What is more exciting than helping a child discover the joy of learning and begin a life of exploration. What could be more important to the future than helping to understand and embrace the values that anchor decent, fair and democratic societies and that develop a resistance to hatred, bigotry, and intolerance?
The list goes on and on. There is hardly an opportunity or a challenge to individuals and societies that does not require the helping hand of quality education. Education can help make the difference between belonging and being a perpetual outsider. It can make the difference between healthy and happy lives and lives of “quiet desperation”. It can be the gift or the curse that keeps on giving throughout one’s life.
Neither teachers nor education can solve all of the evils in the world, but it is hard to imagine a better world without well-funded and secure public-school systems with qualified, supported and motivated teachers.
If teaching is such a great chance to enrich one’s life by enriching the lives of others, why is there such a shortage of teachers in so many countries? Why do we face what looks like the impossible task of recruiting 69 million new teachers by 2030? And, why do so many teachers drop out, often in their first years of teaching?
The problem of attracting and retaining teachers is part of a larger de-humanisation process where people are seen increasingly as objects; spare parts in the industrial machine, and even sources of personal data for manipulation and sale.
Atomisation and extreme individualism destroy the very notion of society, of community, of collective action. Among other things, democracy is, by its very nature, collective.
Educators and their organisations report serious status issues. Teachers join the profession not to be test administrators or service delivery agents, but to help young people develop competencies and decent, democratic values. They want their children to leave school with hope and optimism.
Status is also diminished by sub-standard salaries and conditions, inadequate support, and insecurity for educators. This is not only imposing hardships on teachers and encouraging them to jump ship, but, intended or not, is sending a strong message that, “you and what you do are not important.”
In recent decades, education, educators, and students are increasingly measured as if they are products and management rather than professionals.
There is a place for the market, but it is not in classrooms. Education hustlers may argue that they care about children while, at the same time, restrict their talk of the riches of the “education market” to shareholders, but as Adam Smith said, “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”
There is not a cheap way to get the kind of education that children deserve, and society needs. Governments are responsible for education. They cannot avoid their responsibilities by devolving them or contracting them out to hustlers living off “cost per pupil”.
The Way Forward
On this international Day of Education, we must reflect not only on what we seek for learners and teachers, but also on building and sustaining decent societies. As an Australian, who has lived through the last months of devastating wildfires and severe floods, it is not an exaggeration to say that climate change denial kills. Although it has been a terrifying experience for us, it should also show all inhabitants of our planet the dangers of our destructive stewardship of the earth. How many more crises do we need?
Facts about climate change must be taught in schools but must also inform the public debate. It is not good for anybody. Corporations, outside of the fossil fuel industry, at least in my country, seem to be beginning to understand that it is bad for business.
Climate change denial is the new frontier of disinformation feeding the extreme right. It polarises, diverts, and weakens our democratic structures and traditions. In other words, the fight for an informed discussion on climate change is also essential to developing critical thinking, civil dialogue, and being able to sort out fact from opinion and propaganda.
Children are people, not future people. Childhood is life, not a waiting room for life. Education needs to be conceived and designed for them and for all aspects of their development.
Prioritising that which can be easily measured and narrowing education to the perceived needs of the labour market will not help equip young people to fully appreciate and enjoy what life has to offer. If essential parts of their intellectual and emotional lives are ignored or side-tracked, they will also miss what they need to be active citizens.
Human and “up-close” education built on trust and relationships works better for life and for work. If we are, in fact, entering a period of accelerated change, it is better to face it being prepared, and secure. In such a situation, the most important competence may become learning how to learn. That means that a well-rounded, quality and healthy education is more important than ever before.