Mindful Society our education system is more likely to deliver citizens that see value beyond money, that can pursue true happiness in acountry with high standards of corporate governance and free from the bind of self-destructive consumer addictions.

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