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Saturday, September 25, 2004


Education, education, education (but what for?)

I was heartened by reports that Kim Howells, the new minister for higher education, has stood up for a fundamental plank of progressive democratic socialism – education – using an argument that supports this political worldview. Unfortunately Charles Clarke is still Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who has been reported as saying “I don't mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them” and that learning for its own sake is “a bit dodgy” (Guardian, May 10, 2003). This kind of language feeds economically utilitarian views of the function and purpose of education, engaging with the demands of the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) [pdf link to position paper] on their own terms. This approach addresses the problems of education as being a case of providing a sufficient number of properly trained employees to meet the demands of businesses. While there is nothing wrong with this being a part of the debate, for a Labour government to treat this problem as the whole debate is worrying. While it may achieve progressive ends in the current environment, the moment the economic situation changes and alters the demands of even the most enlightened employers, so must education policy. There has been no assertion of the value of education except in market-defined economic terms, reducing it to a price and profit rather than an object with a value that exists outside of those calculations.

But education is more important than that. Kim Howells calls it “the second best thing I know in the world”, a great line, and I agree, though rather warily. I love to learn. But there is a value beyond simple joy, and that is the democratic value of education. Democracy is, simply put, government by the people through debate, discussion and argument. For a decision made at the ballot box to be anything other than mob rule or a decision between competing aristocracies, the electorate need to be able to understand the arguments behind the options presented. In fact, the electorate needs to decide what the options on the ballot are, and what arguments underpin these options. Anything less than this level of engagement with political debate, participatory democracy is you like, concedes the great portion of the debate to an oligarchy of those with access to the tools of mass persuasion. In a democracy, everyone needs to be a politician, everybody needs to take part, else the electoral process becomes a tool justifying rule in the interests of a few, however this few are arranged.

Education alone cannot produce a nation of citizen-politicians, but a nation of citizen-politicians cannot be achieved without a high level of education across the general population. The tools of critical thought, information synthesis and literacy in knowledge bodies such as economics, history and the sciences (amongst others) cannot be limited to only the professional classes, to people in jobs that demand such skills. The aim of a democratic government must be to ensure that all the people possible have such skills, and such skills are distributed throughout whatever economic, geographic and social stratification that is found to be necessary or acceptable. People at all positions in society need to be able to take part in democratic debate. While such skills are not limited to those with a university education, the idea that education is irrelevant to producing such ways of thinking is the intellectual ground seized by Kilroy when he criticised government plans to teach schoolchildren how to ‘read a newspaper’. He blustered and bullied his readership. He argued that, of course, his readers knew how to read a newspaper and that, with these proposals, the government is insulting his readers and their children. My grandfather would disagree with this assessment. He attended a union funded course at Sheffield University aimed to increase understanding of the media. He said that he never looked at newspapers the same way again. Presumably Kilroy is worried that if the critical reading skills of the general population are improved they will see him for the brazen racist that he is, and that his ‘friend of the working man’ act is a mask to cover an ideology that turns one set of poor people on another.

But even if you reject democracy, arguing that ‘the market’ is the only area of decision making that a citizen should engage with, high-levels of education are crucial in order to prevent the market being simply a tool of exploitation. Advocates of the market assert that people are clever enough to decide between the merits of products, to dissemble advertising and make their own decisions according to the virtues of the products and services on offer. How do citizens achieve this level of market competence, if not through education? Through high levels of education, inculturation in methods of critical, independent thought and information gathering and synthesis?

The demand for an expansion in higher education should not be based on the economic benefits of having the correct ration of education to uneducated employees, allowing wages to be set a levels favourable to employers*, but by the principle that education empowers. It empowers participation in a democratic society, a society of debate and argument and the citizen politician. And if we must have the market, it empowers consumers (and producers) in the only way that can expect the ‘invisible hand’ to work to build a better society.

And this is quite apart from the role of education in civilisation. Barbarians are capable of wearing suits and ties and shiny shoes.

*Note that the argument that Britain needs more plumbers, found in the Daily Mail, for example, is really about the labour costs of plumbers. Plumbers are too expensive, so the government should encourage other people’s children to become plumbers, which, in a market economy, reduces the pay and conditions of plumbers to a level that the Daily Mail reader finds appropriate.

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