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Doing more with less

| Friday, August 26, 2016

I write this article in Cambodia, a country that just four decades ago was demolished by the Khmer Rouge regime.

When it comes to education here, there remains much to be worried about. Schools are overcrowded and teach to the test. Learning is through rote memorization, and students are discouraged from questioning authority. Even the highest achieving students, I am told, struggle to solve problems that require application of abstract principles or critical thinking.

This isn’t to deny that much has improved in the country since 1979, when only two university professors returned to teach at the country’s only public university. But students in Cambodia today lag far behind counterparts in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, not to mention most countries in Asia. How do we change this for Cambodia as well as for the developing world?

The answer does not lie in building more schools or throwing more money at the problem. The answer is much simpler: we should teach students how to read and do math. Well. With these two, anything is possible.

Reading not only presumes literacy, but also literary reasoning. If you can dissect an idea into its constituent assumptions and propositions, chances are you can assert and defend your own. You are less likely to be swayed by opinion, fallacy and superstition, and more likely to make sense of ambiguity.

Doing math develops the analytical reasoning necessary to pursue higher education or knowledge work. If you can solve a geometric proof or make sense of Cartesian space, there is nothing stopping you from becoming an engineer, banker or civil servant.

Reading and math. That’s all you need in a classroom education, because that’s all it takes to develop the lifelong habit of asking difficult questions and embracing the even more difficult task of solving them.

Critics of this admittedly lean model, however, may say that setting literary and mathematical skill as the gold standard for education in the developing world is misguided. In an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Mark Epstein and Kristi Yuthas argued that emphasizing Western subjects such as “mathematics,” while providing “intellectual stimulation,” was insensitive to the concerns of the poor, who would benefit more from being taught financial literacy, basic hygiene and other life skills.

They are in part right. Poverty is multifaceted, and an education must address this. Students must be taught to wash their hands and to manage money. Students should learn to work in teams, to budget time and to approach problems with an entrepreneurial mind.

But arguing these things solely constitute an education is more insensitive than the model Epstein and Yuthas seek to replace. Why must an education be reduced to public service announcements and monetary games? Doesn’t this limit students to an arbitrarily low standard, one that favors learning how to do things over learning how to think?

Others may argue that this model — which is really the liberal arts approach distilled — does not respect cultural context outside the West.

But why should we play the gatekeepers of knowledge? Education is a human right, and to deprive anyone any part of human discovery because we fear intellectual colonialism is akin to removing algebra from U.S. schools because some of its inventors were from the Middle East.

Yet others may say that such a proposal is impossible to scale. It might work for one student, but certainly not for an educational system. This is true if we, in the first place, favor a systemic perspective of development. If global educational benchmarks are the gold standard, then we would do best to focus on literacy and high school retention rates alone. Such macro-level consideration is, of course, important, and we need to give more credit to those working towards slow improvement in overall development indices.

But I do not think we should be limited to global benchmarks. We should work just as hard to rethink education at the individual level. If just one student can be provided with the resources to learn integral calculus and read Shakespeare, what is stopping two students from doing the same? Or a hundred? Or ten thousand?

Just look at Ashesi University in Ghana, founded in 2002 by Patrick Awuah, Jr., a Swarthmore graduate. Ashesi University grants degrees in business and engineering, but requires students to take courses in mathematics, humanities and the social sciences. Companies clamor for their graduates, 29 percent of whom studied on full scholarship. Some of these students might have been those to whom Epstein and Yuthas directed their recommendations.

None of this seems particularly radical. But given Awuah’s recent nomination for the MacArthur Fellowship, people are just now realizing that transforming the educational standards for a few is a necessary step in raising the educational standards for all.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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