Learning for learning’s sake

 The Cayman Islands is making a huge mistake when it comes to education. No, I’m not about to launch into a tired tirade about how this government or that government has spent too much or spent too little on schools, teachers and pencils. There is a much bigger problem that no one is addressing.

Virtually every time politicians, radio talk show callers, or anyone else discusses education, they so in the context of future employment exclusively. One would think that school is all about jobs at the end of the rainbow and nothing more. In reality, however, nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course education is critical to one’s future job prospects, but education is also critical to the quality of one’s overall life beyond work. This truth is being left out of the conversation in Cayman. We need to promote a culture of education, one that encourages people to embrace lifelong learning. Reading, for example, is a vital skill that people must have in order to hold virtually every well-paying job today. But is that all reading is good for? Getting a good job? Of course not! Reading adds to the quality of life. Fiction books can be a source of life-enriching entertainment and inspiration. Non-fiction books can open up a universe of wonders. Reading is not a job skill; it is a life skill.

Students, younger ones in particular, must be encouraged to read, become competent in math, understand basic science, and so on, for reasons other than landing a job one day. Always emphasizing employment as the solitary goal sends the wrong message about school and about learning. Most kids, I suspect, view school these days as some tedious mountain that has to be climbed in order to get to a job on the summit. To the contrary, school should be seen as the place where kids learn how to learn and set themselves up to become lifelong students in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, no matter what they end up doing for a living. The summit is not a job.

In Cayman one often hears the call for a vocational school to teach students trades such as auto mechanics. While this may be fine, the reasoning usually offered is not: “Some kids just aren’t going to be lawyers and doctors so they need a different kind of school.” This is a terrible view because it suggests that some students—those who don’t fare so well in English and math class—should be removed or excused from traditional subjects. Just because a student may be struggling in traditional classes or is more drawn to learning about carburetors than science does not mean that student is better off never hearing about Homo erectus and the moons of Jupiter. Every human with a pulse can find joy and excitement in science, history and other standard subjects. Auto mechanics are not brain dead. Their minds should be as alive as anyone’s. Why shouldn’t they be lifelong learners too? There is no reason a manual laborer should not find joy and excitement in books like anyone else. It simply does not matter if a person comes home from work with clean hands or dirty hands at the end of the day. Everyone should be educated for the sake of education. Knowing a little philosophy may not make somebody a better electrician or baker but there is a good chance it will make her or him a better human being.

Having a population with a well-rounded education and a hunger for learning that doesn’t end on graduation day also is vital to the health of any democracy. This, in my opinion, is the one fatal flaw of an otherwise wonderful political system. If a nation’s voters are mostly uneducated by societal neglect and chronically dim by choice, then that nation is likely to end up with either dumb leaders or clever leaders who easily manipulate and exploit the blank slates who stumble into voting booths. When people are not informed about important issues they can be more easily duped by self-serving politicians. For example, bad things can and do happen when citizens don’t understand anything about nature because middle school science class was the end of their science education. They are less likely to flinch when politicians and developers destroy the foundation of their world right before their eyes. When people know nothing of history they are less likely to recognize it when their society is barreling down a dead-end path taken by many other countries before. And when people finish school never having had the fires of curiosity and passion for understanding lit, they are less likely to contribute and participate in ways they could have.

Forget what you hear repeatedly. Learning is not a mere tool for employment. Employment is a fringe benefit of learning.

Guy is the author of “Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know About Our Biological Diversity”. Contact him at [email protected]