Week 9 Prompt: Learning
LEARNING — Recent data from the Programme for International Student Assessment find students in China, Korea, and Japan scoring highest on competency assessments in mathematics, reading, and science. These results, and others like them, continue to fuel broad debates about school reform, the importance of education to the global economy, and the need to improve test scores in western countries. Meanwhile, a long line of scholars, theorists, and policy analysts, from Antonio Gramsci to Diane Ravitch, argue that “[t]he more we focus on tests, the more we kill creativity, ingenuity, and the ability to think differently. Students who think differently get lower scores. The more we focus on tests, the more we reward conformity and compliance, getting the right answer.” This week, consider the role education (broadly defined) plays in the culture surrounding you. Where, when, and how do people learn? Is schooling formalized, mandated by law? Are wealthy, “elite” members of society educated alongside the poor, or are they treated differently? Photograph a place you believe typifies learning in the country in which you live: a school building, a classroom, a mosque, a library, a riverbank, a public park, a car repair shop, etc.
As most things, education and the definition of education changed in the different locations I travelled to across South Africa. Location one lived in, whether near a city or in a more rural location, completely changed and individual’s access to schools. The three South African women in my study group grew up in the suburbs of Johannesburg and attended WITS University. My South Africa professors attended Universities in either Cape Town or Johannesburg. This more westernized style of education and learning was challenged by the people we met and worked with in many of the national parks. Instead of attending universities, some professors grew up in the area and were experts on how that environment worked. One of our instructors, Philly, was a game guard (one of the people licensed to carry guns so we could walk around in areas with the Big 5 animals) and spoke all eleven South African national languages, was a bird and grass expert, and could tell you everything there was to know about the savanna ecosystem. Many of the formally trained scientists who would come in to the national parks to do research relied on his knowledge to do their work. University education is highly valued and access to it is very dependent on one’s financial capability, but in the fields of conservation the more field skilled individuals were crucial to success. Yet, even though their presence is crucial they do not receive the same benefits. My time spent studying in South Africa was a combination of these two different learning styles. As a study group, we spent roughly half of our time in the classroom and half of it learning while in the field. Pictured here is my class standing around a tree discussing the dynamics between tree and grass growth in the savanna and Philly watching birds and helping us identify different species for a research project.
I see students wherever I go during my days in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Whether blocks from the financial center of downtown, near the Casa Rosada and Plaza de Mayo, on the top floor of a public library near the University of Buenos Aires, or in the working-class neighborhood of Flores after a human rights organization visit, students are ever-present in this dense and well-populated city.
From what we have learned and observed so far, education is very important in Argentina. Primary and secondary education is formalized and mandatory, and university education is either very cheap or free of charge for Argentines. Our often somewhat young professors for our courses on human rights and social movements care deeply about their academic work. Whenever we have a visiting professor, perhaps recently finished with their graduate school, they are delighted to present their own interests and work to our program.
In my own interpretation, education among young adults has taken such an important place in the minds of present-day Argentines at least in part because of infamous “disappearances” during the final military dictatorship in this country during the 1970s and early 1980s. Over 30,000 people were forcibly “disappeared,” or more specifically tortured and later murdered, by the military dictatorship. Most of these people were young university students or professors, often targeted for their intellectual ideas that ran counter to the conservative and staunchly anti-communist values of the dictatorship. After we visited a former secret detention center, once hidden in the heart of the city, I realized how revolutionary the pursuit of education and intellectual disagreement must be to today’s Argentines. Not 40 years ago, to study and express ideas that ran counter to the government’s preference could have led you to a terrible death.
Argentines also find a source of pride in their generous residency and citizenship laws, which allow a wide variety of people from across the world to study in Argentina for very little money. Argentina’s public undergraduate and graduate educational institutions are well regarded around the world, and so long as you are living in Argentina for an extended period of time, you can enjoy the same low cost of an education as native Argentines.
We’ve also learned quite a bit about the way Argentines view each other through the lens of education and cultural literacy. In the United States, we often equate a person’s social class with their economic means. To be middle class economically implies a certain level of education, of cultural tastes, of social networks, and so on. In Argentina, due to a variety of factors including the economic crises of the 1990s and early 2000s, it is possible for a university-educated, “high-culture” resident of Buenos Aires to not have the economic means typically associated with middle-class life. As a result, education, through fluency in foreign languages, attainment of a college education, and so on, often can replace economic wealth when considering a person’s social class in society. We are only beginning to delve into the way race complicates this dynamic. I look forward to learning quite a bit more these coming weeks about how indigenous populations, Argentines of African or Asian descent, and additional populations, are excluded from this narrative of class and education.
Education is a very important part of life and society in Japan. It’s visibly present because of the uniformed schoolchildren who can be seen pretty much everywhere, but it’s also present in current thought about modern Japanese society.
Mandatory education in Japan consists of elementary school and some middle school, but the rate of graduating high school is extremely high. This system is punctuated by graduation ceremonies, which take place whenever students move from one school to the next, and this progression through education is mediated by frequent testing. The best colleges tend to be attended by students who graduated from the best high schools, who in turn graduated from the best middle schools, who in turn graduated from the best elementary schools, in what is referred to in Japan as the “education escalator,” because it is imagined that each school will feed its students into the top of the next level of education, so that they are continually led upward with relatively little effort. Even after high school or college, there exists what is called the “education history society” (学歴社会), in which the top universities feed almost directly into the best jobs, and the connections one makes through one’s educational background are vital to success in employment. This is not merely imagined, either, as top government and business positions are occupied extremely disproportionately by graduates of the top 3 or so public universities (which are the best of the best, even above the top private universities). Thus education is very important for parents, and much pressure is put onto students to ensure that they can board this escalator properly, so to speak.
But what form does this pressure take? Around the late 20th century, Japan was at the pinnacle of global performance in math, science, and pretty much every subject that could be tested through a global standardized test. The economy was booming, Japan was thriving, and everyone was very well-educated. On the other hand, students were not particularly happy. Most students would spend multiple hours a day at “cram schools” after school to boost their learning and increase their chances of passing entrance examinations that were crucial to educational success, and thereby success in life (which has also led to some complaints about lower socio-economic status students having less access to these important opportunities, but it should be noted that the Japanese national public education system is identical for every student, regardless of wealth). Problems with bullying and students refusing to go to school, as well as suicide among young people, were at worrying levels, and it was determined that something had to be done. The national curriculum was re-evaluated to focus less on success in standardized, memorization-based learning, and more on fostering curiosity, critical thought, individualism, and the student’s feelings. Additionally, students were given less work to do outside of class, so that they would have more free time. The effect was as desired: students were generally happier. This effect, however, came at a great cost to standardized test scores. Japan slipped down the rankings, and was soon overtaken my many other East Asian nations and others around the world. It was decided that a compromise had to be arrived at to ensure that students would continue to be motivated to study, but that also ensured that Japan’s workforce would remain competitive. The curricula were once again beefed up somewhat, and that’s pretty much where Japan is today. The phenomenon of “entrance exam hell,” especially when entering universities, is very much still present.
I can’t really speak to what it’s like to go through the Japanese education system, since I never have, but I am lead to believe that it’s quite tough. As I once heard a Japanese college student express it, “In Japan, it’s difficult to get into college, but it’s easy once you get there, whereas in the U.S., it’s easy to get into college, but difficult to graduate.” However you imagine the actual difficulty of college in the U.S., the above is comparatively true in that high school is very much the test of student’s mettle, and college is a significant downgrade in terms of time investment and relative difficulty.
My hunch on the matter is that the best education system is probably just a dream, and it really all depends on what outcomes you want. If you want artists, you get rid of standardized tests and hand students brushes and you’ll get artists. If you want mathematicians, you lock them in a room with a pile of textbooks and a time limit and you get mathematicians. And if you want happy, well-rounded, humans who will become productive members of society but still have their own unique interests, you probably want a mix of the two. The thing to keep in mind is that whatever outcome it is you want, it won’t come easily, and it takes an education system that is well-funded and well-staffed enough that it can meet a nation’s needs. It’s a cliché to say that children are the future, but it’s a true one.