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Our crisis of democracy is a crisis of education

From Trump to climate change, our children must be prepared for the huge challenges of this century. So why are we still preparing them for a nineteenth-century industrial culture which doesn’t exist?

Graham Brown-Martin
27 February 2017
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This is part one of an interview with Graham Brown-Martin.

I think that the crisis of democracy we’re experiencing at the moment does have some roots within education provision. It’s hard to have functioning democracies without people having access to high quality education, and that starts in school, primary school, through secondary and university, and so forth. I think very few people would disagree with that.

I think the challenge is that we have an education system, globally, and very much so in the western world, which is geared towards things that we can measure: particularly 'academic subjects’ – maths, science, and English. Because these are taught and tested in a way that is eminently measurable. The problem with standardisation is that you end up narrowing the curriculum and narrowing the tuition, so that we can measure success through a quite restrictive testing regime.

The result of that – the sort of undesired consequence – is that inevitably you get what is commonly known as ‘teaching to the test’. The teacher who may very well be an experienced practitioner nevertheless now is rewarded, monitored and their performativity is based, on how many of these young people can be got through – almost like an assembly line – a set of tests within a narrow curriculum.

That doesn’t leave a lot of space for critical thinking. Critical thinking takes up time. It’s quite common now to have young people, whether they are doing a university degree or whether in high school, who will say, what’s the point in me learning this, will this get me through the test?

I was speaking to a university lecturer in the Netherlands just the other day, who was saying students in the engineering course were literally asking, ‘why are we learning this, is this going to get me through my degree?' That’s quite a concern if that’s percolated down from government, all the way through academic, faculty and teaching staff to the actual students themselves. So we are very much focused on getting to a piece of paper, a certification.

If we talk about a crisis in democracy, the population may be smart in a narrow set of subjects which are designed for the industrial objectives of that society, but the purpose of education there is to output human capital to an economic development plan. The subjects, the material, the purpose of education are not specifying societal objectives.

Mark Reinstein Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Mark Reinstein Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.I can’t help thinking that after the result that we had in terms of Brexit in the UK, or the Trump administration in the United States, we might look at what education people are receiving, and would it have changed anything, had we made it compulsory that all secondary, high school students would study sociology, as an example. Or philosophy – to have an understanding about how culture and society are created and how they are established and how they are operated, and some of the history of those systems.

It may well be that for a lot of people, leaving the European Union is a good idea. But I think if we look at the bigger picture, the challenges of this century – let’s not worry about the next century, let’s think about this century – the real big challenges such as population, environment, antibiotic resistance, ideology, diversity, are challenges that any child going to school today is going to face in their lifetime.

So if you look at what has happened with Syria, which has its roots also in climate change, just 4 million souls have been looking for a new home, and this has caused immense issues for governments in Europe, in the United States, about why they can’t come here.

We’ve been here before, of course, in history, and we seem to be revisiting that. But 4 million people is a drop in the ocean compared to what will happen in the course of this century where it’s quite likely, as a result of the combination of large-scale population, and climate change alone, without any of the other issues I’ve mentioned, we’ll have 400 million people moving. The idea that to prevent this we can annex ourselves, we can close the channel tunnel, and we can build walls, across our borders, is utterly ridiculous.

So nothing in our education systems, in high schools and universities, is preparing children that are in school today, for that future. We’re still really preparing young people for a nineteenth-century industrial culture which just doesn’t exist any more. And I wrote a book, Learning {RE}imagined, and people ask me, what did you see that was transformational? How are we suddenly going to change our education systems? And the reality is that education is a structure, like mass media or religion – these are all structures, and are designed to maintain the status quo. So the educational structure really reflects society. What we haven’t had is a proper conversation about the kind of society that we want to have, bearing in mind we know with certainty – population increase, climate change – we know what those challenges are.

So really, as a species, and as a society, we have agency. We need to have a conversation about what our future looks like in 30 years and aim for that. And education is part of that.

This is part one of an interview with Graham Brown-Martin. Keep an eye out for part two which investigates the multibillion dollar industry behind the ‘tyranny of assessment’.

openDemocracy is partnering with the World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy. Read more here.

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