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Blair’s three Es have been replaced by another trinity, the slogan of the Forum: Education, Equality, Employment.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.
“Art teaches creativity, philosophy critical thinking, and these things are good because they can be monetised”
Even the winner of the $1m Global Teacher Prize, which was awarded at the Forum’s glittering finale, bought into this narrative. Andria Zafirakou is rightly “proud to be an art and textiles teacher” as she said in her acceptance speech. She is clearly a remarkable and dedicated teacher who works in one of the most diverse parts of London, often with kids from deprived or troubled homes. She complained that “the arts have to fight for space in the curriculum and for funding” and are often the first to be cut. But even she didn’t defend education as a good in itself. “For my students, the arts provide a sanctuary,” she said. “A place where they can safely express themselves and connect with their identity.”
At least these are not narrow economic gains. But before describing these social benefits she had said “the arts teach students how to think creatively, which will be important for the jobs they are likely to do when they leave school. They also teach resilience and that perseverance can pay off.” When even someone as passionate about her subject as Zafirakou feels obliged to foreground the economic case for arts education, something has gone very wrong.
I’m not suggesting that what the Americans call a liberal arts education isn’t good for your employability. Nor am I so high-minded as to believe getting children ready for the real world isn’t an important role for schools. However, this can’t be the primary purpose of education, the one we always have to measure its success by.
It should be uncontroversial that we are economically productive so that we can live better, not that living better means being more economically productive. Our ultimate goals are flourishing lives and thriving societies and the measure of these is not GDP. One of the few to say this clearly at the Forum did so from beyond the grave. More than once speakers quoted the former emir of Dubai and the first president of the United Arab Emirates, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, in what would have been the year of his 100th birthday: “The prosperity and success of the people are measured by the standard of their education.”
The fact that material wealth makes such prosperity and success much more widely and easily attainable doesn’t change that basic point. Even when certain means are necessary to achieve an end, the means must not be mistaken for that end.
The primary function of education and of the arts is to make us more fully human, to enable us to live as more than just animals caught in the cycle of feeding and reproducing. Lifelong learning matters because it continues to enrich us, not because it enriches the nation’s bank balance. That’s why it’s a tragedy personal musical tuition in state schools has all but disappeared, not because of the concomitant loss to the “creative industries.”
I’m sure that many—maybe most—of us still believe this, including Zafirakou and the organisers of the Forum. But somehow we have lost the confidence to say it clearly, afraid of being dismissed as woolly idealists by the apparently more “realistic.” But if we stop saying it and argue for humanistic education on narrowly utilitarian grounds instead, we’ve already lost the debate because we’re already playing according to the bean-counters’ rules.