Poor Education as a Threat to Security

by Anne Lan K. Candelaria

Originally Posted on December 10, 2012 09:25:13 PM
Business World
(Posted here with permission from the author)

CONCERNS ABOUT security are often associated with the military. Seldom, if at all, one finds discussion about security and education on one table. Often, international conferences, research papers and even policy circles in security do not include education experts. On the other hand, educators frame their discussion and research agenda around pedagogical, curricular and administrative concerns -- stuff that five-star generals do not have a handle on nor interest in engaging themselves.
Angel C. de Dios and Anne Lan K. Candelaria at Georgetown University
Ironically, teachers and soldiers go to war everyday, albeit in different battlefields. The teacher goes to war inside a small poorly ventilated classroom, where the threat of malnutrition hampers the children’s ability to concentrate, much less learn. They make do with worn-out books and scarce learning resources. The soldier, on the other hand, goes to war in the hinterlands or out at sea, where they make do with a gun and a limited supply of ammunition, a worn-out boot and helmet, on terrain that would make one physically, mentally and psychologically weak. One uses books to fight and the other one uses bullets to survive. Nonetheless, both of them fight the same war -- a war against an assault to our nation’s stability, a war brought about by inequality, poverty and un-freedom. Indeed, two battlefronts, two weapons, one war.

If great states are built on the capacity of its military, then great nations are built on the strength of its education system. Education is, after all, the lifeblood of every society’s ability to think for themselves, to challenge the inequalities they experience, and to reform the unjust structures that curtail their ability to flourish. Hence, education should not be just a war against illiteracy. But it must be seen as a war against the conditions that limit the potentiality of human beings.

The Philippines is no stranger to this war. Our secularized and free public education system was established by the Americans in 1901 when the Department of Instruction was created by virtue of Act No. 74 of the Philippine Commission. The intention was to move away from a religion-oriented and "only-children-of-elite-can-study" kind of education established by the Spaniards to a more liberal and accessible-to-all type of system.

But accessibility has a price. Schools were flooded with students which made it difficult to keep up with the supply side of education such as adequate teachers, classrooms and books. In fact, in 1925 -- just two decades after the system was established -- a study commissioned by the US Board of Educational Surveys, dubbed "The Monroe Survey," pointed out that the Philippines’ educational system was already encountering problems such as high dropout rates, low pupil performance, poor teacher quality, irrelevant learning materials, excessive centralization and lack of financial resources. Fast forward to today, we seem to be confronted with the same problems -- problems that are literally a century old.

Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Science, believes that societies should provide the necessary arrangements for social opportunities such as education to enable individuals to live better. Better lives, according to Sen, refers not only being healthy, but it also means that individuals are able to participate freely, fully and critically in the economic and political activities of society. Obviously, citizens will find it difficult to engage in critical participation if schools do not (or cannot) help them get educated. Thus, a failed educational system not only makes the population dumb, it makes the nation weak, less cohesive and susceptible to the whims of the few who could afford to get education somewhere else.

More than just learning institutions, schools are places where the young generation is prepared to fill-in critical positions in the public and private sector, in the hope that they will make better judgments and correct structural deficiencies that lead to less inequality and more freedom. This will bring better opportunities for better lives.

According to the latest data from the Department of Education, nine out 10 children ages 6 to 12 are currently in school while only six out of 10 teens ages 13 to 16 are enrolled in the public high schools. Among those enrolled, only about seven out of 10 are expected to complete Grade 6 and year 4. Meanwhile, dropout rate among elementary school children stands at 6.29% while the high school dropout rate is at 7.79%.

Should these numbers be a cause for alarm? I believe they should, especially when we realize that there are 13 million children enrolled in the elementary schools and 5.5 million students in high school. A dropout rate of 6.29% and 7.79% means that by the end of the school year, we expect 817,700 elementary school children and 428,450 youth to be invisible from the education reform battlefield, with the possibility of going back to school becoming less and less as they linger longer outside the educational system.

The good news is that the problems of our education system are man-made and, therefore, can be corrected by men and women who are willing to dismantle not just unjust structures but also elite-driven processes and exclusive interactions. Education is not just a product, nor a process. It is, ultimately, a system where structures, agents, processes and networks are produced, reproduced and sometimes ripped apart.

Is this possible?

Take the case of Finland, whose education system is considered one of the most egalitarian and inclusive in the world. Finns begin compulsory schooling at the age of 7 in a school environment that does not give exams, discriminate poor learners from advanced ones, nor stream children into tracks based on their test scores. There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland apart from the one exam that they take at the end of senior year in high school. Schools are not ranked nor compared with each other. The national curriculum is only a broad guideline for learning to allow flexibility, not prescribed and rigid. Yet, they are one of the best in the world, placing second in science, third in reading and sixth in math based on the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Finland spends only 1.2% of the GDP for defense and 6.4% of GDP for education.

Hence, the question is not whether it is possible to attain security through investing in books rather than bullets. Finland and Costa Rica showed the world it is possible. The real question is if we are willing and if this "coalition of the willing" is ready to engage in this war to defend the freedom of people to ask why learn, what to learn, and how to learn.

Hopefully we are.

Anne Lan K. Candelaria, Ph.D., assistant professor, is the convener of Education Politics and Policy-making Working Group of the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University.