Set the children free

Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech still echoes down the years to all who care about freedom. On 28 August 1963, in Washington DC, he said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Today, almost half a century later, our children are badly in need of another great champion as articulate, courageous and passionate as Martin Luther King to argue and plead for their emancipation from bondage.

Almost without exception, children worldwide and their parents are denied the right to decide what type of learning experiences they should undergo to equip them to live productive and happy lives. Compulsory schooling laws and regulations are based on the strange premise that parents are not fit to decide how their children should be educated, and even worse, that they do not care about their welfare. Instead, strangers, who know nothing about the children’s characters, talents and abilities, supposedly do have the necessary knowledge and insights to prescribe in the finest detail what they must learn, how they must learn, and where they must learn that which is prescribed to them.

What is generally not appreciated about compulsory schooling laws is that they present government with the difficult problem, in order for the law to be enforced, of defining or describing exactly what is meant by ‘schooling’. Governments overcome this difficulty by dictating a prescribed curriculum to be followed by all schools, whether public or private. It is a mechanism that makes prosecution of parents possible if their children fail to attend an approved school but unintentionally causes stultification in the schooling process. Instead of dynamic, innovative, diverse and competitive, the education of young people is static, hide-bound, and standardised. Until governments return to parents the right to have their children educated according to their own best judgement, schooling failures will persist and young people will continue to suffer the consequences.

Every decade or so, government-planned education systems go through convulsions. New teams of experts come up with new plans, but, fundamentally, the systems do not change. SA has recently redefined its method of education and the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, has described how the new National Curriculum is to be implemented but the changes will not bring about the necessary transformation. Schools still operate now in much the same way as they did more than a century ago and they will continue to do so. It is no fault of the Minister, the Department of Education, or those in similar positions in other countries, that schooling is dogged by crises and failures. It is because they are expected to deliver the impossible. How, in a rapidly changing world, can a lumbering, reluctant and slow-moving colossus provide modern-day children with a high-quality learning experience? All it can do is keep them locked into constraints that have existed since the inception of government-provided compulsory schooling.

Education is meaningful and useful only when it is based on the way a child actually is and what a child actually wants. Why then do education systems worldwide persist in treating children as if they are all the same? They totally disregard children’s interests and aptitudes, as well as their parents’ wishes. In economic terms, education is being supply-driven and not demand-driven. In a demand-driven system young people, with the advice and support of their parents, would select the options that best suit them from a vast array of offerings by competing education and skills-training enterprises.

The Soccer World Cup provides us with a glimpse of what would be possible if the education system were different. Star soccer players are among the most highly paid individuals in the world, so a soccer career is very attractive to young people with athletic ability. In SA, in a demand-driven system, given the obvious popularity of soccer, it is predictable that soccer schools would proliferate, but there is great potential for earning good money in other sports as well so athletics, cricket, rugby, golf, tennis and a host of other specialist sports schools are possibilities. Sport is merely used as an illustration of the potential for early specialisation under a different dispensation.

There would be specialist schools for violin playing, riding horses, computer programming, cooking, designing clothes, dancing, business, education and training, nature and the environment. Young people with special talents and interests, with the help of their parents, would be able to seek out the best teachers with the necessary knowledge and skills to teach them what they want to learn and what they need to learn to perfect their skills in whatever field of interest they might have.

There is no good reason why learning institutions should not place a specialisation skill such as sport first and other normally accepted skills lower down the order so that a young person’s primary focus can be on honing their chosen skill. Budding sports stars, for example, would be encouraged to put great effort into becoming articulate in order to handle media interviews, and numerate in order to handle finances, so literacy, numeracy and other skills would be taught as adjuncts to the primary objective. Children would be passionate about what they were learning instead of chained to a school desk to learn mass taught subjects of little value to them and their future.

Given that governments and educational bureaucracies have been locked into the current poorly functioning schooling system for generations it will take the likes of a Martin Luther King to persuade the world to adopt a simple solution that will result in children being judged ‘by the content of their character’ and allowed to develop their talents and abilities to the full. The solution is to set the children free!

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the authors and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation

FMF Feature Article / 06 July 2010
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