Transcript of a speech at the “Education for young people: Revolution or Evolution?” Firestarter Festival event,
Edinburgh College January 31st 2018

Twenty-five years ago, I left university excited about embarking on my graduate career. Ten years later, I abandoned that career – disillusioned with corporate life and heart-broken with the state of society and the planet. Since 2002, I have been exploring the causes of our environmental, social and economic crises. I have come to the conclusion that education, especially tertiary education, is a significant contributor to these crises.

I ask you this question: what is the purpose of secondary and tertiary education?

Is the purpose of education for the betterment of the individual, to pursue wealth and social status?
Or
Is the purpose of education for the betterment of society: the communities in which we live; the generations that come after us; the environment on which we rely; and our collective wellbeing?

The first purpose is competitive – it is the notion of we must get on, as described by Ulrich Beck. It emphasises the extrinsic values of money and status, creating elites in society, who have the ability to create, but also to destroy: destroy society through inequality and pursuit of the self; and destroy the environment through consumption, squandering valuable resources and creating toxic waste that is destroying the planet.

Those with the highest qualifications, who end up being corporate achievers, tend to have the biggest ecological footprints. I have witnessed the scrum of the Oxford graduates competing for the coveted jobs at the highly paid big banks and FTSE 100 companies – some of the most qualified and brightest people are going to these companies, yet most of the companies won’t feature on an ethical investment list. Many of my peers went to Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Co, UBS, Aberdeen Asset Management and me Exxon Mobil. Why is so much of this graduate talent going to businesses that are contributing to global inequality and planetary destruction?

What is wrong with our education that when faced with the biggest multiple crises of humanity we educate young people to perpetuate our planetary and societal destruction? Why doesn’t education encourage young people to challenge the systems and institutions to adopt different values and co-create innovative and beautiful alternatives– alternatives that might actually save the human race from the crises of biodiversity collapse and uncontrollable global warming?

This year is the 50th anniversary of Paolo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I have a feeling that Freire would criticise our education system by asking why does it not:

  • pursue justice (both social and environmental)
  • foster peace and love for humanity and our planet
  • embrace and nurture the questioning of our society, the one in which we live, that causes such destruction

So, I ask you as educators and leaders, why is education failing our society? Why have the people who have been educated at primary school to ask critical questions through Curriculum for Excellence, end up pursuing wealth and self-advancement? What has happened to people in secondary and tertiary education to lose this ability to be critical and live as responsible citizens, building human capacity and wellbeing?

What can we do? In my view, education at all levels must

  • First, incorporate intrinsic values and world-views to enable ethical, joined-up and holistic critical thinking.
  • Secondly, foster the passion for service to society, rather than service of the self;
  • Thirdly, nurture deep listening skills and listening with the head and the heart; and
  • Lastly, build courage to act with ethical conviction and to co-create change in service of society and the planet.

I hope Paolo Freire would agree with me.

Earlier this month Otto Scharmer summarised it well. Comparing 20th and 21st century education, he said that “The modern [20th Century] university has been based on the unity of research, teaching, and application. The emerging 21st-century university, I believe, will be based on the unity of research, teaching, and civilizational renewal.” Otto Scharmer, Jan 2018.

The winds of change are blowing across Scotland and this is being recognised internationally. There are many people, networks and organisations working for civilizational renewal, such as:

I ask you to feel the winds of change in Scotland and either seek out or build networks for change. We’re running out of time for humanity and the planet, but if we act now, there is still hope. Be honest and look into your heart. In your work, are you destroying civilisation or fostering civilisational renewal?

Please be critical of what you do and take action


Thanks go to
Nicky Bolland, founder of CAMINA – my critical friend –
and to
Matthew Stibbe, founder of Articulate Marketing – for starting this conversation ten years ago


References
Beck, U. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage, London.
Beck, U. 2000. “Living Your Own Life in a Runaway World: Individualisation, Globalisation and Politics”. In On the Edge: Living with Global Capitalism (eds. Hutton, W. & Giddens, A), pp.164-174. Jonathan Cape, London.
Crompton, T. 2014. No Cause is an Island: How People are Influenced by Values Regardless of the Causehttps://valuesandframes.org/download/reports/No-Cause-is-an-Island.pdf
Crompton, T. 2015. Perceptions Matter: The Common Cause UK Values Surveyhttps://valuesandframes.org/download/Perceptions-Matter-Full-Report.pdf
Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, New York.
Harvey, D. 1996. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford.
Harvey, D. 2005. A Brief History of Neo-liberalism. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Scharmer, O. 2018. Education is the kindling of a flame: How to reinvent the 21st-century university. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/education-is-the-kindling-of-a-flame-how-toreinvent_us_5a4ffec5e4b0ee59d41c0a9f