Education for consumerism…

Matthew Taylor’s recent post about the impact of the recent economic downturn on our national character had me reflecting again upon the relationship between teachers and consumerism. Matthew’s point is partly that a failure of our political leadership to push us to reflect on our part in creating the current crisis will have negative consequences in the long run – pointing out that greed was not the monopoly of a group of bankers but shared amongst a whole class of people.

Consumerism and the market have infused so much of our lives, and to such a degree, that if a time of new austerity does come we will have to question the basis of many of our aspirations and our identities. To the degree that wisdom implies long-term thinking over short-termism, and being other-regarding rather than self-centred, education could have a particular role to play in helping our culture adapt.

First, however, there is some soul-searching to do about the influence of the market within education.

Anna Craft reflects on the nature of teaching creativity in Britain in her recent book of essays, Creativity, Wisdom and Trusteeship which she co-edits with Howard Gardner and Guy Claxton. In her essay she concentrates on how our view of creativity in schools is so often infused with Western consumerism – creativity which serves the market. She argues that when we talk of creativity we place our emphasis on novelty, the individual perspective and the individual vision, and the creation of cultural products. This has its advantages (promotion of freedom of expression being one), but also important limitations.

What, Anna asks, is the role for creativity away from innovation and change for its own sake. Where is the room created for example, for collective expression of existing cultural values. In a time where we live with the real prospect of scarce resources, what about the ‘perspective which says “make-do-and-mend”‘. And what is education’s role in fostering wisdom?

I’m no expert on creativity but it struck me as a timely warning, and one that resonates throughout education.

In the UK where absolute poverty is very much an exception, wealth does not equate to happiness, though relative poverty tends towards profound unhappiness (check out the presentation from Ipsos MORI’s Ben Page at the recent ‘Can we learn our way to happiness’ event at the Campaign for Learning). Yet we know that young people are increasingly instrumental about education. Children tend to read not for the joy of reading, but to gain ‘level 4’; more young people learn in order gain qualifications to get a job.  This is a perspective at least acquiesced to, and even encouraged by, schools.

SATs have just gone for 14 year olds. There is doubtless zero connection between that decision and the widespread crisis in the markets. Still, will this global crisis be the reference point which forces us into a real re-consideration of what school is for, and how it fosters wise citizens not good consumers?

Ian McGimpsey

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