Towards a progressive society

By Claudia Meggan Agulhas. Claudia Meggan is 19 and lives in Cape Town, South Africa. She writes about the power of education to free us from the shackles of our time - from lifting the burden of gender inequality on women to creating fairer and more prosperous societies in the developing world - another interesting interpretation of T.S. Eliot's quote on education as a tool for us to break free from the "intellectual and emotional limitations of our time".

Education is often described as the ‘development of character and mental powers’ (The concise Oxford dictionary, 1976) and its power to liberate the emotion and intellectual condition of people is well captured by T.S. Eliot’s quote when he says that education can be used as a tool for us to break free from the “intellectual and emotional limitations of our time.” However when most of us are asked to think of education, the first images that are often conjured are those of a lecture hall or classroom, an instructor, students and text books; we view it as a tool, and rightfully so, that will provide a comfortable job and life one day for us or our children. The modern view of education has come to respond to the demands of rapid industrialization and competitive global markets over the last century, and consequently people have come to adopt a career oriented view of formal learning. In this respect the role and aim of obtaining formal education has become blurred over the years. Having awareness about the important aim of education which is the development of an individual’s intellectual and emotional faculties can prove beneficial not only to the individual but also to his/her society and even the world.

As humans we are inclined to hold others in our communities who have obtained a higher degree of learning than us, as well as those in positions of power, in higher esteem. Choosing others who we perceive as more knowledgeable than us should seem a natural choice considering how this trait has had such a great impact in determining life or death for our earliest ancestors. Individuals who have obtained more education than most in their communities are thus presented with an opportunity to propagate their learnt values among those who they regularly come in contact with and ideally, help guide their communities forward. Noticing the powerful impact education has in uplifting oneself out of a negative living environment, elevating one’s social position, and the power it has to create a comfortable and a more economically secure lifestyle, can serve as a motivation for those less educated and more importantly their children, to whom they will most likely pass on the motivation to succeed academically. It is then easy to see how this cycle of placing a high value on education can be propagated from generation to generation, especially if both parents are educated themselves.

More often than not, the role of schooling as an essential component to improving the human mind is overemphasized globally. We frequently forget about the other important component so central to human life: our emotions. Education and its social components help people with the development of their character and emotional maturity. In order for these qualities to be proliferated into a larger population, it requires a successful and efficient education system that attaches great importance to the integration of critical thinking from early primary schooling and onwards.

When independent thought is stimulated from an early age in children’s schooling, they will be more inclined to be critical when reviewing their personal and cultural values later as adults. Such changes in the educational ‘style’ of a country can bring positive societal change, as the people are more mentally empowered. They are able to respond to technological advances, as well as the changes in their environment and ask of themselves if their morals are still relevant; will the values they want to replace the discarded one’s be of benefit to their society and move it forward for the better? This strategy can especially be of benefit to the citizens of developing countries where human rights are lagging and archaic cultural practices together with laws are not advantageous to certain groups e.g. women; homosexuals and ethnic minorities.

If obtaining an education, in particular a formal one, stimulates the core facets of what it essentially means to be human, it is then a tragedy to know that many children are denied this important human right, in particular girls in many societies, many of them in the developing world. In these countries, the lack of education amongst women together with cultural stigmas and expectations has left many females with little authority over important aspects of their and their children’s life like healthcare, education and welfare. In some societies girls are expected to marry at a young age which in turn reduces the probability of females receiving an education as well as their children. The undermining of a mothers education is reflected in the healthcare and sanitation in her household as well as in infant and child mortality rates. Though there will be exception, as a general rule, the better educated a mother is the lower the chance of these factors occurring. By being better informed about the world around them, women are enabled to make more strategic choices around employment, sexual and reproductive health and childcare. Lower fertility rates among college educated women have been observed, most notably in Japan where rise in tertiary educated women since the 1970’s has consequently seen its population dramatically decrease to the point of it presently becoming a crisis. However, a decrease in population as the result of empowering women does not have to bear any negative connotations if appropriate measures are implemented, especially in the case of poor countries that have booming populations.

If more people in are able to obtain decent employment, the standard of living will consequently increase , thus meeting crucial Millennium Development Goals set out by the UN. In many developing countries the gap between the rich and the poor is often great and frequently the most deprived are driven into committing crime. Probably the greatest effect tertiary education has, is to reduce the rate of poverty in both rich and poor countries. Society also benefits through technological innovation and adequate infrastructures in all sectors. Entrepreneurs in sectors responsible for technological development are able to create and increase the amount of white collar jobs and assist in the expansion of the middle class, which in turn helps to stabilize and grow a country’s economy.

Obtaining knowledge, in whatever form it may be in, has been of value since the beginning of human life and is responsible for progressing our civilization thus far. In order to create a progressive society, the role of critical thought needs to be emphasized in institutions of learning. It is my hope that the ability to improve our intellectual and emotional state of mind will lead to more progressive societies.

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