The great education crisis

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

The eerie stillness of empty classrooms in the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic was a portent of even worse things to come; and here it is now – a full-blown crisis in education that is bigger and more worrisome than it ever was.

It’s heartbreaking to say the least; we must let this sink in and hopefully, realize the urgency of addressing it.

More importantly, among our recent heartbreaks, we must consider this the worst of all; worse than the pain that ripped through the entire University of the Philippines community over the crushing loss of the valiant UP Fighting Maroons during Wednesday night’s UAAP championship game; or this nation’s collective breakdown when Filipino celebrity couple Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla announced their split after 11 years.

Indeed, this crisis in education is a crisis of epic proportions and we must be even more alarmed and angry than we were when Michelle Dee was not chosen as Miss Universe; or when Manny Pacquiao was defeated by Floyd Mayweather or when Harry Roque performed that vertigo-inducing dance number.

Yes, we cry over many things – mundane and otherwise – but we hardly get mad when it comes to things that matter most. This is one of those times that we must.

Education, after all, forms a nation’s heart and soul. Without the right education, we are depriving our children, our children’s children and so on, of a chance to achieve self-actualization, of a chance to reach their full potential.

The result is a society that does not evolve.

As the English writer Gilbert Chesterton once said “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” For him, education is the thread that connects generations, enabling the transfer of values, customs, knowledge and beliefs.

To me, education is important because it enables our people to think, feel and dream; to thrive and not just survive; to long for a world that is better and not just to simply be ready for the world; to have a vision; not just skills.

Without education, we cannot bequeath to the world a generation that is better than the last and as such, there is no moving forward, there is no waging even the smallest of revolutions.

Freedom of the mind

History has shown us that across different societies, not just ours, and throughout the passing of time, big and bold changes for the better all started with a single idea. Heroes of change were able to think and free their minds – and such freedom of the mind usually happened with the help of a good education.

Let’s take slavery as an example. Slavery ended not so much because of the French or the British. The distinct honor belongs to Haiti, the first nation to permanently ban slavery and one of the heroes behind such abolition is Toussaint Louverture, revered as the Father of Haiti.

Born as a slave in a sugar plantation in Saint Dominique, now known as Haiti, Louverture became a military and political leader who led the 1791 to 1804 revolution which ended enslavement in the former French colony.

He was educated – to the extent possible at the time. His godfather Pierre Baptiste educated him and his later letters convey fluency in Creole and French as well as knowledge of ancient, Renaissance and contemporary Enlightenment philosophy, according to the cultural website Europeana.

I cite slavery because its abolition is a testament to the evolution of the world. It is magical, to say the least, and it’s cathartic to realize that changes for the better are always possible. At the time, perhaps no slave ever imagined that another life outside slavery was even possible.

But education, which teaches people to think, is a great agent of change. For that alone, we must continue to fight for quality education and everyone’s right to it.

Dismal global performance

Unfortunately, as the recent test scores of the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – showed, our 15-year-old students remain among the world’s weakest in math, reading and science, showing no significant improvement from the country’s performance in 2018.

Just like in 2018, the Philippines performed worse than the global average in all categories. The latest results come on the heels of the pandemic’s school closures. What emerged were a ballooning number of students who could not read.

Wanted: an education secretary

President Marcos must address this emergency. He can start by isolating the Education department from politics and by putting an educator as head.

To be fair to Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte, this education crisis was years in the making, but to reverse it will require a better leader and not one caught up in a political battle.

Our crisis in education is complex, caused not just by the pandemic but by poverty, malnutrition, corruption, etc. and will certainly require better leadership.

We must act now. Otherwise, our nation of 114 million will continue to spiral downward, deeper and deeper into despair, down to a rabbit hole of sorts, minus the wonderland.

Those empty classrooms were a foreboding of sorts – that soon we will have students with empty minds. Isn’t it funny that we’re so afraid of artificial intelligence when the real threat, really, is natural stupidity?

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen (Iris Gonzales) on Facebook.

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