Of tragedy, irony and other epic failures of a classical nature…

“People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Reading Fintan O’Toole’s recent book Heroic Failure – Brexit and the Politics of Pain, it is easy to see that Csikszentmihalyi is onto something. People who are not equipped with the ability rationally to understand and contextualise their own situations are all too vulnerable to the deceit of others. And it is this, perpetrated over many decades, that ultimately brought us Brexit.

This post is not (really) about Brexit – though in my mind, it is almost impossible to separate that tortured issue from the matter of education in its widest sense. Had more of the British population been properly equipped with the thinking skills that effective education can provide, there might have been greater scrutiny of the misinformation that was propagated during that campaign – and, dare I say, a wider perspective on where the nation’s interests really lay. Being Irish gives O’Toole useful leverage in terms of detachment – though not necessarily impartiality – about such matters. He is, though, widely recognised as one of the most astute commentators of our time, and his book does attempt to overcome his own remain tendencies and approach objectivity.

His account chimes with my own lived experience of this country over the 56 years of my life – and the gradual dawning on me, by exposure to life elsewhere (that educational process again), that what was presented to the young me as Eldorado, was perhaps tainted by an inability to see what was happening elsewhere, and a vested interest in believing the UK was the best of all possible worlds, even at the time when it was in fact faltering. It is such exposure to the unfamiliar that is at the real core of effective education – yet it is also something that education in Britain has increasingly retreated from, in favour of safe, predictable mass-produced work-prep. (Keep your head down, obey the boss, and don’t ask difficult questions….)

Michael Gove, another character who is virtually inextricable from the debate about both recent British education and Brexit, reputedly so prized his own classical education that he believed it was a model for all. Yet an epic, tragic consequence of his legacy as Secretary of State for Education was the loss of ‘A’ Level Critical Thinking, going the same way as European Studies some years earlier. It fell foul of Gove’s new benchmarks for QCA validation, and hence was lost to students. Gone is the opportunity that Gove will no doubt have had, for young people to learn to think with the objectivity that has come down to us from the classical philosophers.

Since January I have been teaching part-time at the Sixth Form College that gave me a way back into the profession last autumn. I was also allowed to provide for volunteer students a short course in Critical Thinking just before half term. There is only so much one can cover in four hours – and yet the response from the students was overwhelmingly positive. So much for its being a minority subject; the verdict of the punters suggests that we need this subject back on the curriculum as soon as possible, as elements of it remain in most other European countries:

“I wish I had been made aware of this at the start of my A Levels”
“Very helpful on learning how to analyse information. I really enjoyed the sessions”
“Learning how to break down and question arguments was really helpful”
“I found the sessions very helpful in finding a new way to think”.

A theme of O’Toole’s book is the way in which British (really English) self-perceptions have been manipulated over a period of decades by those with vested interests in perpetuating or promoting a certain socio-economic model, one that involved keeping the country antagonistic to further acquaintance with its EU partners, let alone finding new ways to think.

These are the kinds of skills that Critical Thinking develops – and throughout the public debate of the past four years, I couldn’t help but reflect on the widespread inability in this country to engage in any kind of remotely rational thought. I was involved with this at a very immediate level while campaigning for remain. My overwhelming impression was that people were simply ill-equipped to engage in any kind of objective thought, such as CT provides – and that went for both sides of the divide.

That isn’t only the fault of the education system, of course – but I can’t help but feel that a different approach in recent decades might have helped address the deficient critical faculties of a large part of our population.

The ultimate tragedy is that people in this country now face an uncertain future, where they are going to need all the inventiveness and creativity that they can muster. Those who criticise this nation’s people for their fecklessness may have a point – but they confuse the cause and the expression of a serious problem – which is actually the failure to equip a significant portion of the people with even rudimentary rational-cognitive skills, preferring instead to feed them a diet of mechanistic, low-grade “employability skills” and hubristic, patriotic pap, because they supposedly can’t cope with anything more.

In that, the education system has been largely complicit, preferring to make itself ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’, ‘compliant’ – and ‘closed’ rather than the intellectually-challenging tackling of imponderables and Big Questions that it needs at least in part to be. On that at least, Gove and I can probably agree – though it is O’Toole who has the final word on the societal consequences of this failure – while Gove ironically became one of its chief architects.

Prior to reading O’Toole’s book, I was reading Seneca – a Stoic. I have a feeling we are going to need his sometimes-challenging teachings too, in the coming years.

Further details of my Critical Thinking course can be found at https://wordpress.com/view/thinkbetterthinkcritically.wordpress.com

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