Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Random thoughts on education

Education is the underlying motive of many of the articles posted in my blog. It is the reason why I decided to relocate more than once; it is a key factor that has played a fundamental role in my life. Education is ultimately part of who I am and here I want to share some thoughts about this world that should improve our lives providing us with all the skills deemed valuable to make us citizens of the world. We have to distinguish though how things used to be in the past and how they are today, in higher education in our home country and abroad.
Formal education has been elevated in dignity and consideration at the turn of the 20th century, where schools weren’t only workshops for human minds, but also the place of social and cultural redemption. Education could indeed open the golden gates to once precluded, prestigious and well paid professions. We could say, there was a return of investment. 
Our society has embraced the concept that education goes hand in hand with democracy, implying many issues, one of this giving everything to everybody, which apparently seems fair, but ultimately it doesn't differentiate the talents in front of us, taking into account their own interests, inclinations, aptitudes and why not…even dreams. But what do we deem to be a good education? Like more educated people on this matter, I also think that education should not be for its own sake, but aimed at real life skills that are meaningful and make sense. It has to be dynamic, keeping up with the outside world, and approachable, meaning that it must bear some relevance to students' experiences. Eventually, it must provide the tools for students to become independent, critical, aware and self-aware of the realities surrounding them. In theory it sounds all good, but how are things in the real world?
In the last twenty years, mandatory education has changed radically. Pupils must attend school for a longer time than ever before, after all life expectancy has increased significantly. In the old days it was probably enough be able to write, read and do some mathematics; and students were left to their own wits with the basics they learned at school. Nowadays, in our global village, children must speak at least a foreign language and be computer literate, besides other skills that are part of their portfolio. And this is all great news; we have to become citizens of our time. But if we look around ourselves and draw comparisons with other parts of the world, we find competitive systems where standard tests determine the future of students. One wrong question can change your life forever. And all this starts at kindergarten! Meanwhile, in other countries creativity has had the upper hand in order to develop individuality, but sacrificing knowledge and inflating grades in such a way they have become meaningless. And things get out of hand with higher education.
Not too many years ago, a high school diploma would suffice to give you a good, respectable and well-paid job. Nowadays things have changed radically. A higher, more qualifying degree is always requested for any given job. And in this flourishing market of degrees, universities are thriving. 
Let’s see for instance how this works in Italy. The university system has turned degrees into mass commercial products. We have more lawyers than plumbers, creating inflating numbers in some already saturated fields. Once there was only an academic degree, the so-called laurea, which required 4 years of academic studies plus one for the dissertation thesis. Back then this was the highest academic degree; in our system there were no words for masters and Ph.Ds. The laurea has been downsized in meaning and downgraded to a mere B.A. even though they don’t correspond to each other in the least for two reasons: the substantial age difference when students achieve the diploma (in Italy at the age of 25 in the best case scenario, meanwhile in the Anglo-Saxon system students get there three years earlier), and consequently the level of preparation achieved in the former system is way higher than in the latter.
       When Italian universities realized that the rest of the world was luring students into their own university programs abroad such as M.A., M.S. ,Ph.D., they decided to do the same, by launching fashionable masters without even knowing what they were (I guess they liked the sound of it, so exotic, so non-Italian, so it became a catchy thing to have). The concept of laurea was altered, deprived of its original meaning and status. Now with the new reform that shook the system from its roots, there are two types of laurea in place, plus all the Anglo-Saxon degrees imported and adopted in the BelPaese. In this global fish market where you can buy two pieces of paper for the price of one, education has been reduced to a sellable good. Therefore, I must bitterly and regretfully admit that the concept of education has been undergoing a transformation, becoming a self-referential monster created to produce ever more degrees in order to support itself. Education, in this guise, becomes overrated.
The temples of knowledge have turned a high demand for education into a lucrative business model. In the USA, a four-year-college education can cost as much as a house. Tuition and fees are not the only massive costs that burden a family; freshmen must stay in a dorm for their first year, so more money is disbursed for accommodation and meal plans. If life of students is expensive, their teachers’ life is not that easy either.
New generations of researchers and instructors working in academe must publish articles at the speed of light as if there were something new to discover or invent every day. How long can the system go on like this?  Let's face it, the risks are foreseeable: plagiarism, which is spreading like the plague and the incredible amount of publications of meaningless research about fried air. Honestly, do you really have to tell me I need to sleep well to be productive at work?! Well, thanks for researching that, now we know it, we can all sleep deep and sound. 
A higher education doesn't necessarily secure you a well-paid and gratifying job. But prestigious schools can guarantee an impressive resume only with their name on it. If you can afford an Ivy League education, it will get you a high paid job, that’s the truth. But if you compare the subjects and materials studied with other less prestigious schools you will be surprised to see there is no substantial difference and recruiters know it very well.
And yet the appeal of higher education is hard to die. European students are drawn like bears to honey to the prospect of pursuing university degrees in the USA or other countries because they have more future prospects and who can blame them?
What I admire in the American school system is its pragmatic attitude towards education. As they were moving their first steps as a colony and a young democracy, they invested a lot in education. Benjamin Franklin, a “plain editor” with no formal education, contributed in founding what is today Penn State University. He believed in giving a fair change to the ones who showed the aptitude to learn. Through education it was possible to achieve a more democratic and just society. Whereas a basic education must be provided to everyone, higher education should be attained through meritocracy, a word that is getting out of fashion.
 If you wish to know more about this topic, I recommend you to watch these inspiring talks by Sir Kenneth Robinson: