Education has always had a central role to play in human development. In traditional societies, young men and women are taught the norms and values; how to be useful members of society and how to cope with the difficulties and challenges of life.
In more advanced societies, where the main responsibility for education is in the hands of schools, vocational training institutions and universities, education plays many roles.
First, it is the principal medium through which people learn to understand the universe and the world they live in—through education people get to understand the cosmos and the relationship between the earth and the heavenly bodies such as the sun, the moon and the stars. They acquire a better understanding of phenomena such as the rain and the behaviour of clouds and rivers and seas.
Through education people are liberated from the shackles of superstition to develop and adopt a more scientific approach to life and natural phenomena.
It is educational institutions that provide society with various professionals such as teachers, doctors, accountants, engineers, scientists, religious leaders and many others.
Without education we would not have essential institutions and facilities such as hospitals, railway lines, aeroplanes, motor vehicles; and we would not have such technologies as computers and cellphones.
Even politicians who lead and govern countries have to go through educational institutions because so complex has society become that gone are the days when an uneducated individual could manage the affairs of state.
Furthermore, in this day and age a country cannot survive as a sovereign state without educated leaders to manage its international relations.
No country is an island in today’s global village, and for any country to survive and at the same time satisfy the needs of its citizens, it must be led by people who have a clear understanding of international relations and economics. Such people are the products of schools and higher education institutions such as universities.
For the individual, education is the key to success and social mobility. It is not easy now for one to make it in life without a good education.
In many societies of earlier epochs what mattered most was one’s social background. If you were born into aristocracy or a privileged class you were likely to move up the social ladder, regardless of the kind of education you had.
In our time, it matters whether you have been to a university or not, and your success in getting jobs may depend on the reputation of the university you attended. In Britain, for example, a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge universities is more likely to be snatched by reputable companies than graduates of such universities as Essex or Birmingham.
What has been outlined above demonstrates that formal education is central to human development. Indeed, such are the benefits of formal education that all societies have become blind to its negative effects.
In this essay we can only make a brief reference to the negative aspects of formal education. The first of these is that education promotes the spirit of competition and individualism, as opposed to cooperation and consideration of others.
Both in class and in the sportsfield, the school child is taught to believe that he or she should aim to beat others – to be number one.
True, sport does promote teamwork, but teamwork is seen as good as long as it leads to the defeat of the other team. So success must always be associated with the defeat of others!
Coupled with the desire to beat everyone else is the passion for materialism.
As they go through school and university, young people are taught to worship money, material goods and power. Their role models are people who drive big cars, who own big houses and who wield enormous power.
When you hear a child say, “When I grow up I want to be a doctor”, he or she might not be thinking of the service that a doctor provides to the sick and suffering, but about the prestige, wealth and influence that the medical profession can bestow on one. Consequently, self-service and not service of others, can become the motivating factor.
Related to that is the fact that our schools actively develop dictatorial tendencies among some of the best performers.
We may not approve of the culture of bullying that is common in schools, but the habits we develop among prefects, head girls and head boys are such that a school child who has been a prefect learns to lord it over others, and not necessarily to serve. We then get surprised when someone who was a very good prefect becomes dictatorial as head of a company, church or government!
There is no space in this article to elaborate on the negative effects of education, but what I have tried to do is to demonstrates that as practised today formal education plays both a positive and negative role in human development.
What needs to be done is to rethink our education system so that we can maximise its positive effects. Next month’s column will begin a discussion on how this can be achieved.