“You have been a student for many years. You have read hundreds of pages and have spent hours carrying out exercises of various kinds. It would be good at this point to reflect on the significance of your education. What purpose does it serve? To what extent should it prepare you to promote the sound progress of your community? How much should it contribute to your growth as an individual? Can one aim be met without the other?”
I came across the this passage reading through the course materials of the “Preparation for Social Action” (PSA) program and it struck a cord in me. How is it that I have gone through twelve years of public school and four years of college and never been asked these questions? We spend so much time and money worrying about standardizing test scores, decreasing class size and bringing technology into the classroom but we rarely hear any discussion about the purpose of our education system. As someone aspiring to be a teacher, this is a particularly important question.
Caity and I had come to Jinja, Uganda for a week to visit a friend doing a year of service and study a new model of education being used by the organization she works with. The PSA program is the fruit of over three decades of work by a Baha’i inspired organization in Colombia called FUNDEAC (Foundation for the Application and Teaching of Sciences) and is now being piloted and further developed in a few other countries, including Uganda. The purpose of the program is to make it possible for any individual – youth or adult – even in the most rural areas, to have access to a high quality secondary education that gives them the knowledge, skills and inspiration to contribute to their communities.
The program consists of three units that cover topics such as math, science, history, agriculture, health and language, but it is not the information in the courses that is unique; it is the way in which the knowledge is presented and applied. In very simple but brilliant ways, the PSA program solves many of the fundamental problems that plague our education system. This is perhaps a more appropriate topic for a dissertation, but maybe I can give you a glimpse of some of the aspects that amazed me.
Math is one of the subjects that is often a great source of frustration to students, many of whom ask at one point or another, “when am I ever going to use this?” I am sure this question rarely arises in PSA groups. First of all, all of the problems and examples are derived from real knowledge and situations relevant to the students’ lives. Whereas I spent years working with only numbers and the occasional word problem (which often had no significance to my life or no relation to reality at all), students who study addition and subtraction are quickly asked to calculate the growth of domestic animals, increases of farm production and costs for building materials, as well as learning basic accounting skills, all of which are directly applicable to their everyday lives. At higher levels, students in the fractions and percents course find themselves discussing infant mortality rates in their villages, vaccination percentages and the problem of species extinction, all topics that provide great material to practice their new skills but also lead to interesting and challenging discussions that relate to pressing issues going on around them.
The PSA program also engages students to use their practical skills outside the classroom and to the benefit of their community. After their first few courses, students study a book focused on “nurturing young minds” and are asked to start a children’s class in their neighborhood, teaching virtues as well as some of the basic concepts they learned in their previous courses. These classes are a wonderful way to contribute to the community and they also allow the students to beneficially apply their knowledge through service even before they have finished the program! This is certainly in clear contrast to most standard education systems where we study for years and years and only afterword are we able to engage in the world, and even then, very rarely in our own communities.
The PSA program also boldly introduces discussion on complex and deep-seated social problems, asking students to apply the knowledge and perspective they have just studied. For example, after learning about classification, dividing things into sets based on their characteristics, students are asked to turn their attention to the “subsets” of the human race. When speaking about men and women, students chose words from a list which “describe relations between the two sexes when they live according to the principle of equality, and…when this principle is disregarded.” The exercise ends by asking, “In a society governed by the principle of equality of the sexes, would women ever be treated as sex objects?”
Another example along the same lines is found in the book discussing the dawn of civilization and the beginning of agriculture. Students first learn that within early hunter-gather societies, 75% of the food was obtained from gathering, most of which was done by women. Women therefore had incredible knowledge, which they passed on to their children, giving them a great importance in those early societies. Then students are asked, “So then what has happened that led to the decrease in the status of women?” These are deep questions that cultivate critical thought and lead to personal development and reflection. After all, why not use our education as a forum for discussing issues of great societal importance?
In the end, knowledge about the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion and the irrationality of prejudice is also knowledge, equal to and if not of greater import than the factual knowledge many schools focus on today. After all, many of the world’s problems are not caused by the lack of factual knowledge but the absence of trust, justice and equality in so many of the systems and relationships that make up our society, at the global level as well as in the smallest villages.
This is perhaps the greatest strength of the PSA program. It does away with the false dichotomy of science vs. spirituality and blends the presentation of information and skills with discussion about the spiritual nature of human beings. One of the earliest courses provides a great example. The course deals with “properties” and begins by helping students to describe simple concepts such as shape, size and position, then moving onto different states of matter and the physical properties of cells but ultimately coming to a discussion on the “properties” of human beings. This is where it gets interesting. The section asks the students to identify the “true” qualities of human beings: honesty or dishonesty, truthfulness or deceit, coming to the conclusion that human beings have lower and higher natures. The students then end the section by discussing the quote, “we have been created noble, why abase ourselves?” This is certainly not a question I encountered in high school.
This brings us back to the beginning. So what is the purpose of education? Perhaps it is to help us develop our latent talents and capacities and positively contribute to the betterment of our communities – to be both inwardly and outwardly focused. It should give us the skills, perspective, experience and the inspiration to build a better world. If that is the case, then while the PSA program is still a work in progress, it is one hopeful step in the right direction.