Education and Economics

If we accept, as we surely must, that the trajectory on which the world is currently set is unsustainable, then the only way that that trajectory can be changed or diverted is if human beings begin to aspire to a different kind of lifestyle. This admittedly invites the rehearsal of an argument that has become notorious since the Kyoto climate change conference, when the developing world accused the developed world of in effect “recommending poverty for other people” having itself developed by then arguing that the developing world should refrain from doing the same because the development of the entire planet to the same level would create an environmental crisis of unparalleled proportions. Nevertheless, if the world is to avoid an environmental catastrophe, we all need to change the things that we aspire to so that the world becomes a place where everyone can enjoy a good quality of life in a sustainable fashion.

It seems seldom to have been recognised that human aspirations are built into the fabric of our educational systems. To put it crudely, education motivates young people to acquire good qualifications so that they can get better jobs and earn better salaries and so afford higher standards of living, where “higher” equates to their spending- and consuming-power. Therefore, if our standards of living, or what might better be called our styles of living, that we have taken for granted in the past are not sustainable, education has a major part to play in reshaping human aspirations into a form which leads us to a sustainable future. In other words, education and economics are inseparable.

This is not a popular thesis. For many, education is value-free and policy-neutral; it aspires only to provide young people with the tools wherewith they can shape their lives and, if they so desire, make their fortunes; it does not – or so we suppose – tell them what those lives are for or how those fortunes should be spent. But in practice, education is shot through with value-laden assumptions and they are nowhere more evident then in the obsession that we have with high qualifications as entry criteria for top universities, which we see as both the path to and a gateway to fame and fortune.

Consider instead the possibility of an education system that was re-shaped to pursue quality of life, simplicity of life, sustainability and what for want of a better word might be called spirituality, but not in any religious sense, and you would have an education system that looked completely different. Factor into this the inevitable rise of robotics, and the lack of employment for many who have little by way of education or skill, and the world is facing a multiple crisis from many quarters that only a change of attitude and value can hope to avert unless life for most or many is to become intolerable.

At the moment a vicious circle operates: we design our educational systems to produce the kinds of school leavers and university graduates who are needed to service the old unsustainable consumer society based upon its industrial antecedents. Ken Robinson has famously argued this case. If the world no longer needs or can afford in sustainability terms these kinds of aspirations, then neither does it need the same kinds of school and university leavers, because it can no longer hope to satisfy the avarice with which many view their own lives and equate to their measure of success. That being so, the education system itself must change right down to its roots and to its very core. An educational system that is fuelled by the desires of successive generations to become members of the consumer society, thoughtlessly gobbling up the world’s resources in an orgy of self-indulgence, is no more justifiable or sustainable than the system that it serves and fuels. And there is a complex version of the Prisoners’ Dilemma here, for only when we cooperate, only when we join in reshaping aspirations for the greater good of all, is any sustainable future attainable or even thinkable.

Consideration of the current situation in China is very illuminating in this respect. In a country of substantially undifferentiated uniformity, where it is everyone’s lot to live in an apartment block that is very much like every other apartment block in the country, the perceived imperative is to rise above the crowd, to make one’s way as best one can to a position which is different from and indeed differentiated from that of all the others, almost always by ostentatious demonstrations of differential wealth. For many Chinese parents and therefore many Chinese children, the way that this can be achieved is through education, but it is an education that is driven by a desire to join the very society which the rest of the world has decided is unsustainable. And here we come back to the Kyoto Dilemma, the response not just of the Chinese, but of any other developing nation to the observation that the trajectory upon which it is set is unsustainable, which is likely to be something along the lines of a tu quoque argument or, if you like, “physician, heal thyself”. The challenge therefore is not merely, as so many have done before, to articulate an alternative economic strategy that will somehow permit the current unsustainable trajectory to be sustained, but an educational strategy that articulates a different and persuasive worldview that elevates some or many alternatives to the present unsustainable course to a status where they become more desirable than the consumer world that is currently the fixation of so many young people and the educational systems that service them.

The scale of this challenge is formidable, for it implies that the only way that we can find our way to a new sustainable world – what we might call find our way to a strong Nash equilibrium that benefits all more than any attainable alternative – is by changing everything simultaneously, and finding a way to do that is of course precisely the dilemma that a strong Nash equilibrium and the Prisoners’ Dilemma problems address: both lead to questions about how we negotiate our way to stable, sustainable states from which nobody has any incentive to deviate.

Educational reform must serve and drive economic change, for without educational reform no sustainable economic change is conceivable. It is only when we change our minds about what is worthwhile, only when we redirect the resources that shape our aspirations and equip our minds with the tools to achieve them, that we can hope to come to a sustainable world economic position that will save us and our planet from oblivion.


June 19th, 2018


One thought on “Education and Economics

  1. Yes, Indeed, we need educational reform, but a lack of political will as well as the economic imperative of consumerism prevent this kind of reform, that is redirecting the goal of education towards simpler and sustainable life. The 1960s had an alternative vision to consumerism. That failed to have a lasting impact. Perhaps the inevitable end result of capitalism, loss of jobs for majority of people, will force people to develop sustainable communities. But I am not optimistic.

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