Perspectives on Education

My year in Ecuador has come to a close, but deserves a few final observations.  As a teacher for a large public university, the education system was a frequent topic of discussion.  An early observation of mine was that there are a whole lot of engineers in Ecuador.  In one sense, this came as no surprise because I realized that some time ago, my degree, a liberal arts degree, is a phenomenon totally unique to the developed world and utterly useless in the rest of the globe.  Education systems in developing countries are math and science focused because the kind of education I have, which taught me a lot of superfluous information about lots of things, and how to write and think critically, is not likely to get you a job in a developing economy – history and political science do not add up to much here.  And so, there are lots and lots of engineers in Ecuador.  My friends and I used to joke that we were engineers of English language instruction, because we had so many students that were “marketing engineers,”  “international business engineers,” or “tourism engineers,” i.e. fields that are, in fact, not at all related to engineering.  There is another reason for this super-abundance of engineers, however.  I learned that a few years ago, the government started a funding program to incentivize universities to offer more engineering degrees, and over time the oversight has lapsed and so there are lots of “engineering” programs that spit out ordinary non-engineers, but boost the university’s annual budget.

Like those in most other developing countries, as well as many European countries, the Ecuadorian education system is designed to start channeling students into career paths from a much earlier age than in the US.  As most of us know, it is common for American students to begin to focus toward a career path at the time that they choose their university major at the age of about 20.  And even then, as we worry about whether we’ve made the right choice, we hear the friendly encouragement, “Don’t worry, no one actually does what they studied in college!”  Well, in Ecuador, at about age 15, students choose from mathematics/physics, biology/chemistry, and social science, what will be their track through the rest of high school.  I think there may also been an option of a general studies track.  This then sets them up for a particular major in college and eventually their profession.  This design is common around the world in countries with robust, accessible university systems; I observed it through my travels in Italy, China, Colombia and Peru.

With my students, particularly my conversation clubs, I talked about these advantages and disadvantages of this type of education system.  As I explained, currently in Ecuador, at about 15, students choose between three tracks to prepare for college: mathematics and physics, biology and chemistry, or social science.  I taught at the national polytechnic university, so it’s no surprise that most of my students had chosen the physics and mathematics track, in anticipation of becoming engineers (the real kind).  As I understand, the government has announced a change which will generalize secondary education.  There will no longer be those tracks, but all students will complete the same general studies curriculum.  This proposal has received a mixed response.

Most of my students say they think it is better to continue as is with the professional tracks.  Now, I’m partial to the system that I was educated in.  Although at 25, I sometimes still feel mixed up about what I want to do with my life, I sure as heck wasn’t ready choose my future career or field when I was 15.  And what I hear most often, especially from my younger students, is just that they are studying what their father or older siblings studied because it seems interesting enough.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but as is especially true at that age, you have no concept of the huge variety of jobs that exist in the world, and naturally you are drawn to those that are most familiar.  But that doesn’t mean they are right or will be fulfilling for you.

Another interesting aspect of this difference education is the influence it has on day to day conversation.  My most loyal readers will remember a blog from a while ago in which I complained a bit about how difficult it was to get my students to talk about things.  Well, it occurs to me now that there are several contributing factors.

One is the education system.  It’s not that the system is in adequate, but we must account for the fact that in this system, people’s store of general knowledge begins to diverge at an earlier age; whereas in the US, that does not happen until we finish high school at age 18.   And then if you contract to a group of university-educated people, that age rises to 20.  So, among university-educated people in the US, I can comfortably assume that I share a similar store of general information with anyone over the age of 20.  This does a lot to facilitate conversation.  However, in no way am I immune to the awkwardness of finding myself conversing with someone from a different socio-economic class and being at a complete loss of what to talk about because our life experiences are just so different.

A second factor to consider is that the intense focus on mathematics and science leaves critical thinking and writing skills wanting.  I observed this in China as well, where science and math were heavily emphasized and rote memorization was still a common and respected teaching methodology.  While some may worry that the American education system is falling behind because of our lack of focus on science and math, I believe we still have a monopoly on critical thinking.  There’s something to be said for filling your brain with A LOT of seemingly unimportant information about lots and lots of topics and then being able to make connections across disciplines and experiences.  Then again, I might just be justifying my own experience.  I was taught through that education system to value the things that it emphasizes.

Now, speaking of relating to people with different education and experiences: that has been one serious obstacle in my friendships with Ecuadorians, principally those from Malingua Pamba, the Andean village where I worked with Engineers Without Borders.  I made many acquaintances there, and since I first went to the village several of them have moved to the nearest city for university, and the community has been fitted with an internet connection.  This is all very exciting and it’s been fun to see the changes that my friends have manifested as their world has expanded to the city.  My principal difficulty with some of these people is simply that our lives and worlds are so different.  I guess I’m supposed to be the one who understands and can make the connection, since I aspire and claim to be a “citizen of the world” and because my experience really is much more expansive than theirs.  However, I don’t always understand, and they don’t understand why I don’t understand.

I have one friend in particular who has given me a lot to think about in this respect.  She is from Malingua Pamba and is fortunate to belong to a prominent family there.  She is 21 years old and this has been her first year living in Lataguna.  She completed high school and has the opportunity to go to university where she is studying veterinary science with plans to return to Malingua to help her community.  When I first met her I was so impressed by her strength and ambition.  She has already come so far and has managed to keep herself on the right track by not getting pregnant – the principal derailing event that has changed the promising course of quite a few young people I met there.  Side note:  you have to remember that family is very important in this culture, and even more so the more rural you get, and so an early and unplanned pregnancy is not such a bad thing to them, though in our eyes is may seem like a really problematic trend.

Well, this young woman and I became facebook friends and we managed to keep in touch after I left Ecuador the first time, and then once I came back.  I was also able to see her a few times when I went to visit Malingua, and I even invited her to come stay with me if she wanted to visit Quito.  She often says that she is envious of my life and wishes she will be able to travel and see as many places as I have seen.  And it is comments like these that make me uncomfortable and make me second-guess the value and benefit of my relationship with these people.  We have very different lives, and each of our experiences has value and depth and importance in and of itself.  I know many things that she does not know, like how to construct a persuasive paragraph using a Rogerian argument; yet she knows many things that I do not and never will know, like how to kill a chicken and plant potatoes.  I am grateful to have seen and learned more about her life and the way her people live.  And my life will continue enhanced by that understanding.  I can hope that the same goes for her, but I am not so sure because she has been exposed to a little bit of my life and my experience which she now hopes for.  However, there is very little chance that she will ever have the experiences that I have had.  The way she sometimes talks makes me worry that she thinks less of her own experience as a result of witnessing part of mine.  My experience around the world has been that the American lifestyle is very much idolized and romanticized.  That is reasonable in some cases, but underlying that glorification is an assumption that the American way is the better way and that everyone should be striving for that, sometimes at the expense or devaluing of other ways of life.  We all know that America and Americans think this way often, but people around the world sometimes do to.  For this reason I really do hope that some day she gets to travel to the United States so that she can have the experience of living in a different culture and thereby learning to appreciate her own more deeply.  Sharing and seeing other points of view is so important, but it should never cause us to so readily discount our own experience and knowledge.

One comment

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience in Ecuador. I’ve really enjoyed reading it. You have a great gift for writing and story-telling. I hope you’ll continue to share your thoughts, insights and experiences from wherever you are.

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