Thursday, March 13, 2014
Education and Pop Culture
News reporting is usually politically subjective and rarely does it convey any depth of information. It should not be a surprise to anyone that we then discuss current events without possessing either knowledge or familiarity, except perhaps through popular cultural references.
One of the issues that society faces is the competition between ‘high-culture’ and what is derogatorily referred to as ‘low-culture’ in what is traditionally viewed as two opposing sides to the class war. What is problematic is that Pop-culture legitimises a reductive approach to everything. It decomplexifies the irreducible to a sound bite. When an English rose twittered that Barraco Barner was our President (the UK has a Prime Minister and his name is David Cameron) and asked why we were getting involved with Russia (!) she was simply demonstrating her lack of knowledge. Ignorance has an appeal to many. If we discount the trolls that abused our internet lass, we truly live in a world that celebrates it. To many people the claim that we are ‘dumbing’ down society is contentious because it assumes a judgment on taste that remains relatively static or is complex. To the critic of high culture the simplification of cultural values nullifies class distinction. My fear is that if you give em what they want and they are happy with what they have, ‘doing’ it cheap is fine, except that ‘cheap’ is too often a by-product of exploitation. In a degraded society people who are easily satisfied are as easily controlled by government.
We are living in an age of unparalleled communications and this excited mass of electrons surging around us soaks us with a shower of enormous amounts of knowledge. That knowledge floats around us, through us and over us without really giving us any insight into its significance. And here is the problem. Without a basic grounding in history and geography the world truly is just around the corner and over the next hill.
Unless we are grounded in knowledge of our past we cannot understand the present and because we live in a world of transparent borders there are multiple ‘presents’ from which to choose. It is part of the reason that our contemporary identities are diverse but for many people, fractured. People who believe themselves to be above history have no identity to define them and will seek out a new one. Often it is they who are vulnerable to extremism because the ‘soul’ is a book whose blank pages we may choose to drench in wisdom or soak in poison. Too often, it is those people who have an opinion and given the opportunity to spread knowledge, subvert knowledge instead with their sullied enthusiasm and their bullying tactics.
Knowing history is the key to unlocking the reason behind events as they unfold. Understanding the geography behind the development of societies and nations creates the background for understanding history.
But we live in a world of some 200 countries and each has its own story. It does not mean that we cannot try to understand but if a lifetime does not prepare us for knowing everything there is to know then certainly twelve years allocated to our full time education must be treated with care and respect. And yet, education is something that we abuse constantly – we use our children as objects of experimentation; we study them as much as we study the subject matter to be taught. A change in the education system creates a generation of children whose education is disrupted. Systems regularly change. New books are not the result of greater knowledge but too often the result of political interference. And they cost tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds in publishing costs, the cost of withdrawing text books, and training because often the teachers must be taught a new truth.
If our education system is an exercise in Social Darwinism then logically, private schools will always win out over state schools if only because they have reduced class sizes. This enables greater focus on creating understanding. State schools are temples to mass-production and so, they will always fail the majority of their students. Education is Darwinian competition in which case, perhaps we are phrasing the debate badly. Society has become such an expensive beast to maintain we inevitably defer consideration of the outcome of the education debate to a mythical future time where resources may magically become available and meanwhile, we experiment with our children’s future.
From time to time we ‘go back to basics’ which means we strip off the accumulation of current social fashion that surrounds our education system, we endeavor to teach our children in a way that actually makes sense and delivers results that benefit both our children and society. It is when we add layers of complexity that we lose sight of the child we are meant to be educating. Part of that process seems to have been lost so long ago that I do not know if we can ever regain it.
We teach history and geography, the two cannot be separated; geography defines us and it is the bedrock onto which our history is built. For instance the major economic powers of the modern era have all been served by extensive water based transport systems. The ‘Cradle of (Western) Civilization’ arose within the perimeters of the Fertile Crescent, an area of rivers and marshlands.
But what we teach is suitably banal – it does not assist us in understanding our world better or prepare us for future confrontations. The enormous diversity that is the source of so much of our inspiration as well as our conflict can teach us greater tolerance but only if that knowledge is taught without censorship. It is not possible to appreciate even a basic understanding of the world around us if we have only partial familiarity with the facts. But this is the way that propaganda is delivered. Why do we fail in our responsibility to educate? In part it is fear. What history should we teach and why? Do we teach about Mohammed the predatory prophet and his legacy of conquest? Is King David’s adultery relevant? How do we teach the sexual oppression of women throughout history? Why do we not teach that slavery was a global institution and that almost thirty million people are enslaved even now? At what age do we teach children about war, and which ones? Define a moral war, in which case, who defines an immoral war?
Our history frames our identity. If we have a secure identity then no question will be so difficult we cannot respond to it. We create a human encyclopaedia by building layers of understanding and not by throwing thousands of pages of unrelated garbage together and then expecting the child to sort through mountains of detritus.
Our education system has provided us with a generation that idolises inanity; that worships the mundane. ‘Hello Magazine’ and the latest batch of reality TV shows are what drive society. And that is a frightening fact. It is frightening because it leaves the management of people in society to those who manipulate reality: entertainers, journalists and politicians, media managers all.
We as a species are supposed to continuously develop as human beings. But this generation has given us insights into the cosmos without progressing in our understanding of humanity. The education system is failing society. Knowledge and understanding should give us purpose, and with purpose, hope for a better future. Here, overwhelmingly, lies our present failure. We continue as if the last few centuries were not numerically, the bloodiest in human history. If our education system does not help us to understand why things happen in the world how can we avoid further human conflict?