Monday, May 7, 2012

Education—an institution, or more than that?

What are we learning, and why?

‘Much trouble, we are told, is taken to teach young princes the art of reigning; but their education seems to do them no good. It would be better to begin by teaching them the art of obeying’.
J.J. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book 3 (1762)

A lot of things have come to pass over these past couple of weeks that saw ‘education’ come to the fore in its many manifestations. It happened to be the topic of a recent lecture in the ‘About Japan’ course; and it popped up again on Geraldine Doogue’s ABC RN program Saturday Extra. I read the news each day—our politicians’’ shenanigans, the growing sense of entitlement, general social behaviour—I have reason to think about it more broadly in wondering about the sort of society we are becoming.

Of course, dear reader, you are probably going to say, ‘well, that’s your job’. And yes it is; indeed, I think I decided I wanted to become a teacher when I was six years old. But is our education, both institutionally and socially, really achieving what it should? Or to put the question another way: what should education achieve?

When I teach about Japan, I am reluctant to pursue the ‘Japan is unique’ line of analysis. Japan is different, it has its unique moments, but it is no more or less so than Australia is also unique or sometimes different—it’s a matter of perspective. I have spent two years as an undergraduate student and 18 months as a postgraduate student in Japan and taught in the English language-teaching sector. I’ve encountered primary and high school students as well as their teachers. I use these experiences as reference points to compare and contrast the similarities and differences between our education systems. Most of the time students and teachers in both countries confront the same issues—time, commitment, behaviour, attitude—and that’s before we get to the content of classes.

I’ve always thought that Japan is a bit of a barometer of where Australian education, and by extension society, is heading. Twenty-five years ago, I was surprised that a Japanese uni degree was about the piece of paper and that so many ‘everyday’ sorts of things required a ‘licence’. There was a credentialisation I didn’t ever anticipate seeing in Australia. Well, that’s certainly here now. There are other, less comfortable parallels between Australian and Japanese societies, especially as a consequence of being ‘educationally-obsessed’. But whereas, as an undergraduate student in Japan I thought the attitude towards tertiary education was a bit lackadaisical compared with my contemporaneous Australian university experience, I have come almost the full circle and I think that, for a better society, perhaps we could seriously rethink the purpose of our education—primary, secondary and tertiary. 

Education matters. It can be transformative. It can teach us about ourselves as well as others. And a university education, where I focus my energies, should be about imagining a society as it could be, not a mechanism to sustain neo-liberal cogs in a machine. To nurture our humanity, we need to value our education. How we should do this shall be topics of posts  from time to time in future…