‘Education, education, education is a slogan that will doubtless stir the memory if you’re British and of an appropriate age.
But what is education for and what are we supposed to be training people to do? In fact some people ask whether we’re entitled to educate children at all.
Personally I reckon that education starts at home. Children, like puppies have to be housetrained and socialised, to learn how to cope with the rest of the pack. In the case of our species it’s a hard and cruel world out there. Apparently as many as one in five young people get bullied on social media. Perhaps one thing we should teach them is that the real world matters more? Never be afraid to switch off and walk away.
As lot of what we teach them is by example. ‘Monkey see, monkey do,’ is a good guideline. Perhaps that’s how so many of the best teachers, whether in school or in life, pass on their own burning enthusiasm?
One problem with education is that to a large extent it has been hijacked by people who have been through a formal ‘academic’ education. You know the sort of pathway; in English terms, GCSEs, A levels, University Degree. The people at the top of the system are largely people who have been through this process. In fact they’re often surprised to discover they have a colleague who hasn’t been through the same system. So since the start of the second war we’ve had only three Prime Ministers who haven’t been to university; Winston Churchill, James Callaghan, and John Major. Of the others ten went to Oxford, one to Edinburgh and one, Neville Chamberlain who went to Rugby school and then Mason Science College, Birmingham.
But the problem with having people with degrees in charge is that they assume that degrees are worth something. After all, if the reason they got the job was they had a degree, then discovering that people without a degree might do the job every bit as well can make a nasty dent on a person’s sense of entitlement and self worth.
You know what they say, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. So if you needed an academic education to get to your current position, the tendency is to assume that an academic education is important (because you’re important and you have one.)
It’s interesting that the English aristocracy were always said to be averse to anything that smacked of ‘trade’. We now have an education system, staffed predominantly with people who have had academic educations leading to a degree, which rather looks down on vocational education.
So back to educating children, what on earth do we teach them? Well one thing I would regard as important was to teach them to value craft skills every bit as much as academic skills. Somebody who cannot fix a ball-cock in a cold water header tank is every bit as ill-educated as somebody who doesn’t have a book in the house.
A second thing we need to do is to bridge the divide which has grown in society between a comparatively large elite who regard themselves as educated, and an even large group that the elite regard as uneducated. To an extent it’s founded on snobbery. ‘They’re not like us.’ This may be entirely true but need not be a bad thing. We have to teach our children that regarding somebody as stupid because they believe something different to us is also unhelpful.
Part of the problem here is that as the world of work changes, areas are getting left behind. Jobs which paid a decent wage have disappeared leaving in their wake industries where the minimum wage is aspirational. When those making a good living in industries which have expanded on the back of technological change start to look down on those who have been abandoned because it’s cheaper to import, the very least they are guilty of is bad taste.
A third area where we ought to educate children is to teach them to check facts and accept nothing merely because it’s placed in front of them. In a world of false news we’ve got to teach young people that just because something confirms their prejudices it does not have to be true. I’d like to teach older people that as well, but I know when I’m spitting into the wind.
But at the very least we ought to remind people that there’s an off switch which is there ready to press when the loonies get too hysterical.
A final area I’d like education to touch on was ‘quality.’ The child who would rather read Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs or Cordwainer Smith is no better or worse than one who would rather read Marlon James, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Zadie Smith. Life is too short just to read books because you ought to.