It seems to be a rare point of national consensus that our politicians are failing us, even if we disagree on how. It might seem very unfair to criticise people who put themselves forward for the thankless task of trying to keep everyone on-side in a disparate nation of sixty-plus million individuals, but my views on this have changed, and I suspect many other people’s have too.
In the past, I accepted the notion that those in charge generally had the best interests of the nation at heart, even when I profoundly disagreed with their chosen means of delivering them. I am no longer sure that that is the case: we seem to have a generation of politicians who are rather too torn between doing their democratic job, and preserving the considerable personal benefits that derive from doing that within the British political system; it should not be a dilemma. That interpretation may well be excessively charitable: much of the impasse over Brexit and all that has followed seems clearly driven by personal and party interests, rather than those of the nation. That is hardly news – commentators all across the nation are saying as much.
I tend to exclude from this the dilemma facing those MPs whose personal inclinations over Brexit are in conflict with the way their constituencies voted on the matter, though even here, it is very possible that the resultant paralysis has as much to do with self-interest as anything else. I also can’t resist mentioning that I have yet to hear of a pro-Brexit MP who is beating themselves up because they represent a pro-remain constituency…
Be all that as it may, it may seem excessively harsh to blame the situation on the poor, unsuspecting education system – yet this has not prevented many people from attributing much of the country’s predicament to the failure to educate people properly. As a former teacher, I am hesitant at accepting such sweeping accusations, and yet having thought about it more, I am afraid I conclude that education does have responsibility here, if not in the direct way that those critics perhaps think.
First, the bit where I disagree: Brexit and the resultant attitudes are not the result of a failure to teach compulsory European Studies. At school age, such subjects largely go over people’s heads; I taught the subject at ‘A’ Level, and even then it was hard to make it resonate with many students. (In the end, I took them to Strasbourg, and sat them in the Parliament for a day. After that, their attitudes had markedly changed – but we cannot do that for all children.) Steering national attitudes is a much more subtle, gradual and difficult thing than that, in any case – even assuming it is a legitimate thing to attempt.
No, the failure of education is more profound than that – and also, I believe less properly-understood. A constant battle in my teaching career was my advocacy of “learning for learning’s sake”, against a considerable and powerful majority who saw it in much more instrumental terms – a confected process by which children were made to jump hoops that eventually might result in their getting a decent job, which by no coincidence happened also to provide cheap childcare for their parents, while delivering good career outcomes for teachers and their schools. One almost got the impression that any real cognitive development that happened along the way was little more than a fortunate side-effect.
But learning for learning’s sake is not the ivory-tower ideal that is often portrayed. It is through learning without ulterior motive that one’s intellectual powers are best developed, free from the distractions of how they might need to be ‘useful’. It is the only way in which learning can be the truly impartial process that comes close to the real meaning of the word ‘academic’.
What is more, it is only through such a process that the really important aspect of education can be maximised, namely its residue. It is what Einstein meant when he said “Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. The message remains right: the really important thing about education is not the cramming of facts, the learning of skills, nor even the certificates one gains or the income it eventually delivers – and certainly not the league-table position it delivers to the school – but the state of mind it creates.
It is this that the education system has increasingly neglected. Such abstracts were perceived as meaningless against the seemingly more tangible matters of exam results, employability, let alone school league tables. As education increasingly became little more than the training in hoop-jumping that such exigencies required, something of profound value was lost – to the point that we now have entire generations that not only lack such a perspective but don’t even know that they do. Finishing my school education in the early 1980s, I consider that I myself caught little more than the tail-end of it.
When education is shorn of its higher ideas, it does indeed become little more than training: it produces people who, while they may be highly skilled in specific fields, lack – sometimes to a worrying degree – a larger perspective on the world. They also often lack qualities like patience, impartiality or empathy. Everything is focused on self-realisation. The general population’s role in the current political emergency comes from its propensity for woolly, self-referential thinking, restricted knowledge, egocentric perspectives, impatience with diverse points of view and a failure to accept that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Those who become teachers then often perpetuate their own experience of mechanical teaching simply because they themselves lack the nuances that those abstract qualities cultivate – and so the cycle continues.
Such qualities are, however, no less necessary now than they ever were; one might argue even more so as the purely manual aspects of life have continued to decline. Somewhere in the shared subconscious, I believe there is a vague awareness of this void – but it is not something that a short remedial action can alter: it is something cultivated by breathing the air of a healthy educational environment (and I mean that in the widest sense, to include the home and other environments) throughout one’s early development, and indeed indefinitely.
The present education system has attempted to address this issue by focusing on window-dressing. In my experience, a major part of school culture involved learning how to talk oneself up, no matter how justified it was or wasn’t. I witnessed many school assemblies where pupils were exhorted to see life as a “challenge”, a competition to “win”. I witnessed examples of this where pupils were encouraged to “work on their personal brand”, to polish their personal statement to the point where they reflected more what the recipients were deemed to want to hear than anything accurate about the author.
In other words, for several generations now have bought into the world of hype – and they have encouraged the people of this country to believe that glossy marketing is more important than any substance that might lie behind it. What’s more, the teachers didn’t just preach this to their pupils; in many cases it seemed to be how they ran their own careers. I was chided on more than one occasion for “failing to play the game” because I stuck to my academic ideals.
The root of this deception is of course that the primary aim in life is to get what you want from it, no matter how one does it. The truth is an acceptable casualty in this race, as are personal integrity and any more subtle qualities that are hard to demonstrate. Yet it is utterly the antithesis of an educated state of mind, which tends to be restrained, tolerant, enquiring – and modest.
It is not fair to blame this entirely on schools, because in a way they have only been reflecting changes in wider society driven by new media and such like. But it is arguably the case that had education not failed to equip people with better intellectual foundations in the first place, such superficial tendencies might not have gained the traction that they have. The real failure of schools and education is not in specific matters – but in their willingness to endorse such matters and exploit them, rather than making a stand in the name of a more profound integrity. It is this that has brought the nation to a position where very many within it are profoundly ignorant of civic responsibilities, or understanding of how civil society works – politics and constitution included – so busy have they been polishing their own personal brands.
If we have produced a nation in which individual self-realisation is the over-riding aim – and I believe that the majority of the nation now really does believe it believes this – then it is hardly surprising that our politicians behave in the same way. Their duty to the nation is little more than an inconvenience on one’s way to Power and a stellar career; seen in this light, the behaviour of many of them makes much more sense. Personal weakness, ignorance or incompetence no longer need be an impediment to reaching the top in politics, any more than in the many other fields where powerful people make bad decisions based on the hubristic imperative of their personal brands.
I still can’t forget the occasion when I walked in on a local politician whom I had briefed to talk to my students about the principles of democracy and parliamentary representation – and found him telling them instead about how amazing a career politics can be for the ambitious individual.
That we (collectively) get the politicians we deserve is probably true, though the reasons why are subtler than they seem.