Citizens, Stop Staring at Your Screens… Education as Civic Duty

Old key chain in the shape of a small Earth globe
Horia Varlan via flickr || CC

Generations of highly intelligent people have debated what knowledge a citizen should master to be considered a member of the educated classes. 

Nevertheless, today’s most pressing questions go much further than that: developments such as digitalization, automation, technological progress, the rapidly shifting media and communication landscape, the dissolution of traditional social milieus, and the increasing spontaneity with which social connections are created in interest-based, temporary alliances require a completely new understanding of education.

Today, it is no longer possible for individuals to make the most of their life chances just by deciding on a career path after finishing school. Instead, it is time for the next level of the Enlightenment. The demystification of the world, as Max Weber put it, is proceeding apace.

These days, you are more likely to find mysteries in a Netflix series than at church, and you can get your metaphysics and transcendence in small doses from movies such as “The Lord of the Rings” or the TV series “Game of Thrones”.

Most people have a realistic understanding of the role gods play in thunderstorms, as well as of supernatural influences in their lives, in general. Faith is becoming more of a social factor that helps create a sense of community. Science is deciphering one mystery after the other.

Absorbing such relentless advances without despairing does not mean having to become a disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche’s: the key is education.

Education for Work

Defining education exclusively as that which enables you to exercise your profession is not compatible with the new world of work.

Acquiring an arsenal of professional skills will indeed enable you to perform a specific activity very well. In essence, this meant learning a craft: a relic from the industrial age, when the son, just like his father before him, went down the mine or became a plumber, or a fitter or a baker or a carpenter.

In the past, the purpose of learning was to prepare you for the world of work. Work was the core purpose of life. Any other education was incidental, acquired in your free time, during evening classes or by reading at every opportunity.

But today, in many fields, people no longer work as artisans. Instead, they are process managers who control machines which perform the actual mechanical processes in place of humans.

Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are changing the world of work more than the Luddites of the 19th century could ever have imagined. And the changes are still accelerating: just take a look at the YouTube clips from Boston Dynamics and you will know where developments are heading.

With this in mind, it is doubtful whether people will continue to define themselves through their occupation or work. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba online trading platform, responds with an emphatic “no”. In his view, automation of the workplace creates valuable opportunities.

His conclusion points in an interesting direction: as machines take over increasing shares of existing workloads, more time becomes available for humans to learn precisely those things that make us different from the machines.

Education and Lifeworld

If we accept the premise of Jack Ma’s argument – and in our view, it deserves to be taken seriously – then the implication is that we need to start in childhood. The way in which we prepare learners for the workplace will have to change.

Schools will have to make a conscious and targeted effort to empower children to prepare themselves for their chosen occupation by providing them with strong theoretical foundations and equipping them with the ability to acquire new knowledge and skills effectively.

There are massive opportunities for improvement here, both in terms of curricula and extramural activities, which should cover much more than just singing in the school choir or being on the school sports team.

In the modern world of work, machines will take over production processes. This will open up space and opportunities. It does not mean that young Liam and Emma will spend their days watching YouTube or navigating virtual worlds.

Both basic education and further education and training have to be guided by personal development and education that hones the ability to innovate and to pursue ongoing development.

The potential uncoupling of the world of work from the lifeworld does not represent a late victory for Marx. On the contrary, it forms the very foundation of modern civic life. The objective is the “citizens’ school” as conceived of by Friedrich Naumann, updated for the modern world’s demands.

Here, the prerequisites for freedom have to be made visible, filled with substance and immunised against threats. Doing so requires abilities which the brave new media world places at risk: for example, developing one’s own creativity (instead of sharing and liking), critical thinking (instead of consulting Wikipedia or echo chambers), communicative and rhetorical competence (instead of condensing ideas down to 140 characters and telling “bae CU46”), ability to work with others (instead of digital escapism).

Liberals in particular like pointing out that freedom, together with responsibility, is always a challenge at the individual level.

Perceiving, enforcing, and defending freedom requires character traits which need to be taught and trained. Civic and political education has to empower people not just to recognize and comprehend the complexity of the modern lifeworld, but also to master it.

Apart from acquiring foundational knowledge in the natural sciences and computer science, it also means having a deep understanding of the socio-political context, as well as language skills, cultural competence and an international focus.

Education and Posterity

The importance of civic education which is more than just “good enough” radiates into the future. The looming disruptions at the workplace, but also in the very structure of social systems, mean that we need to start preparing now.

We cannot allow gaps to emerge in the intellectual response to the current change processes which would leave our descendants unable to cope. Liam and Emma would be well advised not to expect any decline in the complexity of the world.

Thomas Volkmann
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