As science and technology define what we can achieve in a material sense, knowledge and understanding informs us as to how to best use our technical ingenuity. Education should give the individual person a framework within which to grow their knowledge and also to use it wisely. And that’s the key. Education needs be such that it encourages the wise use of knowledge. And in todays world, where the issues are global and interlinked, that means it needs to have a wide perspective.
I’m not just talking about school education here, but education in a broader sense as well. School education does need to provide a greater sense of context for pupils – why they’re learning what they’re learning. I’ve always been careful to try and explain this to my own sons. Discussing science and global issues with them after school hours so they become more aware of the world for which they’re preparing themselves. Whilst they of course have made their own minds up, independently of any input from me, I like to think that our talks have at least been partly responsible for one son deciding to train as a medical doctor, and the other being committed to a working life in nature conservation. School education should leave pupils with an understanding of the disparities in the world and the differences and relationships between people. Poverty is a relative thing – schoolchildren in the developed world should be far more aware of true poverty, where children die from lack of food and why. And pupils in the developing world should be more aware the needs of their country in terms of water management, land tenure rights and basic economics. Just an awareness, that’s all. Give them the building blocks from which to establish their own persepctives, values and intentions. These are the real things of life that the education process is supposed to prepare them for. Basic education means nothing if no context is apparent to which they can apply what they learn.
But it’s not just about education in schools. It’s about increased awareness in society generally. All tertiary education should include ‘context’ in its curriculum. A geneticist should know about global socioeconomics, including such issues as why antibiotics are losing their effectiveness (poverty plays a role here) to help them judge where best to aim their research for the most effect. A Builder should know why it’s important for buildings to be thermally efficient (emissions and climate change), and be informaed about social issues associated with housing. Accountants should be more aware of inequity in society and how wealth is being distributed. Journalists should receive broad training in everything from economics to nuclear physics to enable them to understand better what they’re trying to report. Virtually any occupation needs to have this more contextual awareness to enable them to apply their skills in the world in the most appropriate way.
In the west, we’re plagued by a media that trivialises life. Teenage magazine and so called newspapers that are focused on mindless celebrity culture and irrelevant issues. Whilst it’s obviously fine to have an extensive entertainment media, don’t let it parade as news. I once spoke to a bloke in a pub who was reading a copy of one of these papers (The Sun – a UK tabloid) and asked him why he didn’t read something more informative. His answer was that those big papers are too clever for him and he wouldn’t understand them. So we go back to the inadequacy of school education again, and false perceptions. I can’t help believing that if readers of these ‘newspapers’ were more aware of how they were being talked down to and patronised, and how an assumption was being made that they were indeed too stupid or ignorant to want to know about the bigger issues facing them and the way their governments (for whom they vote) and the world as a whole works – if they were made more aware of the world – then they may take an interest and want to know more. Then the world just may stand a better chance of overcoming the problems it faces as the people who vote for governments in democracies would be better informed as to how to vote. And Governments would have more flexibility to be able to implement policies that would currently see them voted out of office, such as green tax legislation for example.
I realise that I’m talking about a widespread cultural shift here that’s starting to verge uncomfortably on the idealistic. But we could certainly do more than we are at the moment, and it may only take a consequential shift in awareness amongst a relatively small group to lead to wider societal change in due course.