Reflecting on education and the formation of a just society

Something which has increasingly troubled me as I’ve watched my children pass through Western-styled education (both in Latin America and in the UK) and reflected on its qualities is how this education has largely rewarded a very narrow band of intellectual achievement at the expense of rewarding the development of more rounded, moral and ethical character.

“Evil genius” is not a label I would jump to pin on anyone but I have often been disturbed by the way schools through to universities (and some notably more than others) seem to make reason a figurehead and reward it handsomely in spite of the glaring character flaws and moral deficits exhibited by some of its “protagonists”.  Inside sources into our flag-ship universities further convince me of the need for concern; stories of academics whose own lives and mental health are sacrificed literally to the goal of academic success be it for prestige, career or financial reward.  The combination of the rule of reason and the industrial maxim of competitive pragmatism and efficiency is a potentially dangerous one which threatens to squeeze out reflective morality and praxis.

I wonder to what extent educational bias towards rewarding academic success has played a part in the development of horizons in technology, science, media (just look a the recent News of the World debacle) and so on which appear to be less and less guided by ethical and moral considerations and more and more propelled by the impulse of success, innovation, and power?

I observe the fruits of this success-driven culture in the young people in our churches; in some it manifests in the drive to succeed (at any cost) within the framework of their education establishments and to “get ahead”, especially now when times are hard and jobs are more difficult to come by. In others, I see disappointed disengagement, a de-spiritedness. I also observe (and read of) a shocking rise in the medications being prescribed for young people by mental health professionals for sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression…what is this telling us? Perhaps they sense the worth they bring to the education establishment is a good grade and nothing more and this is both a pressure and a dissatisfaction.

Both extremes (and of course I am speaking of polarities but ones which I believe do exist and which are indicative of an imbalance in the system) bring with them compromise at the crucial points in the development of character and faith. Unhealthy competition, the lack of ability or motivation to reflect and weigh some of our epoch’s biggest moral questions or a laissez faire “what’s the point” disengagement all compromise the development of faith and character which contribute to a just and sane society.

The path of wisdom which builds a healthy and just society is a slow one and it seems that we have chosen the fast track.

I am both worried where that fast track will take us and hopeful of the resilience of wisdom.

Carol Kingston-Smith

5 thoughts on “Reflecting on education and the formation of a just society”

  1. Hi, Excellent thought. I met with Christian leaders in education organisations a few weeks ago to explore the role of Wisdom (literature) in education. You may find it interesting to have a look at the two papers; one on Wisdom literature in engaging in the culture and one on how wisdom literature can contribute to education for the common good. The papers can be found on on​orchange/education.cfm

  2. Thanks for that link Marijke… really encouraging to hear that these things are being discussed! The link isn’t currently loading but will certainly check it out later.

  3. Ok… finally accessed that link this evening! I really enjoyed reading through some of the thinking going on in these areas relating to character, wisdom and relational education… I think achieving excellence across a wider range of qualities is a noble aim of an education system which: “Promotes the life-long development of character and wisdom, not just the acquisition of skills and knowledge; for true understanding requires discernment.” from the doc linked below

  4. Hmmm food for thought. We are all in the UK children of the Socratic school of learning – acquiring knowledge (ironic really in that the key to knowledge at the Oracle of Delphi was “know yourself”) rather than the Confucian system of learning wisdom. The latter is more grounded in the practical whilst it could be argued that the former is simply an accumulation of impractical facts. Useful in trivial pursuit but of questionable value. The flip side is that the west has grown and expanded its horizons by being driven whilst the east, after flourishing, atrophied, became inward looking and isolated – until recently… now I’m all in favour of post-colonial reassessment but not everything about the west is bad per se.

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