Hardly anyone asks why children have to go to school to obtain an education, or why they have to go through 14 years of it (not counting about four years of undergraduate education) to find a job. Though people constantly complain about the so-called disconnect between the knowledge we acquire in educational institutions and what is required to compete successfully in today’s job market, few of us stop to pose a number of important questions. Should the job market dictate what our education should look like, or should it be the other way round? More importantly, what is the point of education? Is education a means to an end, or is it an end in itself?
Before we can decide what schools should look like, and if we have any hope of salvaging the education and future of the coming generations, we must start with the fundamentals, and consider what it is we hope schools will achieve for our children and for societies at large.
Why is education important?
In its most basic sense, education is all about knowledge gain. Yes, being educated has significant economic benefits for individuals as well as for the countries they live in. Each year someone spends in school accounts for a 10 percent increase in their potential earnings. However, that is not the point of education. Seeking knowledge is an instinctive part of our nature as human beings, regardless of our economic and social state. That is why children live to explore, to experiment and to ask endless questions. Human beings are curious by nature, probably because it is vital for our survival and evolution, and it is our curiosity that has driven us to create, out of basic resources, an extremely complex world for ourselves.
Historic accounts of great philosophers, scientists and others demonstrate this quest to find the meaning and causes of things, during times when degrees and job markets did not exist in the way they do today. Throughout history, human beings have been relentless in trying to understand the world around them, despite the risks of questioning the postulate and the logistical difficulty in seeking more answers and truths. Many, such as Galileo, Ibn Al Haitham, Ibn Sina and others were prosecuted, shunned or exiled, but that did not deter others from pushing the boundaries of the known and the widely acceptable. Such stories only prove our inherent hunger for simply knowing more about everything around us.
What comes first?
Ever since my son was old enough to be enrolled in preschool, this has been my “chicken and egg” question. Should our education systems produce employable individuals? That is, should the job market dictate what disciplines universities should offer and which skills students should be taught to be deemed “employable”? Or should universities focus on helping students find disciplines they feel passionate about and teach them how to make a living out of them?
Countless articles are written about the jobs of the future and how students can be prepped for them, but hardly anything is written to help students make a living out of something they enjoy doing. I wonder, how would our world be if we focused on diversifying the job market by encouraging people to create their own jobs based on their individual interests, instead of mass-producing arguably employable people to meet the requirements of the job market, regardless of their passions and talents? Considering the ambiguity of the future job market, it might actually be a good idea to hone students’ natural talents and interests and equip them with the necessary skills to use in any economic climate to build a life of their own. There is an infinite number of fields that remain untapped (especially in the Arab world) and every one of those fields represents a job opportunity.
Instead of trying to design an education system to satisfy the employment market, it should be the other way round — satisfying young people’s thirst for knowledge will create its own thriving economy.
Maria Hanif Al-Qassim
Educational institutions in the world today generally do very little to teach students about the value of knowledge and the benefits of cultivating curiosity. They have failed to prepare students for the job market, and failed to help them (for the most part) find their calling. Why then, despite the constant debates about their failure to “produce” capable employable individuals, have we not thought about pressing the alt + delete keys and starting afresh, without the K-12s, the 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. school days, the school bells, the standardized tests and so on? Instead, we experiment with new and improved curriculums, we invest in new pedagogical training programs, and we shift to more technologically advanced media in an effort to elevate the quality of our graduates. What we should be doing instead is questioning the entire educational system. If we were to design a means of transferring knowledge or facilitating its acquisition in this day and age, how would we do it?
I do not have the answers. It took me three decades of being a student and an employee to locate that one “thing” that, when I did it, time stopped. What I do know is that my children need to understand the value of knowledge in order to seek it, and that what they choose to specialize in out of sheer interest should dictate their future role in the economy, not vice versa. What we need, then, is not a new state-of-the-art school building with graduate degree-holding teachers, but rather learning facilitators, access to knowledge and resources and, most importantly, guidance counsellors to help students find and hone their talents so that they can actively create their future.
• Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif