Why ‘education’ is holding us all back

Writing in an opinion piece on 1 June in Today’s Zaman, the English language version of one of Turkey’s most widely circulated newspapers, Ricardo Hausmann questions government policies around the world that point towards education as a growth strategy. Education, he says, has had mixed success in raising worker productivity, and it is worker productivity that increases income. He admits that he doesn’t have the answer to how such productivity can grow – that success must depend on “something in the water” (his words!) – and that, tellingly, if we focus on education as a growth strategy, then this means we are “giving up on everyone that has already gone through the school system – most people over 18, and almost all over 25.”

Well, for a former Venezuelan minister of planning – and current Director of the Center for International Development and Professor of the Practice of Economic Development at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University – Mr Hausmann is curiously myopic about ‘education’. Sadly, he is not alone. The Latin ‘educare’, from which our modern verb ‘to educate’, and hence the noun, ‘education’, are derived, contains within it the concept of training, rearing and growing; we have, however, over the centuries, hijacked the term to become synonymous with ‘schooling’. Moreover, the challenging (but very welcome) pursuit of access to schools for all children across the world has had a negative corollary – it has cemented our perception that education – in the shape of schooling – is only for children.

Given these widely-held perceptions, it is understandable that Mr Hausmann should fall into the trap of equating ‘education’ with ‘schools’, but it is nonetheless disappointing. If education consists solely of schooling – with all its many faults and its age-limited scope – then of course it will have a limited (though still significant) contribution to national growth and productivity. If we examine the concept of education more critically, however, and if we challenge the underlying assumptions that are holding us back from our understanding of education as an empowering tool and crucible for growth – socially, economically, physically, morally, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually, politically … the list goes on.

The UN describes education as a fundamental human right and “essential for the exercise of all other human rights”. It acknowledges that adults as well as children need educational opportunities, and describes education as “a powerful tool”. Learning is hardwired into our human make-up; it brings us alive and helps us to grow in ways we sometimes could not have imagined. When we break free of the limitations that historical and social perception has placed on our understanding of education, then we can truly embrace its power.

Let us not allow these limitations to hold us back.


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