Education is a universal. It is a truism to say that, in every age throughout human history, in every society, every nation, every tribe, every empire, we have sought to pass to each succeeding generation the skills, the knowledge and the ideology deemed necessary for survival and progress.
However, while education has been a universal, its particular application has not been. The practice of education has differed from one context to another so that, in any one place at any one time, its purpose has been to meet the specific needs of each society and culture.
But the world is changing. The difference today is that, with the world flattening around us, the pressures on education systems are pretty much the same wherever you look around the globe. There will always be a need to meet the needs of the society being served, but there is also now a growing international dimension to education, one that seeks to deploy education as an instrument whose purpose is to create a key part of the conditions needed to ensure growing competitiveness and prosperity for countries and regions across the world.
Of course, there has always been an instrumental view of education – but it seems to me, looking around the world, that the instrumentality is different in kind today. A key factor in its current manifestation is, of course, the expanding role for technology in teaching and learning, as well as in the administration and management of education. As I have discussed before, neither education nor technology is a neutral instrument – each can be used for good or ill, and certainly each can be used to serve particular agendas, whether educational or economic or political in nature.
However, education and technology are rarely the precise instruments that many country leaders would like them to be. The reason for this is simple: that whatever the intention behind educational planning, whatever specified reasons a country might have for taking its education system down one particular route or another, there will always be a strong current of unintended consequences flowing from education. It is in the intrinsic nature of education, that those doing the learning – the students, the teachers (the best teachers are always learning as they teach) – change as they learn. That is the point, of course – but the nature of that change in the individual simply cannot be pre-defined in any precise way.
Amartya Sen, Nobel-Prize-winning economist, differentiates, for instance, between “Human Capital” and “Human Capability” in his book Development as Freedom. The first is the target of the educational instrumentalist – the latter is the characteristic of the learning person that grows and is enhanced naturally by education. An effective education will develop new skills across a population – and will therefore increase, it is hoped, the economic capacity of the country – its Human Capital. However, while the individual might be developing new skills, he or she is also learning about himself or herself, is being given the intellectual tools to be able to analyse their social, political, economic, emotional situation, is able to read more widely, is able to learn from history – and so on. The result is likely to be a nation of better educated people – their Human Capacity is extended!
Like Sen, I like to think that education, while it has a task to do in helping to create the conditions for a more prosperous economy (a necessary task, one that only the most Rousseau-esque advocates of a liberal education would disparage in any way – pace John Darling (RIP), from whom I learned so much so long ago about education, philosophy and Rosseau) , it also inevitably extends Human Capacity by producing a more rounded, more critical, more politically-aware and more articulate population. In this way, education is a key route to freedom and to democracy around the world.