Getting Smart for a Fair Society

by Richard Watson

I’m a fan of Slow Education, which, like Slow Food, teaches us to take our time. Both Slow Food and Slow Education are people-centric, reflective and aim to ensure that individuals appreciate where the things they consume come from. Both emphasise the importance of local difference, craft and quality over standardised production and cheap ingredients.

For me Slow Education is about the pleasure of the process as much as any potentially illusory destination or outcome. It is about classroom interaction, conversation and the slow unfolding of understanding. It is also a reaction to pushy parents and tiger mothers who see all lessons in the context of prestigious professions and the making of money.

Slow leadership within education might ensure that the influence of such parents is kept to a minimum. Explaining to a five-year-old that there’s a good chance they’ll live to become a one-hundred-year-old might also ensure some much needed perspective. Slow learning obviously has some negative associations, but one of the biggest problems we’ve got in our get it done yesterday world is the idea that faster is always better or more productive. Nonsense.

Never confuse movement with progress and remember that things that are done slowly tend to be done well and are remembered. It’s also worth recalling that the word school comes from the Greek word schole, meaning leisure or leisurely. Learning should be preparation for the whole of life, not just work. Schooling (and I include further education here) should be about understanding oneself rather than understanding where a set of somewhat subjective examination results might lead over the shorter-term. Again, it’s about taking a whole of life perspective.

But, unfortunately, this ancient Greek lesson has been lost. Today education is tied up almost exclusively with economic utility. In other words, the point of education is largely workforce preparation, although, as we’ve seen, there’s the very real danger that the current system is preparation for a workforce that won’t exist in the future.

Some studies suggest that a third or more jobs could vanish over the next few decades due to automation, artificial intelligence and robotics. I think such claims are a little alarmist, but nevertheless it would do no harm to think about whether or not the current system is positively aligned to future developments.

Importantly, are we equipping students with the right attitudes and skills to compete globally – and locally – in a market where value will be derived largely from human interaction and the ability to invent and interpret things that machines cannot?

But the future economy is merely one factor. It is critical that people are given the mental resources to earn a living in a knowledge economy and, perhaps, even within Industry 4.0 and a post-knowledge economy (whatever they may be).

However, the ability to earn a living and buy products should be the by-product not the primary objective. People should be taught to be more than mere producers and consumers or the managers of machines.

Education for a Fair Society

For me the purpose of education should first and foremost be the creation of a fair and just society. You might argue that the purpose of education should be employment, but I think this idea is failing fast and we should all try harder to come up with something additional that’s a little more inspiring for future generations.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying that “Education is what remains when one has forgotten everything one learns in school.” He didn’t actually say this at all. He refers to “a wit” that said: “Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he learned in school.

The critical word here is “if” and the point is not the importance of learning anything per se, but the act of learning itself. This learning starts at school, but it shouldn’t end there.

The role and purpose of education beyond the creation of a fair and just society should be to teach people to think and to think well. This, hopefully, will create and continually reinforce a fair, just and inclusive society. If the prospect of satisfying, meaningful and purposeful work is the preserve of a highly educated elite then the whole system will eventually fail. We need to demolish disadvantage, not entrench it still further.

But we seem to have forgotten this hugely important lesson.

We have forgotten that society means ‘we’ not ‘me’ and that true individuality can only exist within the context of an enlightened and liberal whole. We can only truly be ourselves in the presence of others and this includes those that think differently about things. But, unfortunately, education nowadays seems to be increasingly focussed on individual attainment regardless of any wider consequences.

In some ways this is a good thing. Individuality and innovation are strongly linked. But innovation only truly flourishes in societies that are diverse and tolerant of other individuals, especially those with seemingly strange or non-conformist ideas. This is why countries like a) Singapore, b) China, c) South Korea and d) Finland all struggle to replicate the radical thinkers that reside in places like California, which is open to migrants, with vast open sunny spaces where the imagination can soar and regard itself as young a democracy that have escaped the oppression of a colonial past.

In this context, the primary role of education should be the creation of a common, yet flexible culture. This should be supported by a unifying purpose in which humans and humanity are central, not the economy or technology. But alongside the fetish of the individual we have elevated both business and technology to God-like status when both are mere tools (and you can read that last word any way you like).

Fair and just means that we should be taught to treat each other – and our planet – with respect and learn not to carelessly exploit either for financial or individual gain.

Whatever you end up doing is clearly up to you, but if I were you I would start by exploring purpose in more depth and then move on to what makes humans different to even the smartest machines, because it is within this territory that a sustainable and fulfilling future lies.

In short, how can education contribute to human happiness and fulfilment in the broadest sense and how can education be applied to ensure that humans work with and not against automation and artificial intelligence?

The article is an abstract from the essay “On Education in the 21st Century” commissioned by the NSW Department of Education and published on Education Future Frontiers.

About the Author

Richard Watson is a lecturer and futurist, author of Digital Vs. Human (Scribe, Melbourne, 2016). He was born in England, but has lived in Australia and has children brought up under both systems.

Further Learning

The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber

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