Education in Debate by Mahar Mangahas

“Teaching is something everyone has an opinion on, but not everyone seems to know what teachers do, let alone know if they’re doing it correctly.”

“It doesn’t follow that because you were a student, it means you know how to teach.”

The paraphrased quotes above are attributed to the many concerns I’ve had to hear from teachers as a specialist in teacher training over the past three years. Unfortunately, the sentiment behind that quote is distressingly appropriate, as issues in education have been misrepresented in the public discourse.

Debaters themselves are equally guilty of this misrepresentation. Given the trend for education motions in tournaments in both the local and international scenes, the expectation is that by now, debaters should at least know the basic points of this very relevant issue. This short article will explain some contemporary issues in education, as well as clarify certain misunderstandings that linger on.

1. What is Education Policy Based On?

How do governments legislate education? How is a curriculum (the subject matter and the methods by which that academic content is shared) determined? Who sets the standards? Who funds schools? Who determines how many years’ worth of education that citizens need?

Education policies try to answer to these questions. Moreover, the constant question in the back of the minds of education policy makers is: how will this education be relevant in the next 20, 30, 40 years?  In many cases, there is no guarantee that a citizen will avail of education beyond what is required of them by the state. This means that during the time it’s still educating its citizens, the state needs to make sure that its citizens get equipped to create or take advantage of opportunities that may come their way—only with the caveat that the state isn’t completely sure of what the future holds.

Ultimately, this means that the state’s mission is for a person’s education to be flexible so that any citizen could handle a number of diverse situations.  It’s in this context that most education debates take place, because people disagree on what may or may not be relevant in the next few decades. Actually, most people disagree on what may be relevant in the next year or so, which only complicates these issues further. Should education resolve the immediate demands of the market—hence a strand in the senior high school program that seems tailored for the BPO industry? Should we subsidize arts and humanities programs less, because our society needs more scientists and medical professionals? How long should this kind of subsidy last? What will we do if our arts and humanities programs die? Is this really a problem? Or not? How do we correct our course when we realize that our earlier programs are failures, or were too limited in scope? Can the successes of another state’s educational policy be realized in our context?  Do we change school districts based on race? Wealth? Geography?

What many debates do is assume that education policies work fast. We just insert the hardware and programs, and it’s ready to run.  This isn’t the case. Education is a process.

In most states, including the Philippines which now includes a K-12 component to its basic education program, it takes 14 years for someone to complete their basic education. If one were to include a tertiary degree as a standard requirement to be considered competitive, this number jumps to 18 years.  This sounds like a long time—and it is.  Because education is an on-going process however, this only makes things stickier when the need to edit this process occurs. This doesn’t mean that education shouldn’t ever be tampered with: if it doesn’t work, or worse, is damaging to students, it definitely has to change.

But this also means that one doesn’t suggest changes lightly.  Changes need to be worth it, because there is a risk of compromising someone’s education immeasurably, that risk going back to that question mentioned earlier: if we change how we educate because of a new policy, will the education produced still be so flexible and relevant in the coming decades, that our citizens would be equipped enough to create or take advantage of any new opportunity before them? Will they be able to solve unprecedented problems before them?

Note: We haven’t even covered teachers and their role in making sure that education happens.  This is a long topic that deserves its own article, but for the sake of this overview, we should remember that the people who are best at determining the results of educational outputs in the immediate term are teachers, who are trained in various methods of qualitative and quantitative assessment. Things are particularly exciting these days, because many of these assessments include project-based work that reflects practical applications of academic content in the real world. Beware the education debate that doesn’t look at the data collected by these professionals, because you’d know then that the policy being proposed did not consider the people on the ground, who will be responsible for implementing those policies.

2. What is Education For?

We know that education isn’t there just for the purpose of credentialing citizens so that they can get work. Education is often the primary way that states assure themselves that their citizens more or less act and grow the same way. This is not meant to sound like a conditioning mechanism where the states strip their citizens of agency. Rather, ideally, particularly in democratic states, education is shared so that citizens can feel and experience the benefits of equity. If a state does its job well educating its citizens, usually this translates for citizens, regardless of economic background, to have a chance for the life that they want to make for themselves.

This sense of equality and equitability would also mean that a thriving public school system would have students from all walks of life. This would give people who go through this process to be exposed to a diverse set of experiences and dealing with personalities that would equip them for the greater world.

This is the ideal; it isn’t always the reality. There is a lot of muddling through here, and many educational institutions, until now, are uncertain with how to proceed. It’s in this section of the discussion that debates often revolve around other people’s rights in relation to the right to an education, and it gets very personal, very fast, because we have different ideas of what an education is for—and for whom.

For example, if the future life students want to create for themselves is a life that doesn’t include getting triggered by past experiences, is it right for educational policy to require trigger warnings in a teacher’s syllabus? Going back to the earlier discussion, does this prepare the student for a life where we are not sure if they will get triggered again or not? Yet at the same time, do we also then fail to recognize a person’s past, and how this affects their education? Shouldn’t we be more sensitive to this? What is the example that the state is giving in its treatment of its students, no matter what side they pick? What is the precedent being set here? Are we fulfilling what an education is for? Are we unfairly favoring or disparaging other students in our efforts to serve a different set of students who may disagree with the logic behind trigger warnings?

Thus, education debates need to look at how society is both client and servant under the lens of education: yes, the state will provide an education, and needs to serve its citizens. However, citizens have duties as well that they have to fulfill for the good of all, and their education is centered on their coming service to the state. How this is balanced fairly is very much the backdrop to rich discussions in education.

Personal Conclusions

On a personal note, it’s my hope that education debates continue, as this an area I feel is often neglected in public discussions. It’s almost my hope that in getting discussed more often, that the subject of education and how it should be approached will result in it getting discussed with more rigorous analysis.

Finally, debaters are often in the position of becoming teachers, if only simply because a good debate will inform the listener. It would be interesting then, if we were to approach debates as instances that are part of the process of education: in the course of the side we’re speaking for, are we developing knowledge through discussion that will be remain relevant, and help people be flexible in the coming years? There’s a reason why debate is rightly seen as an academic activity, and I encourage everyone to revel in it, as both teacher and student.

10527448_10152322449191376_2092037348486497683_nAbout the Contributor:

Mahar Mangahas is an alumnus of the Ateneo Debate Society. He is a two-time Asian finalist and a former best judge of the Philippines. He currently works in the education sector, and was also formerly a part of Teach for the Philippines.



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