Ione Skye in Say Anything: “I’ve glimpsed our future, and all I can say is ‘go back'” (image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film)
Western societies have probably never been so well educated. Babies born in the 21st century seem to have every waking and even sleeping moment dedicated to “improving their educational attainment” by their parents, grandparents and benign business owners. The market in education toys is booming. Geek chic is a thing, apparently reflecting the huge interest in all things academic – with a concurrent boom in viewing figures for TED talks, anything with Professor Brian Cox in it and participation in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Apparently undergraduate students no longer do unspeakable things with traffic cones and actually study in the evenings. Free museum entry in the UK for almost two decades has led to vast numbers of us being treated to the edifying benefits art and culture. Even diets are policed in order to make us learn better by eating more “brain food”.
On paper, it would seem that all this attention on childhood development and ongoing education has paid off: undergraduate numbers have exploded in the last forty years. In the UK at least, GCSE and A-level grades went on improving relentlessly until measures were changed.
So how come it’s so easy for vested interests to take over mainstream media that this apparently hyper-educated populace swallows uncritically? If people “fucking love science”, then why are they so fucking stupid enough to vote for Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump in the USA, PiS in Poland, Marine Le Pen in France, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Fidesz in Hungary and One Nation in Australia?
How come it’s so easy for managers, politicians and other “leaders” to reassure us that the status quo is the way to go, in spite of their incompetence? Unprecedented transparency and access to data made available through technology to an ever-expanding audience with MAs, MBAs, PhDs and first class honours has changed absolutely nothing – inequality is still growing, species are still being lost, we continue to eat contimanated food, we continue to flush our excrement away with clean drinking water and we still object to building new homes while complaining about unaffordable housing. People’s trust in politics is at rock bottom. It’s almost as if we have forgotten that compromise is the bedrock of democracy – a vote for right-wing demogogues who claim to “get things done” is not a protest vote, it is an uncritical vote.
And why do 200m people brough up benefitting from the education benefits of the Teletubbies still watch the Eurovision song contest? I rest my case.
Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow exposed brutally how poor the human brain is at making decisions, and how we delude ourselves that the opposite is true. Modern life is incredibly complicated, and increasingly so. Faced with such a bewildering array of choices and information to appraise, our response has been to batten down the hatches and stick with heuristics such as “gut feelings” and “common sense”.
That societies who are the most educated they’ve ever been can remain convinced that gut feelings and common sense are nothing but bullshit fed by marketing and media lies, and fail to understand principles around reality and interpretation leads me to the conclusion that it isn’t education that is valued by anxious parents, politicians and snake oil salesmen, but simply the earning potential and the acquisition of gongs in order to beat our competitors in the desperate race for diminishing jobs, housing and quality of life. In other words, quality of life is sinking rapidly, we know it, and we’d rather chuck people over the edge rather than go down together. I remember looking around a flat I was interested in buying. It was rented by a slob – it stank of BO, it hadn’t been cleaned in years, there were archaeological strata of skid marks in the toilet, it was full of discarded clothes, dozens of shoes and unwashed dishes, and although the decor was all tastefully on-message, door hinges were broken and fixtures were cracked. There were no books or music on any shelves, no signs of “culture” on display and the walls were completely bare apart from the tenant’s framed degree certificate from Leicester University hanging askew by the front door. An educated pig in his sty.
Education for its own sake, finding joy in the application of knowledge to problems, learning and discussion as an enjoyable way to pass time with fellow human beings – these surely aren’t such insane things to do?