What is the purpose of an 'authentic education'

March 24, 2016 | 12:34 am PT
Due to the ambiguity and complexity of the Vietnamese language, I had to use the word 'authentic'  to describe what would otherwise be referred to as a high quality education.

I didn’t mean to ask whether Vietnamese people care about education or not, because they obviously do. In every Vietnamese family, there is no more important topic than the children’s studies. Besides earning a living, there is no chore that takes up more time than supervising children’s studies. In terms of family spending, education is probably second only to food.

To put it simply, people’s interest in education is undoubtable.

What I was asking was which kind of education, which outcomes from education, do we Vietnamese care about, both at home and at school?

I have a feeling that the majority of Vietnamese people think of education as a way to give their children a good life, to earn decent money, and in the best-case scenario to become a state official. Few of them deny this purpose. The children usually understand this and do appreciate what they are given.

They are also no strangers to their parents’ corrupt practices, such as paying bribes to get their children into the state schools they want (which are fully subsidized and usually not their state-designated ones), or buying scores.

But what are the results? Vietnam’s productivity is 15 times lower than Singapore’s. Vietnam is still a lower-middle income country. Vietnam’s GDP per capita is 28 times lower than Singapore’s.

Vietnam is supposed to be on a path to becoming a fully industrialized country, and the valid question raised in the parliament is why is Vietnam still unable to produce phone chargers, headphones, bolts for Samsung cellphones? Why can’t we produce bolts for a Boeing B777 plane’s wings? This is just a small example to raise bigger questions around our research capability, and production and distribution of our industrial products. It’s hard to think of any other industrial product developed here apart from the tuk tuk. 

Obviously, there’s a problem with 'human capital' in Vietnam, despite the fact that Vietnamese people pay huge attention to, and lots of money on, education.

Because we are still locked in an outmoded if not regressive view of education. We have a warped view of what the purpose and outcomes from education should be. 

Many parents want their children to become state officials, but in any society, state officials account for only a small portion of the workforce. The more developed a society is, the fewer state officials it needs. No matter how great the parents’ desire is, the chances of their children becoming officials remains low.

Many want their children to have a leisurly life, work less and earn easy money. In real life, this is rare, and if it does come about it is usually the result of ferocious competition with the winner being the most capable one. The more developed a society is, the more ferocious the competition.

So, what decides a child’s future lies in the 'human capital' of the child; in their knowledge, skills, courage and morals; not in their parents’ ambition for what kind of person they become or what job they will have.

A common element that is related to the strong development of countries such as Singapore, Korea and Israel is compulsory military duty. What one learns in a military environment is good for the development and enhancement of 'human capital' in those countries. There people learn discipline, the combination of specific and general skills, the ability to endure and solve challenges, comradeship, and the ability to coordinate and organize in general. The army is a great school. The skills and knowlege learnt in the army will bear fruit later.

For children to have a progressive education, it’s essential to absorb the four pillars of learning as set out by UNESCO: learn to know; learn to do; learn to live together; learn to be.

Those are the purposes of learning. And education at home and at school is the tool to realize those purposes. There is no purpose of being a state official. There is no purpose of pleasure, of working less yet earning more.

In recent days, one of the topics causing discussion is the story of families in Ha Tinh province giving 600 children (many of them going to kindergarten and primary school) two months off to protest the decision to merge secondary schools.

When these kids were forced to sacrifice their right to study and became hostages in their parents' fight, I asked myself this question: do those parents fully understand the purpose of education, and do they what they’ve done to their children?

Loving children the wrong way does great harm to them.

Which brings us back to the question: what do we know about an 'authentic education', both in society and in our institutions of learning?

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