Education – it’s all about the economy isn’t it?

What price education? There are of course a range of responses to this question. Currently the approach to education in this country is driven by the demands of the economy – we need young people who have basic literacy and numeracy skills, and those who aspire to Higher Education must pay for the privilege.

It was therefore striking and refreshing to have this view robustly challenged – not in this country but in South Africa. Novelist and academic JM Coetzee’s foreword to University of Cape Town fellow Professor John Higgins’s new book, a series of essays on “Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa” , captures succinctly a view premised on the public good.

“You argue – cogently – that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short-sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society – indeed, to a vigorous national economy – is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves… we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis.”

Coetzee’s primary concern is the absolute importance of the humanities which should not require special pleading to maintain their status within the life of a university. Whilst absolutely agreeing with the principle at the heart of this approach, it is not applicable to Higher Education alone. I believe this broader concept of what learning is for should underpin our approach to education in schools.

With a government which appears ever more obsessed with systems and measurement, our national debate on education becomes ever more reductionist. The lives of children are segmented into qualifications with a National Curriculum, itself a subject of some controversy, not mandatory for schools which are Academies or Free Schools. And as yet another government policy proposal is tweeted about ever before any proper consultation has taken place, educators are looking anxiously over their shoulders. For me, the triumph of process over vision in education is actually quite shocking.

The importance of educating a “critically literate citizenry” should be the Lode Star for a government of any political persuasion because our world is changing exponentially. We live in a time where the world is being transformed by the digital revolution, a revolution which has effectively sidestepped the conventional gatekeepers to information. The “anytime, anywhere” character of our lives made possible by digital technology is hugely exciting creating extraordinary opportunities.

But it also has a darker side. Those of us working in schools are very familiar with this. Whilst the press has focused on the perceived dangers of social media, there is also the realisation that the World Wide Web is the Wild West where everyone and anyone has a platform for better or ill. The instinct of adults is to try and protect young people from such unfiltered information. Any responsible school will operate some kind of screening to provide a learning Eco system which is balanced and responsible. However, the web exists outside of school where even the most careful of parents will struggle to police this particular Augean Stables.

As an independent school, we have the space to determine our own education philosophy. For us, in a time of rapid change, we believe absolutely in the concept of educating a “critically literate citizenry”. The vital importance of critical thinking – rarely mentioned in our national debate – is a prerequisite for anyone being educated in the digital age. With the emphasis on league tables and concomitant focus required from schools on this metric, it is quite possible that a young person can leave school with a clutch of good grades but frankly an inability to think independently. Indeed, we have received feedback from HE Admissions’ tutors who despair of candidates from very successful schools with a starry “A” profile yet cannot respond to questioning which takes them out of their specification comfort zone.

This is not an either/or issue. We believe strongly that students can achieve the necessary results to support their life chances but this need not be at the expense of their broader education. In the end, this is about what we value. And our school values a holistic approach to learning which is about the development of the individual. In the sound and fury surrounding education debate in this country, it is timely to remember the importance of educating the individual who must be critically literate in our brave new technological world.

3 thoughts on “Education – it’s all about the economy isn’t it?

  1. clued (@clued_co)

    Here, here.

    Three real, recent, scenes.

    Scene 1 – My 15 year old daughter’s ‘top performing’ College (IB School of the Year 2011)

    School Teacher: Iona you need to put together a C.V. so that we can practice job interviewing, to help you when you leave Education.
    Iona (my daughter): Can I put it together as a list of projects I’ve created or been part of? I don’t intend to ‘get a job’ when I leave. I’m going to work for myself.
    School Teacher: Do you want to be unemployed when you leave university? Earn money? Will you please just put a C.V. together so we can do job interview practice!

    Scene 2 – My daughter’s best friend’s house

    Daughter’s Best Friend: I’ve made up my mind i’m going to go to MIT, when I leave College, to study Aerospace Engineering.
    Daughter’s Best Friend’s Mum: Iona what do you think you might want to study at university?
    Iona: English Literature at Cambridge.
    Daughter’s Best Friend’s Mum: Oh, that’s interesting. (Pause). Are your parents okay with that? Do you not want to study a subject that will get you a career and good job when you leave?

    Scene 3 – The music room/study/library at our home.

    Iona: I’m fed up with people telling me that doing English Lit. at Uni. will be a waste of time.
    Me: It’s not a waste of time. It’s a fantastic use of time, if that’s what you want to study.
    Iona: Why do people keep telling me that I will need to get a job when I leave Uni?
    Me: It’s because they think the future will be a continuation of the past. It won’t. Already it isn’t. Even though our economy is recovering, and employment is up, research show that the number of people becoming self-employed has risen dramatically.
    Iona: I want to be a novelist not a lawyer.
    Me: Go to Uni. and study whatever it is you love. If you do you’ll also be educating yourself to be a great author, whether it’s English, Classics, History or other Humanities subject. Spend your time at Uni. exploring, experimenting and thinking for yourself, not preparing yourself for a job.

    Mac at Clued.


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