The Great Education Failure

The Great Education Failure

Discipline and authority dominated education when I was a child. Both are important though I thought there was, perhaps, a little too much of both then. Discipline was mostly about pain, from cold showers to stoic suffering to prove you were a man even for those who biologically clearly weren’t. Authority was often a license to mistreat. At its best it said do as I say not as I do. At its worst it led to prison sentences, some of which are still being served.

An aspect of my early education that was not only good but vital, was instilling a sense of personal responsibility. Worldly achievements were as admired as they are today though without the demeaning soubriquet of ‘celebrity’. Clever people were expected to occupy positions of greater influence than those managed by the not so bright. But regardless of academic, sporting or social brilliance each of us was required to understand our personal responsibility in terms of both contribution to society and example to others.

With development came system. I remember a talk by a friend in the 1970s. He praised his job for not requiring ‘heavy lifting’. As an ex-farmer I wondered whether the reduction in back injuries would compensate for the lack of exercise implied by his rejoicing. All systems and procedures since then have led in turn to both less physical and less mental exercise. Bolstered by job descriptions, KPIs and interminable legislation – to say nothing of ‘guidelines’ – they have been accompanied by an attitude of “If I do my job and you do yours we won’t clash in the process”.

The consequence is a bottling up of frustrations and anxieties. If we had a society where our personal standards mattered and we stood up for them, we would have reached a series of modi vivendi along the way. As it is, we have precipitated a revolution of ‘any standards other than the ones we have’. The baby is going out with the bathwater. That is the tragedy.

We cannot lay the responsibility solely on parental, School and University doorsteps. We are all to blame. Politicians talk about our responsibility to vote. A democracy is meaningless without our doing so. But when did a politician last talk sensibly about our personal responsibility for society? Even today I read criticism of a senior civil servant who holds, and expressed, a point of view that differed from that of his political bosses. Good for him. We do not want robot civil servants.

We do not want robot people of any sort. Methodising our way of working is good only to the extent that it educates us to think and behave more responsibly. When process substitutes for these it becomes destructive. This places a heavy burden on those who can determine the right amount of discretion compatible with reasonable safety. Too much safety is as dangerous as too little.

An example of where this applies is in security checks. When we train people only to tick boxes we deny judgment. Worse, we make circumventing the system easy. All criminals know that the easiest bank to rob is the one with the most mechanical security because it will be monitored by the least thoughtful supervision. There is still no substitute for alert observation, deduction and conclusion.

Educationists should have these thoughts at the heart of devising how future teaching is to develop. We are not in a post-truth era, and hopefully never will be, but we are at a stage where our brains have to work differently if we are to save the species. New thinking is being devised all the time. But is it being designed to educate our sense of personal responsibility? It needs to be to cope with increasing process and methodisation.

Assuming, of course, that want humanity to survive.