École (Sunday, 2011 September 25)

September 26, 2011

I got my newest Worldview ("The Magazine Of The National Peace Corps Organization") from the Boffice yesterday. I skimmed through it despite the glossy paper to see if there was anything of interest. There’s an article called "The Power of Knowledge (For Better or Worse)" by Sheridan Larson which touches on a few gripes with the educational system in Maewo (an island in the nation of Vanatu). It’s kind of interesting, a kind of cultural recurrence of a lot of the same phenomena I’ve witnessed in Cameroon, but even worse. She notes (her italics, my bold):

The petite, turtle of an old man summed up Maewo’s attitude towards education when he sagely chuckled at my musing. "Wan kastom samting olsem bae yu no gat janis blong save." Custom things like that aren’t for you to know.

…the children of Maewo are expected simply to watch and learn. Kids gather around women weaving, staring and memorizing the actions. But never will you see a mother guiding her child’s hands and explaining the technique. Shared information is an honor. Whether elder, teacher, or mother, when someone opens their mouth to share information: complete silence from the recipient. This knowledge may be shared only once and must be remembered verbatim. Asking questions would be rude, a sign that the questioner wasn’t listening attentively, a sign of stupidity.

It’s a really interesting explanation based on culture. I’ve never heard anyone ever say anything even remotely like "Shared information is an honor" — I seem to recall hearing explanations about asking questions being rude because it means the teacher hasn’t explained well. But a lot of the other phenomena the author notes are different. Parents in Maewo feel threatened by a system of education. Here in the "Ouild Ouild Ouest" (– Yaya) parents aren’t threatened by education — most everyone recognizes the value of education, and indeed the countryside is sprinkled with lycées, some such as ours constructed by the community so that the state will send teachers to populate it.

I can almost hear Gus telling me firmly that I have to back off, that the culture here works for them and has worked for hundreds of years, so what’s my fucking problem? But the thing is, the culture is demonstrably not working for them — corruption, government mismanagement, shitty educations, lack of critical thinking skills — so what you’re really saying, maybe, is that you have to change the culture as little as possible, or more probably, that you’d be happier if you worked to change the culture in changing it in compatible ways instead of flailing around helter-skelter. Well, I guess I agree.. and it’s certainly true that I’m teaching a lot better now that I’ve got my head wrapped around how schools "work" here. But fundamentally I’ll never learn enough to do the job "right" — I have to learn to swim while trying to tread water. I’m righter now than I used to be, more like a scalpel where I used to be a hammer. But like one of our "founding fathers" said: "When in doubt, use brute force." (– Ken Thompson.)

One thing that I guess I’ve learned in order to work with the culture instead of against it: students tend not to ask when they see or hear words that they don’t know. So ask, ask, ask, always ask when you use a sophisticated word. Never assume they know it just because it’s French. I’ve found that students don’t know the word chiffre, a digit (as opposed to a number: 123 has three digits). Kim said some of her students don’t know the word "precursor". I had a student ask me about the English word "rebel" — rebelle in French — and then concluded, "Oh, wait.. I think I know this, a rebel is a kind of monster, right?" So ask. Of course, they probably won’t say "No I don’t know that word".. but you’ll learn to tell the enthusiastic "Yes Monsieur, of course we know the word" from the markedly different "Yes" or even silence you’ll get when you ask about a word like vulnérable.

One time a week or two ago, Parfait asked me to help him with his math homework. It’s kind of groundwork stuff for getting to the idea of symbolic algebra and functions. Programmes de calcul and schemas which show results of operations being used as operands in other operations. After working on one problem for a while — note, not after reading it the first time — he turns to me and asks, "Monsieur… what does this word mean, ‘double’?" He’s 13, and of course it never occurred to me that a kid of that age might never see or learn a word like that (although, thinking on it, I’m sure he’s heard it before), but I’m kind of impressed that he even thought to ask (given the habits of his colleagues).

The Boys have started showing up on Sundays for tutoring. But I have enough stuff to do without handholding. They need to learn to read, and they need to learn to ask about things they have never seen, and they need to learn how to fucking look words up in the dictionary. Until they do that, math and English are always going to be baffling beyond measure. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy..

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