Nicola Walsh evaluates the ‘missionaries’ and ‘mercenaries’ in education

Educating the next generation is everyone’s business and we all have a responsibility to pass on what we know. Even the Bible in the prophetic book of Joel instructs on the transfer of knowledge: “Tell your children of it and let your children tell their children, and their children the next generation.”

However, what we choose to pass onto the next generation and how it is delivered has become more complex than ever before. Today, knowledge can be accessed on demand from a variety of sources and passed on instantly across the globe in a matter of seconds.

History tells us that equal access to knowledge is fundamental to the promotion of a peaceful and harmonious society. Knowledge is power and where there are inequalities in the access to knowledge, trouble is likely to follow. So in considering an education for the next generation, we have to be cognisant of equal access to quality education for all members of society.

Initially, the transfer of knowledge became formalised through schooling. This embedded common values in a community and was often established by religious groups through missionary schools.

Students who failed to adopt what was valued by the community or didn’t receive schooling were often deemed failures. They existed on the periphery of society. Therefore, education rapidly became a marketable commodity, which was sought after by those who wanted to excel in society. And consequently, the possession of knowledge became measured and respected.

Amongst the holders of knowledge there evolved both ‘missionaries’ and ‘mercenaries.’ Those who were willing to share their knowledge freely were missionaries. The mercenaries were those who levied a fee for teaching what they knew.

Dr. Jonas Salk was a true missionary in the 20th century who freely disseminated the fruits of his knowledge. He invented a vaccine to combat the spread of polio and refused to patent it, thereby allowing thousands of people free access to his newfound knowledge.

However, this approach is becoming increasingly unusual. The norm is that education is big business, profit making and marketable. Although there is some free access and free schooling at the primary level in most countries, the next generation will have to be prepared to pay to source the information that they need – particularly at the tertiary level.

Previously, authorities providing free schooling set curriculums on the basis of what was good for society. Today, student demand is influencing the educational courses that are offered and research work is more likely to be funded by corporates rather than governments. Consequently, it is even more important that we don’t lose sight of the interested adults who freely share what they know with young people – simply for the sake of transferring knowledge. Research shows that children who have a carer who is interested in what they’re doing will achieve more than others.

Sharing and transferring knowledge related to simple everyday tasks like cooking, dressing, household chores, basic repairs, guiding and advising on personal, social and emotional aspects of living will go a long way towards ensuring that the next generation is equipped with the tools they need to succeed.

Apprenticeships – i.e. where students learn alongside their ‘masters’ – are being reinvented as internships, often with less pay for the student but the same outcome in the transfer of valuable knowledge.

Schools will still continue to play an important role in embedding social values and rules. Over time however, they may have a smaller role in academic training as tutors – both on and offline. But schools could be better used when they eventually become learning centres for social skills, collaboration, arts, crafts, sports and music.

Overall, the role of parents, carers and responsible adults as teachers must not be forgotten. Parents teach their children to walk and talk so why not all the other important facets of learning too?

Busy parents and carers are often tempted to relinquish their duty of teaching to the school. And when this happens, the role of the parent is transformed into that of a provider rather than an adviser and informed mentor.

Once the process of knowledge transfer from one generation to the next is broken, it becomes difficult to reestablish. Therefore, it is vital that this process continues even in an age when there’s a mountain of knowledge available from a wide variety of sources.

At the end of the day, we all have a responsibility to act as missionaries and educate the next generation on everything we know so that young people are prepared not merely academically, but also emotionally, physically, socially and practically to face the demands of an ever-changing world.