What did you learn today?
I learnt nothing
What did you do today?
I did nothing
What did you learn at school?
I didn’t go
Why didn’t you go to school?
I don’t know
It’s cool to know nothing
Kaiser Chiefs Never miss a beat
Humans are pretty damn amazing. We can make rockets and fly to moon! We can cure disease, create beautiful art and music, perform astonishing feats of physical strength and endurance. Collectively, it seems like there’s nothing we can’t do, if we put our minds to it.
On our own, when it’s literally just us and our own resources…we’re not so hot. As Arthur Dent discovers in Douglas Adams’ Mostly Harmless, without the rest of human civilisation to support us, individually we can’t do very much at all.
If you’re arguing this point with me in your head, check out the TED video where a guy tries to make a toaster from scratch.
The world we live in with all our Mod Cons, like running hot and cold water and sewerage systems and international travel and internet and supermarkets, has come about because we’ve built on the work of the humans who came before us, over centuries. Using first language, and oral transmission of knowledge, then writing and written transmission of knowledge, and then by formally encoding codes of knowledge into disciplines and setting up formal systems for teaching those disciplines, we passed on the knowledge we acquired. As Isaac Newton acknowledged (quoting a 12th century monk, incidentally) we can do astonishing things because of all the work that has been done before us.
The rapid advances in technology in the last century or so have come about because of the spread of mass education: the more people that are exposed to more knowledge, the more, and more complex problems we can tackle.
You could say, in fact, that education is how we are working around a really fundamental problem: no matter how many problems one person solves and how much knowledge that one person acquires, that knowledge can’t be passed to another brain. Not while the person is living, and not when they’re dead.
History is littered with instances of where humans knew something important, but lost or didn’t share that knowledge. Scurvy killed millions of sailors between 1500 and 1800 but Vasco De Gama knew citrus fruit prevented it in 1497. If we can’t pass on knowledge from one human to another, we’re screwed.
And if we let governments and other interests persuade us that only SOME people are worthy of being exposed to knowledge, we put limits on what can be known. The fewer people we educate, the less collective power we have. We will not only fail to advance, but things will break down, because we will have lost the knowledge to maintain them. Those satellites that allow you to post cat videos don’t stay up there by magic.
And if we restrict education to the few, what happens to the people who don’t get it? Every single one of us comes into the world with a blank slate. The only knowledge we have in our brains is what we acquire through experience or education. If we say there are people who “should not” have their brains enriched through education, what then?
If they aren’t capable of doing the complex jobs that will be available, they will have no means to acquire income. That’s a cost to the state, or they become homeless, and live on the streets, and commit crime to survive. They’re also vulnerable to people who exploit their lack of knowledge. Religious extremists, corrupt governments, criminal gangs. You want a safe community? Then you want people to be educated.
Pink Floyd’s The Wall paints a picture of education as brain-washing: forced conformity to society’s narrow norms. The potential for formal education systems to be hijacked to promote a particular ideology is a very real threat, as the creationism movement demonstrates. We need to be watchful of that: filling minds up with garbage is probably worse than not filling them up at all.
But don’t let politicians persuade you that we don’t need to invest in education, especially not politicians who rely on you believing their lies and misinformation to gain and keep power. Hello, Conservatives, I’m looking at you.
Education is essential to maintaining our complex society and to solving the many problems we face. It takes effort to learn, and time, and we should support people who put in that effort, because we need it. Education is an investment in our future prosperity. Starving education of funds guarantees future problems. Be deeply suspicious of anyone who tries to tell you we don’t need education. What we need is education for all.