Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Challenge of Public Education

H G Wells' point, that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe, is still valid. A hundred years may have passed, and the context may be different, but we are still just one step ahead of catastrophe: Consider the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency in the United States, and one knows. 

Ok, ignore that! That was said in jest - and Education protects Civilisation from more than just Chaos. It often saves us from ourselves. And, while this quote is often brandished to make the case of making people 'educated' - putting them in classrooms and attempting to make them technicaly competent - such progress do not translate into better life, at least for the most of the humanity.

In fact, what Wells said is a sound economic argument, and more. Economists look at the paradox of technological progress, all these gadgets, cool apps and disruptive businesses, and the stagnant economic life of the majority, the unaffordable homes, detoriating healthcare and schools, innovation without impact, and say - it will get better! That argument is based on the idea of Learning Curve, that these technologies are too new, and therefore, can affect too few: But, with time, and education, most people would be able to take advantage of them, and life will get better.

Except that, this narrow economic argument makes some big assumptions about society and polity. For example, that we are seeking to make life better for most people. But that is not the case. If anything, we are trying to do the opposite. We are withdrawing from public sphere, average Middle Class life does not have any space for political action anymore. Indebted men, us, limit ourselves to servicing our mortgages and chasing private schools and retirements and ever greater loans, living the political activities to few, sly ones who serve the rich and talk about public service. As our search for better lives turn purely economic, happiness gets equated with possessions, aspirations are crowded out by celebrity fetish, we lose the vision of collective well-being. Therefore, technological progress becomes politically regressive, and we disconnect. As our civil liberties are stolen, our public services are decimated, our tastes are debased, we live on the dope of hope - that it would all fall in place as long as we have done better than our neighbour.

There might have been a time education brought hope against the despair of destruction: Certainly true for the time when Wells was writing those words, in 1918. But, now, hope itself is swindle. There might have been a time when education brought freedom, against the oppression of the tyrants; but long since freedom has made us lonely enough to be powerless. One could say, at this moment in civilisation, catastrophe and education have switched meaning: We are suddenly at a point when connecting with reality is potent, and solidarity is what can give us back the world we have lost.

In this context, education, one that keeps us ahead of catastrophe, is public education. A goal we abandoned, perhaps because we thought we had enough of it, in the pursuit of economic success, is what can perhaps save us from ourselves. The point is, either we understand what is happening to our world and participate in it, or live in the hope to face that day of eternal hopelessness - a day of absurd when, and if ever, we had a fleeting moment of seeking meaning of our lives, if at all. Making it freely, universally available was a goal so admirably achieved by preceding generations is now our responsibility, to keep it going, something we can not abandon to the interests of the rich and the famous. Taking up the cause of public education is the ultimate form of political action in our generation.

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