Knowledge Belongs to the Many, Not the Few

Angela-Rayner.jpg

Angela Rayner’s speech to the Labour Party conference contained many interesting ideas. The National Education Service, of course, echoes the UK’s beloved NHS:

The next Labour Government will create a National Education Service, a cradle-to-grave system supporting everyone throughout their lives. It would start in the early years, where we know it has the most impact in changing people’s lives – just like my life was changed by a Labour Government.

And Rayner’s backstory is an important one, secondary modern, left school at sixteen, is as much a part of our school experience as left school at 18 with three A levels to go to Russell Group Uni.

The idea of education starting through Sure Start centres – maybe helping children to read and write and do number early on is a pertinent one.

To never give up on children, on people, is also important, again Rayner refers to her own experiences:

Workplace education meant we had the chance to learn more and earn more. Other people need that chance. So, our National Education Service will be lifelong, providing for people at every stage of their life.

This idea of lifelong learning is a vital one. I think every business and industry should either provide training or give employees the time and the wherewithal to study. Rayner wishes to start the conversation about what a National Education Service would be like:

I look forward to that conversation, to visiting schools, colleges, and universities, to talking to pupils, parents, teachers, and businesses, so we can truly build a National Education Service for the many, and not just the few.

This brought her to the strongest part of her speech:

The Labour Party was founded to ensure that the workers earned the full fruit of their labour.  Well, the sum of human knowledge is the fruit of thousands of years of human labour. The discoveries of maths and science; the great works of literature and art; the arc of human and natural history itself; and so much more that there is to learn. All of it should be our common inheritance. Because knowledge belongs to the many, not the few.

This is our historic purpose as a movement. Not just to be a voice for the voiceless.

But to give them a voice of their own. That is the challenge we face. And it is what we will do, together.

This is exactly what education is for. I heard no-one shout Rayner down with calls of: ‘Whose knowledge? Whose inheritance?’ In these concluding remarks she embodied all that is best in the great liberal arts tradition, the great works, knowledge for the many and giving them a voice of their own.

And yet later that same day in Tom Watson’s speech we heard a call for a very different kind of education:

In an age when every child has access to all the knowledge that has ever existed on a device that fits in the palm of their hand, just teaching them to memorise thousands of facts is missing the point. Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms were a useless return to the past – obsessed by what children can remember, instead of how they use the knowledge they have.

The confusion here seems to be about memory and ‘having’ knowledge. Having a device in one’s pocket doesn’t mean ‘having’ that knowledge, just as sleeping with a dictionary under your pillow doesn’t mean you’ll become highly articulate overnight. A child, indeed an adult, does have to learn something and this means committing learning to memory – Gove notwithstanding.

We don’t yet know what the jobs of the future will be, so we’ve got to teach children not just what to learn but how to learn. And how to be. Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning. Transferable skills they can adapt as the new world swirls around them.

In this part of his speech Watson reminds us of the problematic 2007 National Curriculum, where skills and the unlikely nature of their easy transferability is to be suddenly absorbed by children who will, no doubt, ‘have’ these skills in a downloadable form from their phones.

Watson wants our kids to be educated for the unknown:

economy of the future.

Where… Angela Rayner… will lead an education system that prepares our young people for a world we can’t yet see.

A utopian hope built through utilitarian means.

The next Labour Government will educate and train a nation of workers that are the most creative and adaptive on the planet. We’ll give working people the tools to use technology to enhance their lives, rather than restricting them to a digital elite.

The digital economy succeeds only when it gives each of us the means to realise our true potential. Which doesn’t stop in our schools. It must be threaded throughout our economy, throughout our lives.

This is not education, it is training. It is an apprenticeship in becoming working fodder for the needs of business. But business should be providing this. Training for jobs that do or don’t exist should be provided by companies throughout a person’s life, training and retraining them. Yes Government can help with this – it might be a National Training Service – but it’s not a national education service.

Education is about the quality of a human life, it examines what it is to be human in this world. It teaches knowledge that should belong to the many and not the few, this is truly a great hope but if Labour are to return to Government I worry that instead of teaching the great books and thoughts they will, instead, insist on a second rate diet of scientism in which:

Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning

take the place of

the sum of human knowledge [from] the fruit of thousands of years of human labour

Please don’t let this be so.

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4 thoughts on “Knowledge Belongs to the Many, Not the Few

  1. toby roundell (@tobyroundell)

    Thank you for your interesting post. I agree that education should encompass the character of human life and that it should examine what this means within society.
    Knowledge, however, does not belong to the many; and it is politically naïve to presume it should be, or can become, a common inheritance. For an inheritance to be given it must be owned; and I struggle to conceive how a politician, a political party, or nation for that matter can claim guardianship over the sum of human knowledge without inadvertently tripping into something that becomes totalitarian and thus sinister. To me what Angela Rayner says, although well meaning, seems too ideological; and it does not factor in the impact, educationally, of complex social conditions that have been the fruits (or the curse) of thousands of years of human labor.

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  2. Eddie Playfair

    Thank you for this excellent post Martin. We need to respect both knowledge and skill and constantly make the case for everyone’s entitlement to a liberal education that is both broad and deep. This means challenging economistic and ‘anti-knowledge’ tendencies as well as fluffy ‘all education is intrinsically good for its own sake’ arguments. Keep making the case for a rigorous and critical educational progressivism!

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  3. Chester Draws

    “But to give them a voice of their own.”

    The way to give people a voice is to allow them to choose themselves, not have it chosen for them.

    If they wish education to be solely about getting them the best possible job, then they should be allowed to. If they want a broader and deeper education, not just a training, then they should be allowed to. But a NES will not allow this, because it cannot by its very nature, because that’s not how bureaucracies work — especially bureaucracies driven by public servants and politicians.

    Yes, a democratic education system is fragmented and often chaotic, just as democratic politics are. Rather that than an NES that decides what is best for someone on the basis of someone’s decision what is rational for everyone.

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