Saturday, November 06, 2004

Walk the talk on idiot-cation, oops, I mean kids' education

It takes only a pound per square inch -- one PSI -- of force to snap the rib cage, poke a way into a man's heart.

It’s so disheartening to see that your average grade school child these days has to tote a bag bursting to its seams with books and things that can weigh over 13 pounds. That’s probably more than a tenth of the average school kid's body mass. I could be wrong. Any academic can rave and rant to render this whit of probability into something moot and, well, academic: the school bag-generated force can add up to two or three PSI which clamps down on the shoulder blade and collar bone.

That causes childish discomforts -- bruises, cramped muscles, sprains, even bone dislocations. Academics can always construe this as dutiful obedience to an admonition of Christ’s: “Whatever ye do to these children, ye do it unto me.” So, off to Golgotha these kids go on schooldays cheerfully lugging their crosses, I mean, burdens. Well-meaning parents can ease their kids’ penitensiya though, providing ‘em with roller wheel-fitted bags. The all-too-heavy payload (a kid often dumps his behind on his bag) causes the roller wheels to be chucked up; the well-meaning or those with the means either hires a porter cum nursemaid or a forklift to take care of the schoolchild’s baggage.

Stray thoughts like these intrude on me as I whistle a Beatles oldie-but-goodie, “Carry That Weight,” then bark orders to my two kids to haul their behinds, pack their things and get started for an ordeal of a descent from the Sierra Madre foothills. In the last couple of years, I have brought the two kids on weekend reforestation forays into the Sierra foothills in Rizal province. We trek up on a Saturday morning, reach the reforestation site past lunch time, grab siesta after the late lunch, then clear ground and plant trees between supper and the next day’s lunch. Call that wilderness immersion, on-site learning, father-child bonding, whatever – the activity can pack cheaper thrills than, say, hours of frying one’s brains on Counterstrike, Doom or any similar video arcade mayhem.

To the kids’ knapsacks go soiled clothes and bedding – so easy to lug light blankets. A humongous cushion of freshly hacked, sweet-scented cogon piled high upon bare ground provide comfy, readily discarded set-up to sleep on. So, each kiddie load packs less than 10 pounds that won't weigh 'em down. The descent down unruly terrain takes over three hours. I don’t want ‘em kids slowed down by too heavy a payload.

This writer gets the lion's share of the bring-home burden, lending him a silly look. Writer’s knapsack bristles with out-jutting tools, a camera draped on his neck, a small casserole and a Coleman water jug jiggling by his waist, unused clothes, a folded tarpaulin, towels, toiletries, left-over provisions crammed in a basket and slung over the shoulder. Plus a plethora of picked or plucked up pieces along the sylvan route, say, a quaint-looking rock, edible berries and fruits, wild flowers, condiments for sinigang like alibangbang tops or tamarind shoots, whatever catches a child's fancy. The odd-looking get-up can be a cover for exercises in close quarter combat grappling and dog-tired gasping techniques while walking.

With the burden equitably distributed, the threesome traipses down the foothills, usually at 12 noon after a repast of instant noodles, broiled fish and crusty bread. The kids often catch dragonflies, katydids, fighting spiders, or rhinoceros beetles among bushes along the way. Their old man barely catches his breath.

It was in one such descent that realization hit like sunstroke as the growing weight of my load slowly dug-jammed needles of pain into my shoulders. That nudges you into thinking: all it takes is a well-directed knuckle strike of one PSI to crunch through a man’s rib cage and touch his heart. No slow torture there – just quick relief.

That realization made me begin to toss potshots at the sanity of a scheme that crushes the tender bodies of schoolchildren…Sure, the term “education” literally means to squeeze out, to tap and express out a learner’s latent skills and talents. Squashing ‘em kids with tons of school books is going too literal, maybe going amok.

Now, do teachers care? Do academics, educators, book authors and their ilk whipped up some foresight about the torture they’re inflicting? We can surmise: this is what “teaching load” is all about.

Ah, such discomfiting walks with one's children allow a parent to swap notes and hurl tirades at a school curriculum that inheres wanton wastage of resources. Why, there's practically a new batch of books each school year for every grade level. It’s as if the knowledge and information uploaded in those textbooks, primers, manuals and all that school-prescribed reading matter is only good for a school year.

That looks like the whole learning package fed to our schoolchildren is programmed to go obsolete yearly. If that were so, the once-indispensable education is now akin to disposable diapers, disposable cameras, disposable lighters, just another commodity. Disposable garbage.

Then again, incorrigible epidemics, I mean, academics can argue that the yearly changeover in textbooks is meant to keep Philippine education at pace with the fast changing developments in our age. So, how come Pinoy schoolchildren have perennially emerged as next to kulelat in science, math and language skills tests conducted among schoolchildren worldwide?

Every textbook edition also embodies a stand of trees – chopped dead, pulp-mashed into paper with a few tons of chemical fixatives plus a few million gallons of freshwater. It’s no wonder that The New York Times keeps a few thousand acres of standing timber in a perpetual cycle of harvesting and replanting; such a scheme ensures steady supply of paper to print the news on. Our academics and textbook authors don’t do renewal of paper resources. Used textbooks become throwaways after a year's use, stoking our suspicions that the annual changeover merely ensures steady cash flow to a shadowy cabal in the textbook industry and the education department. Remember: one Mary Ann Maslog got caught sopping an official with P3 million to clinch a textbook supply deal with the then-Department of Education, Culture and Sports (DECS)…

We can still afford the textbooks but even the yearly new editions don't offer nothing new. I skim through the kids’ books, used in the current or previous school years, believe me. The two kids have already stacked two aparadors of used textbooks – and they haven’t finished high school yet. What do you do with such first-class compost but sift through ‘em?

The math books? Mathematical operations and equations stand as they were decades back (two plus two is four, baby) and all the yearly revisions and novelty approaches merely amount to subtractions in a parent’s tuition budget.

The language books? Don’t tell me schools have to reinvent the rules of grammar and good usage on an annual basis.

Ah, the science textbooks and workbooks? Let’s stop kidding ourselves that there’s always a new shift in the science paradigms each minute, there’s yearly breakthrough technology that ought to be told to ‘em kids.

I could be too narrow-sighted: I find too many useless facts crammed, a lot of trivial data squeezed in. I get this feeling that these school textbooks are just meant to gear up school kids for Battle of the Brains, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Jeopardy, Greed or any of such TV quiz contests… Say, a Robert Silverberg story whose title escapes me now zeroes in on the ultimate quiz contest. The winner’s prize are choicest priceless artifacts in the galaxy cached in a walled plain on a planet, guarded by a robot who serves as quiz-master. A crafty thief builds a microcomputer that runs on-line and has quick-as-a wink access to every library and data storage banks in the universe. With such a gadget strapped to his chest, the thief correctly answered each question hurled by the quiz-master robot. And like the thousands of know-it-alls whose skeletons littered the walled plain, the thief perished – struck dead by the robot who craved for morsels of human insight, not orts of sterile information.

Maybe, our educators and textbook authors miss the point in providing education. The prevailing scheme uploads children’s bodies with back-breaking baggage, then, uploads their skulls with tons of data. Admittedly, forklifts can better handle the payload while computer hard drives provide better storage space for cramming and compressing data. Ah, we’re clearly seeing Pinoy education has become an all-too mechanical, exploitative scheme simply intended to line the pockets of educators with tuition monies.

I could be wrong again: I guess those textbook writers and authors are trying to instill in Pinoy kids a hatred for books. Why, genuine learning should be to teach kids how to think. Instead, those dense authors just teach children what to think -- and there's a whale of a difference between teaching children how to work up a brainstorm than shoveling tons of data between a child’s ears.

I’ve skimmed through my high school kids’ oriental history textbooks. The authors drew a shop list of dynasties, a shop list of rulers, a shop list of names and terms -- every page, every chapter littered with shop lists. These are whats that turn up in their exams. It’ll be tough to remember shop lists.


The authors missed out on the how of history and knowledge, how life goes, is lived by people. Say, how come the Manchus which number several thousands had brought down the Ming dynasty that had the support of millions? How did they pull off that miracle? Or, how did the Taiwanese cultivated carps and started out fishery projects? How come Lapulapu didn't do a flanking maneuver on Magellan's naval force? Show me how did the Japanese tame wild ducks, geese and quails, ushered livestock culture.

I believe true education is the imparting of skills and competence, a transfer of know-why and know-how. Shoplists don't engage us kids and kids-at-heart. Tell me, I'll plug my ears. Show me and tell me, you grab my attention. An effective teacher -- whether he leaps at you off a book's page or stands by the blackboard -- shows us how. Then, we get a firm grip on the lesson. We can take the lesson to heart. We learn.

Ah, the kids’ knapsacks are easy to lug but they have to bear with such torrent of gripes. As the descent is a three-hour trudge through unruly terrain, the kids have been tutored on carefree walking. Common sense plus kinesiology provide eye openers, allow appreciation of the limits and capacities of one's body.

Say, the body weight shouldn't be tamping down on the knee joints and the balls of one's feet; we don't want to scrape the bone joints with repeated concussive impact of one's own weight at each step. So, the body's center of gravity is lowered by bending the knees a little -- weight is distributed throughout the leg and thigh muscles -- as a toddler learning to walk does. The toddler toughens leg muscles that way. We take on the toddler-like walking posture with a flowing gait akin to a goose's waddle, which is not unlike a taiqiquan stylist in motion. It's an awkward-looking but earth-rooted manner of walking. The resultant body English proclaims, "I stand for that which I stand on." It can be painful at first. Yet, this builds up leg stamina and horsepower-packed kicks.

There's a bonus at the end of the three-hour plough: with physical exhaustion comes a slow wash of endorphin oozing off the mountaineer's brain, pumping up a sense of inner well-being and clarity.

My sapped-out kids once broached a far-fetched idea. It's about walking the talk before talking the talk. They proposed that we invite textbook authors to do writhing before writing: do some reforestation themselves on barren hectares in the Sierra Madre, tend to the growing trees for six or 10 years, then, chop the trees dead so they'll have something to write on.

No textbook author has taken up our challenge yet.

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