Political tribalism is, in many ways the antithesis of what education allegedly stands for. I hold by my perhaps-naive ideal that the purpose of my daily work is to develop in people the independence of mind to make their own decisions, rather than remain prisoner to those foisted on them by received wisdoms and historical precedent. I also equate that with a growing breadth of vision, and a widening of horizons that hopefully lead to the realisation that one’s own interest is more than a simple matter of self-serving.
It is also evident to me that the resultant perspective is more likely to cross partisan boundaries than respect them. Thus, my own general perspective is progressive, even while I embrace a generally small-c conservative conception of what constitutes a good society. The values of fairness, compassion, the rule of law and a positive-default respect for one’s fellow citizens are not the exclusive property of any one political group, and they belong as much to the future as the past.
This belief in community extends to offering a real welcome to those who seek refuge or genuine self-improvement within our shores, and to working co-operatively within the family of European nations, from many of whom we can actually learn a lot. When it comes to Europe, it is this spirit of consensual co-operation that our petty, confrontational nation just does not ‘get’.
It involves supporting those who struggle within our society – for whatever reason – accepting that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor – and probably morally and intellectually indefensible while we persist with not making the same distinctions when it comes to the rich.
I cast my vote unwillingly, being deeply unimpressed with almost all of the choices in front of me – and as expected it made no difference at all; I am one of the millions disenfranchised by our current system. In the end, mine was a vote of principle, a call for more regard for our environment because if we get this wrong, the rest of human affairs amounts to little more than fiddling while Rome burns.
Yet conversely again, I believe that the best way to advance liberal societal views is through the use of long-established educational techniques. The surest way we have found to give people independence of mind is to equip them with rigorous critical skills and deep knowledge about the world within which they live. In this way, they will be most able to draw their own conclusions – and, I hope, achieve the perspectives that understand why parochialism and narrow, material self-interest are not ultimately the best model for our species.
And with the same logic, I conclude that our education system – in its broadest sense meaning any and every way in which the young are inducted into the world – is failing as never before. Neither the progressive philosophy of magical self-discovery nor the narrowly economised approach of recent decades has made much headway against the ongoing descent of our nation into a factionalised, dysfunctional set of self-interested tribes, much as it was in primitive times.
The growth of rampant self-interest and the depth of approval for the winner-takes-all culture is, in my view just another sign of this nation’s retreat from compassionate, civilised values. It is also a sign of a society failing to cope with a changing world, and retreating yet further into illusory ‘certainties’. The dogma of yesterday’s election winners must carry the blame for having done more than most to further that – or at least for failing to counter it.
In my view, teachers and academics should do their utmost to embody higher, more considered values, as part of their wider role within society – though this need not mean having no opinion. But if recent personal and online experiences are anything to go by, even this (theoretically) most altruistic of professions is now increasingly infiltrated by people who are really only in it for their own gain. The deteriorating conditions of employment of many, the increasing hegemony of a few all-powerful people, the disdain with which they treat their juniors – and the unprincipled machinations of those who aspire to join them – must be a concern for any who believe in a fair and principled society, most of all in a profession whose purpose is supposedly to provide positive role models.
I don’t see this improving in the next five years; as Clegg said, this is a victory for fear and regressive thinking. As such it represents a defeat for educated values.
If so, then I’m afraid I think our profession too, stands accused of adopting Nero’s approach to the growing conflagration.