Values for Today’s Education

We want one class of persons to have a liberal education. We want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

So said Woodrow Wilson in 1909 to a group of trainee teachers, when he was Principal of Princeton University. Wilson, of course, was a child of his time and such views did nothing to detract from his enlightened internationalism when, as US President, he played a major role in the foundation of the League of Nations in 1919. But the values underlying Wilson’s words are precisely the values of the industrial age of schooling, precisely the values so derided, each for their own reasons, by the likes of RF Mackenzie, Ivan illich, AS Neill, Paulo Freire in the past, and by so many others following in their radical footsteps today.

Whether we like it or not, Wilson’s values are still, essentially, the values that underpin the systems of schooling surviving in most parts of the world today. Thankfully, they are not always the values of the teachers and other key players in the system, but the fundamental pedagogies, the mass-production methodologies that still predominate in so many schools the world over mean that such enlightened people are having to struggle daily against a prevailing regime that has its feet planted firmly in the anachronistic rhetoric of Wilson from more than a century ago.

Young learners are increasingly no longer quite so willing as their forebears to accept the values of a bygone age. Young people across the world today are less bound by received wisdom than any previous generation in history. That seemingly uncomplicated acceptance by the young of the great forces for change occurring right now is the aspect that, above all others, will change education whether it wants to change or not. The young simply accept as given trends that some in the older generations are wont to typify as disruptive in some sense or other, even where they recognize and acknowledge the long-term benefits to be derived. Perspective is all, of course.

While many working in education systems around the world blithely soldier on against the rising tide of modernity and ‘disruptive’ technology, others recognize the changing reality and are struggling to prise themselves out of the factory-schooling straitjacket. Such people understand that the values they seek to reflect in teaching and learning are critical to their success in creating radical change in education. They know it is not enough to consider just pedagogy and curriculum, not enough to pin a simplistic faith on technology-as-a-good-thing-in-itself, and certainly not enough to reduce education to an instrument of economic advancement.

I previously praised the distinction, raised by Amartya Sen, amongst others, between Human Capital and Human Capability. Education is, we have to recognize, a primary driver for economic prosperity, but it is also the route to freedom, to knowledge as a public good , and to a fairer society. The latter, of course, requires some agreement – or at least a continuing debate – on a range of basic values that education should both reflect and reproduce. But with every new day and every new week that I spend in education, I have the privilege of meeting more and more people who strive to identify these values and who are working to bring the systems they work within and the people they work amongst into the reality of the 21st Century.

Conversations criss-crossing the globe – conversations that are exciting, disputatious, energizing, ironic, deadly serious, thought-provoking, contradictory, eloquent, heartfelt – fill me with optimistic expectation that education will increasingly outgrow the school, that monument to the industrial revolution, and become something that will happen more and more in the interstices between the complex strands of social relations that people build and colonize and disassemble and re-build throughout their lives, whether face to face or in the expanding panoply of virtual spaces that we now inhabit. Something akin to a school might well survive this process – it has already proved itself to be a persistent concept – but I, along with so many others, will work to ensure that schools (and colleges and universities and ‘learning centres’) become, not monuments to anything, but merely physical traces of a kind of education that is social, global and pervasive!