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‘Who or What to Blame? Education, Education, Education’

Too many voters are insufficiently informed and reflective to vote other than tribally or self-interestedly in exploitable ways due to failings in how we conceive of ‘education’, writes AC Grayling

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks to schoolchildren in Downing Street. Photo: Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard/PA

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Boris Johnson has polluted and degraded an already dysfunctional political order further – his appointments to the House of Lords are proof of what can go badly wrong when an unfit person gets hold of power, including the power of patronage, and uses it exactly as an arrogant fool would use it.

His House of Lords appointees themselves have made the mistake of choosing to be targets of mockery and disdain for the rest of their lives by accepting his appointment of them, thus allowing themselves to be perpetually lingering examples of the stench his occupancy of office leaves behind.

But they and he are also proof of a fact of which we, the British people, should be profoundly ashamed: that enough of us were guilty of such poor judgement, inattention, ignorance and preparedeness to be duped and used – allowing this to happen in the first place.

This is where democracy, however inadequate a particular form of it proves to be (and as our hopeless First Past The Post system is), cuts both ways: for in the end, how people use their votes – who they choose and whether they vote tactically or tribally – is down to them. So if they choose badly, they get what they deserve.

And so we have been punished for the failure to be, in enough numbers, what a democracy has at the absolute minimum to be: a community of thoughtful and responsible voters.

We can, however, mention a couple of slightly mitigating factors.

Let us ask why so much influence has been exerted by a dishonest and ultra-partisan media owned by non-dom billionaires with a vested interest in destabilising the country so that their preferred version of anarcho-capitalism can flourish. And let us ask why social media has found the British population such a plastic, malleable, easy playground for its bubble-creating, conspiracy-promoting, false-fact-spreading downside.

And then let us reflect on the answer: because well-informed and reflective people would not be so easily duped by either a dishonest press or unreliable and distorting social media, it must be that enough of the British population is insufficiently well-informed and insufficiently reflective – more bluntly: ignorant enough and unthinking enough – to be ripe for serving as their dupes.

How has this happened?

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The Need for Active Enquirers

It is no use pointing out that, at the 2019 General Election, 57% of those who voted did not vote Conservative, or that the recent Uxbridge by-election returned a Tory courtesy of the usual split in the progressive vote that our FPTP system exploits.

The fact remains that, in 2019, 43% of those who voted chose Conservatives, and enough Uxbridge voters – blaming a Labour London Mayor for Tory policies on the environment – voted Tory in a seat formerly held by Johnson. What explains them? Indeed, even supposing half of these were principled, loyal, Conservatives who had thought hard about the Government of the past 13 years and somehow liked what it saw – what explains how they could?

From among a plethora of answers let us focus on one very central one: the failure of our education system to achieve a good standard of active intelligence in enough of the population.

By ‘active intelligence’, I mean the useful general knowledge and the constructive scepticism that prompts people to test claims and promises made by those who want their money or their votes.

Trying to educate on the cheap – one teacher per 30 pupils, not valuing teachers enough to reward them for the vital work they do (school teachers are among the most important people on the planet from the point of view of their effect on entire human lives), not equipping schools and richly funding activities including trips abroad – incurs a terrible cost.

The price we pay is careless voters exploitable by a system and its career politician operatives into putting someone as grossly unfit as a Boris Johnson into Downing Street – to say nothing of the inadequacy of the compeers such an individual surrounds himself with.

To educate – not merely to train in enough basics of literacy and numeracy to qualify as a squaddy in the economic infantry – classes need to consist of fewer than 10 pupils, so that teachers have time to work with the individual grain of each pupil’s mind and personality.

Pupils should be active enquirers, not just passive learners sitting behind desks in a classroom: that means getting out and about, doing, travelling, finding out, making.

The value of musical education and art on general cognitive development, enhancing its capacities for success in maths and applied sciences, has been all but lost in the English education system.

Historical and geographical ignorance, and wholly inadequate levels of competence in a second and third language – plus frequent and active travelling in the countries where they are spoken – make for narrow, parochial, limited mindsets. 

I defy anyone to claim that the level of achievement represented by GCSE today is comparable to that of the ‘O’ levels of yore – and even the ‘O’ levels of yore did not pass the test of what is necessary for the informed and thoughtful populace that is the minimum requirement for any version of democracy.

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Democracies are being made to fail all round the world today because increasingly larger portions of already significant percentages of populations are too easily taken for a ride by the political and politically-motivated agencies which benefit from their incapacity.

This problem with education means that efforts to explain why some claim or promise does not stack up simply go over the heads of enough people to make it possible for those who claim or promise to get away with it. This happens all the time.

As we know too well, serious newspapers and current affairs programmes get little traction because they speak to tiny minorities only, while tabloid media cleave to the parochial interests and prejudices of their consumers because that is what makes money – with little if any concern to inform or engage beyond the usual sodden fare of celebrity gossip and whatever is the hysteria of the moment.

The landscape of our democracy is accordingly a dismal one indeed. Its poverty and barrenness have been cruelly exposed by Brexit – arguably inconceivable in a better-educated nation (look at Scotland) – and its emblems will forever be Johnson and the gang of coarsely unsuitable appointments he has made over the past three years. 

Too many voters are insufficiently informed and reflective to vote other than tribally or self-interestedly in exploitable ways, and a large part of the reason for this is that our education system is too poorly funded to achieve in enough cases the kind of intellects that would be more resistant to such exploitation.

I argue that the systemic failure of our political order, for which this insufficiency of education is responsible, led to Brexit: and that Brexit is the ultimate condemnation of both.

AC Grayling is a philosopher, Master of the New College of the Humanities, and Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College at Oxford University

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