Learning poverty and moral bankruptcy

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo by Andrew Ebrahim on Unsplash

The funny part is many do not understand that poverty is not only material or economic but can also cover learning. So, the term “learning poverty” has long been coined by a group of concerned international institutions. As a background to those who never knew but would like to, may I quote from this report:

The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update, a new joint publication of the World Bank, UNICEF, FCDO, USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and in partnership with UNESCO, stresses that even before the pandemic, there was already a learning crisis.”

Part of this report says that “After two years of distance learning and with months to go before the resumption of face-to-face classes in November, nine out of 10 Filipino children age 10 are still struggling to read simple texts by age 10, according to another World Bank (WB) report that monitors the quality of education in the region.”

Based on World Bank estimates, as many as 91 percent of children in the Philippines at late primary age “are not proficient in reading.”

Compared with its neighbors in the region, the Philippine learning poverty rate was higher by 56.4 points and more than double the regional average of 34.5 percent. It fared even worse among lower-middle-income countries, reflecting an abysmal 80.5-point gap with its peers.

I have read commentaries from esteemed personalities and journalists regarding this pitiful phenomenon (it qualifies to be one considering how proud Filipinos had been of their level of education). The 1960s reminded me of a period when Filipinos were still very proud of many economic, political, and educational accomplishments. From being once at the top of the region to sliding near the bottom, worse than even Africa at this point, I cannot help but wonder what caused this.

Perhaps, the word decay would have been appropriate for the old days, but poverty appears to be the more globally used term today. So, instead of learning about decay, I will follow the global institutions when they use the term poverty. It is not inaccurate either. One meaning of poverty is “the state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount.”

Likewise, as in Oxford Dictionary, the term “bankrupt” has not been contained to money or the financial. Its second meaning is quite symbolic, defined as “completely lacking in a particular quality or value, as in a cause being morally bankrupt.”

Can learning poverty be deeply connected with moral bankruptcy? In my mind, there is not only an intimate but an operational connection between morality and education. I also believe that educational institutions accept this and, in fact, adjust their curriculum to reflect the connection.

“Can learning poverty be deeply connected with moral bankruptcy? In my mind, there is not only an intimate but an operational connection between morality and education. I also believe that educational institutions accept this and, in fact, adjust their curriculum to reflect the connection.”

I say it is morality, the bankruptcy of which leads to poverty of learning. Morality is defined as a particular system of values and principles of conduct, a personal or social set of standards for good or bad behavior and character. It is about being good or bad and the extent to which an action is deemed right or wrong.

Poverty and bankruptcy both mean inferiority or lacking in amount or quality. What is taught at home, in the community, and in school is not only the alphabet or numbers. More importantly, it is morality, the difference between right and wrong, and it is about building a good character.

Material poverty is not a new state for Filipinos. The extreme gap between the 1% rich (A & B) and the majority (D & E)) has been there for so long that I cannot imagine when it was never that. Since then, the most substantial change to the economic strata has been achieved by OFWs who raised their earnings alone, not by the government. Later, change was enhanced by the IT industry through call centers and related services employing vast numbers of younger, non-rich Filipinos.

It seems evident that Filipino children did not just genetically deteriorate from being endowed with a natural level of intelligence to being mentally slow. If this is not a genetic phenomenon, what is it then? If it is not the genes, what are the most powerful influences that affect a child’s learning ability and experience?

The sterling success of Filipinos working abroad, or immigrating to several countries, speaks of native intelligence, particularly being able to read and understand instructions. Their communication and social skills also catapulted Filipinos to a superior state over other foreign workers. Definitely, there was little learning poverty then.

Strangely, though, here in the motherland, there has been a steady and general deterioration of learning as measured, not by political opposition but by global institutions. The latest results of which are sad, shocking, and shameful.

“Poverty and bankruptcy both mean inferiority or lacking in amount or quality. What is taught at home, in the community, and in school is not only the alphabet or numbers. More importantly, it is morality, the difference between right and wrong, and it is about building a good character.”

The divisive and destructive noise from opposing political forces and their massive propagation in traditional and social media tell us about an environment that necessarily dampens our morality. This environment is the second most powerful influence after the home that would influence children – and parents are the conduit of this to their children.

We have a faltering and maybe obsolete curriculum that is not designed for life 30 years from now or longer. We have a societal environment conditioned to all wars – against drugs, corruption, red tape, insurgencies, terrorism, etc. At the same time, where are the inspiring visions?

We have the advantage of a young population that should serve us well in the next several decades. But the growing illiteracy of that same and upcoming generations will negate that advantage.

The bankruptcy of morality and the poverty of learning go hand in hand. Both establish a trajectory condemning the younger generations belonging to the poorer majority. Thank goodness it is not genetic. We desperately need better models and more visible, ethical behavior by the leaders of society to reverse the trend – if they care.

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