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The Survival Manual | Chapter 7.

Education and Life.

THE 2016-2017 FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW serial.
Serial Preface and Contents with Publication Schedule

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By ALAN MACFARLANE.

IF WE BRIEFLY LOOK AT THE ROLE of ‘education’, in the wider sense, as a training for life, we can see that the systems used to inform and conform young people have changed and varied hugely. They reflect all aspects of a civilisation and its view of the past, present, and future. Education reflects and shapes the religious, ethical, social, economic, and political nature of the society or civilisation. Hence its huge importance both as an index of much else, and, as a society changes, as a shaper or adaptor to new worlds.

This role is derived from the varied functions of education. Education is used as a way to pass on knowledge and skills from previous generations. It is used to teach discipline and interpersonal relations. It is used in many societies as a way of keeping children occupied and safely guarded while their parents are away from home at work. It is sometimes used to teach people thinking skills which will make them flexible and creative when facing new challenges.

Through most of history, education was by word-of-mouth and dependent on memory. Books were expensive and scarce so that in essence the teacher held all the relevant knowledge in his or her head and passed it on, through rote learning, into the brains of the children. There was also craft education, where the master would demonstrate and comment on the making of objects by his pupil or apprentice.

Thus most schooling in the great traditions of Confucian, Buddhist, and Islamic learning has largely consisted of sitting pupils in rows and, sometimes with the aid of simple textbooks derived from ancient sages or prophets, passing on to them the great truths of the past so that they can, in turn, pass these on and at least have a grasp of the simple tools of reading, writing, and counting.

The aim is not to teach the art of thinking in the sense of logic, analytics, rhetoric, mathematics. It is not the tools which explain how to receive information and then make decisions as to how to use it that are being taught. That is, the teaching is not in the art of argument, of selection, of discrimination between truth and falsehood, the art of intuition, proof, arranging knowledge over time in order to solve large problems or to guess at new things or create inventions.

All such skills are unnecessary since there is nothing new to be discovered – the great truths having been elaborated by Confucius, the Buddha, Mohammed or to a certain extent, Aristotle. Students are also to be discouraged from a form of thinking which would give them freedom, challenging what they learnt, thinking new thoughts subversive of closed systems and contesting the authority of elders, parents, and the religious and political establishment. Education is learning the disciplines necessary to take one’s place in a fixed world.

This roughly describes the majority of systems of education. Elements of such a system can still be found over much of the world. There are also hidden pressures to move towards such a closed educational system in any civilisation. As we shall see, there is such a tendency in advanced capitalist societies to revert to this education for submission and conformity.

THERE IS, HOWEVER, an alternative education which many people trace back to the Greeks with their emphasis on the Socratic method of question-and-answer, debates, the learning of logic and rhetoric, geometry, and philosophy. This unusual approach was transmitted through Roman and early Islamic writings to medieval Europe. Here there grew up the schools and universities in what we recognise as a more disputatious, contested, open, educational system.

I needed to be taught all that was required of the social, mental, moral, and bodily skills and practices which might help me to succeed in an open and highly mobile world.

My own learning was for an unpredictable professional future where I might end up as anything – a lawyer, artist, teacher, soldier, politician, businessman, civil servant, explorer. So I needed generic skills — not the subset needed to be a Confucian Mandarin, a Buddhist monk, an Islamic mullah or merchant, or a French civil servant. I needed to be taught all that was required of the social, mental, moral, and bodily skills and practices which might help me to succeed in an open and highly mobile world.

I was to be trained for many things: to learn how to enjoy my leisure through the appreciation of art, music, poetry, games, and hobbies. How to learn to communicate effectively through writing, speaking, and if necessary acting, dancing, and sports, so that I would impress and persuade others. I was to learn to be ethically upright so that I not only felt at ease with myself, but earned the trust of others. I was to learn to become responsible and mature, so that I could become a stable adult, parent, and grandparent. I was to learn to get on well with people of all backgrounds, to bring out the best in them. I was to work effectively as a team player as well as an individual.

In other words I was to become the epitome of a combination of a Greek philosopher, Spartan athlete, French savant, English gentleman, Confucian Mandarin, and medieval Christian monk.

This kind of education was in the past expensive and privileged, though elements of it were found well beyond the British private schools and Oxbridge. As an ideal, it was spread across the British Empire, also to the United States, though one of its strongest methods, the shutting away of children in boarding schools, was less widely copied.

MY OWN EDUCATION, the combination of many strands of the peculiar English system based on sending children away from home literally, or virtually, in their early teens to become members of the wider society, is part of a wider pattern. The background is of a particular class system, Protestant religion, imperial legacy, civil society, market capitalist economy, and democratic polity. And of course in my case took place over half a century ago in a different world. It needs to be rethought in the context of the next fifty years of the 21st-century, a present world already so different from my own youth.

Some of the current and future challenges have been outlined in previous chapters. It has become clear that children, and increasingly throughout their lives to keep up to date in a changing world and to enable them to take control of their lives, people will need to be trained for a world where the main part of one’s life will not be concerned with traditional work, but with ‘leisure’ or at least service and creative activities.

It will be a world where thinking machines and new computer-based communication systems will dominate our lives. We will have vast new potentials with the Internet, but also huge new distractions and threats from the temptations and exhilaration of the virtual world. All of this is highly relevant to how we educate.

We will be living in a world where the threats of war, and particularly the new kinds of subversive war linked to terrorism, lead to restrictions of our liberties…

We will be living in a world where the threats of war, and particularly the new kinds of subversive war linked to terrorism, lead to restrictions of our liberties, a growth in surveillance and power of the state. We will be living in a world where the old models of government, the extreme positions of British Parliamentary or American democracy on the one hand, and the single party state on the other, are interfused. Hopefully new forms of participatory, civil society based, localised, life will flourish.

We will be living in a world where the three billion people who inhabited the planet when I went to university, has risen to between nine and twelve billion by the second half of this century. The cities will be huge with the movement from the countryside, the countryside will also be densely populated. The pressing population may have solved some of the problems of ecological damage and global warming, though perhaps not all, thus again causing strife and tension.

We will be living in a crowded world with ever increasing mixture of cultures and backgrounds. This will not just be the physical mixing of peoples in the streets and markets, but the hybrid, contested, virtual worlds of the digital age.

It will be a world where people live on average thirty years longer than was common in my youth – bringing new problems of what to do after any specific career or job, and how to deal with new pressures on the health services.

Much else will be changing. The sharp identities we assume, of a national, sexual, racial, kind are swiftly shifting. Relations between the old and the young, men and women, people of different backgrounds are in turmoil.

GIVEN ALL THIS, how should we think about a sensible education system for the next half-century?

We should first note that the slide towards a system similar to that introduced as a solution for the health crisis, in other words the application of American business models, or even the supposed factory production methods of the top Shanghai mathematics academies, is not the way to go.

It does not work to produce a rounded and properly educated child, but rather creates human robots, taught by anxious and overstretched teachers, conformist and unimaginative. This is the last thing our rapidly changing world needs. We can make machine robots, and our children should be something else.

Sensible Chinese are not sending their children, on the whole, to the state schools, but to the best private schools.

Nor, as I noted with health, is it even efficient in its own terms, for the obsession with bureaucracy, administration, league tables, standardised tests, and results means that teachers have even less time to teach, and general ignorance grows. As we look at the mostly disastrous reforms introduced into the British state education system over the last ten years, we understand why it is that sensible Chinese are not sending their children, on the whole, to the state schools, but to the best private schools. These schools have managed, through high fees, and some independence, to preserve some of the real education, the training of the mind, body, heart, and spirit, which I experienced.

Yet even the best schools need to adapt and certainly we need to think of how to organise a much wider range of schools, not just in the West, but in the swiftly developing educational worlds of China, India, and elsewhere.

I VIVIDLY REMEMBER a friend, an engineer and scientist, stressing the huge leap from the early nineteenth century world of individual geniuses and inventors, who could master the whole of the knowledge base and skills needed to make significant progress in their subject (chemistry, engineering or whatever), to the contemporary situation where so many interlocking skills are needed that only team-work can succeed in making complex advances.

Of course team-work has always been present in many professions and occupations, the army, navy, factories, universities. But it is now true of most intellectually based progress.

I have increasingly found this to be true in my own projects. All require small groups working well together to achieve results which no single person would be able to deliver. The skills are just too complex.

So there is a huge need for young people to be taught how to work effectively with others in collaborative teams. Hence the value of team games and sports, musical and artistic groups, adventure groups, problem-solving groups, group discussion and brain-storming, debates, and drama. These skills, which were very much stressed in my own schooling, should be developed in primary schools of the future.

THE EDUCATION OF a young Chinese or other citizen of most countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was based on local skills, connections, and knowledge. Britain was a bit different because of its Empire, but even there was an emphasis on local citizenship.

The world is now global and international. Most successful people work between cultures. They need to be rooted in one tradition, but also to be prepared to travel, both physically and in the mind, to other worlds. This should be taught through education.

Five possible ways of achieving this are:

  1. Teaching an equivalent of anthropology at schools. Anthropology is centred on the skills of inter-cultural understanding through systematic analysis and immersion in other cultures. It is about cultural translation. It teaches respect for the other and provides some tools for helping us to overcome cultural differences.
  2. Systematic encounters with other cultures through supervised overseas expeditions, or by visiting different sub-cultures within one’s own civilisation – anything which creates a cultural shock and forces one to re-evaluate one’s own assumptions.
  3. Pairing with single students or classes or schools in other cultures, both at the individual level (Facebook-type friends), and through institutional pairing, for example each class paired with a school class in Africa, India, Burma, America, U.K.
  4. A systematic course of reading, films, music etc. from cultures outside one’s own.
  5. Language learning

THE MAIN INTELLECTUAL communication technology up to 1950 was the written word (or mathematical symbol). Almost all instruction at school was based around learning to read and write. All that has changed. We gain over three quarters of our information about the world now through visual images, whether TV, the Internet, Films or whatever.

As yet, as pointed out earlier, little instruction is given to children about how to ‘read’ visual media, or how to ‘write’ films (the best way of learning how to understand them). This should be corrected. So there should be courses in subjscts such as interpreting visual images, whether films or television or the internet (YouTube etc), and how to write films—not only how to video and edit and put up clips on the Internet, but how to set up websites etc. All the skills of a visual anthropologist should be developed — an interest in filming, photography, art, painting, design, and other communication skills of a visual kind, including a basic history of art and media, should be encouraged.

MOST EDUCATIONAL SYSTEMS have traditionally been ways of reinforcing authority and of transmitting acceptable knowledge through the generations. Passing on ‘wisdom’, or at least some practical skills, has been the purpose. This top-down model is now no longer appropriate. Most people can learn what they need to know in the way of facts from the Internet.

So what is needed now is the teaching of skills in searching out, assessing, and using information, not just in books and articles as I learnt, but mainly through online databases. Search systems, collating of information, doing projects of a multi-media kind, this is what young people should be taught about.

All this requires something like the child-centred problem-solving approach which we saw at an experimental school in Shandong Province in China, where the teachers were enablers, guides, mentors, rather than knowledge repositories. The method used by a good undergraduate teacher in the final year at University, or a Ph.D. supervisor – like a pilot on a ship – is the model.

BASICALLY OVERLAPPING, but conceptually a little distinct, the new world is one where technology is moving so fast and having such an enormous effect, that we become slaves to it if we do not understand and hence control it.

Our children should be  instructed on how technology works and how to deal with it in our lives.

So our children should be being instructed on how technology works and how to deal with it in our lives. For example, there should be courses in social media, emailing, Skype, mobile phone use, computing in all aspects, and other technologies. We should be teaching them the philosophy of computing and the internet and the ways in which technology more generally develops and works and controls our lives.

The work of Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan, and others should be taught and the effects of rapid technological change. My essay in Letters to Lily asks ‘How did we reach our digital age?’ That book has thoughts on all this, and especially on our need to preserve moments of silence, integrity, peace, and concentration and not to be swept away and have our lives fragmented by too much exposure to technology.

Learning to read, to walk for pleasure, to have hobbies and interests away from machines, are all parts of this. The habits of self-discipline and control of our obsession and addiction with technology.

FINALLY, ONE OF the hugest recent changes has been from a world based on the premise of inequality, whether gender, age, race, caste or class, to one of high social mobility and no birth-given inequalities. This is central to education.

Young people need to learn how to both respect and empathise with others, and to accord difference were it is due, and also to accept that others may know more than they do. But also not to slavishly follow leaders or be over-awed by power.

They need to learn to question and challenge, but also do this in a constructive and sympathetic way. In particular the handling of sexual, age and class differences, and differences in the family, need to be discussed and worked out.

All this has to be done in an increasingly relativistic world, where there are not necessarily any underpinning deities or absolutes. How to handle very rapid paradigmatic changes and bombardment of ideas in a postmodern world.

THE MODEL OF education which I was brought up with was one whereby education was seen as something you went through early in life. It was a training or preparation for the real business of earning a living and adulthood. It was also a transition ritual from childhood, through adolescence, to maturity, in other words a ‘rite of passage’.

All this is still the case, but the implications of what I have written suggest that we need to rethink the whole idea of education being an early-in-life package, once ‘got through’, no longer of real concern. There are several reasons for this. I shall mention three.

The first and obvious one is that our world is now changing so fast, as a result of technological, economic, social, and ideological laws of exponential growth, that we need constant refreshing in our education. I have had the good fortune to have had such refreshing more or less automatically as a teacher in a top University where, year after year, new ideas have rushed into my consciousness through my students and colleagues. Each year a fresh intake injects new challenges and needs, and I have to ‘keep up’ with changing ideas in a changing world, especially across the continents through the teaching of anthropology.

Yet this will in the future be true of us all, whatever our activities. If we want to stay active and participate in our rapidly changing world we will need to ‘re-tool’, ‘re-fresh’, ‘re-expand’ our minds. What we learned thirty years ago will no longer be a sufficient set of tools for our current world. This is a big change even from my own childhood, where things moved slowly enough for one period of education to be enough for a long life.

While our bodies and our abilities to make things and to make money may not be necessary, our minds and emotions are infinitely expandable.

A second new development is in the leisure society I described. In a world where most people will probably have little ‘work’, one of their main pleasures and sources of self-satisfaction could be through learning new things, and perhaps contributing themselves. While our bodies and our abilities to make things and to make money may not be necessary, our minds and emotions are infinitely expandable. Already we know this from our experience of taking up new hobbies, travelling to new place, watching new films, and reading new books. Expanding lifelong education could build on this and open up ever more new and exciting areas for exploration.

In the spirit of moving activities back to the lower, local, levels, and with the greater personal leisure, it would also be worth exploring much more ‘home’ learning. That is to say those who had skills and interests to pass on to young people – parents, grandparents, friends, neighbours – could set up collaborative and co-operative teaching units (duly vetted of course) to help to teach each other’s children. This has often happened informally in history. Now is a new opportunity to think about this again.

Thirdly, there is the change in longevity. Some years ago Peter Laslett became interested in what he called ‘The Third Age’ and saw the potentials of education for making it a much more interesting period by helping to set up the highly influential ‘University of the Third Age’, movement in Britain. Retired people with a particular skill or passion offer to give classes in their special interest – painting, walking, local history, quantum theory, languages or literature. Whatever it was, people could sign up to their courses, workshops or tours.

This idea can be extended further at all levels and not confined to academic subjects, but include all crafts (pottery, gardening), sports, and games. The sharing, sociality, and friendship is part of it, but it is also deeply educational. So as much true ‘education’ could go on in the Third (and Fourth) ages, as in the first and second.

The practical way to make this possible is to think of free education as an entitlement, part of the package which would form the baseline in a reasonably affluent society. Just as a basic living wage could be paid to all, so there would coupons or entitlements to the other things which we need – house, health, and education. These coupons would ensure a basic amount of all of these – and only if wanted more than this basic entitlement, and made a successful case for this need, or were prepared to make some sacrifice of time and energy, would you get more.

ALL OF THESE are part of schooling. For in encouraging a wide education with new elements we should avoid the danger of throwing out much that was good in the old – language learning, basic numeracy and literary skills, encountering new and exciting disciplines and ideas. Nor should we ever forget that almost all of our education comes through people, most of them not our school teachers, but friends and family.


Serial Preface and Contents

Alan Macfarlane FBA, FRHistS, is Professor Emeritus of Anthropological Science and Life Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge and co-editor of The Fortnightly Review.

Prof Macfarlane is the author of more than twenty books and numerous articles covering English social history, demography in Nepal and the industrial history of England, China and Japan. His survey text, The Invention of the Modern World, is published by Odd Volumes for subscribers to the Fortnightly.

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