In philosophy, one of the proofs for the existence of God is what has come to be called the Design argument. It is grounded on observations about the complexity, order, and beauty of the natural world to move to the conclusion that such a world cannot be a product of mere accident.
For instance, when you look at the order within the human body, how different organs work together for the whole to function; when you look at lakes, mountains, valleys, rivers, seas, oceans, animals, birds, insects, the entire eco-system and its interconnectedness, you can’t avoid acknowledging that there must be a ‘designer’ behind all this.
Of course, atheists such as Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have poured cold scorn on this argument. Dawkins has asked: ‘and who designed the designer?’ They note that nature is not as orderly as we might selectively want to observe.
Amidst the order, there are also glaring features of messiness, natural evil, and imprecision that may not be attributable to a good perfect designer (God). Some children are born without limbs. Others are ushered into the world with incurable complications. Some animals are ‘designed’ with ruthless tools (such as long teeth) to prey on others in utmost violence!
Without really delving into the merits and lows of the design argument, some of the observations therein and others I have made over time as a student and teacher raise challenging questions for our educational practices.
I doubt that any of us disputes that nature (or whatever you may wish to call it) is not balanced in its distribution of abilities and incapacities. Some are extremely gifted, in ways that do not require much more effort to shine, while others have to struggle to discern a single talent.
Some are naturally disadvantaged from appearance to intellectual abilities and works of the hand. Others swim through life with so much ease and favour on account of arbitrary qualities such as beauty that they never laboured to acquire. As such, the first site of injustice is in nature. Even before we consider social disadvantage, life is not a race that we start from equal vantage points. Some start with tied legs while others take off on horsebacks.
Studies on intelligence show that we are naturally endowed differently in the domains of ‘language, reasoning, memory and learning, visual perception, auditory perception, idea production, cognitive speed’, and many others. Whereas these can indeed be improved or derailed by our environments (upbringing, education…), they are not entirely products of nurture.
I do not find practical merit in the boastful exclamation of the famous behaviourist, B. F. Skinner, that “give me a child, and I’ll shape him into anything”. It is misleadingly grounded on the view that everything we do and become is shaped/conditioned by our experience of reward and punishment. This is not always the case. We may recall how vainly we struggled with some subjects at school which came so easily for others, and vice versa.
Back in my primary school days, there was a practice of reading out names of the best five and last five pupils every end of term at the general assembly. This was for all classes, Primary 1 up to Primary 7. The best five would be recognised with praises, while the last five would be caned before everyone else. The perception/assumption behind this practice was that whoever failed was responsible for their performance (did not put enough effort) and whoever passed highly was hardworking.
In some cases, this assumption is correct, but it is not necessarily the only explanation. In fact, with only a few variations, the names of the first and last five tended to be the same all through the years. If it was indeed a matter of choice, why, despite all this humiliation, would one continue being the last?
We could say that the humiliation could have discouraged them instead, but this argument is difficult to sustain in consideration of other attendant details. Some of the perennial underperformers were very hardworking!
Perhaps we all recall that boy or girl that always attentively attended classes plus discussions, and read deep into the night; yet everyone somehow knew beforehand where they would end up on the result list. On the other hand, there was that boy or girl who picked everything during the lesson/lecture and didn’t labour to revise that much, but often emerging on top of the list!
Cognisant of all this, the emerging questions are: How do we distinguish between those who fail due to lack of seriousness or proper teaching from those who are naturally far less intellectually gifted? Maybe this is relatively easy to establish. Then, how should we handle the hardworking poor performer? What is the effect of constantly reminding them of their incapacity through humiliating grading practices that may pay no attention to their other abilities?
Some schools stream learners according to their performance/grades. Some have streams named: Bright, Super, Brilliant, Active. The labels themselves may not be indicative of lower intellectual capacity, but the learners are made to know the rationale behind this intellectual stratification. It is not uncommon then to find a child crying because they have been placed in Active.
Whereas the school’s aim could be to allow proportionate attention in teaching in line with learning abilities, the practice could as well be stigmatising and may contribute to creating lasting surrender and defeat. Some schools go as far as making their ‘weak’ students sit exams from other remote examination centers where competition is imagined to be favourable to them!
In my view, education practices should take into account differences in comprehension capacities and talent. Learners ought to be understood in light of their varied talents and alternatives for pursuing these created early enough before they lose interest in education altogether.
The writer is a teacher of philosophy.