The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have provoked a strong response in the United Kingdom. The killing of Heather Heyer and the violence that ensued at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, were condemned by the British press and politicians across the political mainstream. Commentators are casting worried looks at the rise of far-right and fascist political movements in the U.S. (1, 2) and the Britain’s slide to the political right (1, 2). Neo-nazis, neo-fascists and the alt-right, the argument goes, feel empowered by Brexit and Donald Trump’s approach to government, while, in Britain, the consequences of never-ending austerity fuel social, cultural and political tensions.
Largely missing from this debate is sustained engagement with the consequences of the shifts that are currently underway in education. Much has been written about the problem of fake news in response to both Donald Trump’s election victory on the back of a string of lies and a pro-Brexit campaign whose relationship with empirical reality was tenuous at best. However, Britain’s commentariat and its political class have so far had next to nothing to say about the ways in which fact-free, emotion driven political life is facilitated by what is happening in schools and universities.
On the one hand, there is the conversion of students from learners into consumers through a string of government interventions across the past two decades. If politicians, newspapers, schools and universities keep telling young people that getting an education is tantamount to buying a qualification for the sake of doing well in paid employment, then it is unsurprising if the development of non-employment relevant knowledge and analytical skills fall by the wayside. The hardly-discussed finding that large parts of the British public held grossly incorrect assumptions about Britain’s relationship with the European Union in the run-up to last year’s referendum is a case in point.
On the other hand, there is the attempt to convert lecturers and teachers into purveyors of standardized skills, in ways that their managers can control, measure and assess (1, 2). Controversial and open-ended intellectual dialogue are crucial to education, and they are integral to a society that expects its citizens to participate in the democratic process in an informed way. The marketization, standardisation and metricization of education are inimical to this kind of dialogue.
To understand these trends, it is important to look to the center of British public life, rather than to its extremes. Anti-intellectualism thrives in Britain’s schools and universities because it thrives in public life at large. Consider, for instance, a recent opinion piece by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. Jenkins’s standing as a journalist is beyond question, and he can hardly be accused of holding extreme views. His public interventions are as ‘establishment’ as can be. Thus, writing on the problem of poverty, Jenkins argues:
“Men from poor families are more likely to be single. So says the august Institute for Fiscal Studies. This follows studies “showing” that poor people are getting poorer and rich richer, that poor young people are getting poorer than their parents, and than old people. Poor people die younger. They get divorced more often. They do worse at school. They eat worse food. So do their children.
What should we make of the annual silly season of press releases from usually leftwing thinktanks telling us the blindingly obvious, that poor people are worse off than rich? Marx was right when he spoke about “philosophers”. The point is not constantly to interpret the world; “the point is to change it”. Here statisticians retreat and protest that this is not their job.”
The piece in which these paragraphs were published is sub-titled “Endless leftwing research into Britain’s growing gap between rich and poor is a waste of time. We need to set aside partisan politics and act,“ by the way. All this is noteworthy in several ways. First, there is the repeated association of the scholarly analysis of social problems with left-wing politics, with left-wing politics being subject to Jenkins’s obvious disdain. Second, there is Jenkins’s appeal to common sense – the origins and consequences of poverty are so obvious that writing about them and discussing them in public amounts to “silly season.” Instead, let’s just use common sense to fix the problem. Thus, Jenkins excuses the whole political spectrum past the left from the burden of having to be intellectual and posits an interesting ‘action man model’ to fixing Britain’s longstanding struggles with class difference, socio-economic inequality and poverty. Constructing this action man model, Jenkins’s argument is held together by notably emotive language – “blindingly obvious,” “silly season,” etc. -, while detailed proposals to a thorny social issue are notably absent.
This opinion piece is just one example of a much broader anti-intellectual current in British public life. To combat the rise of the right, it will be important to debate and challenge this anti-intellectualism and its consequences for public education.