From the feisty, participative and thoughtful contributions to our Drink and Think Soiree recently a pattern of thought emerged that I have not seen discussed much elsewhere, perhaps because of its potential for misunderstanding or apparent political incorrectness. Discussing “How shall education equip us to handle increasingly Trumpian politics?” 110 people provided thoughts that, I am sure, are still resonating in many places. To all those who contributed, many thanks. To the 32 who wanted to but were run out of time – please come next year. You shall have pride of place.
The discussion was obviously not about Trump but about education. Equipping the young to be good citizens is clearly a job for parents, assisted by grandparents, other members of the family, schools, universities – and good bosses who recognise their jobs as more than squeezing profits out of brains. And here’s where the surprise, at least to me, emerged. Parents have the prime responsibility for inculcating standards and values into their children. But has that responsibility changed over the last fifty years or so? Are parents keeping up with the changes?
Answers were cautious. Many in the gathering were parents, some with children in those difficult teenage years when childish things are cast off and the search for a new cloak is proving tricky. Patience is the prime quality a parent has to show at such times but knowledge of the new world is important too. You cannot engage with the man from Mars if you don’t speak the language. A void is left today between the fundamentals of being a civilised human and having a Martian passport.
Tertiary, and even secondary, education now take place when a child is, in many ways, already grown up. They know pretty well all that the world has to offer – the good and the bad. They have access to anything they don’t know. They can communicate with anyone on the planet. They are technologically streets ahead of their parents and teachers. So what is education for, for them?
Knowing your alphabet doesn’t make you a great writer. A London taxi driver who knows “the knowledge” (all the streets and routes in Greater London) isn’t thereby a good driver. A voter who knows what each party to an election stands for isn’t necessarily a responsible voter. Indeed, what I have seen of voters in my lifetime suggests that they are often bigoted, biased and influenced mostly by what suits them. Not all, of course. There are many conscientious people whose votes are cast with a genuine desire for the welfare of their fellow citizens, Whether you would classify the current American Republican Party rhetoric as such is a moot point.
Or, indeed, the rhetoric of any political group. The sports world has ably demonstrated the difference between running the race and winning it. Achievement is good; ‘at any price’ is not. So if the balance of individual liberty and societal rights is to be maintained it requires voters who are, first, interested in and, second, equipped for casting their vote in a way that provides decent and responsible politicians. Those politicians now have to grapple with issues of power (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Elon et al), of technology (Facebook hacked?), of fairness (the poor can see what the rich own and do) and of contribution (who does what for society).
You may almost think that world is one big family, mayn’t you? In which case our educationists are increasingly in not dissimilar roles to parents. With the advantage that their role is to learn, to keep up to date and to educate others how to use the newfound knowledge and skills we all need.
And that includes the responsibility of updating democracy and making it effective.