Saturday, 13 December 2008

Putting equality in perspective

As I read about and saw for myself how the Finnish education and society really put equality into practice, I couldn't help instinctively buying into this realisation of an ideal view to human nature. Yet I also tried to take a questioning approach and to 'put it in perspective' though I haven’t quite formed a conclusion myself. I try to put the following questions to you.

1. What is equality?

I have been told by Mr Laukanen that equality means two things: equal opportunities and fairness. It is this attitude towards equality that leads to the willingness of the State and its people to devote so much resources to education and to creating an equal platform for everyone.

Is it a value, an ideology, a conviction, a belief, an attitude, a policy, a practice as a matter of fact, or even a truth? For me it seems to be a state of mind that pervades the Finnish mentality and society (and perhaps much of the Nordic countries as well).

On a very broad level, equality is an acknowledgement of respect for human beings for the simple fact that we are all human beings – we all deserve the same treatment. It is to go beyond the differences to see the ultimate common identity. There is some inherent difficulty in considering this question – in some way we are just discounting some differences as irrelevant.

In the context of education, I think it means a firm belief that every child is ‘teachable’ and can be a good student if given sufficient attention.

While this may sound a bit abstract, let’s try to translate the concept in more concrete terms. Equality with respect to what? Gender, disability, ethnicity, nationality, class, birth, language? A different way of asking the question is what is a legitimate basis for ‘discriminating’ between people? What is a relevant difference that justifies differential treatment?

In general we frown upon discrimination on the basis of sex, disability, ethnicity, class or birth – those aren’t relevance to the right of a child to receive education. But there are two more interesting criteria which are worth considering.

The first criterion is ability; should students with higher IQ or learning ability be given more resources ie ‘better’ education? The second criterion is nationality; should children of foreign nationality be entitled to receive free education?

2. Why equality? Why not elitism? Equality to what extent?

This blends in with the first question and questions the fundamental rationale behind it. Is equality an absolute goal? What is it that only equality can achieve? What are the circumstances where equality should be overridden by other more important objectives?

Emphasis on equality has its own drawbacks – a most salient one being the neglect over the more gifted students. When teaching time and resources are spent on lifting up the weaker students, the smarter ones are scarcely pushed and therefore not fulfilling their potential. So in some sense equality is a policy in favour of the weaker, and not entirely equally kind and effective for the more able students (in other words, there is no complete equality, and it is really a question of choice).

Countries like the UK, the US, Korea, Japan, China (including my beloved city Hong Kong) have opted for a more competitive environment that fosters elitism. The most extreme example may well be Singapore where there is a very scary streaming system that happens as early as 6 or 7 years – best students get the best teachers and resources. The fittest survive, and everyone tries to be the winner in the race. This competitive environment is more likely to fulfil the full potential of students in the sense that the best compare themselves with the people on the same caliber. And therefore many parents love public schools, Oxbridge and ivy league universities.

In Scandinavian countries, they emphasise the goal of learning is self-improvement, and it doesn’t matter who runs faster. The weaker students don’t suffer a sense of failure as easily as others in a competitive environment. More students are lifted up to a higher standard, which gives Finland a higher average standard of performance. But the brightest kids are a bit bored.

One argument I have heard before is that countries need a group of highly capable people to run the country, and that can only be nurtured through elitism by giving the right amount of resources to the right people. While we may give up a portion of the student population who do not succeed academically – for example, more than 20,000 students out of 100,000 fail all subjects in HKCEE, the upside is we get really high-skilled all-rounded labour who is each worth two persons.

The counter-argument in favour of equality is that by spending more resources on enhancing the ability of the weaker students, society actually saves by preventing a lot of social problems that can potentially arise from an enormous group of people with little or no productivity who are likely to be harbour grievances as they feel stuck in desperation. While it is true they spend a lot of money on educating everyone to a high average standard, they in turn create a generally more productive force which is less likely to pose long term social problems.

To some extent, it is a question of striking a balance between ensuring that everyone gets equal opportunities to fulfil their potential and promoting excellence in the achievement of the more gifted students—that is, if it is possible to have the cake and eat it too. Is elitism mutually exclusive with equality?

3. Is equality practicable in Hong Kong or other parts of the world?

Is society ready? Would parents complain about too slow a syllabus when their children are brighter?

Can the average standard really be raised with a mixing of the best and poorest students? Or would it be the case that the best students become adversely influenced and uninterested in studying as a result?

Are there enough resources for looking after everyone?

Does the massive population of Hong Kong mean that it can readily sacrifice a good number without compromising the future of its people? That is - is equality really necessary?

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