End of Term – I

At first, nobody noticed. There had been too many false dawns, broken promises, unrealised dreams. What was heralded as something that would change everything had changed almost nothing, except for the worse. Learning had long been confused with memorising, but now knowledge had dissolved into information, skill into technique, quality into quantity, and value into price. It was not reasonable to criticise anyone for cynicism because there was so much to be cynical about. Everything, almost, except the thing that changed education, and in changing education, changed everything.

What everyone expected and supposed was that to program a computer – actually rather a lot of computers – to be good at something one first needed to be good at it oneself. Good enough at least to know what it was that one was trying to program. And then it turned out that one didn’t. All one needed to be able to do – and of course this “all” is profoundly ironic – was to know how to enable the computer to learn. And once the computer could learn, it didn’t matter how good the programmers were; all that mattered was how good the computer’s learning had become.

Nobody noticed because everyone was so focused on the result and its implications for human thought that they missed the real point. AlphaGo had beaten one of the best Go players in the world by four games to one despite the fact that none of the people who programmed it was remotely good at the game. What they were good at was enabling the computer to learn, and programming what was needed to play the game, even if they were themselves incapable of playing it very well.

And that was really the message: all we need to be able to do is to discover what needs to be done in order to be good at something and then program it. Nobody needs to be able to do it; nobody even needs to be able to understand how the computer does it; we just need to know how to tell the computer to do it.

They quickly found, or actually to be honest stole from a little-known twentieth-century philosopher of science, a name for it: The Domain of Sophistication; the place or rather the territory where computers start to be able to do things better than we can do them and where ideas we understood to start with start to get so complex that we cannot understand them any more. Not just by calculating faster, or memorising more, but by being able to operate in territory of great complexity better than any human being can or ever could operate. And the thing that really delivered the killer-punch was that these systems were interactive: they not only learned from their human interactions; they learned even better from their interactions with themselves. They learned how to learn and how to teach learning by teaching themselves how to learn.

So, at first, nobody noticed. The odd, unpredictable move was viewed as a curiosity, an interesting intellectual challenge, viewed almost as we once entertained ourselves by watching physically deformed people in freak shows: how odd; how weird; how strange; how amusing; how inhuman. But if the system could learn to play one of the most sophisticated of games by teaching itself and playing itself, why could it not learn to do anything else that its creators thought sophisticated? In particular, why could something that could teach itself to learn by learning not also teach itself to teach by teaching? Why could not a system that could learn to play a game better than any human being by playing human beings and itself also learn how to teach a subject better than any human being by teaching human beings and itself?

So, at first, nobody noticed.

Mental Stink

Would you expect to find him in the pink

Who’s solely occupied with his own mental stink?

from Stevie Smith, Analysand

Aaron Ciechanovar was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2004 for the discovery of the mechanism by which ubiquitin degrades proteins and thereby allows organisms to dispose of potentially toxic waste products. Ubiquitin effectively allows us to get rid of physiological crap.

The day after listening to Aaron describe this process in beautiful simplicity I suddenly found myself wondering what the equivalent of ubiquitin is in enabling us to dispose of mental crap, the kind of stuff, that is, that we accumulate over time and that potentially poisons our minds just as dangerously as physiological toxins would poison the body.

I suspect that there is no universal method, no ubiquitous system of neutralising therapy, no psycho-ubiquitin, that routinely rids us of this kind of stuff, but there can scarcely be a more essential life-skill than to learn how to detox mentally from time to time.

Failure to manage the accumulated detritus of our own mental lives can only eventually lead to serious mental illness, perhaps breakdown and even suicide. People will often say “I just can’t get the thought out of my head” when they are obsessed with some event that has caused them pain, and obsessive-compulsive disorder is an obvious example of those whose mental stink rules their lives.

Less seriously but much more commonly, negative thinking that destroys any capacity to be optimistic or hopeful and renders all our relationships sour and unsatisfying is something we all have to deal with from time to time.

For those not given to negative thinking, observing someone with the habit is rather like a non-smoker watching someone who smokes: it is impossible to understand why they choose freely to engage in such self-destructive behaviour.

But that is the question: is negative thinking and mental unhappiness something we “freely choose” or is it something that we are somehow compelled to indulge in or, like smoking, something we have become addicted to? And is there a technique or some series of techniques that will act like ubiquitin and enable us to stop thinking negatively (or in any other way we find distasteful)?

The first step in this process is to appreciate that familiar modes of behaviour are almost always more agreeable to us than unfamiliar modes; in short, we are creatures of habit. The habit of thinking negatively is therefore more likely to be comfortable than any other form of thinking. We may even have adopted some defence-mechanisms whereby to protect familiar habitual negative thinking against different modes of thinking that threaten it because we want to protect what is familiar and comfortable against what is not. We resist beneficial change.

Resistance consists of all the mechanisms we employ to protect habitual comfortable modes of thought against other modes of thought.

The second step in the process is to recognise that bad experiences commonly have two components: the event itself is one and our response to the event is the other. Negative thinking gives rise to what we might call double jeopardy: taking a bad experience and then making it even worse by overlaying it with a negative interpretation.

Double jeopardy consists in allowing ourselves to overlay bad experiences with bad interpretations and thoughts about those experiences

But this never makes the experience better; it always makes it worse. So why do we indulge such negative thinking? Because of a third mechanism which negative thinking shares with one of its most punishing cousins: envy. This mechanism is in some respects the most bizarre of all because it arises from the mistaken belief that making ourselves feel bad somehow levels the score or punishes whoever or whatever made us feel bad. Envy is a form of double jeopardy because it takes a situation, for example that we do not have something we want, and adds the additional layer whereby we make ourselves miserable because we don’t have what we want as if this is an inevitable and rational response to and consequence of that lack. But it is not: there is no intrinsic connection between the lack and the interpretation of the lack; only the habits of negative thinking create such an illusion. This beautiful woman doesn’t want me, but if I make myself miserable that will show her. Except of course that the beautiful woman doesn’t care or notice my self-imposed and manufactured misery.

Envy is like taking poison yourself and expecting somebody else to die.

A great deal of counselling and psychotherapy encourages clients with problems to analyse them endlessly and to try to find their causes in some bad experience buried in the past. Undoubtedly sometimes uncovering such causes of unhappiness can help because understanding almost anything helps us to deal with it, but what psychotherapy sometimes lacks is another component of the healing mechanism, namely the single-minded determination to eradicate the negative thinking that constantly punishes us in the present for things that have happened in the past. As with double jeopardy, there is no necessary connection between a past trauma and a present state of mind. And becoming obsessed with finding the causes of unhealthy states of mind may be less beneficial than simply adopting a determined strategy they forbids us from allowing ourselves to be affected by them. And yes, this is a more sophisticated version of “pull yourself together”, which is widely sneered at by those with a vested interest in making us all victims. But refusing to accept that we need to be damaged just because we have suffered misfortune is a major component in not being damaged and not allowing ourselves to become victims, least of all victims of our own negative thinking.

Disconnection is the process through which we give ourselves permission not to be victims of our own unhappy experiences by refusing to accept that there is any necessary connection between those experiences and how we feel about them.

So a strategy that helps to dislodge addiction to negative thinking consists of routinely asking ourselves whether the way we feel about an experience is something we can change. Something happens and we feel bad: is there any reason why we should feel bad; do we have to feel bad; can we resist feeling bad; can we choose instead to feel if not good then at least better, accepting what has happened and trying as quickly and completely as possible to move on?

Unfortunately we easily fall victim to the belief that certain feelings are caused by certain experiences and that there is nothing we can do about them; they are in some sense “natural” or “inevitable”. For example, when someone we loves dies we imagine that we have to feel grief, sorrow, but that is a culturally-conditioned response to death, not an inevitable or necessary one. Of course, cultures also act to make us feel guilty if we respond to all kinds of events differently than the culture expects; laughter and tears are culturally-conditioned too. But the principle of disconnection allows us to choose how we feel in response to any event, regardless of the cultural setting; all we require is the courage to choose our own reaction rather than have it be dictated to us.

Much of what we have said involves explicit or more usually implicit acceptance of the fallacious principle that I can somehow hurt you by hurting myself. Such a belief can involve elements of reciprocal self-delusion: if you allow me to manipulate you by hurting myself, you give credibility to the belief that hurting myself is a good way to hurt you. But there is absolutely no reason why you should indulge me in this practice, and a very good reason why you should not. The ultimate expression of this fallacious belief is seen in certain kinds of motive for suicide, the mistaken belief that by destroying myself I can and will do immeasurable damage to you: “you’ll be sorry when I’m gone”. And people are sorry and often overcome by a morbid feeling of guilt when they experience someone’s suicide because they feel that they could and should have done something to prevent it. But this depends upon the principle that I can somehow harm you by harming myself, which is the principle that drives and energises envy: that by poisoning myself I will somehow cause you to die. Some forms of suicide rely upon the same twisted logic: that by killing myself I can do you immeasurable hurt.

There is another dimension to the same syndrome which a lot of people believe unconsciously: the belief that I can damage you by taking myself away, by denying you access to me. This is of course an amazingly arrogant and presumptuous belief, but many people unconsciously adopt it in their dealings with people: if I don’t get what I want, I will take myself away. Perhaps the roots of the behaviour lie in childhood when children learn that their parents want to be loved by them, and so learn that to deny their parents love is a strong way to get what they want. Children learn to take themselves away in order to punish others and to get what they want. But this learned behaviour is as toxic as negative thinking and feeds the belief that by denying myself something or damaging myself I can damage you or manipulate you into doing what I want.

Self-destructive behaviour only has as much manipulative power as others grant it. To reward self-destructive tendencies by granting them what they are designed to get is to break the golden rule of never rewarding bad behaviour.

It follows that my self-destructive behaviour only has as much power to manipulate you or damage you as you grant it. Societies that reward bad behaviour therefore create the circumstances in which self-destruction becomes a tool of control, and therefore establishes the conditions under which self-harming and suicide can thrive.

 

Education Matters – I

It is very difficult to say what education is for because the question has no single answer and any collection of answers will almost certainly not cover every possibility. Moreover, even a straightforward answer that might command general assent such as “that education has as a principal aim to ensure that new generations can grow into civilized human beings and play a part in making the world a better place” will fall foul of many questions about what is meant by “civilized” and how the world might be made a “better” place. And then there will be those who will rightly say that this is only part of the picture, and want to insert specific clauses about being ready for employment, being moral, being cultured, and so forth, just as there will be others who will want to say something about health, well-being, a life balanced by physical, mental and spiritual maturity, and so on.

Looked at from an entirely different perspective, the nature of a school as it reflects contemporary education theory will need to take account of its marketability. Here a different set of difficulties arise, for school fees are generally paid by parents, and those who pay the piper tend to call the tune. So whatever brand of education a school promotes and embodies needs to be marketable to at least a sufficient number of potential families as are needed to finance it or, more pertinently, to appeal to a sufficient number of donors to attract scholarship funds sufficient to render the contributions of families largely irrelevant. So what parents and donors think education is – a picture hugely influenced by their own school experience – will be at least one of the criteria by which the attractions of a particular school are judged.

However, one cannot be all things to all people, so the first task is to decide what we want to be; after that we can decide whether we have the resources to be it. So let me start with what I take to be a truism, albeit a truism frequently overlooked in many schools:

Great schools enthuse their students with the best discoveries from the past and equip them with the skills necessary to use them to create the future.

Any school that fails to acquaint its students with the best things of the past condemns them to reinvent everything themselves. Student-centred learning cannot be devoid of direction by those who know more than the students, and while it is perfectly reasonable to be conscious and aware of the dangers of all kinds of imperialism, that should not deter us from imparting the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of past centuries. Teachers have never been the source of all knowledge; there have always been libraries, personal experience and the collective wisdom and knowledge of societies; the Internet has not changed anything fundamentally, it has just altered the speed of access and scope of the resources available.

Enthusiasm for the best of the past – and the wisdom to decide what the best is – define the challenges and responsibilities of school common rooms and curriculum developers. A principle that should always be borne in mind is that schools should concentrate on those things that, were they not encountered at school, might not be encountered at all. This means that work in laboratories, familiarity with the difficult things dealt with in mathematics, acquisition of the critical skills needed for source criticism and evaluation of the provenance of knowledge-claims, and experience in theatres, in musical co-operation, and in art, should take precedence over the learning of languages and the reading of books that can be learned and read anywhere. In this respect the IB’s preoccupation with language-learning is mistaken and wasteful of resources.

Educators and government ministries of education in particular too readily swallow the demands of employers for specific skills, especially the tedious clarion-call for greater numeracy and literacy. Great schools will always produce students who are literate and numerate, but not necessarily in the ways employers would like them to be. But education is not training, and should never be confused with it. Schools that aspire to greatness should never therefore teach accountancy or business studies in preference to literature and philosophy, not because accountancy and business studies are not important features of commercial life, but because they are specific skills that can be acquired as necessary later in life as contrasted with general skills that if they are not learned at school may never be learned at all. What might be more surprising is that I also think most of the time we spend teaching mathematics in school is similarly wasted on arcane topics of neither practical nor intellectual merit. More on this later.

Schools should also take responsibility for knowing what might be good for their students. So a key part of early-years education, particularly as embodied in the IB’s MYP, is exposure of students to the full range of academic disciplines and as wide a range as possible of arts and sports so that no child ever leaves school without at least some idea of what is involved in them. There is enormous merit in a “sampler” system whereby during their early education children have to encounter everything that a “normal balanced educated” person (pace intercultural differences) might expect to know. Even if they do not continue with them, the merit of knowing what they are rejecting or being forced to miss because of lack of time to do everything cannot be over-estimated.

In a cosmopolitan world the content of these early educational experiences should not be limited merely to the traditional subjects of western culture and history. It is shameful that most Europeans think history (and sometimes even geography, too) ends somewhere around the Balkans, and have no knowledge of the histories and cultures of Asia, the Middle East, Africa or the Americas (pace Christopher Columbus, the Slave Trade, the East India Company, and all that).

In practical terms, of course, all this takes time, and there is a strong argument, which I endorse, for the only major transition during school being at the age of 11 after which all seven years of secondary education should partly be dedicated to provision of this fundamental grounding in world cultures. And on this score I should add that too much time is wasted in preparing for examinations if school transitions based upon entrance tests and IGCSEs are allowed to punctuate this seven years: at 13, at 16 and at 18 we take half a year out to ensure students are “prepared” for examinations that are summative without being formative. No wonder children become jaundiced about learning.

Granted this emphasis upon a grounding in world cultures, which satisfies the requirements of learning the best of the past including science and mathematics, another part of the academic curriculum should concern the acquisition of the skills and habits of creative, critical thought. To an extent the IBDP Theory of Knowledge meets some of the requirements, but it is largely too little too late, and it is more important to understand the issues within the framework of all other subjects than to study ToK as if it were a course in philosophy. Unfortunately, many teachers do not understand why ToK is so important because they have never themselves reflected critically on their own subjects.

Which brings me to the quality of teaching in its politically correct form, and to the quality of teachers in its politically incorrect form. And here there is no argument: a great education requires great teachers. Great teachers are not necessarily the most highly accomplished academically – it used to be the case that someone with a decent 2.1 honours degree was likely to be a better teacher than someone with a first, but now when so many get a first so we can’t really say that. But great teachers all share at least these qualities:

  • They are enthusiastic about their subject
  • They realise that they will never know all there is to know about their subject
  • And so are ready to be learners with their students as teachers
  • They are generous with themselves, with their knowledge, time and talents
  • They are interested in all their students, not just the most obviously able ones
  • They teach the way their students best learn, not as they like best to teach
  • They never give up on a child, and see student disaffection as a symptom of a problem with the way learning is actioned and perceived rather than as a fault in the student

All this is really just an extended way of saying that teaching and learning occur best when teacher and learner have a positive, honest, constructive, committed relationship, and that wherever that relationship is missing the teaching and learning process will be less effective.

How does a school attract the best teachers as defined in these terms? Certainly not just by paying huge salaries, although paying salaries that are competitive is essential. There are probably three motivating factors that are more important:

  • the quality and enthusiasm of students, who will make the teaching and learning experience rewarding in its own right;
  • a progressive and imaginative school environment in which the common room is a vibrant reflection of contemporary educational thinking and the senior staff and governors are supportive of those initiatives;
  • a rich cultural, social, sporting, geographical and political environment which will enable teaching and learning to engage with local culture through participation in service-learning and cultural events that reflect the full spectrum of human thriving.

In a residential school, provision of adequate housing and a strong community life are also important, especially when the school is in a relatively remote region; and in all schools teachers expect that their teaching will be resourced properly with books and equipment.

Aside: excessive dependence on textbooks kills creative teaching and schools need to be on their guard against allowing a textbook culture to develop where students and teachers imagine that only what is in the syllabus and the textbook is worth learning and knowing.

To ask what we want from education is to ask what we want from life, and this is not the place for such a discussion. But nothing less will do.

Language and Education

Language is what separates human beings from other species: it allows us to transmit knowledge and skills from generation to generation; it allows us to understand what we have not experienced first-hand; it allows us to imagine, design and create worlds and futures that would literally be unthinkable without language; and part of the price we pay for this power and freedom is that language allows us to lie. Once we employ a tool that allows us to lie, the questions of how we distinguish lies from truths, whom we should trust and what we should not, and what purpose lies could serve, become pressing.

Education at a minimal level allows us to transmit the knowledge of past generations to children and young adults, as well as to provide opportunities that can last a lifetime as we continue to learn new things and pursue new interests.

Education also transmits cultural values and assumptions in the way every culture shapes its education to direct the development of the next generations. So education is both a powerful tool of cultural transmission and survival while also being potentially an instrument of social repression and control in cultures that use it to resist change and divergent thinking.

Education for both these reasons has as a central problem the relationship between social conformity and social change, the question of the balance between tradition and development, the past and the future, preserving what is best while giving scope for the creation of what is better.

One of the most concise and powerful statements of educational objectives can be found in the report of the Secondary Education Committee published in India in 1952 (quoted in the Indian National Curriculum Framework of 2005):

Citizenship in a democracy involves many intellectual, social and moral qualities…a democratic citizen should have the understanding and the intellectual integrity to sift truth from falsehood, facts from propaganda and to reject the dangerous appeal of fanaticism and prejudice … should neither reject the old because it is old nor accept the new because it is new, but dispassionately examine both and courageously reject what arrests the forces of justice and progress…..

As a statement of educational objectives, this can scarcely be bettered, but it is one thing to say it and another to implement an education policy that achieves what it aims to achieve in terms of balanced citizenship. And of course it addresses en passant the challenge of distinguishing truth from falsehood as it affects citizenship.

The Problem of Education

It might be thought that to be given a blank sheet and be asked to write on it a completely new and refreshingly innovative educational scheme would be both exhilarating and exciting, but the challenge of such an invitation presents with formidable difficulties. John Dewey, considering just such a possibility as long ago as 1938, wrote as follows in the preface to his Experience and Education:

[The formulation of a philosophy of education involves] the necessity of the introduction of a new order of conceptions leading to new modes of practice. It is for this reason that it is so difficult to develop a philosophy of education, the moment tradition and custom are departed from. It is for this reason that the conduct of schools, based upon a new order of conceptions, is so much more difficult than the management of schools which walk to beaten paths. Hence, every movement in the direction of a new order of ideas and of activities directed by them calls out, sooner or later, (for) a return to the practices of the past …

John Dewey, op. cit., my emphasis.

One of Dewey’s most important themes, typical of his whole pragmatist philosophy, is opposition to an analysis of the human condition in terms of extreme opposites. He believes in particular that the extremes of “traditional” and “progressive” education are over-stated: “The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without”. He goes on to observe that what in modern language we would call teacher-centred and student-centred learning need to be held in balance if education is not to lurch from one extreme to the other. In particular, it is absurd for a teacher to pretend not to see further and know more than students, even if students often see aspects of a topic new to a teacher; the question is how best to deploy such advantages to the students’ optimal benefit.

Dewey then observes that in a “traditional” educational scheme, “that which is taught is thought of as essentially static” in two respects: it is taught as a body of knowledge independent of how it came to be discovered; and it is taught as if the future will be very much like the past. This point is of enormous importance, and of even greater importance today than in 1938: for the majority of human history the rate of development of knowledge and ideas was slow, so the education that sufficed for parents sufficed almost without change for their children. This meant in practice that education did not need to concern itself with active learning, still less with creative learning: everything that needed to be known was assumed already to be known; the task was simply to share it with every new generation. Consequently, accelerating change has largely caught education flat-footed, and change that has ensured that the time from childhood to adulthood covers more than a doubling of human knowledge and technological innovation effectively guarantees that the skills of teachers are disconnected from those needed to engage with their students.

In other words, the greatest challenge technology makes to education has little to do with the possibilities it creates for new methods of learning and different kinds of access to knowledge; it arises instead from the fact that it effectively disconnects teachers from students.

To illustrate this point, consider that when I started teaching in 1984 there was no Internet, no Google, no Facebook, that dial-up modems were running at about 500kbps, and that the storage capacity of most personal computers was around 16kB. We taught using “BBC microcomputers” with floppy disks and had negligible network interconnectivity. This technobabble is irrelevant as far as learning is concerned, but the distance between that and now is also a symbol of the disconnection between teachers whose own schooling took place in the pre-digital age and those being trained now. Whereas it was once the case that one skill-set would serve throughout a career, now one needs a new skill-set every few years as technology creates a race that nobody can keep up with, let alone win.

Question: But should education even be trying to keep up with all this technomania? Is education about training in ephemeral techniques of communication and knowledge-processing, or about eternal truths distilled from the collective knowledge and wisdom of the ages? Is there still a place for an education based upon the painstaking study of the classics that embraces all the difficulties they represent? What do we lose if we embrace technomania without reserve?

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock, 1934, §I

Part of the problem here is to do with the long-standing but almost entirely bankrupt notion that certain kinds of activity work on the brain the way physical fitness works on the body, the notion of the “mental gymnasium”. But it is now established virtually beyond dispute that, for example, doing multiplication of five-digit numbers makes us better at multiplying five-digit numbers but almost nothing else; that doing crossword-puzzles makes us better at doing crossword-puzzles, but almost nothing else; cf. The Invisible Gorilla for further examples and cross-references that indicate how useless mental gymnastics are (apart possibly from deferring the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which is not such a bad thing).

So, instead of teaching five-digit multiplication, we should teach students to understand multiplication so that when they are doing calculations on computers and spreadsheets they know what they are doing. And being able to do five-digit multiplication actually doesn’t help to understand multiplication very well. (Maybe a better example is the way we were taught to do multiplication using logarithms and antilogarithms: I was brilliant at it, could do it faultlessly, but I had absolutely no idea why it worked or what I was doing, and of course now it all seems pointless without that understanding because we can do the same thing so easily; in other words, I had not understood.) But this leads to a very deep and troublesome educational problem: it is far easier to perform five-digit multiplication than to understand the abstract notion of multiplication; it is far easier to design mathematics syllabuses that require us to learn techniques of differentiation, integration, factorization and so forth than to teach students to understand what each of these things is really about. So the questions educators need to be able to answer are: which skills matter; which knowledge is worth acquiring? And I want to suggest that although we know vaguely what the answers to these questions are, we do not know the concrete practical answers to these questions that will translate them into educational reform.

To be clear about what the issue is here: knowing how to do multiplication or logarithms as a mechanical process not only confers no useful skills, but in the absence of an understanding of the underlying principles that make the processes work it confers an illusory sense of mastery. That education has invested so much time and effort into getting students to learn to do things by rote is a reflection of the fact that to a considerable extent it was using human beings as machines in the absence of alternative machines. But the industrial and now the digital revolutions have transformed this situation: we no longer need human beings to do what machines can do; we no longer need human beings to do what computers can do. So what can human do that neither machines nor computers can do, and how can education optimise those skills and lead to a reaffirmation of what is best about being human while also addressing the question how those humans who have low abstract cognitive ability can have any role at all in such a future world?

And looking at the history of educational theory and philosophy will furnish absolutely no help in these areas because the realisation that mental gymnastics is largely useless for all purposes other than the skills they impart is relatively recent and the challenge to distinguish between mechanical processes and human processes only took place “yesterday”.

The usual candidates for the characteristics that are uniquely the preserve of humans come from such areas as the creative arts and writing, imagination, critical thinking, science and inventiveness, but these are of course the very things that many humans find most difficult.

In a sense, to answer the question of the purpose of education – What is education for? – is to answer the question of life – What is life for? – since an answer to the former can scarcely be given without an answer to the latter. But answers to the latter are not uniform and are certainly not agreed. So what would an answer look like?

What, first, does any answer look like? It could look like one of several things: it could look like an eternal, timeless truth; or it could look like a temporary truth that served its purpose; or it could look like something that could change in order persistently to serve its purpose even at the expense of not being fixed or even consistent. The last of these strikes most of us a very unlike an answer: surely, we say, an answer must be consistent at least and preferably permanent and timeless? But why? We change and the world changes, so an answer should change, and the best answers will change in a way that keeps track of the changes around us and in ourselves. Just as with the changes to the world economy that reflect an exponential rate of growth and that render obsolete a view of knowledge where what was good enough for our parents and grandparents is good enough for us and for our children, so answers must cease to be thought to need to be timeless or even consistent. In particular, what is worth knowing today may not be worth knowing tomorrow, and there is no reason why our values and aspirations should be any more static.

This presents education with a huge challenge: how to provide for rapidly accelerating change while satisfying assessment requirements that do not reflect accelerating change. How, also, to re-equip teachers with new skills to provide for these changes. Of course, for some it will seem that the solution is to opt for a view of education that delivers eternal, timeless truths, because then such reskilling and re-equipping is not necessary; and no doubt there are some elements of timeless truth in anything that is recognisably human education; but education must come to terms with change itself and the necessity to equip successive generations with the equipment needed to accommodate it if it is not to disenfranchise those generations from changes in the world.

Another example of this accelerating change and the challenge to education (if indeed it is a challenge education should try to meet) is that of the world GDP.

A few hundred thousand years ago, in early human (or hominid) prehistory, growth was so slow that it took on (sic) the order of one million years for human productive capacity to increase sufficiently to sustain an additional one million individuals living at subsistence level. By 5000 BC, following the Agricultural Revolution, the rate of growth had increased to the point where the same amount of growth took just two centuries. Today, following the Industrial Revolution, the world economy grows on average by that amount every ninety minutes. (Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence, OUP, 2014, p.2.)

But it is worth observing that this remarkable statistic has been achieved using largely traditional methods of education, and it is certainly not obvious why we should want to change them. Dewey, writing in 1938, asks the same question:

The question I would raise concerns why we prefer democratic and humane arrangements to those which are autocratic and harsh. (Experience and Education, Chapter 3)

The best answer Dewey can come up with is

Does not the principle of regard for individual freedom and for decency and kindliness of human relations come back in the end to the conviction that these things are tributary to a higher quality of experience on the part of a greater number than are the methods of repression and coercion or force? (loc. cit.)

But this surely isn’t enough. If one method of education is only to be preferred to another because it appeals to a sense of “kindliness” there will be many who will eschew it in favour of traditional methods. Dewey sells himself short here: something more must be achieved by changing the methods of education than just a nice warm fuzzy feeling. The changes must be demonstrably more effective. It is to establishing how that demonstration is to be achieved and what the methods are that it demonstrates that a philosophy of education must apply itself.

Somewhere here we need to engage with the hypothesis – which I now advance – that the traditional methods of autocratic and harsh education are not only responsible for the death of learning in older students alienated by them from love of books and knowledge, but also a contributory factor to the brutality and cruel indifference of human beings to the world. In other words – and it is strange that Dewey, who writes so much that brings him to the brink of seeing it, does not apparently see it – the isolation of education from living experience of the objective world typical of traditional education – Dewey says “The school environment of desks, blackboards, a small schoolyard, was supposed to suffice.” (op. cit.) – led to disconnection between learning and living, between education and formative reflective experience, and to exactly the attitudes of the world that manifest themselves in ecological disasters and environmental rape.

There was no demand that the teacher should become intimately acquainted with the conditions of the local community, physical, historical, economic, occupational etc., in order to utilize them as educational resources (Dewey, op. cit., Chapter 3)

In other words, as we shall see again when we consider and reconsider the question “What is education for?”, the errors of traditional education are not just a matter of autocratic and harsh methods over democratic and humane methods, and its success or failure relative to other methods cannot be measured only by asking whether it achieved economic success; rather, the adequacy and inadequacy of traditional education must be assessed relative to the world it has produced and the component societies of that world and the component individuals who live their lives in those societies. Education must be measured relative to the whole spectrum of human and earthly existence.

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. (Dewey, op. cit.; my emphasis.)

And “collateral learning” is not just about likes and dislikes; it is about honesty and integrity and intellectual hunger and fairness and awareness of the quality and provenance of knowledge. Students learn to respect others during classes not because they are learning history, but because they learn history in a particular way, because they learn to listen to and respect others, because they have a questioning attitude to sources and authority, because they learn to cross-reference and to connect what they learn with all their other learning.

And when all this is achieved through a school ethos that permeates every classroom, the conditions are ripe for lifelong learning.

The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning. If impetus in this direction is weakened instead of being intensified, something much more than mere lack of preparation takes place. The pupil is actually robbed of native capacities which otherwise would enable him to cope with the circumstances that he meets in the course of his life. (Dewey, loc. Cit.; my emphasis.)

Looked at in the terms of the challenge of change, this educational parable can be retold as a process of deskilling us in the capacity to accommodate change. Small children are naturally curious; they are naturally inconsistent and even fragmentary in the way they deal with things, lurching from one extreme to another in an emotional and intellectual kaleidoscope. Education tends to crush that capacity to deal with variation and prepares us for a life of conformity and stagnation in keeping with the static realities and expectations of past centuries. But those centuries are gone, and education needs to change to accommodate new realities.

This is consistent with a striking reality. Sometimes those who have had little schooling exhibit more vibrant attitudes to life than those who have had extensive education, Dewey adds, because they have not had to endure having life crushed out of them. “What avail is it …” he writes, if someone “loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative” (loc. cit.). And sometimes those who have been most rebellious during their schooling, even if they have had extensive schooling, go on to achieve far more than those who are compliant and in a limited sense of the term “successful”. So there seems to be a paradox: those who seem most successful according to education’s own criteria of success frequently do least well in later life, and vice versa.

Perhaps it is that a school’s inducement through “collateral learning” is more important than its ostensive learning objectives? In which case it is the values that a school embraces and the qualities of endurance and resilience it inculcates that matter more than its apparent successes as measured in academic results or sports.

What we can immediately infer is that the conditions necessary for an educational environment that will create conditions conducive to the generation of lifelong learning depend more upon the ethos of the school as it is embedded in the ethos of the classroom than on the quantity of knowledge acquired.

Golden Principle 1: the ethos of a school is of paramount importance, certainly of much greater importance than measurable results of external assessment.

Autocratic and harsh educational methods tend to produce circumstances in which the present experience of learning is felt to be unpleasant. This did not seem to matter much in the traditional systems because the assumption was that present experience was of no importance as measured against the acquisition of the knowledge and skills that pupils would require in the future, since “traditional schools tended to sacrifice the present to a remote and more or less unknown future” (Dewey, loc. cit.). Democratic and humane methods, by contrast, devote care to establishing the conditions which “give each present experience a worthwhile meaning” (Dewey, loc. cit.).

What is particularly interesting about this in a climate of accelerating change is that this mortgaging of the present to the future is no longer even theoretically feasible: we simply do not know the skill-sets that the future will require, so we cannot build a curriculum around them. Belief that we can is the product of a static, changeless view of what we need to know and to be able to do.

Ken Robinson, writing 75 years after Dewey, sees the answer to the question “What is education for?” as being “to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens” (Creative Schools, p.xxiv). He sees education as having economic, cultural, social and personal aspects (pp.45-53), and the things that are worth knowing as involving eight competencies: curiosity, creativity, criticism, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure and citizenship (pp.135-141). He also identifies the role of the school principal as being a mixture of visionary and manager where the principal needs to be clear which role he is performing at any given time. “In schools, great principals know that their job is not primarily to improve test results; it is to build community among the students, teachers, parents and staff, who need to share a common set of purposes” (p.188). Moreover, “In education, natural, sustainable learning depends on the culture  of the school and the quality of the learning environment. Sustaining a vibrant culture of learning is the essential role of the principal” (p.202).

Yet even Robinson in this regard seems to be operating with a strangely static view of what education is about: produce good circumstances and something abstract called education will arise. But will it? And isn’t the absence of “change” from the list of “c”s notable? Maybe we just don’t have a noun to describe change-readiness other than “change-readiness”. And thinking about The Stretch Cycle reinforces the sense that we need a dynamic, experiential way of learning that enables growth through change; in other words, learning through positively embracing change facilitates the stretch cycle and is facilitated by experiential learning and reflection. And a key part of this is the monitoring of the learning cycle, that we assess whether what we are learning seems to be taking us in the right direction, to a broader, more comprehensive grasp of things we need to know and understand.

Robinson also apparently fails to see that the principal also has at least part of the responsibility of any leader to weave the narrative that provides the coherence of the community he or she leads. Without such a narrative, an over-arching account of what the community is for and how it should address its purpose, there cannot be a ‘vibrant culture of learning’ because the community has no raison d’etre.

But how is the principal to generate and sustain – or help to generate and sustain, because this is never a one-person show – “a vibrant culture of learning”? There are two other parts to the answer in addition to the weaving of a suitable narrative: one concerns establishing the necessary conditions for learning, which is to say a proper mixture of freedom and control in a community properly resourced and staffed; the second involves motivation and direction of learning, which is to say intellectual passion and hunger.

What is striking about all this educational theory is that it always stops short of asking the question that alone can provide a framework within which its adequacy can be measured, the question not “What is education for?” but “What is life for?” Yet a moment’s consideration reveals that, especially in a world increasingly concerned about peace, equality, sustainability, respect for the environment, inter-cultural understanding and human and animal well-being, it is impossible to proceed with the enterprise of education without considering the kinds of lives that it encourages, and those lives will certainly and inescapably need to exhibit certain attitudes to such things as sustainability, energy, justice, international relationships and value. Dewey is just wrong to say, on this count, that the most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning (above): desire to go on learning must itself be contextualised by a value-system that makes the learning contribute to desired goals and avoidance of undesirable goals. Education may wish to duck the question of human values but it cannot do so and still espouse a genuinely open-minded approach to knowledge and learning.

Golden Principle 2: Education cannot assume that it is obvious what purposes it should serve or what values it should espouse and embody

Typically, education avoids this question by burying itself in a chain of objectives each of which seems worthy in itself but the totality of which fails to address the ultimate question of values in life: yes you get into a good school; yes you get good results; yes you get into university; yes you get a good degree; yes you get a good job; yes you make a lot of money, achieve fame, become powerful, become influential, etc., etc., but to what end? In other words, what is your meta-narrative? Because in the absence of a self-consciously chosen meta-narrative we will find ourselves pursuing an education system governed by another meta-narrative that we may neither recognise nor agree with, one chosen and imposed by others.

Freedom and Control

Dewey argues that teachers are often forced into a position where they have to behave autocratically and harshly by the failure of the school (and perhaps the educational system as a whole) to have defined sufficiently clearly, and to have agreed upon sufficiently democratically and persuasively, the external objectives and focus that lead to self-imposed control and responsible behaviour. A vicious circle ensues in which lack of common purpose and community degrades behaviour, forces ever more severe restrictions and penalties, and finally drags the whole institution down to the level of something closer to a prison than a place of learning.

In a more democratic and humane system

The educator is responsible for a knowledge of individuals and for a knowledge of subject-matter that will enable activity ties to be selected which lend themselves to social organization, an organization in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute something, and in which the activities in which all participate are the chief carrier of control. (Deweyop. cit. Chapter 4; my emphasis)

What this means in practical terms is that articulating the purpose of the school, the external objectives which it aims to serve, is not just vital for potential students, parents, governors and donors, but for the management and control needed to establish a coherent life for the school itself. Without such a clear purpose the school will inevitably have to resort to greater and greater authoritarianism because self-control has palpably failed.

Golden Principle 3A school that needs to resort to authoritarian methods to retain or establish control has failed to win the hearts and minds of its students and staff to its overall vision and purpose.

To put it another way: such a school has failed to articulate its purposive narrative with sufficient persuasive power, perhaps because it lacks or has not yet developed sufficiently a shared meta-narrative under which to achieve that persuasion.

But this leads to another consequence of even greater significance: that persuasion, which I shall take here to be the key to the relationship between freedom and responsibility inasmuch as unless I am persuaded to use my freedom responsibly there can only be recourse to authoritarianism to establish order (and Hobbes will have won the centuries-old argument); that persuasion cannot be achieved without a shared meta-narrative. And achieving a shared meta-narrative is especially and acutely difficult in a multi-cultural environment in a brand-new school in an alien country to an extent that would not be conceivable in a Winchester or Eton where “the very stones shout aloud” and the implicit meta-narrative is defined by the institution itself and the country and tradition in which it exists.

Intellectual Passion and Hunger

One reason why I was so concerned not to scribble on the blank sheet of paper we had been given here was that I knew that the school of the future had not yet been designed, that nobody knew what it would look like, and that the only way to find out what it would look like was to learn dynamically as we went along with the process and the flow. Such kinetic thinking would only be possible if we did not prescribe the route or the destination in advance. And it would be hindered by prescriptive rules beyond the barest minimum needed to establish a coherent community.

However, I underestimated the need for a meta-narrative within which to define that emergence while over-estimating the extent to which the UWC already knows what its meta-narrative is. In practice, the UWC does not know what its mission is and actually has no meta-narrative to speak of at all. So under this blank umbrella there is no sensible structure within which to define the nature of the school, and we discover that we are alone, buffeted from side to side by the various nostrums that are quoted as if they were meta-narratives when they are only slogans. We claim to exist to promote peace and sustainability through education, but we could not say what we mean by “peace” or “sustainability” if we tried. And nobody is ready to ask whether peace is sustainable.

Now the challenge is to fire up the students with a vision that creates the energy needed for intellectual passion and hunger based upon the creation of the future by design rather than by default. The future will happen anyway, so the question is who will shape and control it. But that cannot be achieved without first defining a meta-narrative, a unifying vision that was once but is now no longer supplied by religions and various forms of ideology such as Naziism and Marxism. Yet without those meta-narratives we are ultimately defenceless against the persuasive powers of other ideologies such as Islamic State.

What is education for? All sorts of answers can be and have been given:

  • It is the means societies employ to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next and by so doing leverage the single most important advantage human beings have over all other known life-forms, the ability to learn from previous generations cumulatively
  • It is the means societies employ to transmit cultural values from one generation to the next
  • It is the means societies employ to control what the next generation will value, believe and think
  • It is a preparation for life
  • It is a preparation for work
  • It is a preparation for adulthood

So we could go on. The answer we choose – and of course we may wish to choose many and say education is for all these purposes, or choose none at all and branch out into a completely different description – will very much depend on when and where we wish the answer to be applied. What this means is that education is asked to fulfil many functions any one of which can seem of paramount importance at different ages: answer the question aged 12 and it is likely to have something to do with shaping life-choices and readiness for higher levels of education and specialisation; ask at 18 and the answer is likely to have something to do with either university admission or employment; answer it at graduation and it will be about finding a job and starting a career; ask it in mid-career and it could be about reskilling, broadening competence, equipping us for career-change or career development; ask it at retirement and it could be about persistent interests, enrichment and personal satisfaction.

Yet all these answers are strangely and persistently passive: they treat education as a provider, as a process that goes on in order to supply a consumer – the pupil or student – with something that he or she wants or needs (or that society thinks they should want and do need). Education as conceived in these answers acts as a reservoir and teachers as the keepers of the sluice-gates that make the reservoir contents available to those who wish (or are forced) to drink.

Revisit the list above from this perspective and identify the ways in which all these answers involve an implicit assumption that the education stream is from some external source to the recipient, pupil or student. Education is something provided for us and done to us on all these accounts, but that suggests that it comes from something over which we have no control and less say, namely established knowledge and tradition. So the structure of an education that equips us with the knowledge and skills of the past but does little or nothing to encourage or enable us to create and define the future is embedded in the heart of education conceived in terms of transmission.

A “meta-narrative” describes some account of existence that gives meaning,shape and direction to our lives. Because of its shaping, directing function, a meta-narrative too may seem like something external to us, something provided for us by some power or tradition over which we have little or no control. Yet any society or culture that deploys one or more meta-narratives to give itself meaning, shape and direction is almost certain to have embedded elements of that meta-narrative into its education system. Religious education is a good if obvious example: preservation of the shape and direction of a society, perhaps even preservation of what it is to be a member of a particular society, involves inculcating successive generations with a shared meta-narrative such as being Christian (or Muslim or Hindu or Jewish), just as being British (whatever that means), being moral (in some tradition) and even “being educated” (which usually means having absorbed certain kinds of methods of thinking and certain knowledge deemed important within the meta-narratives embraced by a particular culture) involves accepting certain externally-defined things as given. So here, too, education seems to serve a pre-determined purpose in the transmission, inculcation or, if you want to be unkind, indoctrination of succeeding generations with the same meta-narrative so that they remain identifiably members of a particular tribe.

Perhaps the least obvious but most important inference from this is that education in some sense or other presupposes a certain meta-narrative that embodies a sense of what it is to be a fulfilled or “successful” human being in some tradition; an answer – albeit implicit – to the question which meta-narrative we should choose, or have (implicitly) chosen or is best, or should allow someone to choose for us. For example, taking some of the age-related answers given above we can see that certain notions of a “successful” education are implicit in them: that a life is successful (and education has done its job well) if someone is gainfully employed, admitted to a university, successful in a career, prosperous and secure in some sense, financially stable, enjoys a fulfilling old age.

But suppose for a moment that all of this is mistaken: that while we need a meta-narrative, the ones we have been educated to employ, and that formed the unspoken background narrative to our own educations, are defective and the wisdom of inculcating them into successive generations at least questionable if not obviously misguided; that the notion of education as a process through which an external reservoir of wisdom, skills and knowledge flows into successive generations of pupils and students is hopelessly ineffective; that even the notion that education is inviting us to choose from a store of pre-configured meta-narratives and their associated traditions, thinking-skills, values, wisdom and knowledge is no more than a self-perpetuating delusion. Suppose, with even more force and weight, that this view of education is actually a major cause of the very problems that we are now hoping education will help us to solve. Suppose, in other words, that whatever education is, it is none of the things listed at the start of this section, and that to continue to practise it as if it were is only to condemn each successive generation to make the same errors that have caused all the problems in the past.

Specifically, let us ask this: do the skills we need to understand the past, and the knowledge acquired from the past that we become acquainted with through education, equip us adequately for the task of creating the future?

If we suspect – and I think we should – that the answer to this is “No!” then however important the element of education that supplies us with the skills, wisdom, values and knowledge derived in the past may be, it is woefully incomplete unless it also enables us to develop the capacities we need to create the future. This is explicitly endorsed by the opening Branding Principle below (Annex B), viz. that we are “Nurturing human talent to engage with the challenge of creating a better future”. Of course, this presupposes that we have some idea of what a “better future” would be, and that in its turn will depend upon the articulation of a meta-narrative.

Examine any educational system and you will almost certainly find embedded within it some preferred meta-narrative. In the case, for example, of the International Baccalaureate educational model and the associated Learner Profile, we find a meta-narrative where undirected and shapeless open-mindedness based upon essentially prophylactic qualities designed to exclude some of the worst excesses of past meta-narratives are thought to be sufficient for the creation of a future free from those excesses.

As IB students we aim to be: thinkers, knowledgeable, inquirers, communicators, balanced, principled, open-minded, courageous [risk-takers], caring, reflective.

But the IB steadfastly and resolutely shies away from any suggestion that we should be endeavouring to make education a means to create new, better meta-narratives that can have a directing, shaping effect on what we do with our lives. This, one supposes, is because underlying this expression of open-minded liberal idealism is a deep disdain for and suspicion of anything that might conceivably smack of “imperialism”.

Imperialism is here being used to denote the attempt by any individual, society, tribe, culture or civilisation to impose its meta-narrative on any other individual, society, tribe, culture or civilisation.

Do liberals who believe that all we need do is to specify the prophylactic qualities that will stave off the worst excesses of past meta-narratives also believe that new and better meta-narratives will evolve by themselves? Presumably they do, because nowhere in the literature of their educational systems do we find any attempt to spell out what such meta-narratives might be or how education as a process in which societies and their offspring share a common purpose might engage in the task of creating them. But so far, unless I am missing something, no credible meta-narrative has emerged from this tradition; instead, a plethora of pseudo-narratives have emerged that have filled the vacuum left by the absence of meta-narratives with trivial beliefs and aims and objectives that are ephemeral and essentially worthless or, as in the case of the UWC, with beliefs that sound noble but are in practice devoid of any tangible meaning. Food, fashion and fun may be sufficient for a vacation of self-indulgence but they can scarcely constitute the backbone of a civilisation that is to be capable of withstanding the assaults of those for whom far more serious meta-narratives are the primary motivating force (such as Islamic State).

Indeed, in its mission statement the IB includes the assertion that we should adopt the view that other people and cultures with their differences “can also be right”. Nobody would argue differently, but suppose one is firmly convinced that the members of a particular tribe or culture are not right, and the actions they advocate are absolutely wrong and an affront to all values of a civilised society? What are we to do then?

The United World College movement mission statement is:

The UWC aims to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

Fine as far as it goes. But here again the objectives are largely prophylactic: education is to unite us for peace and a sustainable future but with no attempt to engage with the need for such a peace to be sustained by a meta-narrative or set of meta-narratives that will need to be created. Without them peace is not sustainable and the establishment of peace becomes a recipe for disruption, dissatisfaction and war. What, in other words, are we to do with this “peace”; what is peace “for”?

In similar fashion the UWC endorses a view of deliberate diversity in its educational model but makes no attempt to suggest that such diversity needs to be managed if it is to be profitable, i.e. achieve positive and desirable results. Yet diversity left to itself will not produce a compelling meta-narrative any more than the IB Learner Profile, so from whence do these meta-narratives come?

In essence the problem is that to be ready to create new meta-narratives we have to be ready and courageous enough to say what human beings are and should be, and not merely what they are not and should not be. This particular via negativa leads nowhere and runs close to the kind of excessive over-reaction to traditional methods that Dewey is at such pains to point out. And so we come to a tentative suggestion about what education is really for:

Education is concerned with enabling successive generations to create new meta-narratives that will give direction and shape to life on earth in general and to human lives in particular, and facilitate the necessary conditions for sustainability.

Vagueness

It is really important to be vague, to appreciate the place, power and significance of vagueness, and to rejoice in those for whom vagueness is the only hope for the world. Unfortunately, some of us have seized upon vagueness as a way to grab hold of a new kind of anything-but-vague power: the power of anti-everything; the power of subversion; the power that destroys but is incapable of creating.

When you are young it is tempting to be against everything, and there are those who will exploit your readiness to be against everything to make themselves into gurus of anti-everything-ness. But the world as we know it was not built upon such foundations (because they are not foundations). The world as we know it, for all its faults, was built upon the efforts of those who dreamed of making a better place. Sometimes we look back upon their discoveries as obvious, definite; things that almost anyone with any wit could see. But we are wrong: every advance in human knowledge has taken a risk by challenging existing assumptions and knowledge; every movement forwards has risked a compensating movement backwards; nobody knows; vagueness rules; the future is an even less well-known country than the past. But for the bravery of those who voiced and championed their vision of a better world, however vague it may have been, we would not enjoy the privileged position we have over them: to see so much further because we stand upon the shoulders not only of giants (as Newton famously said), but of heroes. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face.”

Vagueness is not weakness: on the contrary, it requires great strength to occupy some of the ill-defined space which vagueness carves out from the excessive certainties of so many worlds. Certainty is the enemy, for it fills in all the holes and gaps from which newness springs and constrains and tightens up the looseness and flexibilities from which adjustment and redirection can arise. Yet vagueness is not utter: there must be some framework within which our thoughts and actions can take shape; in particular, there must be a defining story or meta-narrative from which we can derive a sense of direction and with it purpose.

Dilijan

We love the rain.

It falls.

Torrential, drizzling, misty, bathing, greening.

Enveloped in its chilling cloud

We feel so warm.

Tended.

But for it

The fabulous power of the Sun

Can do nothing.

Humans VI – Education

What is education for? All sorts of answers can be and have been given:

  • It is the means societies employ to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next
  • It is the means societies employ to transmit cultural values from one generation to the next
  • It is the means societies employ to control what the next generation will value, believe and think
  • It is a preparation for life
  • It is a preparation for work
  • It is a preparation for adulthood

So we could go on. The answer we choose – and of course we may wish to choose many and say education is for all these purposes – will very much depend on when we wish the answer to be applied. What this means is that education is asked to fulfil many functions any one of which can seem of paramount importance at different ages: answer the question aged 12 and it is likely to have something to do with shaping life-choices and readiness for higher levels of education and specialisation; ask at 18 and the answer is likely to have something to do with either university admission or employment; answer it at graduation and it will be about finding a job and starting a career; ask it in mid-career and it could be about reskilling, broadening competence, equipping us for career-change or career development; ask it at retirement and it could be about persistent interests, enrichment and personal satisfaction.

Yet all these answers are strangely and persistently passive: they treat education as a provider, as a process that goes on in order to supply a consumer – the pupil or student – with something that he or she wants or needs (or that society thinks they should want and do need). Education as conceived in these answers acts as a reservoir and teachers as the keepers of the sluice-gates that make the reservoir contents available to those who wish (or are forced) to drink.

Revisit the list above from this perspective and identify the ways in which all these answers involve an implicit assumption that the education stream is from some external source to the recipient, pupil or student. Education is something provided for us and done to us on all these accounts.

In “Humans V – Happiness” the notion of a meta-narrative was used to describe something that gives shape and direction to our lives. Because of its shaping, directing function, a meta-narrative too may seem like something external to us, something provided for us by some power or tradition over which we have little or no control. Yet any society or culture that deploys one or more meta-narratives to give itself shape and direction is almost certain to have embedded elements of that meta-narrative into its education system. Religious education is a good if obvious example: preservation of the shape and direction of a society, perhaps even preservation of what it is to be a member of a particular society, involves inculcating successive generations with a shared meta-narrative such as being Christian (or Muslim or Hindu or Jewish), being British (whatever that means), being moral (in some tradition) and even “being educated” (which usually means having absorbed certain kinds of methods of thinking and certain knowledge deemed important within the meta-narratives embraced by a particular culture). So here, too, education seems to serve a pre-determined purpose in the transmission, inculcation or, if you want to be unkind, indoctrination of succeeding generations with the same meta-narrative so that they remain identifiably members of a particular tribe (cf. “Humans VII – Tribalism” for more on this).

Perhaps the least obvious but most important inference from this is that education in some sense or other presupposes a certain meta-narrative that embodies a sense of what it is to be a fulfilled or “successful” human being, an answer to the question which meta-narrative we should choose or is best. For example, taking some of the age-related answers given above we can see that certain notions of a “successful” education are implicit in them: that a life is successful (and education has done its job well) if someone is gainfully employed, admitted to a university, successful in a career, prosperous and secure in some sense, financially stable, enjoys a fulfilling old age.

But suppose for a moment that all of this is mistaken: that while we need a meta-narrative, the ones we have been educated to employ are demonstrably defective and so the wisdom of inculcating them into successive generations at least questionable if not obviously misguided; that the notion of education as a process through which an external reservoir of wisdom, skills and knowledge flows into successive generations of pupils and students is hopelessly ineffective; that even the notion that education is inviting us to choose from a store of pre-configured meta-narratives and their associated traditions, thinking-skills, values, wisdom and knowledge is no more than a self-perpetuating delusion. Suppose, in other words, that whatever education is, it is none of the things listed at the start of this essay, and that to continue to practise it as if it were is only to condemn each successive generation to make the same errors that caused all the problems in the past.

Specifically, let us ask this: do the skills we need to understand the past, and the knowledge acquired from the past that we become acquainted with through education, equip us adequately for the task of creating the future?

If we suspect – and I think we should – that the answer to this is “No!” then however important the element of education that supplies us with the skills, wisdom, values and knowledge derived in the past may be, it is woefully incomplete unless it also enables us to develop the capacities we need to create the future.

Examine any educational system and you will almost certainly find embedded within it some preferred meta-narrative. In the case, for example, if the International Baccalaureate educational model and the associated Learner Profile, we find a meta-narrative where undirected and shapeless open-mindedness based upon essentially prophylactic qualities designed to exclude some of the worst excesses of past meta-narratives are thought to be sufficient for the creation of a future free from those excesses.

As IB students we aim to be: thinkers, knowledgeable, inquirers, communicators, balanced, principled, open-minded, courageous [risk-takers], caring, reflective.

But the IB steadfastly and resolutely shies away from any suggestion that we should be endeavouring to make education a means to create new, better meta-narratives that can have a directing, shaping effect on what we do with our lives. This, one supposes, is because underlying this expression of open-minded liberal idealism is a deep disdain for and suspicion of anything that might conceivably smack of “imperialism”.

Imperialism is here being used to denote the attempt by any individual, society, tribe, culture or civilisation to impose its meta-narrative on any other individual, society, tribe, culture or civilisation.

Do liberals who believe that all we need do is to specify the prophylactic qualities that will stave off the worst excesses of past meta-narratives also believe that new and better meta-narratives will evolve by themselves? Presumably they do, because nowhere in the literature of their educational systems do we find any attempt to spell out what such meta-narratives might be or how education as a process in which societies and their offspring share a common purpose might engage in the task of creating them. But so far, unless I am missing something, no credible meta-narrative has emerged from this tradition; instead, a plethora of pseudo-narratives have emerged that have filled the vacuum left by the absence of meta-narratives with trivial beliefs and aims and objectives that are ephemeral and essentially worthless. Food, fashion and fun may be sufficient for a vacation of self-indulgence but they can scarcely constitute the backbone of a civilisation that is to be capable of withstanding the assaults of those for whom far more serious meta-narratives are the primary motivating force (such as Islamic State).

Indeed, in its mission statement the IB includes the assertion that we should adopt the view that other people and cultures with their differences “can also be right”. Nobody would argue differently, but suppose one is firmly convinced that the members of a particular tribe or culture are not right, and the actions they advocate are absolutely wrong and an affront to all values of a civilised society? What are we to do then?

The United World College movement mission statement is:

The UWC aims to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

Fine as far as it goes. But here again the objectives are largely prophylactic: education is to unite us for peace and a sustainable future but with no attempt to engage with the need for such a peace to be sustained by a meta-narrative or set of meta-narratives that will need to be created. Without them peace is not sustainable and the establishment of peace a recipe for disruption, dissatisfaction and war.

In similar fashion the UWC endorses a view of deliberate diversity in its educational model but makes no attempt to suggest that such diversity needs to be managed if it is to be profitable, i.e. achieve positive and desirable results. Yet diversity left to itself will not produce a compelling meta-narrative any more than the IB Learner Profile, so from whence do these meta-narratives come?

In essence the problem is that to be ready to create new meta-narratives we have to be ready and courageous enough to say what human beings are and should be, and not merely what they are not and should not be. This particular via negativa leads nowhere. And so we come to a tentative suggestion about what education is really for:

Education is concerned with enabling successive generations to create new meta-narratives that will give direction and shape to human lives and facilitate the necessary conditions for human thriving.

A proper qualification involves saying that “human” lives should here include and embrace other forms of animal life, just as human thriving should embrace all animal thriving in a sustainable environment.

Humans V – Happiness

Human beings have probably asked about “the meaning of life” since language was invented, and they have given a multitude of answers. The most popular is probably that the meaning of life is to find happiness, whatever that may mean, and the history of that answer can be traced at least to Aristotle’s notion of eudaemonia in the Nicomachean Ethics. But to say that the meaning of life is to find happiness only invites the question “What is happiness?” and then the answer quickly disintegrates into a multitude of other answers.

I am not convinced by this answer in any of its forms. Partly my scepticism arises from the ease with which the answer quickly dissolves into emptiness when we find ourselves wanting to say things like “Well, you know: we are happy when we are, … er, … happy.” This is not the most illuminating thing ever said about the meaning of life (if indeed it has a meaning). My scepticism also stems from a disinclination to accept that the question should be answered solely in terms that matter to me. Suppose, for example, that my happiness is purchased at the expense of others (as is almost certainly the case), as when the emperor Tiberias achieved happiness by inflicting unspeakable pain on others because it was the only way he could arouse an interest in anything (in his case, usually sexual interest). A view of happiness in which my happiness is somehow divorced from the happiness of others therefore seems unsatisfactory, if only to me.

Nor is happiness as readily achieved or understood as we might imagine. Some have argued, with some force, that happiness and sadness arise not from being in fixed states but from sensing changes in our circumstances: we are happy when things are improving; happiest when they are improving at a rate we find optimal; we are sad when things are deteriorating; saddest when they are deteriorating most rapidly and seem out of control.

It is likely that happiness is not achieved in the same way for all people. An articulate, educated person may find happiness in feeling part of a historical process that constitutes a meta-narrative for humankind and perhaps for the whole universe (as in a religion); someone less inclined to cerebral forms of happiness may be happy with a piece of music, a pint of beer, sex, or a beautiful sunset. And all variations and mixtures of all of them. But this is not enough if it is also the changing nature of our perception of our state that makes for happiness and sadness: an unchanging meta-narrative may not make me happy if my place in it is insecure; a piece of music, sex or a pint of beer may have all sorts of positive and negative effects on me depending upon my other moods.

Esther Perel has observed that we used to regard monogamy as “one partner for life” and now we regard it as “one partner at a time”. I suspect much the same is true of meta-narratives. Until relatively recently we expected to live our whole life with one meta-narrative. It could be a religious belief, a political belief, a belief in a particular sport or career or activity. Now we tend to have one meta-narrative at a time, and there are times during the transition from one to another that we lose all sense of purpose in life because the meta-narrative that had provided us with the map that gave shape to our existence has dissolved. People commonly experience this in bereavement: because a significant other often carries a major part of the mapping that gives shape to our lives, loss of that significant other (parent, spouse, child, pet) shatters our sense of where and who we are until a new map can form. Meta-narratives provide very powerful and extensive maps that are capable of locating us in a story that encompasses the whole universe (as in most major religions). And of course we create such narratives and with them purposive structures out of “causes” defined in opposition to some perceived wrong such as war, discrimination, cruelty; and the relentless search for peace and sustainability (to cite only two contemporary favourites) can provide a shape to our lives – a meaning – that religious narratives also supply to those inclined to adopt them.

Someone with no meta-narrative or nothing that plays the part of a meta-narrative in his or her life is likely to be a lost soul exhibiting demotivation, lack of direction and general lassitude. They will describe themselves as “lacking in energy” when what they mean is that they have lost all sense of direction and purpose; they lack not so much energy as meaning.

Dale Carnegie famously wrote in How to make friends and influence people that the first question we should ask of anyone with whom we have dealings is “What do they want?” He reasoned that because people will do anything in order to get what they want – and allowing for the fact that they may want very strange things that lie outside the normal spectrum of wants and things they are ready to do for them – once we know what someone wants we have it in our power to make them do virtually anything if we can persuade them that they will get what they want if they do it. It is a rather cynical point of view, but in many cases it is almost certainly true.

But not if someone wants nothing, and someone who has lost touch with any kind of purposive narrative probably will want nothing. Their lack of interest can extent to food, drink, company, health and even life itself (as the recently-bereaved often demonstrate). Someone who lacks a life narrative cannot be motivated to do anything because nothing makes any sense or offers to reward them with something that seems like satisfaction of their wants. By definition, if you lack all desire you will want nothing and not be ready to do anything to get it.

At this point a new player called a pseudo-narrative enters the arena. A pseudo-narrative is a narrative that achieves social popularity and creates a false market in activities related to it but is ultimately unsatisfying and vacuous. Its merit is that it fills the void left by the absence of a genuine meta-narrative and so dispels at least temporarily the sense of emptiness that such a lack involves. The health of a society can be measured by the proportion of pseudo-narratives it deploys to dispel its sense of purposelessness. In time of war these pseudo-narratives reduce almost to zero because survival depends upon the real meta-narrative of defeating the enemy; in times of prosperity and peace they tend to proliferate. One of the problems of “peace and sustainability” is that there is nothing sustainable about a vacuous peace. And most peace turns out eventually to be vacuous; we are all prey to the temptations of Homer’s lotophagoi and Putnam’s pig-people. A glance at the vacuous content of most weekend newspaper magazines and supplements will convince anyone that we have travelled a long way down this road already.

Moreover, mention of war reminds us that our ability to unite against a common enemy depends very greatly upon the availability of a narrative that can be set over against the narrative of that enemy. One of the most toxic states of affairs that can arise in a country is where it has no such narrative, for then it lies prey to those who will happily invent one. The rhetoric of the far right and the far left feeds on the emptiness of the reservoir of alternative meta-narratives that can so easily arise, and perhaps has already arisen, in the lotus-eating middle classes whose lives revolve around fashion, food and fun. And there is a huge corresponding danger in any society that feeds only upon opposition to things that it perceives as wrong without having any clearly-articulated view of what it will do when they are all done away with and having won the war they have to “win the peace”. In most civilisations, winning the peace has proved much more difficult than winning a war.

And the reason for that, of course, is that we do not as a matter of fact have an answer to the question “What is happiness?” that is not couched in terms of pseudo-narratives. We live in a peace defined by “sex and shopping” as a friend of mine likes to put it, and in both quantity seems far more important than quality.

English has a word for all this that has been current for decades: we pursue “pastimes” that literally pass the time in ways that obscure the absence of any purpose in our lives. The vast majority of us engage in pastimes of exactly this sort for exactly this reason, trying to convince ourselves that we are doing ourselves some good but deep-down knowing that we are doing nothing of the sort. (And I freely acknowledge that writing blogs may be just another example of the same phenomenon.)

So is the answer a return to religion? Some might think so; others might wish it so; I rather hope not. But what is the alternative? Postmodernism took the bold step of trying to live without a meta-narrative, but failed. Liberalism tried to make the absence of a prescribed meta-narrative the basis for the emergence of a new one; that failed too as only pseudo-narratives emerged to fill the vacuum. Left and right totalitarianisms rose and fell by offering us respite from emptiness, and although my fear is that we are now ripe for another one, I hope that proves to be wrong. So what is the alternative?

I suspect that finding an answer to this question constitutes the greatest challenge facing us as human beings in this era. At the very least articulating a persuasive response to Islamist fundamentalism, which is currently an unequal contest between the convinced and the unconvinced – ironically between the believer and the infidel – is a pressing need in our time. We also know that rampant consumerism cannot continue indefinitely, so we realise – even if we do not admit it to ourselves because we are too busy protecting the “sex and shopping” pseudo-narrative that keeps our worst senses of ennui at bay – that we need to discover and articulate a human story that is sustainable, deep-rooted and persuasive. And as far as I can see we are currently considering no credible candidates for the role of this meta-narrative at all.