May 12, 2016

Horse 2111 - What Do We Think Education Is For?

I saw the still Federal Minister of Education, Christopher Pyne, on the news last night, in full election mode and on one of those tours which sees politicians pointing at things and creepily smiling at cameras for too long. One of the proposals put forward by the government in its bid to be reelected is to send specialist mathematics teachers into primary schools; which it is hoped will increase rates of numeracy. What a top idea!
If the idea is put into practice and it works, then I don't have any objections to it. I like the idea that someone is thinking about new ideas and ways of doing education. I think that one of the things that primary school is for is to develop numeracy and literacy skills in children because those things especially are needed for someone to function adequately in society. One of the unsung stories of the modern world, is the spread of widespread numeracy and literacy. Apart from the harnessing of energy which is what drove the industrial revolution, I think that those skills are the second most important driver of change in the history of the world.

He was obviously trying to talk up his prospects of reelection by framing everything with a look to the future but I think that he slipped up with one of his comments. He said that:
"Education should be about training people for the jobs of the future."
Now I can understand how this fits into the message that he was trying to sell that day but it belies a stance to education which I think is fundamentally flawed; that this is all that education should be for. Don't get me wrong, I think that STEM is important; it's just that I don't think that it should be the be all and end all.

I think that one of the mistakes that is being made in our modern society is that higher education especially is only seen as having commercial purposes. Education is subject and subordinate to the prevailing politics of the day. Certainly in the ancient world and even up to before the First World War, education was seen as far more than just having mercantile ends. Some could argue that even politics itself fell within the confines of education; that is, developing the goodness of people.
People used to undertake studies, which included a broader reading of things like the classics, literature and even ethics to a degree because education was seen as the method to induct people into wisdom. One of the catch words of the late nineteenth century was the idea of "improvement", that meant putting people on the path to learning what is good for the development of knowledge. That immediately spins the direction of thinking about education to epistemological ends, what is the nature of the thing and more importantly, how to contemplate an conceive reality.

Once upon a time in the land of the past, the only degree which existed was an arts degree; with all doctors being of philosophy. Yet somewhere in the twentieth century, the previously boring pursuits of explaining economics and the rise of the corporation ate education and has been furiously trying to spit out the arts and philosophy as unpalatable.
I find it interesting that it is the graphic arts which give us our view of the corporate world. A corporation which is literally a non corporeal person, is by definition faceless; yet the graphic arts by way of logo design and the fonts that are used, project the image of what would otherwise be an invisible idea for us. As we merrily paw away at computers and smart devices, the graphic arts frame how we interact with the machines.

The dramatic arts give us the entire world of television, cinema and theatre. Journalism and creative writing generally, gives us the means through which stories are told; stories are ultimately how messages are conveyed and that does include the arts of politics and advertising.
Even the cosmos of philosophy, which is often seen as useless by people who don't  bother to think about it, gave us the rules of logic and the really ironic thing is that without that, the rules for programming computers would have never have existed.

I personally like the idea of free education because it speaks to the idea of human dignity. A lot of what education is, or has been warped into, is a method of signalling that a person has done some amount of work in the past and or is a member of a particular class and is therefore fit for employment. That kind of outlook though, neither speaks to the dignity of humanity nor of education itself.
One of the biggest problems that we have with the delivery of education is that like so much of what society has deemed necessary for itself to function, the execution of government is subordinate to politics. Education in the administrative sense has to fall in behind the relevant Minister, who himself is a politician and a partisan one at that. At that point, the inherent dignity of education is boiled down and dissolved in the cookpot of economics. This is a thing which costs money, therefore we must reduce costs.

I like the idea of education for education's same, even if it is "unproductive" because at higher levels of education such as universities, people meet other people and the ideas that they have begin to cross pollinate; creating new ideas in the process. Even if this doesn't happen, we still end up with interesting people. At very least, opening education up to people's ability rather than the size of their parents' bank accounts, means that we end up with more educated people and less stupid people.
Thus we come full circle. If we're talking about a general approach to education from age 2 to 102, then the absolute least that we should be doing is ensuring that people can read and write and spell and add up a column of figures because the world is a different place to the one of even a hundred years ago and there just isn't that much of a demand for people to till fields and dig furrows. Starting with a good look at primary schools is a good beginning but it shouldn't end there. You don't even get the "jobs of the future" if there isn't the inventiveness and cross pollination of ideas in higher education and that won't happen without education being liberated from politics.

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