Friday, January 24, 2014

Don't stay out of trouble!

"Hey, at least I didn't do what HE did" or "Well, I haven't hurt anyone" or "It's not like I've joined another religion". Our minds procure a colourful range of explanations for why it's good enough to just do nothing wrong. When you live in a country with daily headlines about high-level corruption and violent crime, it becomes tempting to believe that you are good person simply because you haven't done much wrong.
I've often heard people use the argument- usually while trying to convince someone to become more religious- that a non-religious person is really quite religious, just without knowing it. "Have you served an idol today? Murdered anyone? Practiced witchcraft?" they'll say, following quickly with, "Nu, see how many mitzvos you already do!"
Life isn't really about how much depravation you dodge. We're meant to be proactive, to add light to the world, not only to avoid darkness.
Living a life of trouble-avoidance is a safe bet, but doesn't earn us much. G-d says that if we don't serve idols, He will bless us with goodness. You know how it is, sometimes blessings don't work, sometimes we don'teven see them when they hit us.
Dynamic doing good requires more focus and effort, but it reaps greater rewards. When talking about the active performance of mitzvos, G-dpromises us protection, health and succees. That's no longer just a blessing, that's an assurance from the one Being who you can rely upon to keep a promise.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Stop publishing matric results

The 2013 matric results were released today and were available in various newspapers and online. Perhaps in the 60's people need to scour the papers to discover their matric results. But, we're living in the 21st century, people, and there are now at least half a dozen tech-savvy, private ways to find your marks. I don't get why the tradition remains for the national papers to splash the names of every matriculant who made it. 

I finished Grade 12 before the age of SMS and websites, yet I remember feeling uncomfortable at having everyone's results published for all the yentas to see. It's not that I was afraid of people seeing my maths or history results, because I was headed to the rabbinate regardless. But, I winced at some of my peers having their "just passed" news broadcast for all to see.

In those days, I felt for the guys who weren't the academics, but would be judged against a yardstick that they weren't wired to achieve. Some of them graduated school mentsch cum laude, but there was no column in the papers for that.

Last week, I raised this issue on my radio show, in person and on social media. I fielded a wide spectrum of opinions- from those who feel that publishing marks motivates students (in that case, we should surely publish the results of medical and law school as well, no?) to those who felt it placed undue pressure on kids who aren't top academics. I'm with the second group. 

I have some serious reservations about the matric-mark-madness that steals front page news and radio headlines. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for celebrating achievement. Students who sweat blood for two years and crack top grades deserve their piece of limelight as much as their parents deserve the nachas. But, what about the kids who don't make it? And are marks the only measure of school achievement that we should celebrate?

Firstly, getting good marks doesn't guarantee that you've gained knowledge and much less so that you've learned invaluable skills like critical thinking. I know people who burned their textbooks after each exam, which made a clear statement that no school rote-learning would accompany them into adulthood. My matric class produced some great religious leaders, businessmen and even a rocket scientist. Most of us didn't use the matric syllabus to get us there. 

Last week, one fellow shared how he had failed an exam because his answers, although correct, didn't match the way they had been set out in the lecturer's notes. Now, there's a sound educational tactic.

I was schooled on the Talmudic model, which is open-season for questions and debates and nothing is so just because it says so. We were encouraged to challenge our teachers and spent most of the day studying in pairs, which means we argued over just about every line of the information we studied. We weren't taught information; we were taught thinking.

I'm afraid that making the goal at school the marks you get might undermine the point of education. If a student knows how to present the "required answers" (thanks to having worked on "past papers" and having been coached in answering styles that address "what the examiner is looking for"), we don't yet know whether or not the student knows how to use her brain.

And, even if we assume that the system does get the students to think, is that the end-goal of education?

Education that motivate youngsters to achieve good marks teaches them nothing at all. I have no doubt that there have been abusive husbands, dishonest stockbrokers and infamous criminals who achieved excellent marks at school. Schools are surely meant to cultivate minds, actually, cultivate people, not to push results. 

Education isn't intended for just for brains, but for humans. At the end of an educational process, the whole person should emerge improved, not only their intellect. Parents and teachers should partner to instill in children values, respect, tolerance and kindness at the same time that they share information with them. Schools that churn out academic stars who don't look up from their smartphones to greet their parents, have no clear definition of integrity and have not been trained to share with or tolerate others (like the less "smart" members of their own class) have failed.

I hope that next year sees the matric results limited to student-number-protected access on the Education Ministry's website. Let the papers find something else to sell in early January. And how refreshing it would be to have schools boast about graduates who have been personally enriched, who are socially responsible and balanced people, rather than just showcasing sharp-minds.