Monday, June 02, 2014

Elements of A New Education

If I summarise what I wish to do going forward, it will be this: I want to work in New Education and stop working in Old Education. 

This stands on a fundamental assumption that education is at a point of disjuncture, when the old ways of doing things must change. This idea, being proclaimed by educational thinkers, economic historians and technologists alike, bears out in my personal experience. My experiences in private and public education in UK and elsewhere tell me that we have built an elaborate and extensive system of education aimed at doing nothing: All the 'quality' talk that the Western countries take great pride of is actually a triumph of emptiness, as Mats Alvesson calls it. Bill Readings, in his book on Universities, did point out to the pointlessness of quality talk - that quality by itself means nothing - and this has now become an all-pervasive disease, quality assurance becoming the excuse for status quo.

The problem with this is that we are just fooling ourselves and sleepwalking to disaster. I see this in sharp relief in a country like India, where failure to understand and attack this problem may be causing 10 million failed lives every year. But it is equally easy to see everywhere. The failure of college is being talked about everywhere in the world. Orlando Figes of Birkbeck University complained that the students finish university these days without reading a single book (see here) and this is not just about changing media preferences. This is about what education has become and where the dyspeptic quality assurance departments are leading us to. The point is that in a rapidly changing world, quality assurance should be replaced by a Department of Imagination: Education's job is no longer to turn out standardised student experiences but to become an enabler of creativity and imagination. Being able to read books and having intelligent conversations are part of the latter requirement.

I am obviously equally conscious that 'new' is an equally empty term as 'quality'. It is important that the content of the idea is carefully defined, rather than obsessing ourselves with the adjectives. And besides, education is so far behind the curve that new is no longer novel, it was what was required as of yesterday. I have, therefore, spent time thinking about what the elements of a 'new' education could be.

The idea of 'newness' in education, I shall argue, is deeply connected with the society and its changes. In fact, one of the things that happened to education over the last fifty years is that it has become increasingly disconnected from social realities. This is partly about ivory tower thinking, but that surely is not all: The changing social attitudes towards political participation after the 1960s have a big role to play in de-politicising education, and the eventually de-coupling of education from social issues. Though the imminent death of sociology has been prevented with the rise of behavioural sciences, the idea that education is not for political participation but for technical engagement with institutions as they stand has become widely prevalent. When the society changes, however, desirability of these institutions as they stand, and new ideas as of what they should look like, become more important than ever. 

So, I think the first element of this new education is its goal of creating socially engaged individuals, which is quite opposed to the current credo of newness in education - to create socially blind skills. The point, of course, is that socially blind skills are oxymoron. It stands on the somewhat flawed assumption, entertained both by educators and policy-makers, that employers know best and following the employer requirements is the best way to equip people with socially relevant skills. This, plus an industrial grade quality assurance based on data, is the best solution many educators and technologists offer to the current educational challenge. This, if anything, undermine the central tenets of education and skills. Employers' skills needs, mostly here and now, are shaped in response to social changes; they are not the social changes. Skills and abilities are constructed over a long period of time, so an education designed to respond to the shifts in employer demands can only be bad education. And, therefore, we need a different model for individuals who can anticipate and understand social changes and shape, rather than react, to changes as they come. This means focusing on entrepreneurialism, the ability to identify problems rather than merely seeking solutions. This means leadership and imagination, rather than just discipline in thinking and rhetoric. This will mean a theory of political participation, based on a personal ethic, which must emerge through personal engagements with the world. This will also mean a deep appreciation of the two disruptive forces in our lives, globalisation and technology. And, finally, this will also mean a lifelong commitment to educate oneself, as all of these things are likely to be a continuous process.

In summary, then, the 'new' education will have graduates with the following attributes: Entrepreneurial individuals who are able to anticipate social changes and influence them through political participation; those who imagine and lead, rather than give up their lives to technical bureaucracies and middle class anonymity; these globally savvy and technologically fluent individuals will commit to a life of learning and develop a personal sense of ethic and engagement. Indeed, this may sound like the mantra adopted in many top schools today, in different degrees; but this is not about the top schools but what education, at all levels, should aspire to be. I argue that our broken bureaucracies are coming in the way, and believe that I should spend time outside the bureaucratic college and fully inside the ferment of a new beginning in education. 

  

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