Certificates are overrated, but education is indispensable

2015-01-21 16:20

A few weeks ago, Wednesday 7th January, after the release of the 2014 Matric results, SABC Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng attempted to differentiate between having a certificate and being functional. He said, "You have two kinds of people in this world. You have certificated people and educated people. You can have many degrees but also in that you need brain [sic]." Although many people viewed this as an attempt to defend himself over his lack of matric qualification scandal, a closer look at his view would show that he indeed spoke the truth. His speech in fact reminded me of a talk I gave to undergraduate students at the University of Johannesburg last year: education, knowledge and certification – why are you in school? Is there a difference between education and certification? What of knowledge – is that different too?

Education is one of those English words with multiple meanings, but I will take the tangent of its philosophical meaning. The Oxford Dictionary defines education as: “The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.” This is probably the most common way people look at education. The problem with this definition is that it looks at one side of education – the input (the interaction between the student and the system). It does not look at the outcome i.e. whether the student is better for it. The Merriam Webster Dictionary puts education as: “The knowledge and development resulting from an educational process.” This definition looks at the output part of the process, which to me is the functional way to define education. The word Education has its root in the Latin word educo which means “I train”, “I lead” or “I raise up”. So education is better looked at as an output than as an input because the fact that a person went through a process does not mean that the process went through the person.

It was Aristotle who said, “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.” This quote encapsulates the true essence of education. It is a functional outcome that is beneficial to both the poor and the rich. It has value both in prosperity and adversity.

We often equate certification with education, but they are different. Education should be the basic outcome of going to school. Basically whether you succeed in qualifying or not, you should at least gain education. Education does not mean going to school. The fact that a student goes to school does not mean that the student will turn out an educated person. Going to school is input while education is output. Going to school may be the decision of parents but education is the decision of the student and the system. It is one thing for a student to go through school, and another for schooling to go through the student.

Education is all about perspective (worldview), self-efficacy (empowerment) and behaviour (civilization). I have seen university graduates who are not better off in perspective and behaviour than someone whose highest qualification is a primary school leaving certificate. I have seen university graduates who threw empty cans out of their car into the streets – educated people do not do that. I have seen graduates who used public toilets and did not wash their hands – educated people do not do that. An improved worldview and behaviour are expected of an educated person. An educated person learns to be broad minded and socially and religiously tolerant – he does not subscribe to generalization. He learns to understand that people from his tribe, race and nationality are not superior to people from others. It was the same Aristotle who said, “'It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Self-efficacy is another key expectation of an educated mind. I have supervised master’s degree holders who could not think through to solve a problem that a matric certificate holder of the same age could solve. The reason Africa continues to import technology – mobile phones, computers, cars, etc. – today is because we have many certificated people but fewer educated people. One of the critical outcomes of education is problem solving skills; the ability to think, search for answers and adapt them.

Another reason we go to school is to gain knowledge and technical skills. You can get a certificate from a school without having the expertise of that qualification – meaning you basically crammed, cheated or did not apply yourself to the work. All a certificate does for you is to give you access into a system and it can be such a disappointment when someone does not have the knowledge and education to match their certification. Technical skills are absolutely important for success in anything we do. But also, one can have the certificate and knowledge, without being an educated (a more civilized) person. The desired outcome is to go to school and achieve all three. I believe that the primary reason we go to school is to develop an educated mind; the secondary reason is to develop technical knowledge and skills and the third reason is to get a certificate. I believe that it should be in this order. We need to create an educational system that produces students who focus on thinking and acquiring knowledge and not just on passing exams.

I have sometimes heard some students, after failing in school, say that they do not need tertiary education because people like Bill Gates (CEO of Microsoft) and Mark Zuckerburg (CEO of Facebook) did not complete tertiary education. I have often wondered how many of such students have read the biography of these successful men. I will summarise their educational biographies like this: these people went to school and obtained knowledge and education and were convinced they did not need the certificates. These men were not mentally lazy. They were extremely hardworking students who were top of their class. They did not leave school because they failed. In fact Bill Gates got his parents’ blessings to leave school to start a business because they knew he was brilliant and had been programming continuously from age 13 for almost a decade. He had more technical knowledge on programming than his lecturers and had obtained enough education (self-efficacy) to start a business. How then can drop-outs use Bill Gates as an example of the reason they should not go to school?

It should be highlighted that people who did not complete their studies and went on to achieve success are an exception, a tiny proportion of the lot. Of the 400 richest Americans on the Forbes list (pardon me to use riches as an index of success), 27 did not go beyond high school and only 36 were college dropouts. About 50% of them had a degree, a further 31% had a master’s degree and 5% had a PhD. Of the Forbes top ten richest people in Africa, only one dropped out of university, all other nine have university degrees with five having master’s degree.

While we get certificates from school, we do not necessarily have to get education from school, we can get education from life. However, a school remains the best place for getting education. The pressure and rigour that comes with schooling and the social skills we develop by meeting and interacting with different people should produce a better person. It is absolutely important therefore to go to school to pursue all three outcomes: education, knowledge and certificates, in that order. The reward for going through school and doing the necessary requirements of a student is a certificate and sometimes awards. But the rewards of gaining knowledge and education are far more.

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