Consider this: The word utopia means both “good place” and “no place.” What we need are alternative horizons that spark the imagination. And I do mean horizons in the plural; conflicting utopias are the lifeblood of democracy, after all.
…in the revolutionary year of 1968, when young demonstrators the world over were taking to the streets, five famous economists – John Kenneth Galbraith, Harold Watts, James Tobin, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Lampman – wrote an open letter to Congress. “The country will not have met its responsibility until everyone in the nation is assured an income no less than the officially recognised definition of poverty,” they said in an article published on the front page of the New York Times. According to the economists, the costs would be “substantial, but well within the nation’s economic and fiscal capacity.” The letter was signed by 1,200 fellow economists.
Eradicating poverty in the U.S. would cost only $175 billion, less than 1% of GDP.48 That’s roughly a quarter of U.S. military spending. Winning the war on poverty would be a bargain compared to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which a Harvard study estimated have cost us a staggering $4–$6 trillion. As a matter of fact, all the world’s developed countries had it within their means to wipe out poverty years ago.
Rutger Bregman has generated considerable discussion across the political spectrum by advocating that citizens should be provided with a “basic income”. Most reviews and commentary about the ideas of this Dutch intellectual, most recently from his book, Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (2017), focus on this advocacy but relatively little has been said about his analysis of the direction of our education systems and the importance of good teaching.
If you were to draw up a list of the most influential professions, teacher would likely rank among the highest. This isn’t because teachers accrue rewards like money, power, or status, but because teaching shapes something much bigger – the course of human history…take an ordinary elementary school teacher. Forty years at the head of a class of twenty-five children amounts to influencing the lives of 1,000 children. Moreover, that teacher is moulding pupils at an age when they’re at their most malleable. They’re still just children, after all. He or she not only equips them for the future, but in the process also has a direct hand in shaping that future. If there’s one place, then, where we can intervene in a way that will pay dividends for society down the road, it’s in the classroom.
Yet that’s barely happening. All the big debates in education are about format. About delivery. About didactics. Education is consistently presented as a means of adaptation – as a lubricant to help you glide more effortlessly through life. On the education conference circuit, an endless parade of trend watchers prophesy about the future and essential twenty-first-century skills, the buzzwords being “creative,” “adaptable,” and “flexible.” The focus, invariably, is on competencies, not values. On didactics, not ideals. On “problem-solving ability,” but not which problems need solving. Invariably, it all revolves around the question: Which knowledge and skills do today’s students need to get hired in tomorrow’s job market – the market of 2030?
Bregman believes this is precisely the wrong question. In 2030, we will more likely to need “savvy accountants untroubled by a conscience” if the current trend continues where multinational companies dodge taxes and countries like “Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland become even bigger tax havens”. He posits that “egotism is set to be the quintessential twenty-first-century skill” unless we make sound, wise shifts in policy direction. Bregman has a much better question for educators and politicians to ask, “which knowledge and skills do we want our children to have in 2030?”
It will be attractive to many educators and parents to hear that Bregman suggests we restructure education around values and ideals rather than merely following business and market trends. Instead of anticipating and adapting the focus must be on “steering and creating”. He suggests that the “job market will happily tag along” if there is more art, history, and philosophy in the school curriculum. This will lead to “a lift in demand for artists, historians, and philosophers.” I certainly would like to this this is true. Either way, education policy must reflect our larger human ideals rather than that of those to firmly in the thrall of marketplace thinking.
“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” a former math whiz at Facebook recently lamented
Back in 1964, Isaac Asimov was already predicting, “Mankind will … become largely a race of machine tenders.” But that turns out to have been a little optimistic. Now, robots are threatening even the jobs of the tenders. To quote a joke popular among economists: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”
Bregman is clearly advocating intelligent policy design. Education systems are fundamental levers for maintaining and extending civil society and must do more than merely adapt to changes in economic structures. Policy-makers currently do not have a large or long enough view and they themselves are adapting to trends rather than shaping what is best for young people and civil society. Values and ideology are the foundations and it is clear that educational and societal data is not really analysed but has become just another altar to pray/prey.
Recently, an academic article on The cult of the guru: the neo-Taylorism of Hattie in School Leadership & Management,* argues “that the message of brand Hattie has been uncritically adopted and spread across Australian education systems in a previously unmatched scope and scale” and that is “not only the latest fad or fashion, almost to the point of saturation, but reached a level where it can now be labelled the ‘Cult of Hattie’”. The author, Scott Eacott, would likely be nodding in agreement at much of Bregman’s analysis. Eacott states:
The pursuit of effectiveness and efficiency that which was central to Taylorism was once again popular. Hattie has provided the means through which scientific management can be achieved in educational leadership.
No one needs to read Bregman’s book to know that commercial needs and the business of making money is in the ascendant with government policy-making held hostage to the needs of the market. This is impacting on our children and there’s some very hard data to suggest change is desperately needed. There are more people suffering from obesity worldwide than from hunger and according to the World Health Organisation, depression has even become the biggest health problem among teens. Ironically, it is not just the processes but the ideology of the fast food industry that has permeated education in the last three decades making it very easy to understand the essentially correct nature of Bregman’s analysis. When we neglect our values and go with some of our more dubious societal trends in education, the impact is profoundly disturbing.
…the market and commercial interests are enjoying free rein. The food industry supplies us with cheap garbage loaded with salt, sugar, and fat, putting us on the fast track to the doctor and dietitian. Advancing technologies are laying waste to ever more jobs, sending us back again to the job coach. And the ad industry encourages us to spend money we don’t have on junk we don’t need in order to impress people we can’t stand. Then we can go cry on our therapist’s shoulder. That’s the dystopia we are living in today.
“Productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.”
Governing by numbers is the last resort of a country that no longer knows what it wants, a country with no vision of utopia.
My personal experience of seeing how universities now function makes it clear that education mirroring societal shifts that have an over-reliance on the market and making money are deeply troubling. It is hard not to be troubled by politicians, ministers and former state premier’s who hop quickly, after relatively brief careers in public service, into bank jobs and corporate careers on leaving parliament. It is hard not to notice how hard they pursued privatisation agendas that sell-off our shared heritage and huge swathes of state-owned resources, some of them educational, before they jumped – or were pushed. Bregman has many quotable quotes but one that really resounded is to do with our culture of learning that has been relegated to that of a market and the blind adherence to the prevailing -ism:
…see it in academia, where everybody is too busy writing to read, too busy publishing to debate. In fact, the twenty-first-century university resembles nothing so much as a factory, as do our hospitals, schools, and TV networks. What counts is achieving targets. Whether it’s the growth of the economy, audience shares, publications – slowly but surely, quality is being replaced by quantity.
Bregman will hearten many readers who understand how important education policy is to the future wellbeing of our civil society when he talks about a vision of progress that “begins with something no knowledge economy can produce: wisdom about what it means to live well…we have to direct our minds to the future. To stop consuming our own discontent through polls and the relentlessly bad-news media. To consider alternatives and form new collectives. To transcend this confining zeitgeist and recognise our shared idealism”.
When asked what she considered to be her greatest victory, Thatcher’s reply was “New Labour”: Under the leadership of neoliberal Tony Blair, even her social democratic rivals in the Labour Party had come around to her worldview.
To gain some understanding of how “far to the right” politics has lurched in Western countries during the last forty years considers Bregman’s analysis of how close the much-maligned American President Richard Nixon was to successfully instituting a basic income scheme in the late 1960s (before the bill foundered in the Senate):
President Nixon presented a bill providing for a modest basic income, calling it “the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history.” According to Nixon, the baby boomers would do two things deemed impossible by earlier generations. Besides putting a man on the moon (which had happened the month before), their generation would also, finally, eradicate poverty…A White House poll found 90% of all newspapers enthusiastically receptive to the plan. The Chicago Sun-Times called it “A Giant Leap Forward,” the Los Angeles Times “A bold new blueprint.” The National Council of Churches was in favour, and so were the labor unions and even the corporate sector.
There was broad consensus among economists, unions, church groups and politicians, across the political spectrum in the late 1960s, that a basic income was sound policy and an idea whose time had come. Bregman explains how this came unstuck and Overton’s Window closed. It is difficult to imagine any major party in Great Britain, Australia or the USA instituting such a scheme in our contemporary political environment.
Having said that, Bregman points our current context is also one one where robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI), the next iteration of mechanisation, will likely result in huge numbers of citizens not being able to find gainful employment. The rise of right wing populists and demagogues is a largely a result of rising unemployment and a disparity of opportunity evident to many who have lost out during the globalisation of recent times. Perhaps Overton’s Window will open again and more equitable distribution of wealth will become a political necessity. How the education system is structured will be an important aspect of how this change is managed if we are to maintain our civilisations.
“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilisation.” Bertrand Russell (1872–1970)
Other exciting ideas
On the eve of World War I, borders existed mostly as lines on paper. Passports were rare and the countries that did issue them (like Russia and the Ottoman Empire) were seen as uncivilised. Besides, that wonder of nineteenth-century technology, the train, was poised to erase borders for good.
At a 1920 conference in Paris, the international community came to the first ever agreements on the use of passports. These days, anyone retracing Phileas Fogg’s journey would have to apply for dozens of visas, pass through hundreds of security checkpoints, and get frisked more times than you could count. In this era of “globalization,” only 3% of the world’s population lives outside their country of birth.
Bregman’s utopian ruminations about national borders and freedom are particularly appealing to many in an era that smacks of the nationalism precipitating the calamitous events of 1914-18. Internationally, the recent political rejections of globalism at the polls and the rise of nationalism is deeply troubling. The conception we have of national borders needs to be rethought with more than just profit in mind. This would truly be globalisation.
Utopia for Realists should be read by anyone who feels dissatisfied by the directions we are taking in education and societally. It is important that there is a future articulated by thinkers, politicians and educators that is realistically utopian. The idea that it is all too hard and change cannot be implemented to make a better world for all is a dangerous notion. We cannot afford to be indifferent. I leave the last word to Bregman:
I’m heartened by our dissatisfaction, because dissatisfaction is a world away from indifference.
*Scott Eacott (2017): School leadership and the cult of the guru: the neoTaylorism of Hattie, School Leadership & Management, DOI: 10.1080/13632434.2017.1327428
Other titles read during May
The Great Comet (2016) by Steven Suskin
The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose
The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) by George Orwell
Featured Image: “Utopia” flickr photo by Lucas Theis https://flickr.com/photos/lucastheis/3305410831 shared into the public domain using (CC0)