Esmee Wilcox inspects the usefulness of education in her ninth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
A simplistic, causal relationship between success in work and learning falls down in our mid-21st century globally connected, digitally enhanced, rapidly automating world. The institutions, corporations and capital that determine whose work we are preparing people for, risk the perpetuation of global skills shortages and rising income inequality. In the latter half of this century, what might the purpose of education become, that more effectively addresses the issues we face and the modes of work we are choosing? Should we attempt to create such a system that spreads the risk, or accept unevenly distributed effects of enviro-economic disruptions?
We face a conundrum: complex issues such as moving to zero-carbon cities by 2030 require a level of critical thinking and innovation that will disrupt the modes of operating of government and the corporations that fund education. They will require longer periods of education – lifelong and life-wide – that may reduce short-term economic output. That disrupts the balance in the funding relationship between the young, the workers, and pension beneficiaries. Governments intervene to equalise access on the basis of accepted social norms. Yet are increasingly ineffective at reducing the polarising impact of parent income on childhood attainment.
We might imagine a system that redefines the purpose of work first. Where the norm becomes dynamic self-managed teams within organisations, and self-organised networks of freelancers without, which rebalance our ambition for individual status with collective value. Our need to travel, to eat, to care for our families is dependent upon our ability to align paid work with the rhythms of community co-operation. We might – looking to millennials now in the gig economy - see paid work as essential but secondary to the roles we take on in exchange not for currency but usable commodities.
A more efficient system – that educates more of the population to be capable of tackling tomorrow’s problems – would alter the balance of power away from near-term beneficiaries. Educational returns on investment no longer felt solely by profitability or tax revenues: but also by longer term, distributed social and community gains. Financing mechanisms no longer the preserve of government and corporations, but flourishing community interest bonds. Lifelong learning the norm, and not dependent on personal wealth, fit with government strategy, or sponsorship by large employers. Accessible through communities prepared to invest in long-term resilience, understanding the purpose of work as aligned with community impact.
Or corporations may continue to sponsor and polarise the deployment of mobile elite labour as effective in addressing their need for innovation and profitability. Governments may be less able to equalise access to education, with greater dependence on risky private financing, and a reduced democratic mandate to intervene. Even in highly planned, nationalist economies governments may justify focussing on elite education for the ‘greater good’. Or to diminish the impact of disposable income in exacerbating socio-economic advantages and access to learning.
Enviro-economic disruptions may force many of us to redefine the purpose of work and the values that we ascribe to it. Such that learning systems satisfy the requirements of the innovation, collaboration and community we need to succeed in the 2050s and beyond. We can look to communities and work organisations that are developing collaborative learning networks. Yet these are still an, albeit plausible, step-change away from funding mechanisms that achieve longer-term, distributed social and community outcomes. These may emerge through necessity in the development of closed-loop zero carbon systems in the 2030s. This could enable the purpose of education to shift away from the requirements of work to solving the issues raised by the complex problems we’re increasingly facing.
© Esmee Wilcox 2019