I have, these past few days, been fixated on the question of the future of education – triggered partly by what is apparently a famous TED video with Sir Ken Robinson about how modern schools tend to kill creativity in children - very impressive performance, with lots of laughs - so sad therefore to hear of his recent death. His books include "Creative Schools – the grassroots revolution that’s transforming our schools" (2015).
When, however, I translate these thoughts into words, I discover that I’m writing about democracy which, of course, we know is in trouble – the masses, somehow, have broken loose and are no longer accepting what their masters are telling them. This, of course, has been a perennial fear of the elites – it has happened before and, in that sense, might have been anticipated.
But the elites are not as clever as before… so let me give them some simple advice – based on a simple adage - ”If you treat the general public as idiots, they will behave as idiots”. You have, for the past few decades, made the following assumptions about your fellows –
- They need to be worked hard - but bread and circuses will keep them happy
- Told what to do and measured by how well they do it
- Given a choice at elections only of those who represent an ever-circulating elite
- you no longer even bother going through the motions of serving up promises and manifesto programmes
- the public is so stupid and so easily distracted that they will believe any of your lies
- you can do whatever you want, safe in the knowledge that you have a servile media which knows that its basic business is to keep the public entertained
I spent more than 20 years of my life helping the establishment of new democratic systems in ex-communist countries and tried to convey a sense of what that involved in a definition which perhaps reflects the thinking of the period......
“The Government system in a democracy is made up of several structures or systems each of which has a distinctive role. It is this sharing of responsibilities – in a context of free and open dialogue – which ideally gives democratic systems their strength – particularly in
- Producing and testing ideas
- Checking the abuses of power
- Ensuring public acceptance (legitimacy) of the political system – and the decisions which come from it”.
We used to call such a system “pluralist” – with reference to its multiple sources of power and legitimacy - but, these days, it seems that the public have become impatient with talk and favour instead action. demagogues and strongmen. This is a fundamental perversion of the spirit of democracy….and the focus in the final part of my (admittedly dated) definition on institutions is meaningless without ideas and discussion….
The key institutions for a democratic system are -
· A political executive - whose members are elected and whose role is to set the policy agenda- that is develop a strategy (and make available the laws and resources) to deal with those issues which it feels need to be addressed.
· A freely elected legislative Assembly – whose role is to ensure (i) that the merits of new legislation and policies of the political Executive are critically and openly assessed; (ii) that the performance of government and civil servants is held to account; and (iii) that, by the way these roles are performed, the public develop confidence in the workings of the political system.
· An independent Judiciary – which ensures that the rule of Law prevails, that is to say that no-one is able to feel above the law.
· A free media; where journalists and people can express their opinions freely and without fear.
· A professional impartial Civil Service – whose members have been appointed and promoted by virtue of their technical ability to ensure (i) that the political Executive receives the most competent policy advice; (ii) that the decisions of the executive (approved as necessary by Parliament) are effectively implemented; and that (iii) public services are well-managed
· The major institutions of Government - Ministries, Regional structures and various types of Agencies - should be structured, staffed and managed in a purposeful manner
· An independent system of local self-government – whose leaders are accountable through direct elections to the local population The staff may or may not have the status of civil servants.
· An active civil society – with a rich structure of voluntary associations – able to establish and operate without restriction. Politicians can ignore the general public for some time but, only for so long! The vitality of civil society – and of the media – creates (and withdraws) the legitimacy of political systems.
· An independent university system – which encourages tolerance and diversity
But such bodies are merely the skeleton of democracy – conversation and discussion is its lifeblood and is built on civility and respect
Take the fundamental issue of education about which the public has become increasingly vexed as international league tables have demonstrated national weaknesses in systems which are now seen as crucial for a country’s economic success…..To whom do we – and should we - turn for advice on such things?
- Politicians – who have the authority to make changes?
- Teachers – who have the responsibility for managing the system of schooling?
- Experts – who study the workings of the system?
- Parents – who have variable degrees of responsibility, activity and expectation?
- Pupils – who have their own expectations and attitudes?
When we ask such a question, the variability of the answers is quite amazing. Each country tends to have its own pattern – with the Finnish system regularly quoted as the most successful but outlier country in which highly-trained professionals are trusted to get on with the business. Most people would probably still respond to the question with a reference to the need for collaboration - few would trust the politicians.
And yet that is precisely the situation in which most countries have landed!
Many of my generation are still marked by the critique of schools conducted from the 1960s by the likes of Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire, RF McKenzie and even Neil Postman. In that sense Ken Robinson is part of an honourable 50 year tradition which includes psychologist Howard Gardner of Multiple Intelligences fame. And it is to this strain of thinking I would like to devote a future post.