Education: “Having to struggle with so many know-it-alls!”

Monday, October 8, 2012

I have thought of this so many times! Olegario, the good caretaker of the building where I lived in Granada when I was appointed Rector in 1968 was so right! Everyone congratulated me… except Olegario who looked at me and said dolefully, “Oh, Mr. Mayor, I feel so sorry for you!”. And when I asked him “Why, why, Olegario?”, he responded: “No way! Having to struggle with so many know-it-alls!”

Yes, in education everyone offers an opinion, but rarely do they listen to the opinions of others. In the debates in Parliament, and even in the Council of Ministers… everyone intervenes when discussing any aspect of the educational process. They are all “know-it-alls” and they all maintain their own arguments. When the discussion centers on foreign policy or internal affairs, the economy, defense… they fall silent. But when the floodgates of education are opened, there are waves of interventions…

I have often recounted an anecdote about the principal of a school near Ouagadogou, the capital of Burkina Fasso, that occurred in 1989 when I visited that beautiful Central African country as Director General of UNESCO with the President and Ministers. At that school the President and I were discussing “Education in Africa”. The principal observed our conversation with a smile on her face… which turned out not to be an expression of satisfaction, but rather of irony: “Mr. Director General: I liked what you said, but why is it that UNESCO, UNICEF and NGOs all come here to give us advice rather than listening to ours? I have devoted 26 years of my life to teaching,… and I am sure that we African teachers are those who should be the first to design our educational system”.

I was so impressed with her words that when I returned to UNESCO headquarters I decided that from then on all of our educational programs would be conducted with the teachers, after ascertaining how and in what way we could collaborate with them. From that day forward, UNESCO programs were entitled “Listening to Africa” or Asia…

Listening. Let’s listen to our teachers who generally show exemplary devotion to teaching, transmitting knowledge, but above all, educating, that is, helping to create “free and responsible” human beings, according to UNESCO’s superb definition.

Yes, Olegario, the “know-it-alls” are very dangerous. Especially when they hold high office and don’t seek the advice of anyone else but themselves.