Ask people why they send their children to school, and the reason most Filipinos will give is so the students can get a good paying job someday.
But there are others who will wonder, especially about keeping their kids in high school. There are the poor, who know that continued schooling means not just expenses for school but also lost income: They feel that the kids should start supporting the family by working. The sentiment is even stronger among indigenous peoples, who will complain that the curricula have little relevance to their lives, to their culture.
Ironically, among rich countries there is a similar growing concern about relevance, especially of college, and it is coming from educators themselves. The concern is couched in a somewhat different language: Are our schools indeed preparing young people for adulthood, and for the world?
For much of human history, there were no formal institutions called schools, especially as we know of them today. The young picked up knowledge and skills necessary for survival through elders and through everyday life; the learning environments were the home and the village. The young learned skills by watching and imitating elders.
Formal schooling has been around for several centuries and in different cultures, but the schools we have today are modelled after the West, developed in the context of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Just as factories were needed to mass-produce consumer products, schools were necessary to mass-produce workers for those factories and as citizens of nation-states. Teachers were there to pass on knowledge and skills to students through classroom lectures and laboratory demonstrations.
Education did evolve through the last two or three centuries, with different philosophies that moved toward more interactive learning. There have been challenges as well to the goals of education, the most revolutionary being that posed by Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society,” which was first published in 1971.
Illich (1926-2002) was an Austrian philosopher and a priest who lived and taught in the United States, working with marginalized groups like Puerto Ricans. He wrote several books questioning modern institutions, in particular for health and education. His introduction to “Deschooling Society” summarizes many of his critiques, with pupils “‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.”
“Deschooling Society” questioned the very premise that schools are for learning; it pointed out that most of childhood learning still takes place outside schools and in the context of life experiences. If teachers had any function, it wasn’t so much to teach as to be “moralists, therapists and custodians.”
Illich warned that while schools were originally intended to equalize opportunities (the “get a job” premise), they have actually contributed to economic and social inequality. He called for “deschooling” and proposed that schools be convivial, of active living, of people with people. Conviviality is characterized by “webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing and caring.”
In another book, “Tools for Conviviality,” he proposed that the world’s future depends on our ability “to support a life of action [rather] than our developing new ideologies and institutions.”
Illich had a large following in the 1970s until his death. In recent years his work is being revisited as educators face new challenges—the promises of modern technologies accompanied by problems that seem insurmountable.
The problem now, it seems, is for schools to develop creativity, to get students to learn to spot problems, and to think of possible solutions.
But how, indeed, can you have creativity in schools that emphasize conformity, that have rigid prescribed curricula, and that see education mainly within the confines of a classroom.
This is where the arts and theater come in. Rather than seeing the arts almost as a nonacademic domain—as in the noncredit MAT or “Music, Arts and Technology” subjects in grade school—it’s time we viewed the arts as the core of creativity education, which in turn will produce not just better artists but also better scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers and educators.
To do this, arts educators will have to reexamine and retool their curricula as well. Many students remember, with some unpleasantness, classes where they had to memorize the names of almost all western writers, composers and artists, all as part of “arts appreciation.”
The challenge I posed to the theater group Peta was to help educators see their subjects as ways of exposing students, through literature, the arts and theater, to life in and out of classrooms, to get them to think of problems and dilemmas and, not necessarily solutions, but options.
The need for this kind of education becomes even more crucial in the Age of the Internet, where “social interactions” take a very different swipe-and-click mode. Young people are caught by flashy images and sounds as they move from one webpage to another. “Friends” are measured by the “likes” on Facebook, where the emphasis is on presenting a facade often very different from the real individual: dressed in the best clothes, eating the best food, vacationing in the best resorts. “Best” is of course relative; I’m always amused by Facebook postings claiming an education at Harvard or Cornell by the middle-class and at UP, La Salle or Ateneo by low-income kids.
A convivial education should teach students that one should be proud of his or her origins, with “richness” measured by life experiences, as well as encountering and surmounting the most difficult challenges.
Theater should help capture that richness from the many stories of Filipinos. I shared stories from my students’ social research. One from Patricia Sarmenta was about urban poor women’s “strategies” in dealing with hunger, from choosing to feed the younger ones and letting the older ones fend for themselves, to moving on to a new husband after leaving an abusive and neglectful one. I’ve stopped telling my children not to waste food because there are hungry children outside; instead, I tell them about how a 10-year-old urban poor child may have to find ways to get herself food, so the 3-year-old bunso (youngest sibling) can eat.
I tell them, too, about how urban adolescents are reacting to Rodrigo Duterte’s plan to impose a curfew, explaining that when these adolescents are out at night, it’s not always to have a good time but because their tiny homes are being used by younger siblings to sleep. No space for Kuya or Ate, who will have their turn when the younger ones wake up in the early hours of the morning.
Peta is known for capturing and representing slices of life that can be far more interesting than YouTube uploads. If we had more of its approaches to education, we might find fewer dropouts. And for those who stay on into college, a convivial education where artists take the lead could mean our future engineers, teachers and doctors being inspired to find their own muses, and their imagination, in the search for solutions.
* * *
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.