Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Importance of Education. Are You Sure?

What’s the big deal with getting everybody back to textbooks and exams?  What’s the harm in allowing a little delay in learning?

It hasn’t been many generations since going to school was not a sure thing in the US. For instance, my mother only went to school until 4th grade and my father started in a one-room schoolhouse with six students — both in white, rural Michigan.

Impoverished minority communities lacked proper schools and supplies, and some had none, until very recently. The gaps continue and are well documented.

Outside the US, there are many countries and regions where school is not a given, especially for girls, minorities, lower classes, and lower castes. Children are put to work at a young age instead of going to school. 

What are these dire consequences that would occur if education worldwide gets postponed for a while? It seems that the bigger problem, at least in the US, is parents needing relief from child care. If that’s the real reason, why not address the problem differently? Such as staggered work schedules for parents, partnering with neighbors for child care (i.e., expanding quarantine units for this purpose). Some private schools are already reconfiguring — very small numbers, staggered schedules (by weeks, not hours), plexiglass barriers, distance, ventilation.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in early August that the world is facing a “generational catastrophe” due to school closures. See the UN statement, linked here.

In interviews, he also called the coronavirus pandemic “the largest disruption of education ever.” I challenge that statement. What about wars, the plague, the 1918 pandemic? What about the centuries before pre-industrialization, before mass migration to cities, when most of the population lived on farms, and work vs. learning was subject to need, demand, ability, seasons, and weather? 

Maybe what he really meant was “in industrialized countries in recent decades.”

Guterres urged all countries to suppress the virus enough to allow schools to open. Well, duh. Of course that’s the ideal. But in reality, isn’t it likely (leaving aside political will for the moment) that some countries will be far more capable than others of accomplishing this, by throwing economic and digital resources at the problem, and thereby widening, rather than narrowing, educational disparities worldwide?

The US is technically capable but lacks the political will. So, is Guterres’ education “catastrophe” worse than the one that’s emerging in the US this week: massive superspreading events triggered by students crowding school classrooms and hallways?

How about this idea: throw economic and digital resources at the child care problem, and urge capable nations to let the school vacation continue until all nations are in a more solid position to resume education on a global scale. Let some nations catch up by slowing others down. Why not?

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