Back to the Future

Industrialists have long levelled criticisms at educationalists, whom they have caricatured as naive, other-worldly idealists who have no experience of the ‘real world’. They have regularly complained that education was not providing people ‘fit for employment’ – and increasingly, government sat up and listened.

In John Cridland, we seem to have a Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry whose view is refreshingly liberal. He has recently urged employers to ensure that present up-turns in revenues are passed on to their employees in order to ease domestic financial pressures. I wonder if he will be heeded. Likewise, he has made a number of statements in past months urging a wider view of education and arguing that ‘well rounded’ people are what the economy and indeed society needs, not exam-passing machines.

I have no issue with the business world’s interest in education, except when it appears to think it has the sole rights to the product of our work.   I do have reservations about that, based on a wider reading of the purpose of education, and I am not convinced that its influence on either our pupils or society at large has been as generally benign as it would have us believe. I suspect the calls for workplace-ready young people were a rabble-rouser from a sector that too often was seeking to avoid the cost of training people itself, something that collectively, U.K. businesses have long neglected.

There is a basic philosophical objection to modelling education on consumer products: the latter are tangible, defined and known; becoming ‘educated’ involves the unknown, the indeterminate and the uncertain. The notion that the student, as consumer of education, is in a position to decide what they want of and from it is also flawed as it assumes knowledge that by definition they don’t have. There is also the small point that students younger than 16 have no option to refuse an unsatisfactory or unwanted educational ‘product’. They therefore cannot be seen as consumers in the commercial sense – and their parents may not be in a very different position either. For this reason, it is highly misleading to encourage people to see themselves as consumers of educational services. If nothing else, they risk closing their minds to the very outlooks that generate the best learning.

There is nothing inherently wrong with providing young people with a theoretical or idealistic view of the world – in my opinion, we will be the poorer on the day when we stop trying to encourage the next generation to aspire to solve the present world’s failings – some of which, in recent years, have been quite clearly the product of contemporary business practices. From theoretical understandings come practical solutions, as any university will demonstrate.  It is interesting too, to note that in recent years some of the most successful companies have been those that devised business models that have challenged the existing order. They too must have had theoretical origins.

The ‘real world’ as often invoked by industrialists encompasses far more than just the world of commerce, so arguably it is actually business that is narrow if it fails to accept that we need to educate people to be more than simply effective employees. The difficulty encountered when trying to make some industries face up to their social or environmental responsibilities (until they were persuaded that there was money in it) further reinforces my suspicions that business at large does not always take the enlightened view it claims.

But my objection to educating solely for employment is not simply the idealism of an old-school academic. Other than developing general functional and organisational skills (which are both necessary and in any case, have wider applications), nobody has fully explained what precisely educating for employability actually means at school level. I assume it does not mean wall-to-wall Business Studies – but permeating other subjects with the values of commerce is, in my view, equally misguided. I hope it does not mean product placement.

Quite apart from the fact that secondary school children are not generally at a stage of development to acquire specialised workplace skills, there is a greater risk: by imbuing everything we do with the culture of business, we risk narrowing down the things they need to  learn about. There are still many areas of life that are little-touched by business – for example, family and societal life, which often works on distinctly non-commercial values, and what is the point of educating people only for work if they have no ability or outlook to develop wider lives in which to enjoy the fruits of their labour? While we may not develop those aspects explicitly, encouraging as wide an intellectual outlook as possible is the most fertile ground in which they can develop. I find it depressing to note the way in which the nation’s cultural life has been redefined as ‘creative industries’, and the money-speak emanating from some of our university academics and leaders is even more so. We need to value these things for their intrinsic worth, not just the revenue they generate. This is a damagingly reductivist way to run a society, and education should at least remain impassive to it.

But my most profound objection is that we risk replacing the benign, disinterested approach of the academic with the materialistic, self-interested approach of commerce. Affluenza theory has demonstrated how this can work contrary to people’s  psychological well-being. The market model of society has already had serious effects on individual and communal well-being in this country in the past few decades; encouraging children only to value material self-interest, and to understand wider society in those terms, has serious implications for the fundamental nature of that society in future.

As Oliver James has said, education should set children free, not incarcerate them; it should certainly not be about brain-washing them into being ‘good little producer-consumers’. Children are intellectually immature; at school-level, our job is benignly and impartially to develop their brains in the widest possible sense – and to provide them with an understanding of the world around them in the broadest and most unbiased way possible. In that sense we have a professional duty to resist the commercial interests which only distort that, by balancing them with other considerations. And one could argue that the current environmental emergency would suggest that encouraging further consumption is actually the last thing we should be doing.

There seems to be a perception that preparing young people for business means encouraging them to be highly assertive, ruthlessly ambitious, materially self-interested, prepared to drive a hard bargain and to suppress their emotions in favour of business logic. This can only be reinforced by the Alan Sugars in of this world when they appear on T.V. Apart from the inherent dehumanisation in this, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that there is actually more to successful business than this rather dated outlook, and it is encouraging to see John Cridland arguing as much. I am far from convinced that we need to be imbuing such attributes in young people – there will be plenty of time for them to harden up as adults, always assuming that is desirable in the first place.

So, while business awareness is completely legitimate as part of a wider curriculum, I see no reason why it should have any special claim on us.  Oliver James has identified the business world as the main propagator of Affluenza, and as educators we surely have a responsibility to forewarn, if not actually immunise our pupils against such potential distress. The world of business is inherently materialistic, self-interested and often short-termist. We need to balance its consumption-based interests with our duty to teach pupils about their environmental and social responsibilities. Just because business shouts loudest to government does not mean that education always need to jump to attention.

It would be good to think that industry is beginning to realise that narrow job-training is not the way to develop a flexible and highly-skilled workforce, let alone provide a good quality of life for people in this country. I have no problem working alongside business, so long as it respects education’s right to say no. State-sector thinking is often accused of being ten years or more behind the commercial sector, but perhaps that is not always a bad thing; in this case, the values that some of us refused to let go may just be coming back into vogue.

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