About 20 years ago, an international company I worked for changed its operating software.
A team came over from England to do the adaptations, installation, and training.
The project took over 18 months with two of the group members, ending up staying here for almost all of the
The right-hand man of the project coordinator was only 21 years of age.
He did, some of the programing, and installation, but was completely in charge of training our staff and making sure we all could operate the program easily and understand its possibilities.
Ian, for this was his name, was knowledgeable, capable, and quick.
He seemed mature beyond the 21 years he had lived.
There was only one area where he struggled a bit in
the beginning, and that was making sure our people understood him.
He spoke with thick Coventry accent, and as Winston Churchill once said, “US and England are one people, divided by a common language”.
While in Puerto Rico, people speak Spanish. They learn US English at school.
An Englishman from Coventry has trouble making himself understood if he does not soften his accent.
Being the only European in the company and having gone through the grueling exercise of learning
British English at school, and therefore having less problem understanding Ian, made me a go-to option
as an assistant for the training project.
That way, Ian and I became good friends.
Seeing his qualities and ability in programing, I asked him how long he had studied computers and programming in order to reach this level of competence.
“In Uni you mean? Never, just on-the-job training here for a year and a half.”
This was an unexpected answer for me, reflected in the next question, “so what did you study then? You
went to a University, didn’t you?”
“Sure, I studied history, with focus on the Second World War!”
“Oh, yes of course,” was my reply, “that explains everything, European History is fantastic preparation for programing!”
Then Ian, with his 21 years, went on to explain something I believe we all know, but not always put into context of what we do or apply to our lives.
He explained to me that while going through University you, as an individual, regardless of the degree you are pursuing, find out if you are apt for learning.
Then when you start working you learn what you do.
There is a lot of truth in this, although I would prefer the doctor operating on my cataracts having some training and formal education before executing the task.
Object of education
The general object of our education system seems to be producing operators and task performers rather than furthering learning and universal education.
If we go back in time and look at the period prior to 1453 (the commencement of the Renaissance period) we notice that formal education was nonexistent for most of the population.
Education was preserved for the princes and the ruling class, and basically consisted of learning to read.
People taught their children what they felt was needed for their survival so the child could grow up and take care of the parents in their advanced age.
This started to change after 1453.
Educational institutions multiplied and leaning became more systematic.
Of course, universities and seats of learning existed prior to 1453.
One of the oldest seat of learning is Al-Azhar University in Egypt, which was in existence from 970 AD, and we can go even further back to the Greek philosophers and their schools of philosophy, but that is outside of our scope.
The University of Bologna, Italy, is commonly accepted as the oldest University in the world, dating back to 1088.
However, seats of learning were, almost without an exception, under the auspice of a local ruler or prince, more open minded than commonly was at the time.
What changed in the renaissance was, the church lost its grip on education and learning became and objective in itself.
There is a constant development in education from 1453 up to today.
Many of the basic elements of our education have remained while new ones have been added.
Our elders, continue teaching us societies way of life.
They teach us table manners, how to behave out and about in the society and what to be aware of in our day-to-day struggle.
They go a step further to assist us with homework from school to the curriculum.
The big change
The biggest change has come about in the formal education.
Today, formal education is mandatory.
Children from 3-5 years of age must go to school and spend there, a good part of their life.
They will, for good or for bad, go through under grad, high school, and then divide up into life, vocational school, or university.
At this third stage they will be specialized for their role in society.
Let us go back again to the Renaissance, say to 1637, when the French philosopher Rene Descartes wrote “Discourse on the Method”.
At this time, a well-educated person as Descartes was, had studied Latin, Greek, Mathematical arts (including music and astronomy), Logic and Rhetoric, Law, Medicine and Philosophy.
Through the study of these subjects the student would pick up additional learning such as history, arts or poetry.
What is remarkable with this system of education is that it was so successful. It remained intact into the 20th century.
Also remarkable is the fact that if you would have gone through this curriculum in the year 1637, you would have acquired basically all knowledge humanity had amassed to propel you into the future.
Years of study
Think about that for a moment.
After 20 years of study, you could have accumulated all knowledge of humanity in your head!
Having all human knowledge in your head today is impossible.
You may have PhD. in Neurology and still
be rather ignorant about most things concerning human life.
You may be able to design computer programs to run a whole city and still be utterly ignorant of history, other languages or how to grow a fruit tree in your garden.
Today, our education is specialized to prepare us for a task or a role in the society and this objective of education for the sake of learning has mostly been lost.
Here, on the left side of the Atlantic there is much discussion about education.
Some, on the right in politics, do not want the state to be meddling in the education of their children, while others, at the center or the left in politics, want the government to be central to education of their children.
Let’s do a mental exercise.
Let us focus for a moment and pretend we are not persons, but a country.
A country is just an area of landmass (for the purpose of our exercise, it does not matter how we define the
boarders of his country) consisting of mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, and dirt.
Around us are other countries and, possessing resources or not, it is impossible for us to compete with them without people.
To be competitive we need people to do stuff.
A country is just there, people do things, act, produce stuff which the is then sold and bought cross borders.
If we now, assign qualities to our people to make them more competitive, what are the most important qualities we much assign them (remember, we are talking about the population at large, not individual persons)?
In my opinion there are two qualities that fundamentally make or break the ability of my people to compete.
Those qualities are Health and Education.
I (the country) must have a healthy and well-educated
population in order to be able to compete with the countries around me.
Everything else, comes second.
There is no use for other tangible and intangible resources if the population does not have the knowledge to take advantage of them, or leadership if there is no one to lead.
Since Health and Education are so critical for me (as a country) to be able to compete, I can not allow the population health or education to become a profit center for someone else.
I must guarantee the education for all.
I can also not allow parents to dictate formal education for their children.
If that would be the case, uneducated parents would have hard time defining their child’s progress to higher learning.
I (as a country) must set a standard for basic education, create incentives for higher education and motivation for learning in general.
Debates in the US
Looking at debates in the US, about if schools should be allowed to teach Darwin’s Theory of Evolution,
for example, is absurd.
Let us say for instance, those parents wanting to ban Darwin altogether from their children curriculum, have their way and the Theory of Evolution is banned from all textbooks on religious grounds.
Would it stop there? What would be next?
It is very possible education would regress to the level prior to 1453.
How about Finland
Let us look at, what is considered one of the best education systems in the world, the education system
The Finish school system has eliminated all competition from the education system.
The reason is that each individual is only competing with himself when it comes to education.
If you are best in your class in math but the class sucks at math, it does not make you a math wizard.
To conclude my mental exercise, I (as a country) would be looking around, in the countries around me and beyond, for the best education system in the world, and then try my best to learn from this system and
implement it for my population.
Amassing human knowledge
As mentioned earlier, it is impossible to amass all human knowledge into the head of one person
as it was in 1637 and having a PhD does not necessarily make us wiser.
We may just well be well-educated idiots.
How then can we improve our education and that of our children?
In my opinion there are four steps to be taken.
First, we must set a universal standard for basic education for all.
The focus of the education for children should be to foment love of learning, develop the open-mindedness needed to embrace ideas foreign to them and curiosity to find out about life and the world we live in.
Also, promote the love of reading books.
Second, adopt educational standards to be required for every industry.
Whether you become, a cook, hairdresser, electrician, or gardener, you should be required to complete a certain level of education.
That would not mean you could not work in those fields without the education, but you would be an assistant or basic laborer in that field.
Third, encourage multi-line of study.
Whatever you decide to become, be it a carpenter, beautician, lawyer, medical doctor, or a teacher, you should be encouraged to study something else as well.
This combination might be unique to you, say you choose to become an accountant and take culinary art as a second line of study, that would make you one of only few who would have that education.
What do those lines of study have in common?
Nothing! is the basic answer.
However, for the population at large, if everyone has these different combinations, human creativity will make something out of it.
Fourth; whatever your final job or level of education, lifelong learning for the sake of learning should be the objective.
We should strive to install the curiosity necessary and the motivation to seek answers as long as we live.
When we talk about education today, we must bear in mind some future implications.
Some current global trends will, sooner or later, affect our educational systems, both in terms of their effectiveness as well as in relevance.
Two of those trends are exceedingly important.
First, technology and AI.
In his books, “Homo Deus” and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, Yuval Noah
Harari talks, in my opinion, in a very bleak and pessimistic way, about the future of mankind.
He warns us, that technology, robotics, and AI are taking away jobs at an alarming rate, and jobs that hitherto have been considered untouchable by this trinity, such as drivers, cooks, and medical doctors, can now, or shortly, be replaced by an algorithm.
I am not as pessimistic as Harari.
I believe we still have the power and control to steer the boat where we like it to go.
At every age, as far back as we can see, or read, we have had each generation worry about the next one.
This is as regards to how the young generation is falling behind in every aspect of life, education, taste,
However, here we are after centuries of decline.
In England at the end of the 17th century, the Luddite destroyed textile machinery as the machines were taking the jobs away from them.
Today, we do not see textile workers in England going on strike over technologies.
Neither do we see chimney sweepers or horse carriage builders (Carriage Association of America still exists) protest over lost jobs.
The fact is, that human ingenuity makes us find something else to do.
On a personal level it may be a tragedy losing a job, but for society it may not.
What we should be concerned about is losing knowledge.
Through the ages much knowledge has been lost through accidents, erosion of time, replacement of technologies or by systematic destruction.
We can even see that around us every day, specially in architecture.
How were the pyramids build around the world?
What about Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, or the ruins of Tiwanaku?
What else has been lost, in medicine, agriculture, and chemistry, languages and culture?
“Oh no, we will not forget how things are done!”, you might say.
Well, ask yourself what your life and work is based on today.
Would you be able to build the car or the bicycle you ride to work?
Can you put together the device you are using to read these messages?
Could you remake the clothes you are wearing today?
If the answer is the unlikely “yes”, then would you be able to make all the pieces necessary, create
the materials or build the tools you need to do so?
Building a home may take months, but to wreck one may take as little as few minutes.
The same can be said about knowledge, we may remember and tell our children about things we have done and seen but in few short generation knowledges of the most important things in our current lives may be completely lost.
Therefore, preserving knowledge is of primordial importance.
Second, is the extended human lifespan.
Up to 1850 the average live expectancy of a human being was on the range of 25 – 35 years, depending where you lived on the globe.
Between 1850 and 1920 live expectancies
started to dramatically increase with improvement in medicine and reduction in infant deaths, so now it
is on the range of 65 (Africa) to 80 (Oceania and Europe).
Individual countries even show higher numbers.
In Japan, life expectancy for a woman is 88 years and 82 years for a man.
At the same time maximum lifespan has not changed so much.
We read about people that did reach advanced age during the time of the Romans.
The verified world record is a little over 122 years, set by a French woman.
Many theories are about what the absolute maximum is, although those theories have not been tested in real live (we have not lived long enough to do so), and the general census is that we are at the limits already.
In short, we cannot expect to live longer than little over 100 years.
Still, recent advances in medical science have cast doubt on those limits.
With the DNA genome being mapped and analyzed, organ transplants being more sophisticated and safer to perform, some scientists are forecasting that humanity will be able to reach, on average, about 150 years within our or next generation, and further, that lifespan of 200 – 300 years is not so far into the future.
How would your life change if you knew you would become healthy 150 years old?
Would you adhere to the lifespan pattern of after infancy, school from 5-25, having children from 20 to 40, work from 25 – 65 and retirement after that?
Or would you rather rearrange this in a different way?
One of the items you most likely would have to reexamine is education.
Although you entered the workforce at 25, highly specialized in your profession, probably your education would be obsolete before you retire at ripe young
age of 130, over 100 years later.
How then can we make sure we update ourselves adequately through our lives?
Maybe we arrange for periods, for updates, reinvention, or carrier improvements, throughout our lives where we would work for about 20 years and then take 4-6 years to go back to school and study.
Is education educating us?
In the beginning I mentioned my friends answer to my inquiry about his education.
It woke me up to the fact that our education is more in form of instruction to prepare us for a role or a task, than to educate us.
This applies to education anywhere in the world.
It does not matter if we are brown, black, white, yellow or any other color, if we are short, tall, skinny, or
heavy set, or if we prefer mutton and hamburger but shy away from pork or fancy vegetables over meat.
What unites us is far greater that what divides us.
We all have the same set of desires and longings, ambitions, and emotions.
Education is therefore applicable for all humanity and does not need to be invented country by country or region by region.
We can observe what is best and implement it where we are.
Mr. Thorgeirsson, a Columnist with The scholar Media Africa based in Puerto Rico-USA, is a coach in Personal Finance. He has MBA in Finance and Marketing from Inter Americana University, Puerto Rico. His contact: email@example.com