Post-factual and post-social education

Andy Hamilton wrote in the Guardian (9.10.16) that ‘2016 is shaping up to be the year that fantasists get a free pass in what has been dubbed ‘post-factual politics’. So far this year we can see the emergence of a febrile world where accuracy and authenticity are seen as irrelevant …. you make up tosh, preferably tosh that activates the anger that lies dormant inside all those people who believe that their life is somebody else’s fault …. so many people have stopped caring if someone is lying to them.’

The Brexit debate, Donald Trump, Putin … there’s plenty of examples to back up this view. And it’s not just a recent phenomenon (as Andy Hamilton points out, 1930s Germany was extremely post-factual and look what happened when they elected a fantasist as leader). But it certainly seems to be a growing trend (albeit that the disenchantment with ‘mainstream’ politics also has other much more pro-social manifestations – the surge in support for the Green and Labour parties, Bernie Sanders, etc). We could list other symptoms of this social malaise: nationalism, xenophobia, materialism, obsession with celebrity, tolerance of gross inequality ….

What virtually every member of this ‘post-factual’ society has in common is participation in an education system which has become increasingly centralised, authoritarian, competitive, exam-focused and dominated by a climate of fear. The overwhelming majority of teachers that I have ever known or worked with have been dedicated, hard-working and concerned about the wellbeing of children in their care, yet they are constrained by a narrowing curriculum and the harsh realities of the Ofsted-driven system which demands ‘high standards’ (meaning, in Primary schools, good test scores in English and Maths) and hands out draconian punishment to those who fail. I contend that the system, too, has become increasingly ‘post-factual’ in that policy and practice is subject to the personal whims and  concerns of politicians rather than the understandings and wisdom of practitioners or the evidence of objective, learning-centred research. So we have constant changes to exam and testing regimes and tinkering with the curriculum (sorry, just run that past me again, how exactly do children benefit by having to learn about Roman numerals? And what exactly is the theoretical or practical justification for making it compulsory for 10-year-olds to understand more abstruse grammatical terminology than university professors?) We have the absurdity of defining phonics as the central approach to learning to read English, a language which is phonetically gloriously haphazard and notoriously inconsistent.

Even more alarmingly, we have a system which demands and values conformity, uniformity and obedience (in both students and teachers). For anyone involved, it is incredibly difficult to stick your head above the parapet in protest or even to seriously question the system. We are brainwashed into acceptance of a system with an extremely narrow definition of success, of the assumption of an ultra-competitive society where failure implies a personal responsibility, and of understanding that we should not be questioning what we are told or pursuing our own interests and agendas in learning and development. As the saying goes, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance; to mix the metaphor, we may be fiddling while Rome burns, unable or unwilling to organise an educational system which has as its main aim the creation and maintenance of a wise, tolerant, compassionate, collaborative, confident, curious, questioning and imaginative citizenry.

Our children are in the Emperor’s new schools.

Andy Mattison

11.10.16