The importance of education

BY TENDAI MURISA

THIS might seem to be something that is taken for granted, but I think it is even more important today than perhaps at any time in the history of the world. Even today it is possible for an illiterate individual to become a millionaire, but they are the exception. By and large the new economy we are moving into requires that our children receive an education which is not only completely different to what I received but is actually the platform they require to make a living in the new world order.

Go back in history and you will find that education was generally a privilege of the wealthy and the powerful. The rest of society (the great majority) received little or no education and were condemned to life as serfs in feudal society. Then came the Christian Church and the printing of the Bible! It became important to teach ordinary people how to read and write and the norms of Christianity opened up society to the values we take for granted today. It was this movement that laid the foundations for the industrial revolution in Europe that spread across the world.

When Christian Europe and America became global powers, the Church became wealthy and the great missionary movements emerged with thousands of educated and dedicated individuals travelling abroad and bringing the light of the Gospel to the “dark Continents”.

In Zimbabwe, this shift in global thinking brought into the country the great missionary societies and by the middle of the last century 95% of all educational services for the indigenous population of this country were being provided by the Church.

In some cases, this process created schools with dedicated and highly educated staff that worked for a fraction of their real value and brought a very high standard of education as well as their faith and culture to a small, but growing minority of the local population.

It was out of this generation that the fathers of the liberation process, that brought us to Independence in 1980, emerged. Herbert Chitepo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Joshua Nkomo; the list could go on for pages. These were the pioneers of the new Zimbabwe.

Then the flurry of change after Independence! We built a new school every day. We poured money we did not have into health and education and massively expanded the pre-independence system to make it possible for all our children to go to school.

By 1990, Zimbabwe had the highest ratio of literacy in Africa. African States emerging from their own decolonisation process with a tiny group of educated citizens (in some cases less than a handful of graduates), found that they could tap into the educated people of Zimbabwe for accountants, engineers, teachers and health workers.

Over 600 000 well educated Zimbabweans moved into South Africa after the changes in 1994 to take up posts across the public and private sector that their own black majority could not fill because under Apartheid, education for the “Bantu” people had been distorted and held back. In neighbouring Botswana, Zimbabweans became the backbone of the education system.

But here at home, we failed to reap the harvest of those days. We failed to build up our productive sectors, corruption robbed us of the surpluses that would have otherwise helped us build. Instead of growing our economy to support our social infrastructure, we shrank our economy and wasted money on things like the Congo War. Then, when the Zanu PF grip on power was threatened we destroyed what was left and by 2008 we were, in every way, a failed State.

Unable to maintain our schools and universities and colleges, we maintained the numbers but standards collapsed. Our educated elite fled the country and over the next 20 years a third of our total population left the country for greener pastures. Who went? Those who were best able to make a living abroad and everywhere you go in the world today, Zimbabweans are playing a key role. Together today they generate more wealth than the entire GDP of this country.

One of the commanders of the National Guard at the Capitol in Washington is a Zimbabwean. On the NASA team putting a probe on Mars is a Zimbabwean, who is a former Head Boy of a local Government High School.

Now we are again growing our economy and perhaps will be able to tap into the resources that are available globally, for this process. It is time to take a long hard look at our education system. We have nearly 10 000 schools with about four million students.

In theory they should all get about 10 years of education — many as much as 12 or 14 years leading to “O” and “A” level qualification. Of this number only about 10% are getting a really top class education — mainly in the top faith based schools and the private schools and a small number of Government schools whose parents and Old Boys maintain standards. The rest are mainly getting an education that will leave them neither numerate nor literate.

We are spending a lot of money (in our terms) on education — the state budget is probably 23% of all state expenditures. The diaspora probably doubles this contribution and the private schools maintain a very high standard but for a very small minority.

The problem is that even with this sort of money, the average expenditure per child is probably less than US$50 per month, not enough to provide anything close to a decent education — needs probably three times this.

That sort of money is simply not available given our present economic status. Yet for me, I think that being able to give every child a decent education is a fundamental human right. If you are able, there is no greater gift you can make but to ensure that a child goes to school and gets a decent start to life.

What we have to get to grips with is how to use the rapidly changing world we live in to deliver that education to every child. In my days, we memorised everything — history, languages, maths, science, biology, geography. Much of it was by rote with little understanding. Churn it out at the year-end exams and pass. That was the goal.

Today you can buy an iPad for a US$100 and have the world at your fingertips. You can communicate and discover worlds you never dreamt could exist.

Why study? My computer spells for me, it can even write for me and much more is coming. How do we tap into this vast opportunity?

In my view we have to ensure that Wi-Fi is made universally available in developing countries and with speeds that are now possible. We have the technology to do that from Space and instead of wasting money getting tourists to the Moon or Mars, let us make it possible for every child to access the internet where they live, on the power of the sun.

Then we have to build factories to make computers for every child. These have to be tough, well made and versatile. They must have batteries that can last and be charged using the sun. We need to be able to sell or give these to every child on entry to school and replace it every three years. Then we need to retrain our teachers so that they can then help the children in their care find their way in the internet world and understand what they are reading and seeing. We need to allow our kids to write their exams on computers, use their iPads during the exam and be marked on their understanding of the subject rather than their knowledge – because knowledge today is virtually free.

Of course education is much more than learning and schools must become centres where the problems at home can be compensated. We must pay our teachers well, establish them as local elites and pioneers of change. We must create our schools as centres to teach children how to live responsibly on this small blue planet that is our only home.

Schools should be first world centres of excellence in developing and impoverished States and it is time that the world discovered what their fore fathers knew, that we are all in this together and bringing the light of the world to dark places is always possible and our collective responsibility.

Eddie Cross is an economist and former legislator