Current challenges for education

Senior School Head of Teaching and Learning, Dr Felicity McCutcheon, reflects on the challenges confronting today’s educators.

Editor: Perhaps a good place to begin would be to invite you to reflect on what you consider to be the core challenge for an educator today.

Felicity: I think it is important to state at the beginning that every era brings challenges to thoughtful people, and educators are no exception. When you read the writings or biographies of great educators from the past, you realise they, too, were engaged in the same struggle – of seeking out what is essential and of lasting value in order to ensure a stable and dynamic society and for individuals to flourish in their full humanity.

I think it is more difficult for educators today to distinguish what is important from what is not because the very idea that there might be something that is essential and of lasting value can get easily lost in the maelstrom of information and competing values. Discernment now demands more from us, perhaps due to these three influences in particular – the shift in emphasis from society to economy, the proliferation of technology and the paradigm of consumerism.

Editor: Can you briefly explain how each presents a specific challenge to educators?

Felicity: Put simply, the economic paradigm values people and things purely in terms of their contribution to the GDP, an extrinsic measure. A crucial feature of a technological device is that it makes something available to us in a more comfortable way. The appeal of technology is precisely that it is designed to make life easier and it has an inbuilt chronological snobbery which judges anything new as better than what is old, thus rejecting human wisdom as irrelevant and outdated. And the consumerist mindset, that happiness lies in purchasing and guzzling goods or experiences without restraint, has combined unexpectedly with the narrative of rights so that we now have people actually believing that they have a right to get what they want or a right to feel good all the time.  

Now if you combine all three, you get a very powerful and dangerous narrative for human happiness – that your worth consists in what you contribute to the economy as a worker and as a consumer, and that the meaning of life lies in seeking unprecedented levels of personal comfort and ease, to which you have some inalienable right.

Editor: Why do you say it is a dangerous narrative?

Felicity: Because when we stop to consider what humans really need and what makes us truly happy, most people identify the same basic things:  human relationships of depth and trust (being seen, known and loved for yourself alone); meaningful work; and recreation (which is not the same as entertainment). In other words, it appears we have needs that are not being met and which are quite contrary to what we are sold as being ‘good’ for us. If we don’t resist the narrative, we live instead with what I have heard described as ‘junk values’, which are as useful to us as junk bonds.

Editor: What does this mean for education?  

Felicity: It impacts education because schools are responsible for the complex task of holding onto wisdom from the past whilst thoughtfully adapting to change. There is pressure to appear innovative but many of the so-called innovations play only to the values of economy, technology and consumerism. However, the values of money, products and individualism, are profoundly at odds with the values of a flourishing democracy or global human community, which instead requires disinterest and intelligent participation with a shared notion of a common good. As Martha Nussbaum observes, we need citizens who can think for themselves and who can reason together, not merely trade opinions and preferences, and we need to nurture the sensibilities of being human that bind us to all others by ties of recognition and concern.

It takes a great deal of clarity and courage to carefully and thoughtfully make decisions aimed at creating an environment that best nurtures the formation of human persons in deep and real ways.  Just as responsible and intelligent adults seek to resist the false desires in which we are schooled by advertising, so, too, must responsible educators.    

Editor: Are you saying here that if we ignore what is essential we will fail to equip young people to live the best possible human life?

Felicity: Yes, because the ‘essential’ is necessarily tied to what is good for us. One of the enduring insights from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is that when one rejects wisdom and ignores human nature, institutions find themselves on a treadmill of endless change, chaos and instability, creating conditions that are at odds with what we know human beings need for social cohesion and individual flourishing.

Educational institutions therefore need to be both clear on their purpose and to take their responsibilities seriously. Whenever I receive educational literature or read the findings of educational research, I have one question at the forefront of my mind: Will it help, hinder or harm the hearts and minds of the young people in my care? Discerning what is essential from what is often empty rhetoric is important because, as Jung once put it, ‘in the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.’

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