Sunday, 24 May 2009

Role models and austerity

Another day, another rant about education, and how much better it was in the good old days.

The school I went to was expensive, but it didn't splash money around unnecessarily. Did you grow up eating creamed honey on white bread with butter? I did. Remember the plastic tubs the honey came it? Maybe not. Anyway, our rather pricey school recycled those plastic tubs and used them as sugar bowls in the dining hall. Why shell out for sugar bowls when we have plenty of perfectly good plastic tubs, just the right size, sitting around in the kitchen?

I always remember those tubs because of a small scene I caused with one. When I was in junior school, we had a boy from the senior school sit at the head of our table to keep us under control. For those of you that have never seen a boarding school in operation, think of the dining hall in Hogwarts. Then replace all the yummy food with yucky food. But otherwise, they got it about right - except for the owls and things.

The older boy running our table was Twiggy Forrest - I am not sure if he is still Australia's richest man or not. Back then, he was just a big, boofy bloke with a wide, cocksure grin; another country boy with big, meaty hands and more chutzpah than brains. He kept us under control in the usual fashion - by yelling loudly at us, or threatening violence if need be. He is six years older than me, and the differences in physical size between someone who is 10 and someone who is 16 are generally enough for the younger person to warrant compliance. I kept me head down.

Until the day he asked me to pass the sugar. The usual thing to do was to simply flick the sugar bowl down the table - the tables were highly polished wood, and the sugar bowls would zip down the table like a puck on an ice hockey rink. So I flicked it at him from the far end of the table, and he chose that moment to look away.

The sugar bowl sailed merrily off the end of the table and exploded across the floor. A deathly hush settled on the dining hall - making a mess, particularly an unnecessary or deliberate mess, was a major catastrophe. I was in deep shit.

I have no idea what happened next - it must have been too traumatic. All I do know is that from that point on, Twiggy always denied asking for the sugar. Even when I bailed him up at a reunion ten years later, he remembered the sugar spewing across the floor, but still denied that he had told me to send it up.

Not much of a role model then, was he?

But like I said, the school did not spend money on anything unless it had to. Our classroom desks and chairs would have been 20 years old when we got them, and I'm sure they outlasted us by another decade. Classrooms were not fitted with expensive things like fans, heaters, air conditioners and carpet. Lino is much easier to clean than carpet, and lasts much longer. Air conditioners and heaters take money to run, and they don't last forever, requiring expensive replacement from time to time.

Electronic whiteboards? Ha! Why bother with that when a black chalkboard works just as well. If a two year old whiteboard breaks down, it is useless. If a fifty year old blackboard looks a bit faded, just touch it up with some black paint and it will do another 50 years. Even the chalk sticks were used until they were no more than nibs the size of you little fingernail.

I remember our delight when the pre-WWII iron frame beds with chicken wire frames were replaced with solid base wooden beds. The chicken wire had stretched to the point where the mattress sagged into the shape of a coffin when you lay on it.

Did our education suffer from this? No. Thinking about it, we were educated in much the same way, with much the same methods, as are being used in say Afghanistan today. To teach a subject, all you need is a blackboard, some attentive pupils with exercise books and a teacher who can lead a class without referring to notes.

Yes, it was primitive. But did we require anything else to get a solid education in maths, English, geography, history, biology, physics, chemistry, economics, English Lit, French, German and geology?

Consider this. The people that invented all the marvels of the modern world were educated via those same "primitive" methods, via blackboards in unheated classrooms, perhaps, dressed in ties and polished black shoes, and drilled by teachers in silence. The inventors and engineers who came up with radar, the MRI, Concorde, the F-22, the internet, every medical marvel known to man, the space shuttle, nuclear power, LCD screens, mobile phones, iPods, the electric guitar, TV, satellites and so on all started out in a basic classroom with a blackboard in front of them and a teacher who was more interested in drill and discipline than expression and creativity.

That system turned out our country's richest man, along with many doctors, engineers, lawyers, farmers, geologists, politicians, managers, architects, stock brokers, wine makers, artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, business owners, accountants, scientists and bureaucrats.

It turned out the smartest people I have ever met - both University medalists; one now working in AIDS research and the other running a supercomputer lab doing stuff I can't even start to get my head around. Funnily enough, neither came from a wealthy background. Both got their initial education in one room, demountable school houses in tiny country towns that are better described as villages.

It makes me wonder why we strive to throw so much crap at the education of our youth. I have employed dozens of uni graduates, and all have arrived on my doorstep having grown up surrounded by Twitter and Myspace and text messaging and instant messaging - and they think that being able to develop a wicked Myspace page makes them an IT guru. Half usually wanted to quit within a few weeks because they found that using the internet and building the internet are two quite different kettles of fish.

We are confusing familiarity with a thing with the ability to build that thing, or to think up and design and build the thing that replaces that thing. Just because I can drive a car, doesn't mean I can build one. Politicians and education numbnuts seem to think that equipping kids with laptops will prepare them for a brave new world.

I say, "hogwash".

A computer is just a tool, like a chainsaw or a die stamping machine or a tractor or an oxy torch. If someone at age 12 expresses a desire to be a welder, do we provide them with an arc welding set and have them practice welding all day? No, there is no need. That is a skill that they can pick up once they get an apprenticeship. In the meantime, it is more important that they learn how to read and write and add up, so they can read instructions and safety manuals and know how to measure up lengths of iron that they are about to weld into a something or other, and calculate temperatures and so forth.

Because before computers came along, what were the most important tools for the business person of say the 1960's and 1970's?

I'd say they were the telephone (on a desk of course) and a telex machine. I remember dad having a telex machine in his office. I loved playing with that punched tape as a kid.

I don't remember school kids in my era being issued with a desk phone, and having to lug it to every class and show some aptitude in its use. I don't recall seeing a telex machine in the back of every classroom.

I really wonder whether we are about to embark on the most expensive exercise in stupidity in the history of mankind - giving laptops to kids that is.

1 comment:

Wand said...

If you were an engineer in the 60s and 70s (and I was in the 70s but a student in the 60s) the most important tool was a slide rule. I still have one from way back then.

The big debate at my school, (much like yours by the description) though today it has collected the adjective 'elite' to its name courtesy the MSM, was whether we could bring a slide rule into our examinations or whether we would have to use log tables.

I think you may be right about laptops for kids but the issue goes way beyond that to what constitutes a sound and useful education.