(Image credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 Rob984 – Derived from File:Location European nation states.svg, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41032947)
This is part of an earlier and longer post on the aftermath of the EU referendum vote and its likely impacts on education. I argued that there are things we can be proud of, even in the midst of social and economic crisis. In every part of England and Wales where people have had the opportunity of higher education, the vote was to Remain. University towns (with one or two exceptions – Sheffield?!) were solidly pro-Europe: so were 90% of HE staff (note: not just the academics). More than four in five (81%) of those still in full time education voted to stay. Education works. It gives us a stake in the wider world, it makes us more likely to question the lies, damned lies and statistics. It makes us more tolerant and open to other cultures and ideas. But the same voting patterns show us that higher education is just one of many opportunities that the same half of society enjoys, and that the other half doesn’t. That’s why it would be a tragedy if the new White Paper on HE and the creeping privatisation agenda make it even harder for people to move across the divide, and send to the wall those universities that have taken the most local students and done the most to advance their own regional economies.
However, as educators we also have to deal with the fact that millions of people turned their backs not only on the liberal values that the intelligentsia hold dear but on rational argument and informed debate as well. Why are so many people actively hostile to evidence and reasoning, turned off by ‘experts’ (in the main, people who have studied a subject deeply and know what they are talking about), and unable to deal with any admission of complexity, uncertainty or nuance?
It was manifestly untrue that leaving the EU would put millions of pounds a week back into the British exchequer. It was incredible that right wing conservatives would use any extra public money to pay for public services like the NHS – and was quickly confessed to have been a lie. It turns out not to be true that we can just slip out of the European door and start ‘making our own laws’ again – at least, not if we want to trade with the rest of the world. Nor is it true that the problems in our public services are caused by immigration, though it’s a lie with a very long history. It isn’t even true that the European Commission is larger, less efficient and less accountable than our own civil service. And yet, rather than go on explaining and illustrating these truths, we are supposed to make way for the people who espouse the opposite because opinion, ‘passion’, belief, is all that counts.
At this point I could consider the many the post-isms we have endured and enjoyed over the last 30 years, but it is crediting academia with far too much influence to suggest that people have been turned off the truth by continental philosophy. It has more to do with poverty. The voting patterns for Leave correspond very exactly to levels of poverty – and hardly at all with patterns of actual immigration. Our voting system doesn’t help – the fact that once every five years, a fraction of the electorate living in marginal constituencies get to decide which of two varieties of capitalism we will all live under. There was a profound nihilism in the decision to put a cross by ‘leave’ in defiance not just of the present establishment but of the whole rational, post-enlightenment settlement – the idea that from rational collective decisions, collective solutions will flow.
And perhaps there is something more going on. These last few days I’ve started to wonder if social media isn’t partly to blame. I hear Leave voters wringing their hands because they never thought their vote would actually make a difference in the real world, and I see not only decades of political cynicism draining them of self-determination, but an array of facebook polls and pop-up petitions. No wonder people struggle to take voting seriously. We have become a culture of endless, irrelevant choice and no power or capacity to make decisions. In other dark nights of the soul I remember that paranoia and unreason, of the kind shown in the panic over voting with pencils, have always been the bedfellows of extremism.
So if we’re going to have democracy, we need democratic education. Out leafleting and just talking to people I know, I’ve been shocked by how little understanding there is of the basic idea behind taxation and public spending, of democratic decision making, and of international trade. In other European countries and America, citizenship is a compulsory part of the curriculum. In our country you can be a well-educated grown-up and not know how our own government works, let alone the institutions of Europe. Ironically, the only way to be certain of a citizenship education is to come to the UK as an immigrant.
To come full circle back to my usual topic, surely there is a role that e-learning can play. If the advantages of higher education lead people to make good decisions, not just on their own behalf but in all of our interests, then it is in all of our interests to make it as widely available as possible. There are no short cuts to a stake in society, or the skills to think critically about evidence, as Stephane Goldstein observes in this post about Brexit and the costs of information illiteracy. But we can develop and make freely available resources for citizenship education. I am particularly thinking of the work of all my colleagues in the Open Education movement who are motivated by this every day of their working lives. We need resources that encourage people to develop their facility with digital media into a deeper engagement with political ideas and civic movements. Resources that can be shared and added to by political and community organisations of all kinds. And as people who understand the power of digital media to change minds and lives, we can use it to call to account those who have abused us. Not with opinion, not with post-truth confections, but with lies.
A few blog posts along similar lines that have come to my attention since posting this:
Lorna Campbell: This time it’s Different (i read this after writing my own blog post, which is probably as well or I’d just have said -> this)
Why open data is the key to democracy and citizenship
Stephane Goldstein’s post on Brexit and the costs of information illiteracy
Positive thinking from Martin Weller
Frances Bell: Processing our grief