In light of Trump’s win and growing concerns about an “alt-right” agenda both in the States and here (for “alt-right” some use “neo-Nazi”), people are clamouring for education as a solution.
“What this all shows is that we need more citizenship lessons in school,” some say. “If only these people were better educated they wouldn’t believe in such views,” others say.
If only life were that simple.
As a former citizenship teacher who loved the subject dearly, it pains me to say that its powers are not magical. Things might indeed be better if only we could imbue everyone with a deep sense of critical thinking and empathy. But they wouldn’t necessarily stop the tide of right-wing thinking, because there’s no evidence to believe that critical and empathic thinkers cannot also be in the alt-right.
Plus, we’ve pretty good evidence that education alone cannot save the world from wars and unpleasantries.
In 1965, W.O. Lester Smith – a renowned educationist and professor – wrote Government of Education.
In one chapter, which looks at “who” should govern education, he discusses how it can “influence so profoundly the thought and character of individuals” that it becomes an important matter for the state.
As a positive example, he writes a paragraph describing how Prussia “provided a dramatic illustration” of bold, state-led education after it suffered heavy defeats by Napoleon.
With “the aid of education they could create a national spirit and produce citizens that would be a source of strength in peace and war”. Smith describes how their well-organised education system – which was visited by people from all over the world, including the US and the UK – helped to lead a victory in the Franco-Prussian war, the unification of the German states, and the creation of the German empire.
However, Smith does not stop there.
He writes: “Although Germany’s expansionist dreams eventually resulted in two tragic world wars and untold human misery, the idea of a state-controlled system that the Prussian leaders developed so effectively has not lost its attraction.”
Just read that again. All that praise for a centralised education system based on bringing a nation together after a tragedy only to be described, in the end, as aiding the country with “two tragic world wars and untold human misery”. We must be cautious in believing, therefore, that schooling is always and forever a solution to a country’s political turmoil.
There is also the problem of how one decides what a “citizen” ought to know – and, indeed, what a “good citizen” thinks. Singapore, for example, formally separates its politics curriculum depending on a student’s ability level.
Three distinct roles can be identified: (1) elite cosmopolitan leaders; (2) globally oriented but locally rooted mid-level executives and workers; and (3) local ‘heartlander’ followers. Leaders are taught about how they must be responsible for the next generation; the heartlanders are taught the importance of obedience. We must be careful, therefore, when we say that more education will necessarily help to reduce gaps in knowledge or political empowerment. It is entirely possible to devise systems that widen it.
If one is about to do a 180deg spin and declare that politics and education instead ought to be kept very far apart – I would also caution a warning.
An eighth of Aristotle’s Politics is devoted to education, and not by accident, but because it is so important to nation-building. Hence, politicians will always want to sell messages about schools, and that’s before one admits they have a responsibility to do so given the service is paid for by people’s taxes and which sucks in their children six hours a day.
Politics cannot be kept out of education. But shoving it into the classroom is not the silver bullet that people today may expect.