Time for a radical shake-up

Piecemeal change is not enough. The real need is still for a sustained, systemic shift to entirely n

Most people now accept that there is a major crisis in the world's natural climate and that it's got something to do with how human beings have been behaving for the past 300 years. In the interests of industrialism, we've looted a selection of the earth's resources and imperilled all of them. One climate crisis is probably enough for you. But I believe there is another one whose origins are the same and whose consequences are equally perilous. This is a crisis of human resources.

The evidence is growing that we are systematically wasting the talents and the sensibilities of countless people, young and old and that the social and economic costs are immense. Education is at the heart of the problem. Why is this and what are the implications?

Governments everywhere are busily trying to reform education systems. This is good but it is not enough. The real challenge is to transform them.

There are many attempts all around the world to do just this. Some of these are coordinated by networks of educators, like the International Network for Educational Transformation; others, as in the UK, by government agencies like the Innovation Unit, by private philanthropy like the Paul Hamlyn and Gulbenkian Foundations, by independent think tanks such as the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and by specific programmes like Headteachers into Industry.

Transforming education means questioning some of the basic features of education that are often taken for granted. One of them is the distinction between academic and practical education.

Current systems of mass education are an awkward hybrid of 18th-century cultural aspirations and 19th-century economics. They emerged in the 19th century to meet the demands of the new industrial economies. Those demands had a profound effect on the organisation of mass education. But the culture of education was moulded by the intellectual preoccupations of the Enlightenment. These two forces, the one economic, the other a view of the mind, have often been at odds with each other. Over time, the tensions between them have buckled and distorted the systems they created.

Organisationally, education systems were not only developed in the interests of industrialism but in its image. For example, they are front-loading. They focus on young people, purportedly to prepare them for something that happens to them later. They are based on standardised curricula and systems of assessment that promote conformity not diversity. They are linear, with students grouped by age, progressing through the system in batches. It seems the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture.

They are also driven by assumptions of economic utility. This is one of the reasons for the hierarchy of subjects in schools: maths, languages and sciences at the top, the humanities and the arts near the bottom. Teaching beyond primary schools is based on the division of labour among separate specialists. To this extent schools function something like assembly plants. I could go on.

The organisation of mass education may be modelled on industrialism, but its intellectual culture owes more to the Enlightenment. Ironically, although public education emerged to meet practical, economic needs, it is rooted in a view of the mind that venerates theoretical knowledge over its practical application. The hierarchy of subjects is based in part on assumptions about economic utility. Students are often steered away from arts courses, for example, on the basis that they won't get a job as a musician, artist, writer or dancer. But there is another force at work.

On the whole, students are not discouraged from doing mathematics on the basis that they won't find work as mathematicians. This is because our education systems are dominated by particular ideas of academic intelligence. Students are divided into sheep and goats on that basis. The other abilities of many students are stifled or squandered. This is why some of the smartest people in the country passed through the whole of their education thinking they weren't. At the heart of the system is an intellectual caste system, which is educationally bankrupt, economically inadequate and culturally corrosive.

Transforming education means thinking in radically different ways about human capabilities and acting differently to cultivate them. This was the essential message almost 10 years ago of All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, the report I chaired for the UK government. Although at the time the government's embrace of the report was less than rapturous, the principles it promoted have been surfacing in bits and pieces in national educational initiatives ever since. But piecemeal change isn't enough. The real need is still for a sustained, systemic shift to entirely new styles of education.

There are three main processes in education: the curriculum, which is what students are meant to learn; pedagogy, which is how learning is facilitated; and assessment, which is how judgments are made about progress and achievement. Transforming education involves all of these. At the heart of this movement there has to be a sharper understanding of what really motivates people to learn at all and of the multiple talents through which human beings thrive and communities prosper. It means a shift from conformity to diversity, from standardisation to personalisation and from a hierarchy of subjects to a genuine ecology of talent.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be given the Benjamin Franklin medal by the RSA. The RSA was founded in 1754, at the height of the Enlightenment and in the early days of industrialism. Franklin was one of its early members. An inventor, entrepreneur and political visionary, he was always the first to question what other people took for granted. The systems of education that emerged from that period may have been right for their times. They are wrong for ours. Reinventing education for the 21st century means challenging assumptions that too many people take for granted now. If he were living in our times, I've no doubt that Franklin and his kind would be leading the charge for change.

Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognised leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources. He has worked with governments, international agencies, Fortune 500 companies, not-for-profit corporations and some of the world's leading cultural organisations. His new book, The Element: A New View of Human Capacity, will be published by Penguin in February 2009

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain