21 October 2012

A Different Value of Education

I have always been told that college is the only option if I want to go anywhere in life. Everyone agrees; my parents, my teachers, the society in which I live; they all agree that a college education is the most valuable type of education. I believed them for a while, until these past few months.

First, my definition of education was much different than that of the rural villagers and NGOs that we’ve been talking with and learning from. I had always associated education with being in a classroom, led by a teacher that was knowledgeable in the subject. The tools used to measure the success of my education were in forms of papers, exams, and discussions. The grades I received would reflect how effective my education was.

I think that’s the image that many people associate with the word “education”, at least in Western society. When I first entered these communities, I was shocked. They were poor, had little access to education, and many of them lacked basic skills such as reading and writing. I didn’t really know how to approach the situation. I would try to communicate with these villagers by handing them my Thai-English dictionary to allow them to look up words. When they told me “mai dai” (not able to), I was surprised. The fact that these people are unable to read and write must mean that they are stupid right?

According to Western standards of education, the answer to that question would be “yes”. But there is a different perspective that I have been seeing throughout these last two months. Higher institutional education isn’t valued as much in the villages. In fact, traditions and lessons that are passed throughout the generations seem to be more valuable here.

It was apparent when we stayed with the farming communities especially. It is more valuable for farming communities to be knowledgeable in areas that cannot be taught in a classroom. Knowing the land, methods of farming, how to be self reliable, and understanding seeds, crops, and soil, are all lessons that are very valuable in this kind of lifestyle.

At first, I found myself thinking I was so lucky. I have been learning for years, I have opportunities of higher education and access to information of all kinds. I thought that I had so much more than these people. That’s not true at all. In fact, I think that I have a lot less than these people. I admire the basic life skills that they have, the skills I do not have. I do not understand a lot about farming, about supporting myself through my crops. I don’t understand planting seasons, crops, or the dedication that is involved. I might have an education in terms of Western standards, but I know nothing by the standards of the communities and villagers that I have come across so far.

A college degree is suddenly not as appealing to me. Sure, it might help me get a well paying job, make more money, and be more “successful”. But these people are so rich in knowledge. They know things that cannot be taught. I find this to be an extremely valuable kind of education: one that challenges the worth of my overpriced college degree.

Marissa Strong
Keene State College


Mallory West said...

This view of education that completely differs from the general western conception of “education” is something that has really fascinated me in the villages we have visited as well. I consider myself to be a pretty open minded thinker when it comes to education – I spent kindergarten through twelfth grade at a unique, very small private school that valued alternative education methods emphasizing student empowerment, discussion based classes, and very hands on learning. This experience of growing up with a unique education has overall made me fairly open to and unsurprised by different forms and views of what “an education” really is. I was surprised, however, when we visited the village of Baw Kaew and found villagers who really seemed to detest any formal kind of education. Paw Nit, the village headman, told us directly, “education somehow makes people only become slaves to the system.” I was taken aback by this statement at first, as it runs so contrary to everything we’re taught about the value of education growing up in the U.S. My first thought was that these villagers must have very limited experience to different forms of education. It took me a while to realize that despite thinking of myself as such an open minded person when it comes to education, I had dismissed these villagers’ concept of learning immediately. For them, education is something that takes place every day in their houses and fields. I think it’s very interesting that we tend to see our college courses as a more legitimate form of education than the learning of skills one uses every day.

Anne Sledd said...

I was also taken aback by those villagers in Baw Kaew who were so thoroughly opposed to formal education. Growing up my family placed a large emphasis on higher education; there was never a question about me going to college, it was a fact that I would go. As a kid I had assumed everyone went to college. Obviously that isn’t true, but it’s taken me a longer time to realize that there are people who don’t want an education than the fact that there are people who just can’t obtain it, especially here in Thailand. However, I have a hard time accepting some of the villagers’ comments about education because it sounded as if they did not even want the option available for their children. I can accept that someone does not want higher education. It’s not necessary. But not allowing someone the chance for an education because you don’t agree with it seems unfair for the children. Whether to learn farming or what the government is teaching should be up to them.

Mekala Pavlin said...

Being here has also made me realize that there is more than one form of education. The formal education that I grew up isn't the one and only type of education. The farmers in Baw Kaew would find a lot what I learn at school a complete waste of time. There farming school that the villagers attend makes more sense. They need farming in order to survive. On one hand, this makes more sense than the formal type of education we have in America. They are learning actual skills they need for the future. I find that my school hasn't taught be many valuable life skills that I will need for the future. In some ways I wish my schooling had been more specialized and had better prepared me for what I want to do in the future.

Alex M said...

I think it is interesting to see how educational needs and perspectives differ based on different regions and ways of life. In America, the most valued education is knowledge that comes from a fancy institution represented by a flimsy sheet of paper placed in a special case. Whereas villagers view valuable education as knowledge obtained in contexts of life where people get their hands dirty in raw, unfiltered reality. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say that one system is better than the other. I think there are benefits and downfalls to both schools of thought. It’s good to be open to multiple understandings of education and knowledge and to recognize that each form serves a purpose in its particular context. I thought the villagers’ perspective on education was a nice contrast to the typical outlook on education found in America. It made me think twice about the ways I view and pursue education in my life and it also highlighted some of the things I take for granted in my own educational experiences.

Nicole Hale said...

There are a lot of points I agree with in your blog post, Marrissa. I too have been inspired and taken back by how successful these villagers are without formal education. They are all about local wisdom and I find it absolutely beautiful mostly due to the simplicity of it and the basis that it is about survival and nothing more extravagant. They learn from their own community and its skills that help them in day to day life and nothing more. Not can be said for a majority of college students in the USA. For instance, I am fortunate enough to be receiving a very expensive college education which is highly respectable in my culture but I know little to nothing about practical everyday skills. If you threw me out on the streets and told me to fend without the help of anyone, I wouldn’t know how to survive very well.

I really think there is a gap in our educational system and that there is too much emphasis on formal universities as the only means to be educated. Yet, I don’t think we should undervalue the worth of our university educations. It might be harder for us to gain practical skills, but our educations allow us to tackle bigger tasks and projects that would be extremely difficult without the knowledge and skills we gain from a formal education. I think what it comes down to in a need to reassess our educational systems in America and reformat them.

Erin said...

The villagers’ of Baw Keaw’s view on education was also one of the things I grappled with during Unit Two, and afterwards as well. When the villagers expressed their distain for formal education and their desire to keep their children home instead, I was quick to jump to judgement. How could they deny their children an education? Deny them the option to be anything other than a farmer? But as I thought more about the issue, I realized I was looking at the issue through the lens of my own culture. Couldn’t the education that the villagers provide to their children through the farming school be just as good, if not better, for their community?

That said, equating rural Thai formal education to all formal education every where might be a little off. I have seen the inadequacy of the Thai education system sited as one of the things that will hold Thailand back in the ASEAN economic community. Just as the American public education system is severely lacking in places like Washington DC and other places throughout the country, the Thai education system seems to be failing to deliver a relevant, quality education to students in some rural areas. I believe in the power of formal education, but the quality of that education is important, and should not devalue a student’s culture, community, or way of life. I would not want to see the children of rural families miss the opportunities for personal and intellectual growth that formal education can bring, but it is clear that reform is necessary to make school worthwhile for these students and their communities. Perhaps if the community were able to have more influence over curriculum and school activities, Baw Kaew could find a balance between public education and their own farming school.

Sydney said...

For as long as I can remember I have wanted a low paying job – working in the non-profit field. My parents, particularly my Dad never understood this. Actually no one really understood. “But don’t you want to have money?” That wasn’t my idea of success or the way I wanted to live my life. Entering college proved to show a bigger struggle. My Dad wrestled with the idea of paying such a high price for tuition to make such little money. “Why am I sending you to school, just so you can join the PeaceCorps? It’ll save me a lot of money to just ship you off to Africa myself.” Or “But you would be SUCH a good lawyer.”
Its true that you don’t technically need a degree to do good, even for a living. I have always viewed education as more than just the classroom… we are learning every minute, from the day we are born to the day we die. And if you don’t find yourself learning, then you need to try harder.
But I would also say that there is another part to formal education that lies outside the classroom that is incredibly important. We learn to be independent, while still having some support. We learn about ourselves: who we are, what kind of person we want to be, what kind of people we want to surround ourselves with, what is important to us. We define social norms and learn how to be a part of our society. I don’t view college as just a degree, and I don’t think my learning begins and ends with my lectures and exams. It really is a foundation for the rest of our lives, whatever that may be.

Lucy said...

Education, especially my own education, has been something that I have really been thinking about while being here. Since the fourth grade I had dreams of colleges that I wanted to go to, the time could not come fast enough. College really is everything that I had hoped it would be and more. The social life, the variety of education, and the well respected professors are all part of the package deal. But, more and more I have been thinking, why does this all even matter in the context of personal growth and basically, whats the point. If i really do become a farmer, I should take a botony (herbology) and maybe that will help, but really, my knowledge will come from experience and practical learning. But then, I remember, that knowledge really is power and the more I can milk from the institution I will, I guess I will make the best of it and college isnt where the learning ends. Taking all of these classes and learning all of these things is for the fun of it. My dad always told me that and I never really thought about it, but now I really do agree with him whole heartedly. College is just an experience that we are all so privileged to take part in, so take what you will and keep it fresh so you can help with what you can.

Gargi said...

This blog entry very accurately sums up the warped view we have on education. Not just the villager’s knowledge in the fields, but also their understanding of what is valuable in life. We see many people in the States that are constantly revolved around materialism. It was so refreshing to be in an environment completely opposite of that. My host father, in Yasothan province, was an organic farmer. He and his wife, also sold at the local Green Market (organic market) on Saturdays. When asked how much he wants to sell, he said it doesn’t matter. The family eats first, and then the rest can be sold. My host mom had a university degree in finance and my host father had worked as a chef near Greece. They had both worked in Bangkok and realized at a young age that the constant rush for money is not what is going to make them happy for the rest of their lives. After marriage, they moved to the village and took on organic farming so that they could raise their children in a safe and calm environment. Now at 30, they are fully content with their lives and happy as ever. Education is valuable, but not just the kind learned in standard schools. Life also has a lot of lessons to teach.

Alex A said...

Hey Marissa,

I think you really hit the nail on the head with this one. This is something that was particularly eye-opening for me, in a conversation I had with Nic Dunlop. He talked about how we as Westerners tend to impose this narrative of what we believe something should be based on our own assumptions and beliefs about how the world is. Unfortunately, those narratives tend to be much different from what is actually happening on the ground. I think it's important to note though, that while your educational background may seem like an overpriced college education, in our context of western life, that is was it considered normal. So likewise that same model can be reversed and that we shouldn't feel like our education isn't worth it, rather it is just different. Neither good nor bad, just is. What it ultimately comes down to is a common understanding of what education means to each person, in this case culture, to find commonalities where both parties can learn from one another.

Pelumi Ogunlana said...

This is a great article and something I can relate to in my experience with CIEE-SL Santiago, Dominican Republic. A problem the Dominican is having is with their primary education, which is second to last in the world. With that, I think education has a different definition depending on the environment. It is not a bad thing that a college education is stressed in the Western World. For the non Bill Gates, people who don’t have college degrees but thrive financially, of the western world, having an education opens many doors for people. With different environments come a different interpretation of what it means to succeed. Within the villages and the NGOS you have visited, it seems like day-to-day survival is the definition of succeeding. In the US, which is more capital driven, having a big house and having a lot of money is the definition of success. I think instead of feeling bad about the type of education we have we should be more receptive to the different types of education that are out there. We should be open to learning new things and not have the mindset that since we are more “book educated” than some people makes us better than them.