Cruel School, and Intelligent Education

By William J. Furney
The Bali Times

They’ve got three school trips this month,” said the woman to me at an evening event in Nusa Dua, of her child, in the same class as my daughter. “When do they study?”

Indeed, I said. “When I was in school, we never went anywhere.”

School is such fun now. What luck for students.

Recalcitrant pupils like me were on 100 times’  obedience runs around the rugby pitch (missing out laps by hiding behind tall oak trees) when we, permission-less, tried to escape boarding school into town for a few hours, and walked smack into a tutor.

Those were not the days.

Teachers tortured us, with rulers across the knuckles; they publicly chastised us, with derogatory comments about our lack of ability; they hurled missiles at us, blackboard dusters the weapon of choice.

It was open season, and pupils were the target.

As I entered boarding school aged 12, in the medieval Irish city of Kilkenny, the old-school bully system was in its death throes but still making a stab at it, and elder students demanded their shoes be polished by juniors. It was a sickening system, made worse by its permitted existence.

Prestigious as it was, and presumably still is, it was a fearsome place that bred vile behavior.  Some boys ran away, only to be rounded up and sent back. Me, with home only half an hour away,  I stubbornly refused to go back on Sunday nights, and after years of protestations became a day pupil, departing home each morning by bus and returning that evening. It was the lesser of two tiresome evils, and I’m so glad those callous days are over.

Now I look to my children’s educational field, and see the flipside:  teachers that nurture and encourage, in a caring environment, and schools that foster development of every child’s ability – not just the “bright” ones.  But they can go overboard.

Once at my kids’ previous school in Bali, family members were invited in to draw pictures and color with their loved ones, and I thought: “Isn’t that what we already do with them at home?” and told a journalist friend, who echoed. The following week’s e-newsletter came with photos of sweating grannies and granddads compressed into tiny-tot chairs and awkwardly doodling. This is taking it too far. “That’s what teachers are for,” said the journalist.

However, because in stark contrast to me, my children love school and talk about it all the time and can hardly wait till the next day’s classes.  “Awwww, no school tomorrow” is the Friday refrain. Unheard of: on days they are ill, they insist on school.

Part of this youthful love affair with school is that it’s rare to see the kind of archetypal teacher of yore: wrinkled, worn, dull and a bore. Instead it’s hip young things with style and flair.

Such was my loathing for learning that lofty heights of invention got me many days off (the initiatives will not be listed here, for fear of copycat infringement). But I’m a big believer in individuality and what worked for me – never studying yet getting with ease applied mathematics and chemistry at university and later, weary of lab coats, ditching that for journalism, and, years on, establishing this newspaper – could be the undoing of someone else.

Key to today’s teachers’ success is their relentless encouragement and goodwill. Whereas yesterday, Mrs. Jones was only too swift in dragging you down, with a liberal helping of ruler-across-the-knuckles (or cane) throw in. Still, their venomous pronouncements – “You’ll never amount to anything, Jim” – slid off like grease on hot tin and in the end it was the speaker left as hollow as her spiteful words.

All that laissez fair fare today, though, can alter impressions, and I’m left thinking that today’s students no longer look at their teachers as teachers, per se, but more as a kind of de facto older best friend who does all kinds of silly and nice – and educational – things with them.

At any rate, the element of strictness that struck fear into many a student heart not so long ago– institutions run by Catholic priests and nuns despicably excelled – seems to have vanished from the modern-day classroom, and that’s a good thing, instead replaced with an element of fun and care.

My daughter, 7, tells of a beach outing her class recently went on, and she became tired walking in the heat and her teacher picked her up and gave her a piggyback ride, which I thought was a wonderful thing to do, something his predecessors of yore would have landed you in detention for – “Where’s your discipline, boy?!”

The greatest single advance and achievement of modern-day education is turning school from a frightful environment into a place where children desire to be.

On the last day of midterm holidays just gone by, my daughter turned to me with a big, expectant smile and said, “Daddy, I can’t wait until tomorrow – to go to school!”

Words that never came from my mouth.

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