Where has our education policy failed us?

Education filters into culture and civil behaviour. It influences directly the way we think, decide and act.

I am just focusing on one aspect of education in my search for the reason Maltese society behaves the way it does. Try to reflect on public discourse, the subjects in conversation, the quality of the content on national media, the way we speak, the way we drive our cars and our table manners in restaurants.

Flash-back. I remember my first day at the University of Malta in the early seventies when we were addressed by the Dean of the Arts faculty, Professor Peter Serracino Inglott. He suggested that students should regularly be reading four books. For a moment I was so pleased that I had already reached the target. But this self-gratification was short-lived…he meant reading four books a week. I was reading four books a month. Maltese society was different. Valletta had three main bookshops at that time from where to buy modern classics – Floridia in St John Street was my favourite, but Sapienza and Hertie in Zachary Street had a vast range of books to choose from. Professor Serracino Inglott has shocked economics students at the end of my first academic year. Questions from anything under the sun can be asked in exams, and as university undergraduates we were expected to answer and give an opinion on anything. On reflecting on these experiences, could this have been our major failure since the reforms in education in the nineteen seventies? Certificates took over quality. Investments in the building of schools and getting larger number of students entering universities and MCAST were more important than the quality of our teaching and its outcome.  We are not expected to voice learned opinions but just rely on biased, one-sided views repeating word for word what we had just heard from teachers, lecturers and on programmes led by biased commentators on radio, TV or following comments on e-papers.

We were never prepared to ask the right questions, and we have been educated to state how to do things, rather than understand the why we are doing them.

The point about education is that of giving us a wider view of life, society and the relationships that hold us together. Art, poetry, music and theatre are a reflection of who we are and what we are aspiring to. A strong first coating in the humanities, learning the history of civilisation and philosophy are necessary for a better life. Vocation comes later, whether that of studying law, medicine, information technology, finance, engineering or architecture.

Universities are not businesses or training schools. They are cradles for emerging thoughts which do not only reflect the culture of society but provide the space for a genesis for modernisation and the future, while being respectful of our roots in history and tradition.

Good education strengthens democratic citizenship. It prepares us to participate in society through political opinion that then elects politicians that are well intentioned to work for the common good. Education forms us in being discerning, tolerant, tactful and hopefully honest.

We need to rethink our education policy. The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) set up in 2003 of which I was the first chairman was intended to act as the conscience to policy makers and administrators in education in setting an agenda that takes Maltese society up to the next level. It is sad to note that it is now another institute that certifies even more qualifications (focusing on how to do things) rather than questioning why we are doing them.

About the author(s)

Joseph F.X. Zahra is a Malta based economist with over thirty five years of corporate leadership and business consultancy experience.