The Missing Dimension in Educational Reform
Posted on September 13th, 2012

R Chandrasoma

It was believed “”…” until quite recently “”…” that the human brain completed its “ƒ”¹…”neurogenesis’ at the close of adolescence and that in adulthood there was a steady and sizeable reduction in the number of cerebral nerve-cells available for cognitive work. Thus IQ was supposed to peak at around the close of the second decade of life while the later years witnessed an increase in memory stores and in procedural skills but no increase in general intelligence “”…” as measured in standard IQ tests. It appeared reasonable, then to focus all educational resources on improving the cognitive skills of the young while allowing adults to free-wheel on what they were fortunate enough to acquire in their formative years.

This doleful view of the closed nature of brain development and in particular the belief that the adult brain lacks plasticity has no warrant in modern views of brain-development. The sensational discovery in cognitive neuroscience is that neurogenesis “”…” the formation of new brain-cells “”…” continues into adulthood and the all-important refiguring of nerve-pathways in the brain is seen right up to senescence. Indeed, the brain is a dynamic system that is constantly adapting to external challenges by fresh configurations of its neural organization.

That these new discoveries are of seminal importance to educationists and all those concerned with the quality of life of our citizens needs no emphasis. As things are in our country, education is part of the task of raising the young and vast resources are rightly used for the refinement of the instruments and institutions devoted to primary and secondary school education. At the tertiary level an elite is selected “”…” mostly young adults “”…” for further education of a specialized nature.

All this is as it should be except that the majority “”…” for the greater part of their life “”…” have no education to speak of since they are supposed to be “ƒ”¹…”finished products’ of varying degrees of excellence that use the initial “ƒ”¹…”educational charge’ to power the conduct of life in its myriad aspects. That this approach is vastly detrimental to the “ƒ”¹…”mental health’ of the dominant part of our population becomes clear when we digest the facts newly discovered by science “”…” about the potential and plasticity of the adult brain. It is a plain fact “”…” admitted by all “”…” that young minds must be challenged. A schooling of some kind and the company of books and teachers are  considered a sine qua non for children and adolascents. Given the new knowledge about the open-ended nature of cognitive development, must we not speak of “ƒ”¹…”quaternary’ education for those who have left schools and universities far behind? This cannot be done by sending adults back to school “”…” but other means exist to fine-tune one’s cognitive capacity. The reading of books that demand focused attention is an effective way of challenging the brain.

The learning of a foreign language or the acquisition of a new skill greatly improves the acuity of mental action. Being in the company of the learned and listening to close arguments on any subject are ways of keeping on one’s toes in argumentative discourse. Needless to say, the “ƒ”¹…”intellectual climate’ of the community in which one is fated to live is a powerful determinant of mental quality. If the intellectual challenge for ordinary folk is the religious sermon or the political diatribe “”…” this is not an unfair description of the sad state state of affairs in our country “”…” one cannot expect good governance or good politics.

This brings us to our main contention “”…” that the state should actively help adults to learn just as they consider the teaching of children a prime duty. This task is extra-curricular in the sense that adults cannot be dragged back to school. The state, however, can provide critical help by regulating the media, by selling good books at affordable prices and persuading intellectuals to be open to public discourse. Politics and religion must be subject to the scrutiny of secular learning in its highest form. That none of this is seen in Sri Lanka today is a lamentable fact evident to all caring citizens.

The Broadcast Media are now dominated by FM stations that do their utmost to dumb down a population that is already lackadaisical on intellectual matters. It appears to be the unchallenged maxim of Directors of Broadcasting that education is for the young – while Astrology Ayurvedhic science and politics (intermixed with the “ƒ”¹…”pop’ religion of our age) is the true and worthy fare for our complaisant and laid-back elderly fools. Our plea is that this contemptuous attitude must change “”…” that adults are questioning adults with active brains that need the support and encouragement of the State.

The prevailing intellectual ethos in this country is that of a “ƒ”¹…”guru’ instructing a pliant and cowed disciple overawed by a learning that seems above and beyond his reach. This is rooted in the lackadaisical acceptance that leaning is the preserve of a privileged oligarchy whose benedictions the hoi polloi must dutifully accept in  small doses “”…” and without question or quibble. Our intellectual decline can be directly attributed to this weakness “”…” the lethargy of the masses in facing the challenge of clear and independent analysis of complex issues. The  sovereign remedy for this national sickness is the build-op of an educated and critical adult population that is supported by the state through its various powers and agencies. A Ministry for Adult Education.would be a great first step.

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