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September has come which means, for many among us, back to school. I still remember the particular smell of the new stuff I invariably needed for the new year, the books we got from the school library which we personally had to put new covers on – a task I did not excel in – and the first day at school for real, discovering who was still there and who was new, and discovering new teachers and finding out if their reputations were justified, which often was true.
Education is, of course, of prime importance. It is important at an individual level, as good education is a necessary, if not sufficient, prerequisite to make a successfull career. It is important at the company level, as only companies with highly talented and well-educated employees can hope to survive. And it is important at the level of our society as a whole, for many reasons. In fact, the survival of our very democracy hinges on an educated electorate.
Our education system is under threat from three directions. One of them is a relatively long existing one, the other two are new. What are these threats?
A potential threat has long been that teachers tend to be career teachers, who have never done something else but teaching, and likely never will. This means that many teachers have never left school. And this makes it more difficult for them to make the link between the theory they might be teaching and the many uses for such knowledge in, for instance, industry. I believe it would be better if we could somehow incorporate people from the industry in the teaching forces, even for a few hours a week.
A second threat is what I call the “simplification” of the world. There is this unspoken thrive for simplicity at all levels in our society. Simplification may sound like a good thing, and surely it often is, but not always. Learning things by heart may sound pointless if you can carry an Ipad with you at all times, and “google” things. But learning things by heart is also basic brain training. Getting and keeping the brain in shape is just as necessary as keeping the body fit. And we must know certain things by heart, in private and in business. For instance, I would suppose you know your address by heart. In business, I observe that many younger colleagues fail to keep certain basic numbers at ready, such as the value of our inventory (too much, by the way) or our purchase volume with our major suppliers. Another example of simplification is the talk, in France, of dropping the circumflex accent “^”, as it is “difficult” and one cannot hear it. That is the argument, in short. So great, let us drop it. Much easier. A few years later, the poor student tries to learn another language, for instance English. If you know that the ^ sign replaces an “s” that used to be there in the past, you immediately realise that words such as “tempête”, “forêt”, “fête” (just a few examples out of many) are virtually identical to tempest, forest, feast.
A third threat to our education system of course comes the immigration wave we have recently been observing and will continue to observe in the foreseeable future. Readers of my earlier editorials will know that I am not opposed to this immigration; I believe it is in our interest – if properly managed. (Which, if the newspaper articles I am reading are only half true, that is a very big “if” indeed, but that is another topic altogether). We already observe a phenomenon in certain cities that schools in certain areas have a majority of “foreign” origin, with poor command of the local language. Education levels suffer, as the teacher cannot go faster than the class can follow. Non-foreign parents take their children to other schools, and we are in a vicious circle. This problem may well get exacerbated with the arrival of our new fellow citizens. And this may result in “elite” schools and “normal” schools where the students of “elite” schools have substantially better career chances than the others. This must be avoided at all costs, as this would result in a society with unequal opportunities. And I am firmly convinced that democracy starts with equal, or at the very least roughly equal, opportunity for all.
Maarten van Leeuwen
Group Managing Director
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