Green shoots

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, Professor Colin Richards pointed out that we have “no firm, reliable, systematic way of assessing pupils’ understanding”. He went on to suggest that learning is idiosyncratic, complex and nowhere near fully understood. He implied that exam outcomes are rarely ‘fair’ in the indulgent sense that modern students and schools have come to expect, because what they can test is very limited. The best way we have of knowing a student’s capabilities is, he suggests, working with them discussing their insights and reading their ideas over a protracted period. I only wondered why he did not question who really needs to measure the workings of an individual’s brain in such precision – and why. Exams work fine – if used properly , and so long as we don’t over-egg what they can show.

I have just finished reading Paul Roberts’ book The Impulse Society. In its later stages, it turns into a discussion of why U.S. society and politics have descended into a polarised, paralysed stalemate. His over-riding theme is that neo-liberal policies have enabled the commercial sector to conflate everyday life with the Market, to the extent that many people perceive them as the same thing. Lives, he says, have become one long tract of self-seeking through the medium of consumption – the full realisation of the atomised market society.

In a world where either you get what you want or you don’t, societal interaction has been reduced to winner-takes-all, which in turn has the tendency firstly to polarise the options available and secondly to promote the aim of winning as an end in itself, rather than a search for the best solutions. The result is almost perpetual stalemate as preventing ‘the other’ from winning becomes a significant end in its own right, no matter what the cost. This is the logical end-point of the competitive society, while the notion of Compromise as the trade-off reached between one’s own needs and those of others (a.k.a. civil society), has all but disappeared.

All of this seems wearyingly familiar to a resident of the U.K., whose recent national history is one of dutifully following wherever the U.S. leads, no matter how blindingly obvious are the dead-ends . Our national conversation seems almost as marketised (and polarised) as theirs.

Roberts’ solution is to ‘create conscious distance between the market and people’ such that they start to observe again the value of non-market, non-commoditised assets and actions. Altruistic behaviour is a clear example of something that makes no selfish economic sense, but perfect sense seen in collaborative societal terms. Intellectual activity can easily be seen as another.

Government has a role in doing this by less actively promoting the bottom line as the defining criterion for everything, and Roberts identifies education as perhaps the key area where such distance can be created. In other words, we should be promoting the intrinsic and collective benefits of education, not simply defining it as yet another consumer durable whose only value is the monetary or at least material benefits it can (supposedly) deliver to the individual.

Writing in today’s Observer, Julian Coman is just the latest to bemoan the commodisation of university education, which he argues should be society’s greatest bastion of non-material values. And yet this too has been progressively taken down the same path, to lengths that now threaten the very essence of what it surely needs to be as a civilising cultural force within society. Through my wife, I gain regular insights into policy at our local university, and the extent to which it is now being run like a profit maximising, hard-sell and sometimes quite disingenuous business is quite galling.

The thing these various reports – along with many others – have in common, is the hint that new thinking is gradually gaining a hearing. After several decades of market-dominance, this is going to take time, but it seems that just possibly, at last, the inevitable limits of the market society are being recognised, and that maybe we need to rebalance our nation in favour of broader values. Education, of course, can play a major part in that – not by what it directly teaches (though less pressure to teach to the test would be a welcome step, and not only because of the messages it sends to the next generation) but through the things that are asked of it by society, and the mechanisms by which it is allowed to work.

The fact that there are many people now pointing out these shortcomings in the policies of recent decades is, of course, no guarantee that they will be widely listened to, nor that we can actually figure out what can be done about the manifest problems. Couching the necessary arguments in terms of false dichotomies doesn’t help: accepting the limitations of the exam system, for example, need in no way imply that the only alternative is a structure-less free-for-all. What it does need is a more realistic acceptance of the imponderability of much of life, and a rejection of the bogus quantification of many aspects of it.

But just maybe these really are the green shoots of a more sensible, balanced era to come. We can but hope.

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