Schools: Useful in Theory, Useless in Practice?

By John Nkemnji, Ph.D*

If you could be wealthy without going to school would you spend the time and resources to go to school for education? While formal education (schooling) is critical for national development and stability, the program of studies (curriculum) has barely changed from the days of the “Saber-Tooth Curriculum” (teaching hunting and gathering skills). The school system predominantly lectures to age-determined students and has hardly evolved, despite galloping changes in research, communication, society, technology, and culture. The schools’ lack of adaptation, rising costs, and unrealistic expectations related to immediate gains from schooling cause people today, especially on social media, to wonder if schools are necessary.(

Students who drop out of primary school and are lucky enough to have lucrative careers often believe there is no need for formal education. Many drop-outs argue that employment and money are the reasons for formal education and that schools exist merely to prepare students for a job or career.  Consequently, some people wonder if students are wasting time and resources by sitting in age-determined groups, listening to lectures, and memorizing facts that can easily be looked up from computerized databases.

Critics of formal education usually forget that education is important for reasons beyond career preparation. Formal education develops disciplined minds, transmits the culture and helps students function in society. Enlightened leaders like Mandela alluded to the fact that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  A UNESCO document “Education transforms lives,” highlights the following:

  • Each year of liberal education reduces the risk of conflict in society by 20%.
  • Each year of schooling increases a person’s potential income by 10%. 
  • Increased access to education decreases the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

I agree with critics who believe that formal education needs reform to match our evolving society. Fundamentally, the curriculum of formal education has not kept up with the times. Technology has rapidly evolved, and it is challenging for some teachers and parents.  However, I disagree with the assertion that society no longer needs formal education, especially beyond high school. With a well-developed curriculum and an appropriate interactive delivery system, formal education whether private, public, home-school, online, or via apprenticeship is supposed to produce a community builder who actively and positively contributes to the community. It is also designed to pass on culture and produce liberated citizens who are inquisitive, productive and reflective.

We need schools to educate mindful, ethical, compassionate citizens.  Imagine what would happen to handicapped individuals if there were no schools to accommodate their needs, advocate for them and educate them to make them more self-reliant and independent? Formal education helps to provide or equalize opportunities for many people regardless of ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, or age.  Societies with inequalities and disparities are not usually stable or peaceful. A good educational system provides individualized learning, authentic problem solving skills, and social development. Education also helps reduce the unemployment rate and the prison population. People learn when they recognize that education will help to give them autonomy, empowerment, and emancipation. Education is good for self-development and social cohesion.

For schools to succeed, a committed partnership between students, teachers, parents, government, and society must exist. Some critics of formal education expect schools to cure all societal ills – environmental destruction, drug abuse, racism, gun violence, teenage pregnancy, obesity, sexual abuse, etc. That is not practical, especially with “hands-off parents” working round the clock.  Educators cannot do it all.

In schools where the curriculum is based on local needs and not a foreign system, the learners develop good self-concept, collaboration, integrity, human dignity, patience, empathy, and other important values of the society.  That is why nations like the Southern Cameroons and other developing states fight to change the school system to fit local demands. The people put off any form of colonial or foreign design with the belief that “Back to School” at the appropriate time will pay off. For about three years, students in the Southern Cameroons have not been to school. They are hoping for a better tomorrow, so they can be taught using an up-to-date curriculum by teachers who understand their language and culture. Colonial education is set up to make the colonized subservient.  The teaching materials and methods lead to minimal gains for the development of society.

Good school systems are not static but keep changing and adapting to the times and the needs of all the citizens.  Technology is there to facilitate education in formal settings since most research and development is done in formal institutions of learning. Technology will not replace schools. Formal education is necessary and needed by every citizen.  Formal education breeds the love for life-long learning for the good of citizens, nations, and the world at large since there are global problems that need collaborative-solutions from educated minds. Social media critics provide a catalyst for useful school theory and practice in keeping with the changing times.

* The writer is Professor Emeritus, Educational Technology.

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