Education can be a boring word. It drudges to mind the memory of Miss Jean Brodie, goody-two-shoes, or worse, the institutional bureaucracy and debate that surrounds it.
Seldom does the word ‘education’ ignite every sinew of the brain with hope and potential. It’s become a byword for a failing system in the UK, and most Western countries have relegated the education of its citizens to the back burner as they fund wars and combat failing economies. We all pay lip service to it, but seldom do reforms match the pace of thinking on the subject and, by the time we’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t, another generation has been through the system.
Ironically, it is those that have the least in their coffers to fund education who appreciate it the most. In what has been colonially and patronisingly referred to as ‘Third World’ countries, education means something else entirely. In developing countries (including most of Africa) and newly industrialised nations (like China and India), it’s a revolutionary call to arms against patriarchy as women and children strive for access. It’s viewed not so much as a trope of childhood cliché but as an economic, social and military necessity in order to enhance the prosperity and power of a country.
Even within these countries, education takes a secondary if not tertiary place to military and economic pre-eminence. What no one seems to be able to admit, from London to Beijing, is that education is the basis for a strategic mind which designs national defence as much as it does one that works in IT.
The world needs to address this. Divided and fractured, if we’re not going to drown under the weight of our own arrogance about climate change then we seem determined to let bigotry rule the roost. The ‘national interest’, that odious idiom for backroom dealings and chicanery in international relations, has become the de facto focus of too many states. ‘Bomb first, ask about the law later’ might as well be the tagline for the 21st Century. We don’t share or pool information; we seem to believe that Google and Wikipedia do enough of that for us. Why do governments not sponsor common education initiatives and conferences like they do alliances? What can be done?
Firstly, educational standards and the national interest should not be treated as mutually exclusive. A competitive global education race can be as mutually beneficial to all parties as an arms race, and in a more long-lasting way. It has the benefit of being the underpinning factor of the initiative and imagination for all other activities that states pursue anyway.
Education in the West has become too stratified and bureaucratised. For all the promise of change, it is still biassed toward university rather than giving students practical skills and practical knowledge that will last the rest of their lives. For example, if the Scottish Government truly took education seriously it would abandon having the Scottish Wars of Independence on the curriculum and put the history of the UK on it instead. Surely that is the most pressing issue and a better use of students’ time because it is relatable to the issues of the day. Colleges, internships and apprenticeships should all be considered on the same par as academic attainment, and all need to reflect the demands of the country and, indeed, the world.
This brings us to the other elephant in the room. If we really want our children to be the informed future workforce of our country and to engage and prosper in the world as it is and not how we dream it to be, then it’s criminal that Mandarin is not taught in our schools.
One of the things you learn when you teach abroad is that the reason for many children learning English is not ‘my parents said I had to.’ Many, many children want to learn because they believe it is the language of business: the language of being able to ‘get ahead’ in the world. If our Spanish friends can have this vision and honesty, why do we hang onto the belief that ours is the most spoken language in the world when it has, in fact, shifted to third place after Spanish and Mandarin?
Second, education is the national right and privilege of the nation-state. But so is the military. Why do we not export curricula and teachers like we do weapons?
The sociologist Ernest Gellner argued that education defines the nation-state because it informs at a bedrock level the language that allows a country to function. I’m not suggesting that governments forfeit this right in favour of a federally mandated global curriculum, but there are basic points of global agreement. If states don’t agree on teaching religion or a plethora of other issues, surely they can agree that counting, language, engineering, IT skills and an elemental appreciation of the sciences are an empirical necessity for all humans in this day and age?
Thirdly, global education is too important, nay, too human an issue for it to fall by the wayside in favour of war and diplomatic intrigue. More has to be done and teachers should be treated as soldiers, the standard bearers for their country, and accorded superstar status to drive this forward. Teaching is a skill like any other but it needs to be attractive. It also needs to reward years in the profession with opportunity and advancement. Teachers should be paid competitively and their skill should be as marketable a commodity as any other. It is not greedy to want for our teachers what other fields indulge in. The profit motive and a desire to contribute are not mutually exclusive; they work in tandem to the benefit of a happier staff and happier pupils.
Finally, mass-funded teacher exchange programmes, international conferences, pooled resources – all of this should receive national and international attention as an optimistic and positive pursuit. Education should not only appear on the news when there’s a strike or a government debate but as a regular policy crusade engaged in internationally to make our children, all of us, the best humans that we can be.
Imagine what could be done if countries liaised and worked and cooperated as closely on education as they do on international excursions? The point of this piece is not to facetiously downgrade the seriousness of international politics or the merits of foreign policy. Yet there is no limit to the number of ways the UK and others engage in the world, from music to soft power to flat out hard power. If children in other countries know and talk about One Direction or the latest film from America, then shouldn’t we be making sure they do the same about art, music, science and every other field of attainment from across the world?
It cannot be right that the country that birthed the Enlightenment is only good for war and money-making. We’re more than that. If we can export arms and hold arms fairs, then we can be the leading hub for learning and inspiration and should export ideas and curricula like we do weapons.