Education has the power to be a 'universal cure'
‘The only purpose of education is freedom; the only method is experience.’
'Castles made of sand melt into the sea eventually'.
In this post I will share a few thoughts on the psychological and career realities associated with our existence as 'digital natives' in a world of climate change, and rising geo-political tensions. For future generations to experience freedom and prosperity of a sustainable, peaceful, and healthy kind, there needs to be a serious shift in the why, what, and how of education at every life stage, and across educational institutions.
The whole of humanity lives and works in a global context that requires the ability to live with very high, and constantly increasing levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This is more or less a truism now. Most of this is down to intractable issues that we humans have created for ourselves, through our own incredibly intelligent, and also pretty unintelligent way of life.
Just observe what is happening right now in the South China Sea between various global powers playing wargames with incredibly powerful technologies. It seems evident that we humans are our own most serious existential threat.
Educational and research institutions can take some of the credit for the process of modernization, human cooperation and civilization, for sure. At the same time, they are knowingly culpable in our equally strong tendency towards competitiveness and self-destruction.
In a keynote speech at a recent Global Partnership for Education summit, referring to the power of education, Boris Johnson said (with an all too familiar touch of bombast?) 'this is the silver bullet, this is the magic potion, this is the panacea. This is the universal cure, this is the Swiss Army knife, complete with allen key and screwdriver and everything else that can solve virtually every problem that afflicts humanity.' Sorry Mr Johnson, not in its current form.
I don't see evidence to support Johnson's assertion that education as it is today is acting like a 'panacea', even if it is clear that it can and does support many positive outcomes, including poverty alleviation. Johnson defines education in his speech as 'the imparting of knowledge of instruction by one human being to another'. From a psychological point of view, that seems very narrow to me and lacking in depth as a definition, or aspiration for what education can and should represent to us all.
For one thing, our education system will need to prepare people to handle the cognitive onslaught, hyper-competitiveness and accelerating evolution of digitalized work. The education system also needs to prepare people for life and work which, in an ecological sense, is feeling slightly pre-apocalyptic at the moment.
The extent to which education and assessment systems around the world are adequately preparing people to succeed in a digital economy, to take on climate change, to collaborate across cultural boundaries, and to stop being influenced as much as they are by online misinformation, is questionable. The ways in which educators and psychologists define and measure human potential, through current systems of academic testing, and psychological assessment, are based on underlying assumptions which are not necessarily fit for an increasingly virtualized and atomized existence, punctuated as it is likely to be with unpredictable weather events, pandemics, mass migrations, terrorist events, cyber crime, political instability and conflict.
Bryan Caplan, an eminent economist in the US, has argued that the US education system is not fit for purpose – indeed, that it lacks any clarity of purpose – citing scientific and sociological evidence. This is a possible criticism of education systems around the world: they are out of date and out of touch with contemporary existence. Education clearly has many purposes, not just one of practical preparation. But to fail to prepare people adequately for the sheer pace of change - and the firefighting (in some parts of world, quite literally) that lies ahead, seems not just negligent, but like a form of mass denial. So, I agree that education is part of the solution to our collective challanges, but not in the way that it is generally carried out.
A gap between education – in terms of both content and method - and our basic skill and knowledge requirements in everyday life will become increasingly obvious as digitalization transforms entire industrial sectors with increasing pace. Schools and universities received a wake-up call during the pandemic which has forced rapid change onto the sector – some have changed their operating models radically on the back of the pandemic. But actually what is needed is a quite fundamental rethink of the purpose and scope of education in general, not just a digitalized version of an obsolete system, whether it is for children, or senior executives attending business school programmes.
To fulfil one’s potential in today's economy the most important skill required is the ability to adapt fast to uncertain situations, and to work in an agile way. Schools and universities need to help young people – at every stage of their development - learn how to learn. The transition from childhood into adulthood, and subsequent adult education experiences, need to be managed so that constant disruption of all kinds – technological, political, social, economic, environmental - does not come as a severe shock, but more like something we are all trained to deal with, slightly like military training.
We all might benefit from being a little less reliant on the expectation of one permanent well-defined place, or role, in 'the system'. At a societal level, surely COVID has taught us that we all need to get much better at hoping, and aiming for the best whilst also planning for the worst. System failure - sometimes with catastrophic results - is going to be an increasingly common phenomenon.
At a deeper level, we also need to move on from outmoded ways of thinking about what it means to be educated or intelligent or successful as individuals. The kind of intelligence that matters for our future is the kind that the psychotherapist and psychologist Malcolm Parlett refers to as 'whole intelligence'. I wrote about whole intelligence at the start of 2021 and it continues to be a personal preoccupation.
In work spanning several decades Parlett has advocated for a collective maturity or wisdom in the way we behave, which can support human flourishing and ecological sustainability. Such maturity emerges out of overarching human abilities, such as our ability to be embodied in the way we live and work, to interrelate with others, to recognize our own effect and impact, to understand and respond to what is happening in the here-and-now, and to experiment without being paralysed by fear.
This kind of visible competence does not seek to separate the intellectual and emotional. Such competence seeks to maximize and harmonize all our human capabilities for the greater good. It is an intelligence that draws on our instinct to survive and thrive but not just for the short term, or at others' expense. It can be developed through experience and it cannot be learned in the same way that we learn about science or technology. Whole intelligence is the panacea that already constantly saves us from ourselves. In myriad ways COVID has been a brilliant case study in the difference that the presence or absence of whole intelligence can make to our species.
One key reason why we are where we are with regard to our natural ecosystem is that formal education has failed to focus on or develop the right kind of intelligence. Formal education has a tendency to treat humans simply as future economic units each competing for supremacy in a competitive labour market. The value of an education tends to be calculated in relation to the doors it opens, to one's earning potential in life, which also connects to the ability to consume, and of course to create wealth.
The cleverer, the more ambitious and more hard-working you are the more likely it is that you will achieve the holy grail of 'social mobility', which can only really be observed or measured by your ability to earn, to consume, and when you've really made it, to 'give back'. The cleverer, more ambitious and more hard-working you are, the more important, respectable, and successful you appear to be in your society, because of your seniority in your industry or profession, and the various status symbols you accrue.
We all know that script.
In five months we will have been living with COVID for two years. Even though the leading countries in vaccination like the UK might possibly have found a possible exit route out of the COVID cage, there are countries still being ravaged by the disease. COVID has probably changed the world forever, as any such prolonged, widespread, and intense an experience might. COVID has prompted many of us to take a big step back and reflect on who we are and how we use our time.
So, what am I learning?
It has come home to me over the last two years just how much any individual talents or accomplishments I can bring to bear, only matter in relation to the long-term health of the human systems, and natural ecosystem, which I occupy. The urge to measure individual knowledge or relatively superficial talents in microscopic, seemingly objective detail, to magnify these, and allocate disproportionate rewards for them, is understandable, and in its own ways very fair. This is the meritocratic utopia - or perhaps myopia - we are in.
As we can all see, when extreme meritocratic ideals are scaled up as a model for an entire system of education, economic development and social progress, without sufficient attention to what human capacity and growth means in a more complete, and purposive sense, the net effect is very unlikely to be ecologically sustainable, or to make us happy.
To what extent do you think the education system where you are is adequately preparing people for the realities of life and work as you see them today, and in future?
See also –
Caplan, B. (2018). The Case Against Education: Why the education system is a waste of time and money. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Pavlova, M., Lee, J.CK. & Maclean, R. Complexities of school to work transitions. Educ Res Policy Prac 16, 1–7 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10671-017-9211-5
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose