24th September 2000
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What kind of education are we offering today, asks Carlton Samarajiwa 

Let us live for our children

The needs of the growing child rather than the needs of the world of work must be education's concern. This latter concern - expressed so often today as the need for educating our children for employment - is receiving exaggerated attention. We even read about programmes launched to teach schoolchildren a thing called "entrepreneurship". 

In this process, the needs of the child as a learner here and now are being bartered for the demands of, for what is for the child, a distant unknown world. Children are being turned into sacrifices to Moloch. 

(The allusion is to the god of the Ammonites, to whom children were made "to pass through the fire" 11 Kings xxiii. 10 - the sacrifice of what we hold most dear).

The following telling dialogue between teacher and child quoted in G.S. Browne's The Case for Curriculum Revision, written as long ago as 1932, shows the vast chasm that has prevailed and continues to prevail between teacher and taught, and therefore between school and child:

"When the classroom door opened, the teacher turned and beheld an eager group of children entering. His heart went out to them and he said,

"What would you learn from me?"

They replied,

'Show us how to keep our bodies in perfect health: teach us how to love beautiful things. Help us to discover what powers are in us and what things we can do best.

Show us how to work happily with each other, so that we may eventually work in happiness with all our fellow men.

Teach us how to draw and build the lovely things which are in our minds. Let us be busy at workbench and table and blackboard, and at other times, when the mood takes us, allow us to read quietly amid the treasures of the library.

Show us how to speak and write our language with beauty. Help us to discuss some of the problems about which the modern world is so puzzled: perhaps some day we shall be the people who have to find a solution to these problems.

Be one of us and play with us on the playing field.

Tell us what life means and how wonderful the world is. Do this and we will love you."

"At this the teacher turned away sorrowing for his learning which dealt not with these matters."

There is no mention in this dialogue of children asking to be taught how to earn a livelihood. They want to live their lives to the fullest as children and not to learn any marketable skills. A five-year-old wants to be allowed to be a five-year-old. Employment and right livelihood will come with the right education and opportunities for self-fulfillment from day-to-day as they grow and develop and come to terms with their environment and their experiences.

It is not only the education system but also parents who are robbing children of their childhood and their innocence in an inordinate concern to meet their future, rather than their present needs. 

Too much attention to future needs inhibits the child's full development in the present, here and now. The adventure of education can be, and in fact is being, debased into an educational rat race, whereby the child is deprived of the joy of living out his life. What are we really offering our children in the name of formal education? This is the fundamental question our educationists need to answer.

"Heaven lies about us in our infancy," said Wordsworth, and "Let us live for our children," said Froebel, in a fine summing-up of what our attitude should be to our children and their education. By making the years of our children happy and wholesome, we shall be producing happy and wholesome adults.

There is a great need to ensure that our classrooms are true places of learning and that what our children do in them are truly learning experiences, an educative voyage from day-to-day in the present moment and over their childhood years. 

These are years that will never be repeated and relived. Why have schools throughout generations failed to be attractive places for children? Over four centuries ago, Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet,

"Love goes towards love like schoolboys from their books; 

Love from love to school with heavy looks,"

and in The Seven Ages of Man,

"And then the whining schoolboy with his satchel, 

And shining morning faces, creeping like snail 

Unwillingly to school."

Has the situation changed today? If it hasn't, can we do something about it? The recent educational reforms at primary level seem to be an attempt in this direction because the emphasis has been rightly placed on the teacher's role as an educator rather than as an instructor.

What is deeply relevant is the quality of the teacher's human relationship with the child. What the teacher is, becomes infinitely more significant than what he knows. This is an aspect of education that the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber drew our attention to in his long prose poem "I and Thou".

In his memorable cameos, he wrote of the teacher-as-educator, these memorable words:

"He enters the schoolroom for the first time; he sees them crouching at their desks, indiscriminately flung together, the misshapen and the well-proportioned, animal faces, empty faces and noble faces in indiscriminate confusion, like the presence of the created universe; the glance of the education accepts and receives them all. He accepts them all as human beings with whom he must bend all his efforts as a person to form an educative relationship. It is in the encounter, the dialogue, between the teacher-as-person and the child-as-person that education takes place."

But alas, there is too much carelessness and too much child-hurt in schools at all levels as evidenced in the violent punishment meted out to children by their teachers in some schools. We have to face the fact that in teaching there is far too little sensitivity and none of the "power to experience from the other side" (Buber), what we are doing to our pupils. We do not listen to the silent voices of those whom we teach.

To end, here is another incomparable cameo from Martin Buber, which also describes a teacher facing his class for the first time.

"But then his eyes meet a face which strikes him. It is not a beautiful face nor particularly intelligent; but it is real face, or rather, the chaos preceding the cosmos of a real face. On it he reads a question, which is something different from the general curiosity: Who are you? Do you know something that concerns me? Do you bring me something? What do you bring?"

"Who are you?" and "What do you bring?" then are the two fundamental questions our teachers must answer during the whole of their professional life. But do their learning and their training deal with these things?

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