Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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What the World Needs Now is More Access to Education

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  August 24 / 08

Zack Gross

This past week, the youngest of our four children headed off to school in another province, continuing the process of emptying our nest.  So, it was a bittersweet send-off with nostalgia, love and pride being mixed with pangs of uncertainty and loneliness. 

Three facts, in my mind, make higher education and training essential to our children and to our world:

1.   In our developed world, the gap is widening economically between those who pursue higher education and those who move into the workforce (or find themselves unemployed) before or at high school graduation.  A good education means that you will likely have an interesting job, earn a good salary and have some say in your workplace and your society.

2.   In the developing world, statistics show that lack of education and training perpetuates shocking rates of poverty, oppression, disease and death.  Students often must pay to attend school and still have few textbooks or supplies, and their teachers are not well-trained.  Boys are often favoured in families to get schooling.

3.  If the world doesn’t meet the UN’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in education, abject poverty and disenfranchisement will continue, but there will ultimately also be a leadership deficit that makes it much more difficult for humanity to deal with future challenges that will surely arise, such as environmental destruction, food shortages, conflict situations, and more.

When I was the age of my daughter who is headed off to University, I became involved in the international development movement.  At that time, forty years ago, 10,000 children died every day of poverty-related causes.  Today, that number has grown to 26,500 per day.  In the recent “Make Poverty History” campaign, advertising videos showed celebrities snapping their fingers every three seconds to signify another dead child.  Poverty’s highest toll on children is in Africa, particularly south of the Sahara desert, with Southern Asia second.

Remember the Asian Tsunami of December 2004?  While respecting the sad fate of the many who lost their lives, it must be pointed out that the total death toll from that disaster equaled the number of children who die, anyway, every day of poverty, hunger and easily preventable diseases in our world.  While people worldwide clearly noticed the tsunami’s destructive force, the day to day toll that poverty takes on children is not covered by the media on a regular basis and the promises of foreign aid, economic globalization and national and international institutions to deal with this issue are often swallowed up in politics, corruption and global forces that favour the rich.

The second of the eight UN MDGs is Universal Education, that all boys and girls have the opportunity to attend primary school.  This is a start toward greater numbers emancipating themselves from abject poverty.  Modern educational thinkers, such as Canadian Karen Mundy, who has taught in situations ranging from a rural high school in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa to California’s Stanford University, argue that education must be seen as a right, not a privilege, and that it should be viewed as part of a world system, rather than the responsibility of provinces, states or even nations.

Mundy argues that our current system most often strengthens education in developed countries, while treating institutions in less developed areas as a hinterland.  Thus, students get poorer quality education in poorer countries (or, one can argue, in poorer communities and neighbourhoods in wealthy countries), and only a few attain their aspirations of higher education or vocational training.  Those who wish to study at a higher level must travel to capital cities in their country or to universities in wealthier countries.  Many of these don’t return home, thus perpetuating the “brain drain” syndrome.  She also argues that, beyond literacy, school systems need to ensure that they produce graduates at a higher level so that countries have the information, contacts, skills and leadership needed to face 21st century challenges.

Getting back to daughters, my older one, a graduate of Brandon University now attending the University of Winnipeg, spent three months in Tanzania on a BU-Marquis Project internship three years ago.  She saw firsthand the struggle of young people her age to obtain a credible education and find full-time, decent paying work.  Living in a rural area, many hadn’t finished high school and were unable to earn enough money to accumulate savings.  When one friend who used an old bicycle to take vegetables to market damaged his bike in a crash, he didn’t have the ten dollars it took to get the bike back on the road.  This situation prompted our family to “bankroll” the bike fixing and pay the friend’s high school fees to date.  But, this band-aid solution will not change the ways of the world!

As our kids and grandkids head back to school next month, let’s consider how precious a good education is and find generous ways to ensure that not only the privileged get the chance to learn!  There are Einsteins, Mozarts and Mandelas out there whose talents need to be developed to the betterment of our world.

Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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