Monday, July 16, 2007

Critical Reading and Schooling

Some people would argue that the book beauty of fiction is that it works on several levels. At the very least, there is the literal level where we accept what the narrator tells us at face value. And then there’s the various interpretations, taking into account the context of the author’s era, what the author intended, perhaps the metaphor of the story, etc. This is one of the skills we develop as critical readers. However, I don’t think critical reading should end with books—it can be applied to real life as well. And as much criticism as I have for the institution of traditional schooling, they have a lot to teach students if the students were to practice critical reading.

I’m not unique in this when I say that while I value the education my school taught me, I’ll value even more what they didn’t teach me, or what I learned from the experience rather than what I learned from the teacher’s syllabus. At the very least, some of us acknowledge it at an unconscious level. It’s when we say that school taught us how to cope with life, how to deal with other people, how it prepared us for a job, etc. I think when we people profess those things, that they’re talking about the indirect lessons they learned by staying in school. But let me backtrack a bit.

What people typically expect is that they’ll learn from the teacher (which for me is bullshit… if you don’t want to learn, no teacher can convince you to do so; a teacher can provide you with the means but at the end of the day, it’s up to the student to decide whether he or she wants to learn or not, even if the teacher is ineffective). It’s the lesson itself, the lesson plan, the readings, etc. This expectation, I think, is what we would call the literal level in fiction. The teacher/narrator is trying to impart to us a certain point of view or knowledge. And sometimes, people don’t dig deeper than that.

However, there are other lessons we can learn. It’s been my experience that in the classroom setup, there are two kinds of teachers: those who teach you facts, and those that teach you the learning process (and sometimes these are the same teachers who question the facts and the established status quo). Facts, in general, are of limited use (and no use at all when they get updated with something else). The learning process, you’ll value for life. In college, my teacher was Ambeth Ocampo and rather than give us exams on dates and events, he questioned us on events that mattered. For example, we took a field trip to old Manila and visited the houses during the Spanish era of the country. One question that came up was whether he wanted to live in the past or the present. Most people would answer past or present and give good reasons. Ambeth told us the best answer wasn’t whether it was in the past or present, but rather what social status we would have—as rich people living in the past, we would still have amenities just as we would have in the present. There was also the time he told us examples of how history is in flux, such as Emilio’s Aguinaldo’s execution of national hero Andres Bonifacio was only brought up when he ran against Manual Quezon for the presidency (one of those fierce, mudslinging battles). Perhaps two decades from now, I’ll forget all those facts. What I will remember is how I was taught to question history and look for the agendas behind the stories—because there will be.

Another interesting lesson we can learn at school is how to deal with people. The good thing about classrooms being filled with lots of students is that it’s random sampling at its work. I’m sure every class had a studious student, a practical joker, a bully, the leech, and the wallflower. I was once tempted to transfer classrooms because of a certain bully and wisdom taught me better—it wouldn’t matter if I transferred classes or not, there’d still be bullies. The question was what I’d do about it. When I joined the masses of people employing for typical jobs, my experience with the workplace was similar. The same archetypes I discovered in school were the same archetypes I’d find with my officemates (obviously, this doesn’t happen if you happen to work alone or you get to choose your teammates). Again, the question isn’t in getting rid of them, but how you react to them.

There are other lessons one could learn from school if one paid attention. For example, for a time, I wanted to teach, so I observed my teachers. What techniques worked? What didn’t? Why did they work and why didn’t they? One might think that observation is limited but if you have a keen mind to back it up it works wonders. Some might argue that it’s because I was interested in teaching so that’s why I found value in it. But that’s not quite right. The school is very much its own ecosystem, its own business, its own government. Focus on what you want to learn. Interested in running a business? Pay close attention to the cafeteria, or perhaps the whole school. Ask questions like how much does it cost to maintain the school every month? How much is their electric bill, the water bill, the salary of the teachers? How much is it earning? When does the staff get paid (if any)? How soon is it expanding? Is it expanding proportionally or is it at a rate of diminishing returns? Also try participating in a club or org. Strangely enough, my experience as news editor of the school paper is no different from my experience working as an editorial assistant: the same problems and dilemmas pop up. Don’t limit your schooling to what people think you “should” learn but rather what you can learn.

When you move on to college, don’t simply focus on the specialized training you’ll obtain. For example, in Computer Science, you’re missing out on the point of the lesson if you merely expect to come out learning a specific language such as C or Java. The good teachers don’t simply teach you how to code but rather how to think logically and effectively, so that when you transfer from one programming language to another, you’ll still apply the same process although the syntax and terminology will be differnet. Schools also tend to teach us the value of deadlines, teamwork (especially when you hate your team), leadership, and how to deal with authority (whether you conform to it or rebel against it)—those are skills that transcend professions and degrees. And at the end of the day, just because you took up one course doesn’t mean the job you’ll obtain will be related to that course. Humans are flexible and there are a lot of lessons we’ve learned, whether directly or indirectly. Learning doesn’t end in school and if we’re interested in a different profession from the one we were formally trained in, that doesn’t mean we can’t pursue that career. I’ve seen extremely talented writers who have had no formal writing classes, successful programmers who didn’t pursue Computer Science but rather taught themselves the skills, and businessmen whose college degrees were in the Humanities. People aren’t computers—we learn from a variety of sources and not just what others “input” into us.

Personally, there’s nothing more I’d want than to live a simple life, wherein I accept everyone’s word at face value. But that’s not reality and there are various undercurrents, some that we manage to catch a glimpse of, and a lot that we’re simply unaware of (and that’s why when it comes to government and other huge institutions, we ask for transparency). Critical reading teaches us to notice those things—if we look for them. Similarly, there’s a lot we can benefit from traditional schools if only we pay close attention and start thinking “out of the box”. Don’t limit yourself to the education people perceive you should get—grab it from wherever you can get it.

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