Education not Competition

>> Sunday, June 5, 2011

I have been in Indonesia for the last eight months and have been very busy. However that is not the reason for the absence. This piece took me seven months to write. I had so many things to say but no direction. This piece was edited time and time again taking out unnecessary ranting and provocation. I ask Allah that if any of my writings have a positive effect on people it will be this one. Ameen.

Education not Competition

"Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today."

Every parent will nod their heads in agreement to the words attributed to Malcolm X (better referred to as EL-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz in the Muslim community) quoted above. Then they will probably menacingly beam at their children. The child will understand this look as a command that they must never be wrong or make a mistake in the classroom or never fail a test.
This fear holds the child back from learning. An essential part in the learning process is to make mistakes. However, students who have succumb to fear would rather stay quiet and opt not to answer a question rather than trying. Their fear causes them to hesitate answering simple questions that have no right or wrong answer such as a simple, “How are you”. I had a student who is very bright and was probably the smartest child in the class but she was so afraid to get a question wrong you could literally see her whole body tremble and then see her eyes look from right to left out of fear. My question was “What did you do on the weekend”.
Why do parents instill this fear in their children? Is it for the child’s benefit or the parents’? The main reason parents put this fear in their children is because of competition. They must realize that education is not competition and there is no shame in failure. Failure helps the student by allowing him to redo what he or she may be weak in. However, parents are more concerned about saving face with their peers they do not concern themselves with what their child actually needs. Sometimes the parents go so far as to use under handed tactics to have their children pushed into the next grade or level just to save face. If the student is pushed forward because of their parents’ under handed tactics, the student will just have more troubles in the future. Furthermore the fear does not benefit the child at all specially during assessments because instead of actually thinking and stressing about the assessment they have in front of them, they stress about the consequences that will be brought upon them if they do not succeed. This factors into the student’s failure on a test and has no benefit to them. The parents get no benefit because now they must save face.
How does this factor into Islam? Well first we must look to a fictional character to understand where fear leads us. Yoda from the star wars films said, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Fear (of anything except Allah) leads us to the dark side, we start to hate what we fear. When a teacher punishes a student for making a mistake the student subconsciously starts to hate the subject being taught and the teacher. If the student is punished for making a mistake while reciting, such as being slapped across the face or having his or her fingers being squeezed together with a pencil in the middle, do we really think he will love the Quran or the teacher?
Instead of having students compete against one another and live in fear we should promote cooperation between them. One of the best ways to learn is to teach the subject to others. Have stronger students help the weaker ones. It will enforce the subject to the stronger students and having their peers explain the subject the weaker students will be brought up in level. For parents who are skeptical, try to remember a time you did not listen to your child so they had to go to another adult who got through to you.
In secular education this helps because we start to have less dropouts and failures and a bigger percentage of people succeeding and working towards the betterment of society. However if we make students compete we create winners and losers. We have losers who become nothing of use and unable to better society and have the winners go on to become professionals but because they are so ingrained with the competition mentality they do not work for the betterment of society. Greatest example is of all these immoral doctors only caring about money. A doctor is no longer seen as a noble profession but rather is seen as a criminal.
As for Islamic knowledge this approach also has many advantages. For example one of the reasons for major sectarianism is because people cannot admit they are wrong. The arrogance a teacher develops that they could never be wrong is only an extension of their fears of making a mistake when they were students. However if we take out competition in Islamic learning we would effectively close one of the paths leading to arrogance. Another reason for a person to become arrogant is because a teacher is a person who has extreme power and even more trust; this position is an easy road to feel powerful. If we have stronger students help weaker students when the students eventually become teachers they will not be arrogant because part of their learning career was also teaching weaker students.
Education is not competition. Competition is when we have parties trying to get to the top while not caring for the other. Competition is when we step over others. Competition enforces arrogance. Leave competition in the sports arena and do not bring it into the centers of learning. Stop treating education like a sport. Parents should not be spectators who get into fights because their team lost. Our children are not football teams and schools are not arenas.