It is that time of the year again. Schools across the country have been publicising their O and A levels results, the strings of A and As, the numbers of students who had received stupendous grades...
It is that time of the year again. Schools across the country have been publicising their O and A levels results, the strings of A (stars) and As, the numbers of students who had received stupendous grades and the institutions they will now be moving on to for higher education.
Of course, the students and the schools themselves deserve some of this praise. Academics is important in today’s world. Good marks ensure university places and good universities ensure good jobs. Theoretically at least, that is how the world moves on.
So, what is wrong here? The problem is that beyond their grades, we know very little about the students whose pictures appear on websites, in newspapers and in other publications. We do not know if they are kind or caring or lovers of pets or musically gifted in some fashion. At any rate, many of these attributes would have been driven out of them by the time they end school life. This of course is true of schools almost everywhere in the world, and not just in Pakistan.
Asian parents, it is true, seem to put a greater emphasis on academic achievement than others around the world, with children in South Korea for example spending up to 14 hours a day, or even more, studying their textbooks first at school and then at specialised academies set up to ensure they succeed. They manage workdays few adults are capable of. They pay the price for this through declining physical fitness and lowered mental wellbeing.
Singapore has been one of the nations to spot the potential dangers in this and bring about changes in its school system to encourage more activity, cut down on exams for younger pupils and offer a greater range of graduation options including technical or vocational degrees for those who believe they do not wish to follow a strictly academic line of learning.
We see this everywhere in Pakistan, where parents enter into a kind of competitive race to ensure their children succeed. This means tuitions at high costs, lessons delivered at home, strict supervision of work schedules and little emphasis on other kinds of activity or learning. The studies conducted by experts link this to a dramatic increase in stress on teenagers, who believe they must succeed and obtain places at top world institutions in order to meet the aspirations of parents.
We should be asking what we need to be teaching our children in schools. Is academic achievement truly a higher virtue than empathy or caring for others? Do we want happy children or merely successful ones? Do the two correlate? Are those who succeed always happy and does the drive to push children towards certain subjects as they reach high school really benefit them if they lack the interest in engineering or medicine or biogenetics that their parents demand they develop?
A survey conducted at Harvard University found that children are misreading messages from parents and teachers about achievement, empathy, and happiness. The project, titled ‘Making Caring Common’, surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students about whether achieving at high levels, happiness or caring for others was most important to them. Almost 80 percent of students ranked achievement or happiness over caring for others.
Deeper investigation found that while 96 percent of parents they wanted to raise ethical, caring children and cited the development of moral character as ‘very important’, 80 percent of the youth surveyed said that their parents were more concerned about achievement or happiness. They said the same about teachers.
One of the issues in this seemed to be the lack of time parents spent talking to children about empathy and how it could bring happiness with narcissistic traits becoming more and more common among children of school age and even those at university level.
This is significant since studies show that the ability of children and young people to feel for others affects their own health, their success in life and their emotional and social development. Perhaps schools should be thinking more about this rather than merely getting through exams and obtaining good grades in their class year.
This is especially significant in a society such as ours. Brutality of all kinds is increasingly the norm. Just a few days ago in Karachi, the residents of a house in Bahadurabad grabbed two teenagers who had broken in, possibly to steal. We would assume they would have been handed over to police and an FIR lodged as per the due process of law. Instead, while one youngster escaped, the other was brutally beaten to death with law enforcers later taking the 15 year old to hospital. There was no evidence he had tried to steal, though police report a previous theft charge existed against him.
Simply because we do not care or value human life, that of a child was lost in so terrible a fashion. We have no idea about the background of this boy, about his motives for entering the house or about his ambitions in life. Perhaps discussing such issues in classrooms – of course if time can be found in between learning endless lessons by rote – would help our future generations develop the element of compassion and an understanding that the world extends in many different directions and includes many different people. Each of these people is equally important.
The focus on results alone makes this more difficult. Seventy-eight percent of teachers in the US and more in Europe suggest that while intelligence is a quality to be nurtured, nurturing empathy is even more important. 73 percent of parents also preferred kindness over academic success.
The 2017 survey has been replicated in other countries with similar results. However, just 44 percent of teachers in the US said that parents were raising their children to be respectful and even fewer teachers said parents were raising kids to be emphatic or kind. Clearly, so many people with too little empathy will not make for a better world or a better country.
Reading the emotions of other people may in the end turn out to be more significant in a workplace environment than the ability to read a 400-page book and memorise large extracts from it. This is something schools need to keep in mind. Examination boards, including those running international examination syndicates, need to think about the issue too. In a globe which is increasingly troubled, increasingly intolerant and increasingly uncaring, children need to be taught values that can eventually make some kind of difference.
It is easy to understand the pride of parents and teachers in the academic achievements of their students. But there are spheres beyond academic achievement as well and it would be useful to see each child beyond his or her grades and the picture published next to it as a real person, as a real member of the community and as a peer or member of society.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.