The Teacher's Situation: The Determining Factor of a Quality Education for All
Throughout the world, the value of teaching as a profession has declined unchecked. Despite attempts to arrest this decline by such means as increased pay, a gathering malaise overshadows the task of educators, a task that often appears caught in a curious dichotomy. At the same time that the moral authority of teachers as respected members of the community is eroding, schools are being asked to address a growing list of moral and social concerns traditionally relegated to the family. What are the root causes of this contradiction? Might it be that our materialist ethos has led us to undervalue those professions which are not economically productive in the narrow sense? A fundamental reassessment of the nature of human reality and human society is needed.
Baha'is believe that human beings are inherently noble, and that the purpose of life is to cultivate such attributes, skills, virtues and qualities as will enable them to contribute their share to the building of an ever-advancing civilization. True education releases capacities, develops analytical abilities, confidence, will, and goal-setting competencies, and instills the vision that will enable them to become self-motivating change agents, serving the best interests of the community. Individuals should be skilled in the art of consultative decision making and empowered with a sense of their own dignity and worth. They should understand their positions as members of both a local community and the world community, and they must believe their lives can make a difference.
This notion of the student as inherently noble, yet in need of patient cultivation, implies that the teacher must be a model of nobility, self-actualization and discipline. In the Baha'i view, sound character is ultimately more important than intellectual brilliance. The teacher must also see the nobility and capacity in each student, recognizing that a lack of opportunity is different from lack of capacity. A corollary is that the teacher must enjoy the support of the greater community, a respect that flows logically from recognizing the teacher's true station.
Education needs an expanded definition that frees it from today's largely economic context and acknowledges its role in transforming both individual lives and entire societies. Basic education, literacy, and vocational education need to be redefined in a way that offers the majority more than the acquisition of a few skills and a few simple facts. The minimum requirements of education are the basic knowledge, qualities, skills, attitudes, and capacities that enable individuals to become conscious subjects of their own growth, and active, responsible participants in a systematic process of building a new world order.
Implications for teacher-training would include the necessity of raising up qualified teachers from within the local community. The community will feel ownership and investment in the school if it empowers the community to transform itself. Entry into formal schooling should be seen as a continuing process begun even before birth, rather than as a sudden, disjunctive immersion into a alien institutional culture. Especially in disadvantaged communities, people deserve a sense of pride and ownership in the educational process. While standardized curricula and technical specialists might play a valuable role, respect for and sensitivity to locally evolved knowledge systems ought to be the cornerstone of any campaign of educational development.
Children in disadvantaged populations often suffer from a poor self-concept, living without hope and being treated as second-class citizens. The leverage point in promoting a positive self-concept in these children is teacher training. Prospective teachers need a thorough understanding of the role self-concept plays in determining school success, and they need to practice patterns of behavior that create a climate of encouragement in the classroom. Teachers must relinquish the idea that they are fountains of all knowledge. Rather, they should form a partnership with their students in a shared learning process, demonstrating by their example that they, too, are learners. This can have a liberating effect on students in that it helps them see themselves as directors of their own learning and as individuals who can determine the course their lives will take.
Teachers must give up all occupational prejudices. Education as envisioned in the Baha'i Writings makes the child a collaborator both in his own growth and in the development of his community. He must acquire a balanced set of capacities that are at once academic, spiritual and vocational. Artisans, craftsman, agriculturalists and tradesmen are seen in the Baha'i perspective as enjoying an intrinsic station of worth and value. Occupational prejudices that enable white collar workers and professionals to vaunt themselves over others drive youth into the cities.
Therefore, the whole range of skills and experiences which a people possess are seen as valuable and worthy of transmission, not merely those which seem to have the stamp of modernity. Likewise, literacy, which empowers the individual to participate in affairs of the larger world and to articulate and defend his own interests, is seen as a key component of education for all. Education must be made compulsory and universal, building on local realities but building on universal principles; it must be relevant to the true needs of a community and contribute to the unification of mankind. It must enable people both to move in the direction of their own choosing and equip them with an appreciation of those universal qualities that distinguish the entire human race. The Baha'i teachings indicate that in order to do this, teachers must be restored to their traditional role as the transmitters of morality, the builders of character and the custodians of culture.