Monday, September 15, 2008

Making Lakbay Aral more relevant

This is my column today.

The running joke around the customary school field trips, which have now been given a patina of contrived relevance and nationalism by the seemingly profound term Lakbay Aral, is that they are really designed to provide our students valuable lessons on consumerism and mindless entertainment. This is why students on these field trips invariably end up at some mall or at the set of a local television game or gossip show.

I expect the Ayalas, the Sys and the Gokongweis of this world to argue that their shopping malls are also ideal destinations for students who have ventured out of their classrooms to learn about the real world. As someone who also spends inordinate amounts of time in malls, I feel I am not qualified to argue against malls as venue for educational pursuits. I do grant that some malls have at least gone out of their way to put up science exhibition halls, mount entertainment shows that are not of the usual mindless variety that we see on television, build play areas, and in general have made their malls conducive or at least friendlier and safer for large numbers of students at any given time.

Over at the Mall of Asia, for example, is a truly marvelous science discovery area which features a giant dome where one can view science feature films that are shown using state-of-the-art projection technology. It’s definitely a major leap from the now ancient one-dimensional film shows at the old planetarium at Rizal Park. The area likewise offers a number of tiny rooms where natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, are simulated using advanced technology. The downside is that the venue charges an arm and a leg that’s obviously beyond the means of public school students.

What’s more, they tend to cram too many schoolchildren into the venue so the kids end up being rushed around and their learning experience is limited to a cursory walk-through rather than an actual multi-sensory immersion. One can only wish that the administrators of the mall tried to balance commerce with social considerations and try not to accept too many field trips in a day so that kids are given more time to enjoy their facilities.

Despite my misgivings about reinforcing materialistic values on our kids, I do grant that there are some limited benefits in bringing our children to some malls for educational trips. This becomes painfully obvious when we consider that the state of the usual venues for field trips such as the public zoo, our parks and other public recreation areas are in various stages of decay. The last time I brought my young nephews and nieces to the Manila Zoo, I got so depressed at the miserable conditions that are being passed of as habitat that the trip became a lesson on how not to treat animals.

If anyone out there wants to argue about how irrelevant the Manila Zoo has become, I’d like to point out to them one very glaring fact. We probably have the only zoo in the world were vendors that sell birds—mostly chicks and mayas dyed a deep shade of red, purple and blue—are allowed within the premises. The process involved in dyeing those birds is something that must be akin to the old water torture method. Gross and extremely unkind, I know.

My main beef with using malls as venues for educational field trips for children is that most of our malls were not primarily architecturally designed to be such. For example, I doubt if Glorietta and Megamall were designed to accommodate hundreds of rowdy and overexcited schoolchildren accompanied by only a few harassed adults at a given time.

Pray tell, have safety considerations ever crossed anyone’s mind, particularly those of the administrators of these malls and those of the teachers and parents of the schoolchildren out on a field trip? Call me paranoid. Call me a worrywart. But has anyone every imagined a worst case scenario where there is an emergency and hundreds of schoolchildren are cooped up inside a mall with very narrow entrances and exits? I know this is beginning to sound like an endorsement for the Mall of Asia as a Lakbay Aral destination—and believe me that goal is farthest from my mind—but at least that particular mall has lots of open spaces and passageways that allow easy access and exits.

What got me writing about this topic was the very cavalier way in which school administrators of the school a nephew goes to when I inquired about the rationale for bringing the kids to Glorietta for their annual field trip this year. I have nothing against Glorietta, of course. I know that the freak explosion that happened last year was an accident that the owners of the mall did not want to happen. My beef is not really with Glorietta per se, but with all malls that seem to welcome and accommodate field trips involving very young schoolchildren when their facilities are obviously not designed to handle the rather special needs of these kinds of events.

I’m not just talking about safety and security concerns, I am also talking about the absence of open areas where kids can rest or take meals. Very often, kids simply plunk down on hallways or staircases in the process obstructing traffic simply because there are not enough chairs or benches for them. And then there’s the issue of ventilation and other health concerns. We’re not even talking yet about toilet facilities and the general convenience of other shoppers.

This brings me to that other preferred destination for supposed educational field trips: The sets of television variety and gossip shows. When I was growing up, I do remember watching how students in their uniforms would scamper away or cover their faces once a television camera would scan the audience. Being seen inside a television studio in their school uniforms was considered a major transgression then, not necessarily because it was baduy, but simply because it was then inconceivable to consider visiting a live set of a mindless variety show as remotely educational. It is still inconceivable today, actually.

How exactly does comprising the live audience of The Buzz translate into an educational experience? Okay, one would probably give allowances if the students were majoring in mass communications; but what is the relevance to engineering and students majoring in other fields such as geodetics and agricultural economics? Today, the students and horror of all horrors, their school administrators, are even acknowledged publicly on these shows and they proudly display their school banners and wave placards proclaiming their educational institutions. It’s become a matter of pride for them that their teachers and school administrators brought them to watch a live episode of a show where people launder their dirty linens, trade catty remarks and indulge in all kinds of mindless pursuits.

In closing, let me stress that I am not against the concept of Lakbay Aral. I think that there is wisdom in bringing kids out of the classroom to widen their perspectives and learn some critical social skills. I just wish that government, school administrators, parents, and yes, business establishments, make these trips safer, more educational, and truly worth the kids’ while.

Otherwise, we are just really making it as an excuse to pass time and fleece money from the kids and their parents.

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