A new school term has just got under way and once again I find myself pondering about the kind of education we are passing on to our children. I’m teaching in a fairly good Band 1 secondary girls’ school, so our students are getting at least as good an education as most others in HK. But you can’t help wondering about some things. On the very first day of teaching, my F.7 class were given a test – I don’t know which subject it was – and since then they’ve had at least three others. This is in the first three days of teaching after the summer break. They’re being tested before they’ve even been taught anything new. Meanwhile, the F.6 students, who are doing the new syllabus, are able to drop some of their elective subjects if things have been going badly for them. This, however, means they have some extra free periods. A good thing, you might think, as it gives them time to relax, or prepare for a lesson, or read more extensively, and so on. Not so: in our school that apparently spells danger, as the students might be wandering about the school or lounging around doing nothing. God forbid. Consequently, a timetable has been put up of their free periods so that teachers can grab them to do extra classes! This reminds me of the justification teachers make for giving students piles of homework to do, plus extra classes, during the holidays – they’ll just be wasting their time if they’re not given this extra work. It seems to be de rigueur that these kids, whether they are 11 or 18, are not to be trusted to know how to use their time well. At the same time we drill into them throughout the year the need to be independent and proactive; to show initiative; to have a caring heart; to think deep and reach high, and god knows what else. But at no time do we allow them any opportunity to actually develop and express these characteristics, because every second of their time is handcuffed to schoolwork.
This combination of continually testing their factual knowledge and denying them the opportunity to develop their faculties in any way other than that determined by the school, along with the relentless pressure placed upon them to get good exam results – as it’s simply not possible to have any kind of a satisfactory existence if you haven’t got a degree – has a very negative impact, I think. We are producing students who have been conditioned into thinking there is a correct answer to everything, that their superiors alone know what that answer is; that the authorities know what’s best for them, and that doing what you are told is what leads to success and money. No wonder students have no hobbies other than sleeping and shopping. They’ve never had the opportunity or the encouragement to do anything else. No wonder they take everything at face value without scratching the surface of what the media dish up for them. We’re churning out little clones of the ideal consumer.
Fortunately, education of even the worst kind has the potential to be subversive. Once you start educating people, some of them will want to know more: their curiosity will be aroused and they’ll start to educate themselves and start to think for themselves, whether or not that was the original intention. It’s a pity it’s such a small minority, though. When you look around at the state of the world: the way we are systematically trashing everything from the forests to the rivers to the oceans to the very air above us; and you look at who is most responsible for both doing this and refusing to stop it, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the planet-trashers are actually the most succeessful products of the modern education system. The system was designed to produce people like this. They are the most intelligent among us, be they politicians, economists, bankers, speculators, businesspeople or whatever: the ones whose blinkered vision enables them to see little more than economic growth, money, profits and power. Add to this the fact that it is the nations with the most highly educated people who are causing most of the damage, and you can’t help thinking that our education systems are designed – very successfully – to produce a race of highly intelligent idiots.
I guess, as a teacher, I can keep on chipping away at the false images of the good life offered to these students if only they work hard, keep their nose to the grindstone, and don’t question anything. But, as with trying to convince people of global warming and peak oil, it’s like pissing into the wind. Any reasonable assessment of what peak oil and global warming will do to our planet points towards a future of very extreme weather and very limited resources to adapt to it. Many places around the world are now experiencing record temperatures or record droughts or record floods or 1-in-100-year downpours which are then repeated a year or two later. The climate system is rapidly becoming chaotic and unpredictable, except that it’s predictably going to get much worse. At the same time we have run out of cheap oil – the lifeblood of modern civilisation – and economic growth has consequently hit the buffers and we can expect repeated economic crises as the wheels come off the world economy. These are probably the worst conditions modern humans have ever had to confront, and the signposts are there for all to see. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that we ought to be preparing our kids for the future that lies before them by building resilience, flexibility and adaptability; by teaching them skills which may be life savers, such as how to grow food and how to cook it, and how to keep yourself fit and healthy without having to rely upon a health system that is totally dependent on cheap oil, and how to cooperate with the people who live next door as community action becomes more and more crucial in keeping us alive and sane. We need at the very least to tell them what the hell we’re doing to the world. But of course, none of this is being done in our schools or even in our colleges. Instead we tell them, implicitly, that the future is going to be a continuation of the past, only better if they work hard enough. We kid them that jobs will be there if they get the right qualifications, that the economy will just keep on growing, producing ever more wonderful gadgets for them to go out and buy, which will enable them to tune in to a state of blissful ignorance. It’s utterly depressing to see this insanity unfold around you, and to witness your own efforts to swim against the tide resulting in little of consequence. It’s time for anyone who’s aware of what’s going on to start battening down the hatches. Bob Dylan was right – a hard rain is indeed gonna fall.