Since I left Germany, where education is mostly free and the general view is that everyone should have access to it, I started experiencing what happens when that’s not the case. I could have written the last sentence like this as well: Since I left Germany and the privileged circle I was integrated in, I started…
In the UK, and in the US, tuition fees are quite high. £9k a year is the going rate in the UK. Top universities like Harvard and Yale even charge 4-5 times this rate a year. In those countries education is a privilege. Now looking at rankings, the UK and USA are always at the top in terms of quality of higher education. Most top universities people can name will be based over there, but what does having the best universities say about accessibility? Not much really. There’s a lot of rankings you can look at. If you wonder what the most educated countries in the world are, you’ll find countries like Canada, Korea, Japan and Israel at the top. If you research the best education systems, the main thing that’s being looked at is performance, again Asian countries and Finland dominate there. Education in countries like Korea and Singapore come with a high pressure to perform though. Children are being pushed to pass standardized tests. Why is education in most countries of the world linked to performance? Why do we start to question Finland’s education system immediately when the performance starts declining? Why don’t we ask whether performance should be the only measure?
In Germany, after the Bologna Process standardized European university degrees were introduced, there was a big debate on what effect that would have on students. The aim was to harmonize various systems of European higher education to increase international competitiveness. To a lot of Germans, the “schoolification” of higher education contributed to the reduction of academic freedom for students and the faculty. Studying in Germany meant seeing a student as a younger colleague in the research process. That view was turned over and the aim was more of delivering functional tools to the European economy. Research in the Anglo-Saxon world is reserved for the top universities only, most colleges deliver human resources. While studying in Germany was seen as a time a student researched the chosen subject, themselves and their identities as well, the regulated structure of a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree thwarted this. If education is seen as a “product” that can be offered to the economy, it loses the academic and individual freedom it should come with. It won’t be about teaching critical thinking, or even innovative thinking. It’s more about delivering practical skills that can be applied on the job. We actually need to start earlier than this. Even in the most educated countries only half of the population have college degrees.
So, really developing the ability to question your own thinking and own thoughts, and others’ thoughts and views, should start much earlier than in academia. My favourite teacher was my history teacher Herr Dr. Mertens. He challenged my thoughts and beliefs in an encouraging way. His intention wasn’t to prove anything to me. He was trying to guide me into developing my own thoughts and listen to myself. I never had the feeling that he was trying to impose his own views on me. He was a teacher and a mentor, a thinker and humanist. When I explained what seemed to be my views, he threw questions back at me that started resonating within my inner core. He was my “O Captain! My captain!” So, isn’t the “schoolification” of school already an issue in itself? School rewards students who achieve good grades and perform well. My memory is filled with examples. A good student is someone who can reproduce what is being taught in the right way. If a student isn’t able to deliver they get penalized for it. As a student, you learn from early on that being wrong is bad. You learn that being right is a necessity, and how you’re going to achieve things in life.
Life has taught me a different lesson. Being wrong is necessary to finding answers. Being wrong teaches you a lot. It actually teaches you more than being right. Especially if being right means reproducing what someone else thinks of as right. As a Maths tutor, I dealt with a lot of students who were too scared to tackle any Maths problems. They believed that Maths wasn’t for them and they were just not good at it – the fear of not being able to solve a problem again! – paralysed them. A big part of my work consisted of showing them how trying and making mistakes actually helped them understand the methods they needed to learn. The fear of making mistakes is so ingrained in kids nowadays that in a lot of cases they simply give up and prefer not to try. Isn’t that the opposite of what we should be teaching them? Why is the result of school to discourage kids to go for their dreams? Whether it’s Germany, the UK or the US, I observed the same thing everywhere: students come out of school disillusioned instead of stronger, encouraged and energised.
So, how can we ignore the connection between Brexit and education? Trump and education? The need to change how we treat the environment and education? Do we remember how one of the top trending searches after the referendum was: “What is the EU?”
Education doesn’t mean an elite with a degree, I’m referring to people who have learnt critical thinking. Not everyone that has a degree understands what critical thinking is. Universities reward performance as our schools do. If a student performs well, they will graduate, but it doesn’t mean they were empowered to analyse and challenge global issues we deal with locally everywhere in the world. Why does global hunger still exist when there’s an abundance of food? What causes climate change? Why is the 1% getting richer while the poor are getting poorer? Development Education tries to answer these questions. It raises awareness, is an active process to understand the world we live in and challenges activism for an equal world. If you get empowered to make a positive change in the world it automatically empowers you to stand up for yourself as well, and it shouldn’t make you come out of any curriculum disillusioned. How many times do we laugh off the belief to bring about positive change? How many times do we get cynical about it?
We shouldn’t. There are a lot of examples out there where people collectively made a difference. Initiated change. Me too. Veganism. Fair trade. Black lives matter. Pro-choice. LGBTQ rights. Human rights. Free love. Feminism. The list is long. Everyone knows our world is unequal and unjust. We need to start linking global and local issues, encourage ideas to tackle them and empower action. We need to start as early as possible. Education is a human right.