A notorious historical phrase claimed that ‘Arbeit macht Frei’. It was wrong then and it is just as wrong now.
As I suggested in the previous post, the narrowing of educational objectives has been a cultural disaster. And not only that, there is only very weak evidence to suggest that the impact on Britain’s economic performance has been anything other than slight. The nation’s poor productivity and overall skill levels have stubbornly refused to improve; average earnings remain depressed and the range polarised. Furthermore, I suggest there is little evidence that our society is becoming generally more sophisticated, cultured and thoughtful – which might equally be reasonable a expectation of a more educated populace. What has perhaps been achieved is a supplier-side benefit in terms of making education (supposedly) more easily definable for the purposes of the accountability processes imposed on it by government – but that is hardly the principal aim of the exercise.
In a post-modern, secular society, difficult questions arise as to precisely what education is for. The initial societal gains in terms of the elimination of absolute poverty, and the controlling of adverse demographic and public health conditions have largely been achieved. In a morally and culturally pluralistic situation, it is no longer possible to impose universal moral imperatives on education such as were used by religious educators in the past. So what is it for?
If one looks at those societies generally accepted as being the most advanced in the world, one notices the generally high-quality of nearly everything:
- Certainly the material quality of goods available is generally high, but so often is the access to cultural and artistic capital by a wide proportion of the population. Wealth is not just monetary.
- People seem confident in their ability to steer their own lives and make their own decisions. They accept ‘agency’.
- There are relatively high levels of social discourse and political engagement.
- Local democracy often seems to be strong, as do social support networks and institutions;
- Electoral systems are sophisticated enough to reflect the pluralistic views of a thoughtful electorate.
- Large percentages of the workforce are engaged in high-skill, high remuneration work, often in innovative sectors such as R&D, environmental sustainability and artificial intelligence.
- Often, those societies are receptive to social experimentation and innovation in terms of ways of living and the relationship between the state and the citizen.
- Quite often they support high levels of direct taxation in the interests of good social provision.
- The level of basic needs provision, especially housing, is high – not only in terms of quantity but also quality. People feel secure.
- There seem to be low levels of social or economic envy.
I have sourced these characteristics from a number of countries, mostly in Europe where the model is most prevalent. Denmark, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Germany and the other Scandinavian countries feature prominently. Britain does not.
I think the only workable answer the question of education’s purpose in such societies is the optimisation of every individual’s life experience. It should not be defined any more closely than that, for fear of excluding certain aspects of great importance to some of those individuals. That is enough of a big ‘ask’ to keep us going for some time. I consider it consists of two interlinking matters:
- The ability of the individual to achieve autonomy, authenticity and self-actualisation;
- The understanding that that ability needs to function with consideration for the needs of others to do the same.
One might hope that an understanding that peaceable negotiation is the optimum means of dispute resolution would figure in there somewhere, too – as might the cerebral skills necessary to resist the incursions of others through means of deception or manipulation. As the psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihalyi has said, “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.” The recent past holds a clear lesson for Britain in this respect.
That ‘internalised symbolic system’ means a set of values, priorities, preferences and insights that are specific to the sovereign individual concerned; education has a major role to play in developing it. For me, Csikszentmihalyi’s statement sums up superbly the absolute imperative for education to be a liberating force, rather than an enslaving one in the way educating for employability greatly risks being. Our role as teachers is not primarily to subjugate the spirit and free will of young individuals to the requirements of their future employers, even if encouraging them to develop the qualities and aptitudes that may appeal to those employers is part of it. Neither is it to deliver cash-ready consumers to corporate markets.
Far more important is the need to enable people to follow their own inclinations as far as they choose, provided of course that this does not impair the ability of others to do the same. Where this happens, it tends to demonstrate the kind of active engagement with life outlined above, rather than the very passive, delegated experience that I suggest many in Britain currently have; it is widely known, for instance, that the British have the highest level of T.V. viewing, some of the longest recreational shopping times and the lowest levels of physical activity engagement in Europe.
There remains the vexed question of what those values should be; either we submit to a set of accepted norms, which are by definition externally-defined, or we descend into a morass of cultural relativism where nothing can be deemed either to be superior to anything else, nor to be of any intrinsic value itself. If that is the case, the only resort available is indeed the transfer of purely utilitarian assets. The likely consequence of this is a life lived in an equally utilitarian way, which also tends to mean a low-level functionalism, without the personal ambition or emotional investment necessary to savour many of life’s best experiences.
Csikszentmihalyi has useful things to say about this too: rather than pass arbitrary judgements about what is worth doing and what is not, we should, he suggests, focus on developing complexity. No matter what the activity, doing it at a high level, with personal challenge and the resultant sense of both achievement and growing insight, should be our aim. This is what causes individuals to ‘grow’ as people, and what provides the incentive for further development. From the perspective of the employer, it is these attributes that will provide effective employees – and they are only delivered by a much wider type of education than one aimed specifically at ‘employability skills’. It is worth noting, however, that if such individuals are indeed desired, it is more likely that they will be autonomous and independent-minded – and less susceptible to domination or exploitation by unscrupulous or uncaring employers (or retailers). In a wider societal sense, this surely has to be a good thing.
I would argue, however, that it is not beyond the abilities of modern societies to come to at least a loose consensus over what the ‘good things’ in life are. These need by no means all be material, though many of them contain material elements. One of the problems with modern consumption is that it largely happens for the wrong reasons – and this too is partly an educational matter. If we accept even a vague notion of ‘the good life’, then it perhaps implies an expectation on the part of the individual to be able to access it. The problem is where those expectations are perceptually ‘located’ in people’s minds.
An economic reading of the world implies that most of one’s needs are satisfied externally, via some form of trade and consumption. While this is often the case, modern societies have taken it to such an extreme that it seems that anything one desires can be had depending only on the size of one’s wallet. This is a fundamental mistake: as study after study has shown, beyond a fairly basic level of material need, the acquisition of more externally-supplied assets does little in itself to create a more rewarding life, and may even do the opposite. The error is to believe that happiness comes from outside oneself. In fact, even in situations involving material goods, the satisfaction that they (can) bring is largely internal, through a developed sense of appreciation and enjoyment. Mere ownership, let alone competitive ownership, is not enough to do that.
The interesting thing from an educational point of view is the fact that the ‘only’ thing that separates an inexpert consumer from a connoisseur is the ability of the individual to appreciate what they have. It is not the ability to pay: there is nothing to stop a rich ignoramus from buying, for example an expensive wine that he or she will largely fail to appreciate, and nothing to stop a relatively impecunious connoisseur saving up for one from which he or she will derive far more satisfaction than the rich-but-inexpert person. The significant difference between the individuals is not their wealth but their complexity – and that is a matter that education can do something about. And yet even education, these days, is making the error of suggesting to people that it is their (financial) wealth alone that will provide a good life.