Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Where do we get our education from now?

Image via: Pixabay
My first born is about to start school and the twins soon after. The last five years feel like they have passed quickly and I hope that I've prepared them. I try my best to be a very aware person and to pass that awareness on to my kids. Kids don't learn too much from what you tell them, I've realised. They learn from the activities they experience and what they observe. Then, when they get out into the world they make up their own minds. My main aim is to make sure we have an open and nurturing relationship so that we can keep growing together. I want them to see me as a safe place. Somewhere they can offload all their worries and fears, their sadness and their rage, without apprehension that they will be judged, disbelieved, or that their feelings will be minimised and denied. I have made it a point to behave in that manner with them. I don't hide my feelings from them and I explain my behaviour. I don't try to protect them from the harshness of reality. They know that I get sick, I get sad, I get angry and I get fed up. They also know that these feelings are the necessary flip side to living a happy, exciting, curious and empathetic existence filled with love. Without darkness, there is no awareness of light.

I finished school a millennium ago. Ok, not that long, but high school graduation happened in 1992 and I only spent 3 years at Uni to get an Arts degree, then immediately started full-time work. My education only accelerated once formal education ended. In many ways, institutionalised learning only stifled me and taught me the stuff I didn't need. The stuff decided by bureaucrats of the dominant paradigm, and while there were probably female individuals who were from non-white backgrounds and with gender fluidity, the system itself was male, straight and white. It still is. So I'm prepared. I know that the kids are going to get the basic, systemic curriculum - reading, writing, maths, art, "history" - the blanks will need to be filled in.

I think about how I filled in my blanks. When I reflect on my education, I realise that it wasn't the place where I got most of my answers. It started there, certainly, but I guess that's the point of a formal education, to put you on a path towards learning and give you the practical tools to obtain knowledge. I read books, listened to music, talked to my friends and observed others. I got out into the world, through work and socialisation and talked to people. I watched movies and television and listened to the radio. As I got older, I ventured further afield and traveled, short distances at first, then broader. I looked for the commonalities between people from different places and tried to make sense of the differences. I questioned everything and the more uncomfortable it made others, the more resistance I got, the more it felt like I was on the right track. Not much has changed and I believe this is going to be the pattern for the rest of my life. I'm an eternal student. I think they make the best teachers.

Kids have so many other avenues for learning these days. They still have all the things I experienced, but information is now so freely available and accessible, it seems they have the sum of all of humanity's experience and thought at their finger tips. They can ask just about anything and they will get an answer. The quality of answers will vary, and it will be up to them to critically discern what is real and what isn't, so they too can fill in the blanks.

The fact is that traditional means of education have diminished in quality. We have an outstanding education system in this country - for some, not for all. On paper, our curriculum is adequate, but there are still huge discrepancies when it comes to who can access it, who it represents and who it benefits. There are massive gaps in funding, resources and culture between private and public education, many private schools are marred by the bleeding in of religious dogma and the execution of the curriculum is reliant on the luck of getting a good teacher, dedicated people who are still largely underpaid, undervalued and sometimes ill prepared. Systems are only as good as the people practicing them and if those systems are unjust and unequal, the content is going to suffer. We need diversity and we need open access. We need to redefine what education means and what its purpose is. We need to remind ourselves that education is a life long process that begins at birth and ends on our death bed. As such we need to consider how we as a society, share the load of raising and educating children. We need to stop compartmentalising education into separate categories of parenting, pre-school/childcare, primary, high school, tertiary and vocational study into an all encompassing way in which we nurture and inform each other at every stage of our lives.

At the moment, the bulk of early education falls on women. Whether they stay home in the early months and years of their children's lives, giving up their own education and employment to nurture their children, or return to work and lean on others, it is usually other women they end up leaning on. Early childhood educators are for the most part, women, and like teaching, it is an underpaid, undervalued, over worked and expensive to access profession. I didn't want to give up work when I had kids, but I didn't want to leave them for at least the first two years either. I couldn't afford the full-time daycare even if I did have a high-powered corporate career to maintain, which I didn't and never wanted. However, at the same time, the thought of leaving an 18 month old and 2 newborns with other carers was unfathomable and largely unavailable. I needed time. Not only to feel like I had educated them in the basics of existing: feeding, walking, toileting, hygiene, talking; I also wanted to witness those milestones and to be honest, there really wasn't anyone else to lean on, who wasn't already too burdened by their own life to help me. It is unfair to expect grandparents to raise your children, they've already raised their own. It's not realistic to burden other mothers who have their own children to raise and it's not an option to interrupt someone else's life with your kids, unless you're paying them. I wanted to pass on the knowledge that I had inherited myself, and to make sure it was prospering in a healthy way. We undervalue this practical education in how to exist in the world that we call mothering, instead fetishising it, only to degrade it when it suits. It is unpaid work or lowly paid when outsourced and we don't address its importance. When I say we, I mean the capitalist, patriarchal society that tells us it is women's work to care for young children. If this weren't true, men would be doing more, and I don't mean the basics of day to day tasks or even one-on-one care occasionally. I mean the mountain of mental and emotional labour that considers every aspect of a child's mental, emotional and physical well-being. If they did, workplaces would be assuming that when anyone becomes a parent, whether they carry the fetus or not, they would need quality time with their offspring to raise them. We would have free, quality and accessible child care, with educated and qualified workers who were paid exceptionally well. We would have flexible working hours and accommodating workplaces that valued productivity over time with 'bums on seats' and we would be seeing the education of children from day dot as a whole society's responsibility. As it is now, the education of children is struggled through as secondary to what is most important in our society; holding up the economy. In the long run, the current cultural system is its biggest burden.

So what else educates us? Our mass media, news outlets, television and newspapers are beyond a joke. Owned and controlled by a conservative and self-interested minority, the only real option to maintain your brain cells is to flick the off switch and use the paper to line your compost bin. 

Movies and music are a little more diverse and the Arts are always the place to find the truth of the human experience and lessons about how we navigate our existence. While mainstream crap is still shaped and manipulated by the zeitgeist, which is broken right now, there are always alternatives to be found. Visual arts, music, language, prose, poetry, story telling, creativity, the reflection of our beauty and pain is unbound and indomitable. And it is everywhere we look outside and in. When the Arts are not funded and valued properly, when there is an attempt to control, censor and stifle the Arts, that's when you know a society is sick and broken.

So, I'm trying to see this next step in my kids' journey as simply a change of scenery. Their eyes are going to be opened to new experiences and people and I wish for them to have the tools to navigate their external world in harmonious unison with how they navigate their internal world. That is the one that is most important. How they think and feel, what they want, what makes them happy and what makes them feel safe, valued and understood. I want them to know that no matter what they are doing, who they are with, what they see and hear, they are ok inside themselves and have a safe harbour to re-calibrate at home.

Mostly, I want them to know that learning is ongoing and in their hands. I want them to be curious, interested, excited and motivated about finding out new things. Even if that new information changes their mind and rebuilds them. As difficult as that transformation is to make sometimes, the way new knowledge can force us to crumble into confusion, throw us into a dark tunnel and see us stumbling aimlessly for a while, I want them to know that even in the shadows, they don't have to immediately see. They can feel around, trust and wait for the light that comes at the end, illuminating their path toward bigger adventures and opportunities and the absolute best version of themselves they can possibly discover.