The uses of education

If I were a young parent today with the choice of where to send my child for basic education, which school would I choose? There is no simple answer. One’s choice of school would depend, first of all, on the kind of education one thinks his child needs. In turn, this would depend on the kind of prospects in life a parent wishes the child to have in the future.

It can be safely assumed, I think, that for most Filipino parents today, those prospects are defined mainly in economic terms. In other words, their primary objective is to secure for their children an education that will give them the best chances for a stable and high-paying job or career. Natural as this objective may seem, it is not and has never been the primary objective of the educational system.

As a subsystem of society, education has always been oriented to objectives broader than those supplied by families. In traditional societies, the primary goal was moral education.  Religious institutions took over the educational function as a matter of right, treating it as a natural extension of the moral-religious function. To this day, Church-run schools keep a dominant presence in our society.

With the rise of the modern nation-state, governments considered it necessary to take on the principal responsibility of educating their citizens. This was particularly important to societies like ours that had just freed themselves from colonial rule. Leaders of these new nations saw control of education as integral to decolonization and nation-building. The countless legislated subjects that dot the current curriculum of Philippine schools are living reminders of the different phases of our emergence as a nation. To what extent they have achieved the goal of creating nationalistic, historically conscious, civic-minded, responsible, and politically aware citizens is, however, something that is seldom asked.

These politically ordained subjects take up a good portion of limited school time. It is not farfetched to think that, in time, these courses—the traces of a nation-state in the making—will be pronounced nonessential from the standpoint of economic rationality, just as, in an earlier era, the teaching of religion lost its place in public schools as a result of secularism. This is bound to happen as we enter a stage in societal evolution where almost everything will be measured in market values. Michael Sandel, author of the book “What money can’t buy: The moral limits of markets,” calls this the advent of a “market society” to distinguish it from a simple “market economy.”

Sandel offers disturbing examples from the United States where markets are already at work in areas like education that used to be insulated from economic values. Some schools in Dallas, Texas, pay underachieving pupils $2 for every book they read in order to encourage the reading habit among them. Indeed, this is not so strange to parents who are used to giving their children monetary rewards for good grades. But to build the practice into the school system seems outrageous.

Where public schools find themselves competing with one another on standardized tests, it will not be long before they start paying their students to prod them to score well. Sure enough, in New York City, says Sandel, schools paid fourth-graders $25 and seventh-graders as much as $50 for delivering good test scores. In Washington, cash rewards are given to students for “attendance, good behavior, and turning in their homework.”

An average student could collect about $500 in one school year, while a really diligent one could take home as much as $100 every two weeks.

When the drive to earn eclipses the urge to learn, what will become of education? When coveted places at university are auctioned off to the highest bidder, rather than given to the academically deserving, how will this affect higher education? These are some of the questions that Sandel poses. The examples he gives are shocking. But if we take a close look at our own educational system, we may find that it is already heavily driven by market forces, more than by visionary educational reform.

Three of the most popular college courses on offer all over the country in the last 10 years are nursing, criminology, and computer science. Nursing schools sprouted like wild mushrooms in the rush to meet the phenomenal demand for health workers abroad. The trend came to an abrupt halt a few years ago with the onset of the global financial crisis, giving rise to a big army of unemployed nursing graduates.

The criminology course continues to be a moneymaker for schools that supply graduates to the very lucrative security industry. But one is hard-pressed to understand why a college degree in police science should be required for the job of a night watchman. The same question may be asked of the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, whose tremendous expansion in the last few years has made a degree in data processing a highly sought qualification.

In contrast, it has been a long time since our bright young people considered teaching in grade school and high school a worthwhile career. Consequently, we lack teachers but we have a surfeit of security guards and nurses. Hopefully, we will see a reversal of this trend as the government, in its bid to become globally competitive, starts to pay more attention to upgrading basic education. But in our aspiration to join the ranks of wealthy nations, let us beware that education is not hijacked by the short-term needs of the market, or lose sight of its social purpose—to mould human beings who can live in the future.

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