education is about learning life, not becoming productive economic units

30 04 2015

People are not economic units. One reason we are so disengaged from politics is because almost every subject is reduced to economic units. Schools, homes, families, work – everything becomes about its economic merits. Low-income families are described as ‘benefit units‘, family homes are assets, and perhaps worst of all, education is described as in this local Tory party election leaflet as a

…system which prepares young people for work so that they can compete and win in today’s competitive world.”

Reading that, the rest of the political rhetoric falls into place. I know that will appeal to a certain type, and I know that one of the aims of education is that people have the skills for work at the end. But if the sole – or even main – aim of education is work-preparation to win in the competition of life, I think we are presenting an incredibly shallow, and dangerous, ideology. And for that matter, theology. 

Thankfully, there are few who are actually involved in education who subscribe to this harsh economic view. Teachers and teaching assistants and lunchtime supervisors and heads, they all know that they are preparing children and young people for life, not just for work. They are working alongside families to raise good citizens, community members, who alongside becoming adults and parents and scout leaders and athletes and musicians and friends and maybe even politicians, may also become employed. 

Our value as human beings cannot and should not ever be limited to our economic potential. The value of our education system cannot and should not ever be limited to its ability to produce workers. If so, what is the point in learning about volcanoes or Henry VIII or vascular bundles or philosophy? And that becomes pertinent as we see this government narrowing the curriculum, the side-lining of ‘non-core’ subjects, the repeated mantra of students no longer taught to read around subjects, but simply to ask “Do I need to know this for the exam?” 

I loved my time in the education system, or as normal people call it, school. I learned loads, about subjects yes, but mostly about how to be a person. And I was prepared for work by going out to work. From 13 I helped my brother do his paper round (he got the pounds, I got the pennies), from 16 I had a Saturday job in a hotel, in the holidays I worked in plastics factories and Boots and making fishing tackle. 

That prepared me for work like nothing else. If we want our young people to have good jobs, then we need an all-round education system that, alongside families, helps them become good, well-rounded people. That is what I see most teachers passionate about, when I am in schools doing lessons and lunch clubs, when I am dealing with the SENCO in my son’s school, on committees or governors and dealing with actual people, rather than economic-theorists-in-offices.  

What we don’t want is a system designed by, and intended to produce more of, the finance-obsessed bankers and politicians who worked together to produce the economic crash, which turned out to be a competition in which they were the only winners. Because when you present life as a competition, you by default place more value on the ‘winners’, therefore less on the ‘losers’.

And who are the ‘losers’, in this system? *awkward pause*

The radical nature of Jesus’s teaching is that we are valued because we are children of God, whether female or male, slave or free, productive or non-productive, educated or not. We are never just economic units integrated into God’s business, but children adopted into his family, with a mandate to love and to serve. Not win. 

Thank God for that, and thank God it’s teachers young people spend time with, not political policy-writers. 

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