Friday, November 25, 2016

The illusion of freedom

On Thursday, November 24, the American people celebrated thanksgiving, the most ironic holiday in terms of recent times. Cynically, the Americans celebrate the time when immigrants flowed into the country and terrorized the natives. Anyone who didn't believe in the god of the immigrants was oppressed. But despite the origin of the day and how it's being celebrated (by first over-eating and on the next day by over-consuming), the idea of having at least one day in a year when people take a moment to think what they are grateful for is excellent.

As for myself, I am grateful mostly for three things:

  1. The people in my life: My mom who has always done her best to be as good mom as possible and succeeded pretty well despite all the trouble she has had to go through in life, my friends abroad who can lift my mood when needed, and (especially during the last weeks when life hasn't been exactly the "happily ever after" -part of the childhood fairy tales) the whole Observatory community and especially Team Radar and Team Astro for the amazing team spirit that keeps on blooming.
  2. Freedom: A bit of a cliché maybe, but something that most people take for granted. However, I'm speaking of freedom in a wider sense. Even in the "free world", there's a number of invisible chains that restrict people from freedom to take advantage of opportunities or freedom of self-expression. Sometimes the chains are set by the society or our closest people (e.g., inequality or money issues), sometimes by ourselves (e.g., inexplicable fears...). I'm grateful for the people who promote equal opportunity and help in any way those who have the least freedom in the world, today as well as in the past.
  3. Education: I'm grateful for being one of the (relatively) few people in the world who have had an access to the best education in the world, and for the people who have made it possible. A measure of the greatness of a country should not be just its gross domestic product, and definitely not the military budget. The measure should be how happy the people of the country are. And although living in a bubble can keep a lot of people happy just fine, education is the only thing that can move the society forward at any measure – if it's successful.
The other day, I had a good discussion about three very different education cultures: South Korea, a top performer in international education tests (1st from 38 countries in the OECD student skill ranking), United States, an average performer in the tests (22nd), and Finland, another top performer (3rd after Korea and Japan). 

In South Korea, the education culture is extremely competitive and stressful for the students. The school days may extend from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and even though the whole time is not instructional hours but often casual chatting with friends, the school causes a huge amount of stress for the students. The most part of the stress is caused by the parents, who only approve the best performance from their children. It is common that if you're not the best student of the school, you will be mocked by your parents. Your parents and grades also decide your future. Despite of your own interests, the best students are expected to become doctors and lawyers. Nobody applies to the secondary level technical schools by choice, but you will end up there if your grades are not good enough for the high school. The colleges and universities are not as expensive as in the USA, but neither are they free. The parents make an effort to save money for your tuitions and thus justify their power to decide which college you should choose. The Asian schools in South Korea, and major cities in China may be the top performers in international tests, but no other system drives as many students to suicides – or in minimum family disputes – as them.

The USA spends the most amount of money per student in the world. The students spend in the school about 1000 instructional hours per year, which is roughly the same as in the East Asian countries, and yet, compared to other developed countries the results are average at best. The teaching targets to good results in the national scholastic assessment tests (SATs), which only measure skills in mathematics and reading/writing English. There are hardly any mandatory classes for handicrafts, or cooking, maybe because schools might be sued if the poor kiddos sting themselves in the finger with a needle or burn their hand at the stove. The schools are funded by local taxes, which causes major diversion in the quality of the schools. Even on the elementary level, the best schools are for the rich, not to mention the colleges and universities, which can cause debts that take decades to pay back. The children are more free to choose their careers than in the East Asian education culture, but several aspects of people's lives are still defined by money, not people themselves.

Finnish students spend roughly 600-800 instructional hours at school (the least in the world), enjoy free education all the way until university (including free lunch until the end of high school), and beat all other western countries in the international tests. Some of the most important factors explaining the excellence are considered to be the quality and appreciation of the teachers and the uniformity of the schools. All the schools receive equal funding (by the number of students) from the state, and the curriculum/minimum requirements are defined by the ministry of education. Also, the final exams are not only about maths and reading/writing but for example high schools require the students to have examination in at least four subjects. The native language is the only mandatory one. Most children choose their careers themselves and receive guidance if needed.

Education is a reflection of the society. Good education systems only arise from well-working societies, and can make them even stronger. Election of a person like Trump was a result of deficits of the society, including education. Masses of people ate lies from the hand of a demagogue just because they didn't know better or weren't happy with the society they live in, and possibly made not only United States but the whole world pay a heavy price. Another president of the past said it well:

"Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education." – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Even though Finland excels in education, something similar happened in Finland a few years ago. A certain political party rose to power by very similar rhetorics to what was heard in the American presidential election. They're against the elite, against the (illegal) immigrants, and "on the side of the working class". After they won enough seats in the government, the refugee crisis emerged and they faced the state debt that needed to be cut. You know or can imagine what happened to their popular support. Globally they didn't do much damage but the same can't necessarily be said about Trump if the tea-party plans for science and education get through. The world is on the edge with the fight against the climate change, if not yet lost, and a creationist as an education minister could damage the following generations even more.

It would be naive to say that education solves all the problems a society can have. People are not wired to always choose the smartest way. Selfishness and greed will still cause pitfalls to any society. And even when education is improved, the benefits take time to show up. However, only good education is able to move society forward. It will prevent unnecessary fears. Understanding will bring freedom.

The primary goal of education should be to make people self-sustaining, responsible citizens. One of the biggest problems that many of the education systems have is the lack of understanding of the society in the mandatory part of the education, and over-concentration on technical details. What use is it to know the year of a peace treaty when you have no idea why was the war fought in the first place, or if it could have been avoided? What use is it to know all the names of the US presidents while at the same time you have no idea what the president of this day actually can or cannot do?

From my point of view, the greatest problem of the American society, and consequently the education system, is the power of money. Trump is an excellent example: just because he is rich, he can get away with a fraud, and the majority of the society accepts that. If the majority of the decision makers (the congress, house of representatives etc.) are also rich, they will not do anything to stop the cycle. And if the people do not understand the process, they will not stand up strong enough either. But as long as the power of money continues on the current level, the true freedom of the people will stay an illusion.

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