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.

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