Education, or creativity stifled
The worst teacher I ever had was Sister John Lucy, in the first semester of the sixth grade before we moved to Orinda. She was a strict, rigid, unyielding caricature of the Catholic nun of the 60’s, and an absolute disaster to any student with a questioning mind. Rules were to be followed, not questioned. Authority was to be respected at all times, without debate. She hated me as much as I hated her. The sixth grade was not fun.
I thought of her last week when we went to the woodcarriers school. Woodcarriers are pretty close to the bottom rung of Ethiopian society–unmarried women who walk as much as 9 miles from the city to the forest, cut down 5o or 60 pounds of eucalyptus and carry it back to town to sell if as firewood. No carts or horses or fancy backpacks, just backbreaking labor to earn a few cents a day to feed the inevitable children.
Fortunately, there is now a school for their children. Just one room, one teacher, more kids than desks. Nobody has any money. Notice the pretty little girl in the front row of the photo, in the pink chair. She is wearing a beautiful satin party dress–because some rich kid in the states or Europe wore it once and donated it to charity. The teacher, a kind hearted and friendly woman, is no classroom tyrant like Sister was, but she doesn’t know much about teaching. The kids learn by rote–repeat, repeat, repeat. There doesn’t seem to be much understanding, just repetition.
So we show up, and try to get them working on various art projects. I got the easy one (benefit of having no artistic talents), taking a bunch of them onto the paved part of the yard and giving them chalk to draw with. Amazingly, to me, they couldn’t think of anything to draw–the teacher told them to write their ABC’s, so in short order the yard was littered with neatly drawn letters. Too much rule following and repetition seemed to have driven the creativity right out of the lovely 5 and 6 and 7 year old kids. They just couldn’t bring themselves to scribble or draw a cat or house or monster.
We kept at it, and eventually they were able to free themselves somewhat from the shackles of conformity. I drew a very bad cat, and then the kids embellished it so it looked like something.
It’s good that these exceedingly poor children are getting a semblance of an education. They can count in English, they say “good morning” and “hello” and “good bye” in perfect, joyful unison, they are very well behaved, hopefully one day they will be able to get help from a GCSE group in order to finally graduate from high school and pursue a better future .
They are also in dire danger of having the creativity drummed out of them, in the name of education. Which is not that unlike what Sister John Lucy tried to do. Which seems to be the point of much of modern education–take the creativity and inventiveness and rebelliousness out of people and turn them into well-behaved sheep, who will willingly do what the state tells them to do.
Fortunately, there are iconoclasts who wander into classrooms, hand the kids a paintbrush and make them expand their minds and think for themselves. When I wonder if we actually did any good, I remember that yard covered in letters instead of drawings and think we had a purpose after all.