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I’ve been reading stuff

March 22, 2012

The following post explains some reading that lead to some ideas that I’m implementing here. Skip to about the middle to spare yourself some tangents.

Thanks to a probably perfectly legal collection of ebooks that’s been circulating among volunteers, I never have a lack of books to read on my Kindle. It’s really nifty but it means that I’m unable to share books with my villagers here because I can’t show my Kindle around without people asking to keep it, either now or when I leave next year. Makes me wish there were a physical library here so I could share books, but there’s no interest in maintaining one, so I’m going to take some advice from training and do what my community wants, not what I want on this issue.

One of the most important features of my Kindle is the free Bible I downloaded. I’ve been avoiding church since I’ve discovered that 4-hour church services in a language I barely understand threaten my sanity. If anyone asks me if I went to church Sunday, which is a topic folks here can be quite judgmental about, I’ll tell them I stayed at home and read the Bible. I was even actually reading it for a time, trying to get from cover to cover, but I stopped three percent of the way through when I reached a rather confusing typo. Rachael steals something from her father, but this translation goes back and forth on whether she stole “household goods” or “household gods”. Both make sense in the context of the Old Testament, but either way, it’s very surprising to find a typo in a Bible because you’d expect the kind of people who write Bible translations to care a lot about correct spelling.

Anyway, one of the first novels I read from this collection was Brave New World. I didn’t know what it was really about when I first started it; I just thought “Aldous Huxley” was a cool name. Having read it, I feel compelled to write a comparison between the future society depicted in it and the one in 1984, but I won’t because that sounds too much like an assignment in a general education English class. Just allow me to say, though, that the planned societal structure in Brave New World, how everyone is created in vitro and only allowed to develop higher cognitive skills to the extent that they’ll need them in their pre-determined job, reminds me of apartheid-era education in South Africa. Depending on your birth, you were educated to become either an educated person or a laborer. Kind of like the Outer and Inner Party in 1984. No. Stop it.

Since I don’t like to have my Kindle out in public, I’m often reading on my more expensive but less exotic BlackBerry. While playing around on Twitter, I discovered a link from fellow volunteer Howell to a manifesto about what is wrong and what should be right with the education system in the United States. It’s called Stop Stealing Dreams and you should give it a read if you have a passing interest in the future of our nation. You may not agree with it all, and I sure don’t, but I can’t even remember what it is I disagree with because it raises so many valid points that need attention. It says that the first compulsory public schools in America were designed by the people who designed mass-production factories in order to mass-produce factory workers. Perhaps this is as good a place as any to note that in Brave New World, all religion has been replaced with belief in the Almighty Henry Ford. So the education system wants to produce more cogs in the machine (not to the extent of the dead horse* that is the South African education system but still), but the machines are quite literally moving overseas to where there’s cheaper labor, so it will no longer suffice for us to teach children obedience. We need to teach them motivation instead. Easier said than done, but the fact is that information is cheap. If you’re reading this, you’re at an Internet terminal and you have the power at your fingertips to research practically any subject you want. It should be the modern teacher’s job to teach something more intangible than facts from a book, such as the drive to learn those facts.

But wait, there’s more things I’ve been reading. Or playing, rather. I found a short game on my hard drive called Games Journo Story and it seems so current that I thought I must have downloaded it over Christmas break and forgotten about it. But no, the downloading and forgetting happened before I came to South Africa. Even though the subject matter is a little esoteric, I mean, I certainly don’t know much about British video games journalism and I’m sure there were a lot of inside references in the game I didn’t get, I think it’s a story a lot of us can relate to. Here’s a synopsis: a young, poorly-drawn man tries to prove himself to get into an industry he’s passionate about, and a lot of song lyrics and alcohol later, he probably doesn’t get anywhere. But what can you do except make a game about it?

There were a couple of book excerpts quoted within the game. One of the books was Atlas Shrugged, and the game’s author is fooling no one, that excerpt was just put there to seem pseudo-intellectual. The other one, entitled Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth, I found intriguing. So without pausing a moment to marvel at how incredible it is that I can get practically any book I want instantly while in rural Africa, but taking a second to be thankful for the math lab crew and the Amazon gift card they gave me, I bought it on my Kindle.

The book was, as one might suspect, largely irrelevant to any country I’ve ever lived in, but interesting nonetheless. Something that’s in common between America and Britain and South Africa is that even though the youth spends more time in education, with a higher proportion attending college than ever before, that jobs that they’re ostentatiously being educated for simply aren’t there. Let me remind you that a quarter of the South African adult population is unemployed. That’s huge.

So here’s what I’m doing. I’m taking a handful of learners in Grade 9 and instructing them to study something new every day for an hour. It can be anything they want, provided it’s not schoolwork. I’m doing it too. This learning hour is something I read about in Stop Stealing Dreams, and I confess to stealing the idea for turning it into a class from a random guy on the internet.

There are challenges. Someone in the states can learn about whatever they want through the internet, but that’s not an option for a South African villager, who even if they do have broadband wireless signals in their area, it can be expensive to use. So I’ll be teaching them to use the offline Wikipedia which I’m putting on school computers. Even though it’s scaled down from the real Wikipedia, it’s better than anything they’ve got. I’m also sharing some of my own toys for them to learn a skill, like a cheap harmonica or tennis balls I use for juggling. If I can get a new person to learn to juggle every month, I will consider this project and my time in Peace Corps as a success. I’ve also been taking poetry books from my school’s book pile and passing them off as new and interesting.

This has been slow to start, because the class schedule is erratic due to tests and that makes it hard for me to wrangle up the learners involved. Also, they’re not used to having this sort of freedom with their assignments so they’re not sure what to do with themselves. Before I started, I had them list topics and skills they knew already, and topics and skills they wanted to learn so I could maybe prepare materials for them. They listed things that were math-related (my fault for not explaining that I meant anything in the world), and they asked me when I would grade and correct their answers. You would think that the fact that I wrote the questions on scraps of paper would tell them that it’s not that kind of assignment. But just the same, I’m excited for the future.

*The horse was dead on arrival. I didn’t touch it.

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