Today’s general consensus seems to be that the current western education system is broken. The argument is basically that the system used to work, but now it doesn’t.
This frustration towards the current mechanics of the system does not only come from disgruntled parents and uninterested students, it also comes from some very intellectual and successful personalities. Physicist Michio Kaku believes that today’s system of education, where exams are based on grades and memorisation, is crushing curiosity. American astrophysicist, cosmologist, and planetary scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks that in order to achieve the highest grades, students will simply choose what is easy. He says that today’s education structure rewards high GPAs, in a world that rewards tenacity. Entrepreneur Elon Musk feels that the fact that curriculums are forced on students is an issue. Teachers don’t explain to students why they are being taught a certain subject. He believes that rather than just learning math, taking a problem and using math to solve it is a much more engaging prospect. The list of reasons is long and getting longer each year. To add some clarity, it may be worth first asking the question, “What does it mean to be educated?”
The latin word “educare” is the etymological root of the modern word ‘education and it means “to bring up, rear, train, raise, support”. Educare is related with “ducere,”which means, “to lead, conduct, guide”. To be educated means to be “guided” or “brought up” or “trained” by other persons. Education is the act of another person, the trainer, the educator, the guide, while the educated is the receiver of the training and guidance.
So being educated or well educated simply implies that you have been guided or trained and does not really indicate the level of knowledge someone has attained. You can be well educated but very knowledgeable. Equally, you could be extremely knowledgeable but not very well educated. Throughout history, we have seen a number of examples. The Wright Brothers never finished high school yet became knowledgeable enough about aerodynamics to invent the airplane. Steve Jobs completed only one year of college yet is now recognised as one of the pioneers of the computer revolution. Thomas Edison spent 3 months in high school yet went on to invent the light bulb, the motion picture camera, telephone, phonograph, and has over 1,000 patents to his name.
Where was our current education system adopted from?
It is believed that our current education system was derived from the Prussian factory-style schools that caught on across the West as the spread of industrialisation created a need for compliant, literate factory workers. Industrialists led the charge to adopt universal education in the US, UK, and elsewhere in Europe. Factory owners were among the biggest champions for the Elementary Education Act 1870, which made education universally available in England.
Times have changed. More and more factory workers are being replaced by robots. A nalysis firm Oxford Economics found the more repetitive the job, the greater the risk of its being wiped out. Industrial robots offer manufacturers greater consistency and better quality when performing repetitive tasks. This means they are able to produce high quality products with little variation and greater consistency than their human counterparts. Up to 20 million manufacturing jobs around the world could be replaced by robots by 2030, according to Oxford Economics. However, jobs which require more compassion, creativity or social intelligence are more likely to continue to be carried out by humans “for decades to come.” Our education system should be reflecting this.
It should be understood that collectively, a well educated population brings economic wealth, social prosperity, and political stability to a nation. More importantly, the role of education is inevitable in producing a new generation capable of solving the real problems in our society.
What can be done?
The current education system does not necessarily have to be dismantled, just re-configured. We need to rethink the curriculum and decide what is necessary to be taught. At what point do mathematical equations become useless to a student that chooses to enter psychology studies? We should also start to rethink our methods, as methods of teaching play a large role in shaping the education system. Memorisation has not worked. Memorisation stops the student from thinking critically about the topic, and that is not actual learning.
Are exams and grades really the best incentives? We need to replace the current system of judging our intelligence by a traditional grading system and start looking for ways to nurture creativity, activism, originality and critical thought. The current grading system sees failure as an end and something to avoid at all costs, yet we learn from our failures. The great physicist Richard Feynman saw failure as a beginning and an important part of the learning process.
Not everybody learns at the same rhythm or has the same aptitude for every skill set. The system should therefore be adjusted to accomodate this. New technologies and initiatives such as Coursera, the Khan Academy, Udemy, Code Academy or Pluralsight are all attempting to provide alternatives. They simplify access to educational resources, improve many aspects of the learning experience, and allow students to learn at their own pace. As a caveat, new technologies are also responsible for making students lazy and not think for themselves. Easy access to technology has made it easier for students to cheat and can negatively impact learning when applied to the old system.
Although the system has evolved, there are still many aspects of it that remain and many criticisms. Philosopher, mathematician, and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell was educated at Cambridge and led a rather academic life. However, he believed that schools emphasised obedience and duty at the expense of free-thinking and spiritually enriched students. Russell was a defender of teachers who were truly sensitive to their students, and of an education system that asserted education as a gateway to knowledge, not to a particular income or status. Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” Indian yogi and author Sadhguru states that today’s education system is telling you to serve others when education and the search for knowledge should be there to serve an individual’s life.
So, are you educated? If you are, you may want to reflect on how much of your knowledge base is serving you well in life and to not forget that knowledge is something you acquire throughout your life, not just once you leave school.