By Tony Adams

Education and its meaning has always been a source of dispute for centuries.  It is therefore not surprising that the 21st century public continues to argue about the meaning and aim of education. Should education be for its own sake? Or should education be preparing our young people for the work place. How do we educate our young people for life in the 21st century? Never, has so much attention been devoted to education, government ministers, social commentators, and parents have all been obsessed with its problems. The contemporary discussion to be fair, is not confined to a debate on the basics but touches upon virtually every aspect of schooling.

Yet, suffice to say that the famous father of American literature Mark Twain, who himself was not educated beyond elementary school had this to say:

“I have always made a distinction between my schooling and my education”.

Mark Twain

In expressing his cynicism towards the mediocre education system of his times. Twain believed that schooling was different from education and warns of the hazards of following the education system with blind faith. Take a look at the record and it becomes abundantly clear that education is being emptied of its content. The subject based curriculum and a philosophy of education that recognises the duty of one generation to impart its canon of knowledge to the next has come under sustained attack.

One of the leading political theorist of the 20th century reminds us that “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

Arendt suggests that it is through education that adults ensure that the younger generation are prepared culturally, morally and intellectually to renew our common world.

Today, under an obsolescent capitalism, education is valued for its potential to contribute to economic development, it is no longer considered important for itself. Increasingly the promotion of education has little to do with the value of learning per se or with the importance of ‘being taught’ about societies’ achievements, so future generations have the intellectual ability to advance still further. Meanwhile, corporate forces and right-wing legislators are aggressively working to defund public education. These funding cuts together with declining support services and rising poverty have almost become the norm in the 5th richest country of the world the world and it is unacceptable. As an FE lecturer myself,  I know all too well that we are fielding every on else’s cutbacks because we are increasingly having to be social workers , police officers, immigration officer’s mental health workers as well as providing support for families. Market and business values should not be the sole defining principles of education. When we start referring to our students as ‘customers’ then we know our knickers are in a right twist.

Arendt further argued that “Thinking itself is dangerous to all creeds, convictions, and opinions.” In the current political climate, the institutions that nurture critical thinking are similarly seen as dangerous and threatening to our increasingly authoritarian social order. These institutions include public and higher education along with almost any form of progressive media. In an increasingly diverse society education must be focused on civic literacy, public values and critical thinking in order to develop young citizens that are fully equipped and prepared to deconstruct structural inequalities. Therefore, we need a new economic system which addresses the huge failings of capitalism. It will not disappear or collapse by itself. If allowed to continue it will devour all life on earth.  Nancy Cardoso Pereita a Methodist pastor and leader in economic justice had this to say in her “theological reflections” before the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches:

”My Kingdom come!  Cries capital, seated on its throne at the heart of the world, making itself out to be god.” “Call it what you want.” “Free market economics is not the divine will. It is a human construct that can be overcome.”

Nancy Cardoso Pereita

The late American, playwright, novelist and activist James Arthur Baldwin puts it even more succinctly “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” If we have opened our eyes and do want to create a better and more sustainable future, and a just society , true  education needs to be at its heart and we must  get organised to ensure that the current economic system is transformed into one which supports education and the future of young people.