Here’s another podcast. Listening takes just under 20 minutes, or read it if you prefer. Let me know if this format works for you.
Times of Malta’s summary of an EU report on the state of Malta’s education makes for a scary read. There are many cliches about how important education is so I won’t indulge any of them because if you can’t appreciate of your own accord the reasons our failures in education are a national disaster, you’re not going to be persuaded by some glib quote about education being the key to the future and such like.
For the rest of you who intuitively understand what price, generations will have to pay for our failure to provide our young with the best possible education, or even anything close to that, the Commission’s report just provides details of what we intuitively know.
Every society, every community, every country has problems and challenges it needs to solve. Some of those challenges are transient, unforeseen, circumstantial; they come, and if you work on solving them diligently, they go. Then there are structural, deep-rooted challenges allowed to fester for generations, their grip on community life so deep that uprooting them would be suicide. You become dependent on your structural deformities like a symbiont. To the point where you start carrying the wounds with pride as markers of your identity.
This doesn’t just happen with profound structural faults. It happens at the superficial level too with challenges you are by no means certain you even want to address.
Think of noise pollution, disturbance of animals and the old and the frail, risk to life and property, physical injury, dispersal of poisonous chemicals in agricultural areas, pressure on limited rescue resources. You can either see these as challenges you need to address or call them festa fireworks, brand them a national tradition, and use tax money to organise fireworks festivals on slow weekends with less than 4 simultaneous festas going on around the island.
I could come up with a dozen of these examples.
But I’ll suggest 3 structural national problems that we have.
First, space. Lack of it seems obvious because the size of the country we inhabit is what it is. They say that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade and sell it, drink it, fill out the cups of the thirsty with it. The lack of space should have driven us to use the little we have efficiently. You see, the structural space problem we have is not size, but inefficiency in its use, gross, wasteful, destructive, and irrevocable.
Second structural problem is the lack of social cohesion. There are many levels of this, many fault lines that pull as apart against widening chasms and plunging cleavages, and often the lines of separation emphasise and reinforce each other. There are the symbolic separations, rebranded these days as culture wars, lines between political tribes, north and south, harbour and country, and coming soon to a divided country near you desperate for reasons to justify mutual distrust a certain brand of religious zealot against the rest.
Cultural divisions are symbolic of deeper, wider gaps that are becoming ever more unbridgeable between the rich and the poor. It’s not about having more things or less things. There is, of course, a widening gulf between 50-foot boats and sprawling villas and standing in line at the food bank. There’s also a gulf between people underemployed in permanent employment in a bloated, corrupt and mismanaged public sector, and people surviving precariously in unsecure jobs. Between people who see themselves as white and the people they see as other. Between people born here and people who have arrived here. Between the people who order food on a Bolt delivery and people who deliver them the food.
The third structural problem is one that is the object of focus of this blog: hollow institutions, complex legal and constitutional structures reduced to inches above the status of the purely ceremonial. Like mediaeval heralds, hereditary peers, and silk embroidered pages of a constitutional monarchy, our institutions, from Parliament down, are ritualistic nostalgia trips to the birth of a republic that never learnt to speak except as a sock puppet for the moneyed elites.
Environmental destruction, social inequalities, institutional emptiness. Distil them further and the drip, drip, drip of transparent essence leaves us with the root cause of all three: the poverty of our education.
Frankly, we don’t realise that we must safeguard the environment, ensure no one among us falls behind, and protect a rule-based system of fairness and peaceful resolution of disputes, because we’re too stupid.
Go back to the most cliche morality maxims you can possibly think of, but it takes an idiot to shit where they live, a moron to think that robbing the poor to pay the rich is a sustainable way of life even for the medium term, and a cretin to think they won’t regret anarchy when someone stronger takes everything away from them.
The Commission’s study covered today by Times of Malta speaks in relative terms and rightly so because the only measure of how successful an education is, is how its results compare with those achieved by others.
There are people who unlike me have studied this subject and I defer to their expert opinion when it is expressed. My take on the cause and effect may be unlearned. But there can be no dispute about the outcome.
State school graduates are more than two years of learning behind private school graduates. That’s not a reason to slow private schools down. They’re a business. They want to tell the public they’re worth the price differential. Fair enough.
But as a community we cannot accept that. Not when, as the Commission report finds, that gap is showing a rate of underachievement in basic skills that is double the European average failure rate. There are expensive, excellent private schools all over Europe. That is usually an incentive, a benchmark, a measure for the state’s mission to offer accessible education to everyone that is so good that any reason one might have to pay for elite schools would be social or cultural, not a means to make up for the sort of gross inequality of opportunities that we are inflicting on the children of this country.
Compared with the rest of Europe we spend more on our education, but our students obtain lower results. Compared within ourselves compulsory state-funded education supported by one of the biggest shares of a country’s GDP in Europe gives its students a whole two years less worth of learning than private schools in our own country.
It would be worrying in and of itself to learn that our children are less well prepared than their European counterparts. But it is particularly galling to realise that the reason does not lie in any stinginess on our part. Our economy is big enough to provide our children with good education. We pay enough tax to prepare them for life because we spend more than most other Europeans do.
Remember the idea of life giving us lemons but instead we build huge cement walls scarring our rarefied landscape? Not satisfied with that we also deprive state-school children of an education that if not excellent, or world-beating, or that would get our children to beat Indians at the spelling bee and Singaporeans at the maths Olympics, compares at least reasonably well with the education given down the road to children of fee-paying parents.
That’s turning lemons into arsenic. And it’s the worst reinforced cleavage of social division of them all. We make the poor poorer by depriving them of the means of empowering themselves and use their learning to live better. Much like fireworks, depravation in the form of ghettoization and implicit segregation become instant social traditions that it would be irreligious to seek to reverse.
The irony is we also make the rich poorer. Because an uncompetitive labour force poorly prepared by mass education to survive in tomorrow’s world makes for a faltering economy addicted to paying expats huge salaries to make up for our inherent deficiencies. And that’s bad news for everyone.
We have come to the point where the notion of social solidarity is too enlightened for our dark days. Being poor is garbled with living geographically in the south or near the harbour and participating in a certain breed of cultural manifestation and political expression that reinforces differences. This blurs the line of causality for poor education. Does poor education create poverty or is it poverty that causes poor education?
It is a mistake to separate these cleavages from the other considerations of environmental degradation and institutional ineffectiveness. The lack of social cohesion, the widening gap between children who grow out of state-schooling and children who graduate from fee-raising schools, cracks the sense of belonging to the same community and having the same needs.
If there is no single community of shared interests, there cannot be a community of shared space. The cliff, the wood, the country lanes, the distant view of a historical skyline, the visibility of fields in the rolling distance, migratory birds, a quiet spot by the water’s edge, even the quality of air and water: they’re no longer spaces that belong to everyone, because there’s no everyone.
We get instead the grasping race to privatise space or more accurately to capture and possess it, to build high walls around a field to turn it into one’s small plot of paradise, complete with decking, an enormous pool, and a barbecue. We build higher to alone make money from the space that used to give our neighbours light and air.
The deeper consequence is seen in some of the unsavoury paths our national discourse treads sometimes. Safeguarding the countryside becomes the mission of a learned elite, resented for their educational and economic advantages, their education resented in and of itself. In that world, in our world of people who have or do not have education, argument and persuasion become impossible, logic becomes suspiciously elite and therefore elitist.
The failure of institutions does not necessarily come from a simplistic understanding of a lack of education producing lower quality resources though the notion should not be discounted. If more people had more access to better education, there would be more competition for leadership posts, more people to choose from, a wider pool of faster fish.
Institutions perform as well as how capable the people who run them are. But they also work as well as the public’s expectation is. The quality of our education reflects in the quality of our citizenship. If we cannot tell the difference between a good and a bad politician or a good and a bad judge or a good and a bad police chief and so on, the bad get away with it and the good move out.
For the same reasons of cultural mistrust, suspicion of learning, prejudice, and cultural and economic division, there might be a preference of the bad over the good, an inverse, perverse logic of mediocrity, even a delight in kakistocracy.
Kakistocracy: though this isn’t the correct etymology of the word it sounds to me like kakistocracy stands for being ruled by shit, governed by rubbish, wallowing in waste we should rightly dispose of for the sake of our own survival if not our collective improvement.
My biggest issue with all of this is that the gap is widening rapidly and exponentially. By this I don’t want to suggest that the national failure of education can be clipped to Joseph Muscat or his successor. That’s a ridiculous idea that would be short-sighted and would keep us just as far from a solution as all the “best in Europe” and “Malta, the best in the world” jingoistic rubbish that our politicians vomit like this country was about to invade Italy and make that country our bitch.
This has been long coming, despite periodic attempts by different governments to obtain some improvements, some of which, had some success in slowing down the inexorable descent into the abyss of intellectual oblivion.
Although it is the ultimate form of irrelevance to measure anything just by one’s own experience of it, I want to underline that I come from state-provided education from kindergarten to the end of my first degree. I’m not saying that to prove anything about how education may or may not have been better in the 1980s and 1990s than it is now, or that there’s some golden past of deeper learning we should all be nostalgic about.
I am only mentioning this because I want to underline that I do not come from an elitist or fatalistic perspective on this. Having said that, we must recognise that the notion that private education gives the children of those who can afford to pay for it a considerable advantage over the children of those who cannot, is both cemented in people’s prejudices and, as this study shows, confirmed by rock solid scientific evidence.
While I took the time to clarify that I am not elitist and do not come from a background of elitism, I should also say that it is clear, to me at least, that there is an elite emerging from our education system. As a rule, and on average, there is a determinism that dictates that the children of richer parents will not only be given a leg up before they go out in the world because their parents have more money. They also have a leg up because the taxes their parents are paying to fund the education of the have-nots to give us all a more equal, fair, creative, competent, and competitive society to live and work in, are instead being misused kicking poorer children down.
The whole point of having a government, of paying taxes, is to bring justice where anarchy would give us injustice. Education is supposed to be the great leveller, to use a cliche I said I would not use. Instead, we are, at a rapidly increasing rate, rushing towards a pre-industrial situation where being born to a family with lesser means is a life sentence, if not to poverty (though increasingly that’s also true) at best a life sentence of never learning how the world works, what’s wrong with it, what we must do to fix it and save it for future generations.
How can we expect people to have the time and bother to insist their politicians slow down the climate emergency if we can’t get most of our children to sit through a geography class? How can we expect people to vote out corrupt politicians if they’ve never had a meaningful history lesson? How can we expect them to create exciting, law-abiding, ethical businesses and to create wealth for themselves and their compatriots if they leave school with a vague appreciation of mathematics and the reasonably proper skills to write fluently and coherently in at least just one language, any language?
Again, I am generalising partly because this is by no means my area of specialist knowledge. I’m sure great work is being done in the toughest class in the primary school of the most deprived inner-city area. There are teachers there that are, no doubt, the unsung heroes we imagine them to be. But I said, no cliches. We can’t lose sight of the aggregates, the bottom-line results, the final numbers: overall, we’re failing.
Certainly, it’s not just the government’s fault. There continues to be a cultural hostility to learning. Pumping money and resources is consumed in administrative inefficiency and, I rather suspect, some corruption along the way. Unions are intransigent keeping working hours impossibly short to give time for extra paid teaching to students that are perfectly entitled to get a complete education for free.
It is not the government’s fault, not entirely. But it’s entirely it’s responsibility. There’s no point to have a government if they don’t get education, alongside health, right. And they’re not getting it right.
This is a country that measures its economic success by counting how many new cars are sold on the market, ignoring the fact that we never planned where to put them. For generations we have measured education by how many teachers we have recruited and how many schools we have built and how many air-conditioning units we have installed.
When a report like today comes out we get to see the indicators we never look at, not what goes into schools but what’s coming out of them. And if we are unable to be shocked even by that, it must be because we, our generation, are the same crappy product of the same crappy educational infrastructure and we know no better and are incapable of imagining it and wishing it for our children.
We console ourselves by fantastic notions of our greatness, speaking of ourselves like chosen people. As we get a presidential debate between who is closer to the ideal Maltese, whatever that is, dividing the country between those who say vettura and those, more patriotic, purer specimens of the breed apparently, who prefer to say karozza. Amid all this intellectual fragmentation and mass deterioration we choose to fuss about our differences creating fantastical elites and new causes of hostility.
The semitic versus romance divide comes up whenever some antediluvian fossil of the colonial age emerges to tilt at windmills who have long had their sails blown off by the wind. But you recognise that perverse counter-elitism everywhere. You see hostility against people who speak the English language reasonably well. Hostility against people who read. Hostility against knowledge, learning, the arts, the sciences, the passion for self-improvement which is not always and not narrowly counted in euro and cents.
Where do you begin to uproot a parasite that feeds on the very heart of our nation as a community?
All I can say is there was a time when education for the masses wasn’t merely poor or compared unfavourably with private education. There was a time when it simply didn’t exist. The revolution that we need to undertake, surely, must be less difficult than the one faced by those pioneers. They built something from nothing. All is asked of us now is to want better for our children. That should come naturally to us, should it not?