In Malawi and most of the world, even elementary students have to pay to go to a good school. Free public schools in Malawi have a student teacher ratio of 96:1 and often no books. Poor parents work several jobs to scrape up the money for school fees and uniforms. They know a good education is required for success. Schools vie to be seen as the best so they can attract students. This free market system of education means families have a plethora of choices. And more schools start every year.
In Malawi, it seems every religious denomination has its own school system from elementary through college. Recently, even local synods are starting up schools and colleges. Education is a growth industry in Malawi and all through the countries I’ve visited in Africa. Part of the reason is that African countries have so many young people. The average woman in Malawi gives birth to more than 5 children in her lifetime. Forty-six percent of the population is below 15. Lots of schools are needed.
On the way to work every day, I pass several schools in just a few blocks. When school lets out, the kids in school uniforms swarm the roads. They all know it’s a privilege to be in a good school. They also know if they are disruptive, they will be booted out. Private schools won’t last long if they are known for having students who disrupt the education of others. Parents simply take their children elsewhere.
The strict discipline in the top schools can have an unintended side effect. It creates obedience to teachers who mostly have no experience in any world other than schools. They obtained degrees in school and went straight into teaching school.
Spend too much time in school and you think the world is composed of teachers and groups of people who want a good grade from their teacher. Your job is to master what the teacher thinks is true, though it may be inconsistent with anything you experience outside of school. That doesn’t matter a whole lot as long as your goal is to succeed in school. And if you move from being a student to being a teacher, you are safe in the system.
Sometimes those educated in such systems wander out of the school. They don’t go into manufacturing or science or farming or ecosystem management and try to produce something the world really needs because their main skills are in how to toady up to teachers. So they can go into a large government or business bureaucracy, kow-tow to a boss and move up the pyramid. The trouble is that they haven’t tested what they have been taught in systems outside the classroom. That makes it impossible to distinguish between a pyramid with a solid foundation and a pyramid scheme.
The over-educated do learn how to poke holes in any argument. If you concentrate on poking holes in all the tried and true wisdom, you eventually don’t have anything left to believe in, including the value of your life, so you might as well commit suicide. Most don’t go quite that far. They still value themselves. And they build their entire world around the value of their selves. Whatever this self wants is what they go after. Most often this self is mainly interested in pleasure, so they go for sugar, caffeine, sex and other drugs. Rarely, the over-educated find themselves able to access an even stronger pleasure–power over others. Then whatever they do is politics. It’s all about the ability to control others and get them to do what you want them to do.
The lucky countries have had leaders who weren’t quite so over-educated. Their formal knowledge of education was balanced by a tacit knowledge gained through interacting with natural phenomena outside the controlled conditions of academia and laboratory. We had a President who was shot down in the Pacific and spent hours swimming until he was finally rescued.
This President knew he had to attack Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait. He also knew the limits of power and didn’t try to destroy Saddam by invading Iraq. His son wasn’t shot down in the Pacific but avoided such experience by using his father’s connections. So he never gained the tacit knowledge of his father and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and then really thought he could turn those tribal lands into modern democracies. He failed and now is living out his life painting pretty pictures. Art is one way out for the over-educated. Art celebrates the individual and pleasure. It doesn’t clean up the messes the artist created is his past life.
Cleaning up those messes is left to his successors. If they are also over-educated, they will focus on pleasure and satisfying the other over-educated people in their class. Those people know only the world of school. They are master educators who can convince the gullible while maintaining their cynicism and sarcasm about all the wisdom of the ages. They trust in pleasure and maximizing pleasure for the masses to maintain control over them.
We know what happens to societies which follow this route. They fail to understand natural cycles, natural inclinations because they haven’t experienced such things. They encounter a Putin versed in a little more practical sort of knowledge and they are nonplused. He grabs what he wants and even accomplishes things they can’t, such as cease fires in Syria. But he’s obviously on the wrong side of history, they say. And they go back to work reassembling an electoral majority of the overeducated and pleasure-seeking. That vast majority of voters has little or no practical knowledge of what makes systems thrive and survive. Politicians can keep getting elected if they just focus on the wants of the overeducated and pleasure-seeking. That’s the way to stay in power. It worked for generations of Romans, just as it worked for generations of urbanites in hundreds of civilized cities throughout Asia and the Middle East. Cities which disappeared under the sands created by their lack of knowledge of what makes a resilient ecosystem.
I’ve met many great educators in Malawi. They are the ones who do what they teach, who practice what they preach. They are teaching practical skills which enable real world systems to survive and thrive. In other words, they are teaching about resilient systems. Their students are our hope.