It is depressing that we feel compelled to foreground the economic case rather than defending education on its own termsby Julian Baggini / March 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
“Ask him about Iraq,” said an audience member to the man about to chair a discussion with Tony Blair and George Osborne. Even when speaking at a glitzy international gathering, as he now so often does, Blair can’t escape his past. Over the weekend in Dubai, however, he was happy to revisit one aspect of it. His host at the Global Education and Skills Forum avoided talk of nearby wars and instead asked him to repeat his most famous slogan like a performing parrot. Blair gave one of his trademark smiling grimaces and graciously said, “Education, education, education.”
Standing by that statement of his priorities wasn’t just playing to the gallery, filled as it was with educators and supportive celebrities at what has been called “The Davos of education.” Education is obviously a good thing, but we’re not demonstrating the extent of our own if we assert that its value is a no-brainer. If we don’t stop and ask why education matters those who keep giving the wrong answer will get away with their mistake.
Over two days at the Forum, I was struck by a bogus assumption that underpinned numerous defences of the value of education, especially in the arts and humanities. It was there in Blair’s comments that education is necessary for a society to have the creativity necessary to keep its place as a leading developed nation. It was there when George Osborne stood up for lifelong education to meet the need for people to “retool” and be “reprogrammed” in a fast-changing world. It was there in the comments of several people on the same panel as me who talked of how the arts and humanities improved performance in other subjects and prepared kids for working life.
It shouldn’t require highly developed critical thinking skills to spot the hidden premise here. Education is now routinely advocated and defended on the basis of its ability to prepare people for the world of work. Art teaches creativity, philosophy critical thinking, history empathy, sport dedication, and all these things are good because they are transferable skills that can be monetised.
Blair’s three Es have been replaced by another trinity, the slogan of the Forum: Education, Equality, Employment. The progressive left stresses the second, the free market right the third, but both see education primarily as an instrument for achieving economic goals.