Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Helpless and hopeless

This is my column today.

There are many problems plaguing the educational system in our country, but two of these have been on top of everyone’s mind lately because they have been the subjects of intense media attention in the last few weeks. And rightly so because these two problems are indicative of what’s seriously wrong with our educational system. The problems are the erroneous textbooks for elementary pupils and high school students and the rising cost of education in the country.

Actually, what is really worse is that the government agencies that are supposed to have oversight functions over textbooks and tuition increases seem helpless and hopeless and have been repeatedly caught on television wringing their hands in frustration and openly admitting that they can’t do anything about these problems.

It’s bad enough that we have these problems. Now we have government people openly saying there is nothing they can do about them.

Let’s first discuss this embarrassing problem with textbooks with glaringly erroneous content. Antonio Calipjo Go, director of a private school in Metro Manila, has seemingly turned the advocacy into a major passion so that he is often pictured as a modern-day Don Quixote battling the windmills. He has published paid advertisements, appeared in various television shows, and written tons of articles on the subject.

And at the rate he is uncovering erroneous content in textbooks—why, he was on television again the other night pointing out yet another error in a textbook for grade school pupils—it seems he is man who does nothing but read textbook after textbook.

For this feat alone, the man needs to be commended. Who the heck derives pleasure from reading textbooks? And textbooks for elementary and high school students, at that! Unless of course if one wants a spot on the game show “Kakasa ka ba sa Grade Five?”

What is truly strange about the whole thing is that nobody has been able to prove Go wrong. Every time he comes up with a new list of errors he had recently discovered in some textbooks, the best that the authors - and the publishers of the books in question as well as the government people who are supposed to regulate textbooks—could come up with are the usual pronouncements about conducting a review of the textbooks in question. In simpler English, nothing. And then of course, there is the usual attempt to shoot the messenger. Go’s motivations and agenda have been questioned many times. I think he has been threatened with several lawsuits.

I completely empathize with the people at the Education Department. Being accused of stupidity over an oversight can be a blow to the ego. I know. I just did a major blunder in my column last Monday (more on this later in this piece). This may come across as self-serving, but for crying out loud, making a mistake once or twice is acceptable. But when the mistakes are recurring and there seems to be no structural or systemic interventions put in place to ensure non-repetition, then we do have a major problem in our hands.

The officials at the Education Department have come up with a number of excuses—but so far, no clear action plan about how to correct the problem. A high-ranking official at the DepEd who asked not to be identified actually told me that there’s really very little that can be done to correct the problem because the publication of textbooks is hopelessly tangled in bureaucratic red tape and trying to sort out the mess will require a number of systemic interventions. I guess what he was trying to say was that there’s a lot of well-entrenched corruption schemes in place and solving the problem will require superhuman political will, something that does not seem to rank high up in the list of competences for government officials in this country.

A large part of the mismatch problem between what academe produces and what industry needs can actually be traced back to problems at the elementary education level. Certain competencies and skills are strengthened at a young age. So erroneous textbooks can have far-reaching implications.

The other problem that’s been top of mind lately is the rising cost of education in this country. On account of the difficulties being encountered by many due to the global recession, there’s been this clamor for a freeze in tuition fee increases. A number of educational associations have appealed to their member institutions not to increase tuition in June. The problem is that educational institutions are not insulated from the recession as well. Many of our colleges and universities are corporations that need to be profitable. They also need to pay salaries, rising overhead expenses, etc.

But surprise, surprise, even the Commission on Higher Education has jumped on the bandwagon and has been pleading, on bended knees, with the owners of colleges and universities for them not to implement tuition increases. Their reasoning is that they don’t have the authority to stop colleges from implementing increases. When a government body supposedly mandated with oversight functions admits that it is helpless and inutile, then heaven help us, we’re screwed big time.

Come on, CHED commissioners. There is always something you can do to put pressure on colleges and universities. The President did order a freeze in tuition fee increases last year, didn’t she? So it can be done. And there are actually other things that the CHED can do if they really want to. Perhaps I am just very Machiavellian, but crisis situations such as the one we are going through right now require drastic measures.

I don’t know about you but I find it bothersome and annoying when government officials publicly admit that they are helpless and can’t do anything about a problem. To my mind, if they don’t’ have solutions and can’t fix the problems then they should just give up their posts and let someone else do the job.

***

I’ve been forewarned that there will be a time when as a columnist I would make a stupid error of fact—one that is so blatantly erroneous I would feel like banging my head against any hard surface. My column last Monday made an erroneous reference to EDSA Dos. What can I say; I didn’t know what was going through my mind at that time when I was writing that piece.

I can cite a number of excuses—I wrote it under very stressful conditions having had only 30 minutes of sleep during the previous night and while running a training program at that—but really, there’s no plausible justification. I simply didn’t bother to recheck what I wrote and just dashed it off. The funny thing was that the error hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks when I woke up Monday morning—it was literally the first thing that came to mind when I woke up after a good night’s rest. Obviously, it was too late by then. I did issue an erratum in my blog as soon as I had access to the Net.

I apologize for the error and thank you to those who pointed it out without being turning sanctimonious. There. I’m going to go bang my head against the wall again now.

1 comment:

Antonio said...

I have a friend who teaches, and he tells me the same thing Go has been saying about most of the local textbooks: They're mostly bullshit (pardon the French).

I know we're suppposed to keep optimistic in these trying times, but it really, really pisses me off when the Department of Education - the group that's supposed to watch over the intellectual well-being of our youth - can't even do their fucking job!

We're talking about the Dept. that gets the largest chunk of the national budget here, which just makes them all the more pathetic. Wanna know what we'll look like a in a couple of years if nothing's done about this problem? Watch the movie "Idiocracy."