Courtesy of Paliativos Sin Fronteras/Palliative Notes Magazine 2021.
Author: Gnacio Luque Pérez
Education, beyond being an individual right, is an opportunity for the community as a whole, as it is the most useful tool for social progress. Each society is the child of the mentality of each of its members, but for this mentality to develop fully, it must necessarily pass through the sieve of the most complete education possible, which not only provides instruction in strictly academic matters but also trains citizens in a broader sense. However, as we shall see, there are aspects of our everyday reality that escape the first stages of education.
What do we teach in our schools and colleges about illness, about the suffering it causes, about the inevitability of death? The answer is that little, very little, or even nothing is taught.
The current curriculum, along with the subjects themselves, includes different topics to be dealt with in the classroom. These are the so-called “cross-cutting contents”, thanks to which we can bring to schools the known social problems and concerns to be prioritised at a given moment in time. We are currently talking about issues such as education for co-existence and peace, education for equality, sex education, environmental education, road safety education or education for responsible consumption. But as far as we are concerned, in order to answer the questions, we were asking ourselves, we must look at a transversal theme, in particular, that of “Education for health and personal hygiene”. Successive and countless educational laws approach this theme with an integral concept of health, understood as physical and mental well-being that favours personal and social development. That is to say, it focuses on the acquisition by students of healthy behavioural habits, but in no case do the aforementioned concepts of illness, suffering or death appear, which results in them being effectively left out of the Spanish educational curriculum.
However, this does not mean that these topics cannot be dealt with in class, where the dynamics of the teaching-learning process can lead to their analysis. The question is that on many occasions teachers do not feel prepared to deal with them in-depth, and that is why, when they are raised, it is usually done in a very basic way, almost with fear. It is undeniable that certain subjects are complicated to discuss with children or adolescents, for whom issues as crude as death or illness are extremely difficult to understand to their full extent, so that teachers themselves often prefer not to deal with them, or do so very briefly when they are unavoidable.
For all these reasons, there are many voices today calling for current “health education” to break down these walls, often self-imposed, and to include in the curriculum issues such as illness and death, which, as we have seen, are currently left out of the educational project. Work, such as that of Agus-tín de la Herrán Gascón, Pablo Rodríguez Herrero and Victoria de Miguel Yubero, professors at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, who lead a pioneering international research and training group, proposes overcoming the aforementioned barriers, complementing the current “Education for health” with what they call “Education for death”.
Thus, only with the most natural and sincere approach possible to these issues, without falling into histrionics or over-protective attitudes, can we ensure that our students acquire a personal maturity that will lead them to understand the world around them, however hard it may sometimes seem. It does not seem fair to hide this part of reality from those who, precisely because they are at a stage of personality formation, need to have all the information that can be made available to them, logically, always according to their level and abilities.
However, assimilating the idea of the unavoidable will not only help them in their personal training but also in their academic training. Beyond dealing with these issues when facing possible death events that may occur at the centre or in their own families, it is essential for a complete understanding of certain subjects to accept what concepts such as illness, suffering, pain, fear or loss entail, as well as an approach to values such as charity or empathy, so fundamental in the world of palliative care. In this way, to cite a few examples, this will facilitate the deepening and true understanding of disciplines such as Philosophy, Literature, Biology, Religion or Ethical Values, History of Art, History or Classical Culture, among others.
In conclusion, if as we have seen, one of the aspirations of the educational system should be to educate people, it does not seem very logical to deny our pupils an understanding of a part of reality. Illness and the pain it causes, both in the sick themselves and in those close to them, as well as death itself, are part of life, and an education that does not contemplate them will not be a complete education. This is even more important when dealing with cases in the classroom that require palliative care, which will inevitably be prolonged in time, with the consequent vital anguish of the children. Fortunately, there are those who are working in the right direction to remedy these shortcomings in the educational curriculum, in such a way as to bring a more human touch to the education provided in our schools.