Photo: Chris Sant FournierPhoto: Chris Sant Fournier

If the society you live in demonstrates grave problems and failings, it is the result of a poor-quality education.  Today’s adults behave the way they do as a result of the quality of the education they received. Man’s nature at birth is what it is; it is education that can refine him, and save him from his lower urges.

This granted, it is therefore an unstrained conclusion that the quality of education to which the Maltese nation has been exposed for generations has been below the proper standard. Egoism is rampant, as is the disdain for discipline and of any law which is not in our favour. Even our driving skills are abysmal.

Values, if values they be, are founded on personal gain without regard to justice or public good.  Sometimes one is tempted to think that animal herds show a greater sense of cohesion than human society. Compassion and selflessness (or altruism) are rarely witnessed, except in cathartic orgies of ‘donations’ to charities. That is because few men are naturally gifted with such noble values at birth. Such values are only inculcated through a proper education.

All this begs questions we never ask. Why do we send our children to school? What, exactly, do we expect from all the expense and hassles that doing so implies?  What are schools meant to produce, exactly?

Is going to school an inherited ‘best idea’, merely for lack of alternatives? If school did not exist, would we notice much difference, at least in behaviour?  Please don’t dismiss these questions as simplistic, and don’t think that the first answers you come up with are the correct ones, because they are far more central and profound than they might seem at first glance.

We could also ask whether the present formula which accompanies school-going is also the best one because there are no others.  If you feel that the box doesn’t fit you, you’ve got to think outside it.  Very few do. Even our leading thinkers seem averse to being bold, to considering discarding an obvious failure, in spite of the fact that most of them are brilliant men and women.

They prefer to tinker away at a clearly-flawed system, repairing it here and there, sustaining a collapsing structure with patches and duct tape. So the system groans and sags all the time, simply because the centre cannot hold.

But there is another dimension to the process of education. It is parenting. If present-day parents have, largely, received a low-grade education, their parenting skills can’t be very acute.

I don’t have to elaborate on this, but I will digress to say that I heard an ex-teacher complain, on radio, that she was once elbowed out of the way in a school corridor by a ‘lady’ who said: “Get out of the way, Miss, my daughter has to pass.” (The vernacular was even more brutal). Enough said, I think, and message received loud and clear.

Even if children are exposed for a set number of hours to an educationally-conducive atmosphere, quite a few of them return to families which are dysfunctional. We also have latch-key children. They carry the house-keys around with them, because there is nobody at home after school. How many of them are there? Does anyone know?

If present-day parents have, largely, received a low-grade education, their parenting skills can’t be very acute

Sometimes being on your own at a tender age is worse than being with an incompetent parent. But I started the paragraph with an ‘even if’, because from what I gather some classes are far from ideal, and you do have a tangible amount of rowdiness and misbehaviour, or even cases where a few students take control and render the class unteachable.

The phenomenon of not showing up for Sec examinations is another scab on the educational body.

With present set-ups, little can be done to rectify matters, and what little is done simply amounts to the almost frantic patching and tweaking I referred to earlier. Some of this is minor, some of it is not, and amounts to experimentation, which can be dangerous.

Is it such a gloomy picture, then? I think so. Even our children’s academic performance is anaemic to say the least, when put within an international frame. Of course, we do have star pupils and star teachers, but in the main the system creaks and leaks. Is there a solution? I think so, but I don’t think any government would care – or dare – to take it up. It is very expensive and no doubt would be rejected out of hand by any minister of finance, but I think it would work.  I am sure it’s going to be shot down as soon as I explain it, because it is radical and perhaps alien, but I think it would work.

I am thinking of residential schools, where the children would work, play, eat and sleep together, in an ‘ideal’ micro-environment in which self-discipline, mutual assistance, hygiene, the exclusion of distractions and the presence of proper social intercourse, as well manners in general, become a way of life, for five days a week. The children would spend the weekends and the substantial holidays at home. One of the bonuses would be the elimination of school-generated traffic and school-generated stress on taxi-parents… just think!

I am not advocating a sudden, overnight change. I am thinking of just one college to start with, populated by students whose parents voluntarily opt for that sort of education. It would give us a yardstick by which to measure how successful or unsuccessful the students would be when compared with those from the traditional schools.

It would also be manageable because of its size. I am willing to bet that within the space of five years parents would be clamouring for the experiment to be expanded with more colleges –real colleges, not agglomerations of schools under a single saintly name, which amount simply to an administrative streamlining exercise.

Of course, you would have scandals. Items of food going missing, funds disappearing, teachers and perhaps heads behaving like concentration-camp overseers… No system is perfect, and we are not talking about creating boot camps. I am convinced the children would learn more.

They would also learn how to eat, how to speak, how to take care of their clothes and keep their rooms tidy, how to share, where to stop.

The college would find the time to set up special interest clubs, which are educational in themselves. The students would be mentally and physically alert, and would not spend endless hours staring at screens and texting frivolities. The college would have a ‘nous’, a personality, which it would stamp on its students, and they would stand out, I am also sure of that.

Well, Paris was worth a candle and so does this idea. I expect it to be shot down in flames. I can’t go into too many details here; the project would fill up a bookshelf.  But never mind.

I shall follow readers’ comments merely to confirm my prediction that it will be considered a pipe dream. But I sincerely believe we are doing it wrong by focusing on subject details even while ignoring the benefits of learning through an intense, shared, personal and social experience.

We should not just teach subjects; we must teach people how to live properly and enjoy life.

Charles Caruana Carabez sits on the National Commission for Further and Higher Education.

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