The End of Education

The word education derives from both the Latin educare: ‘to bring up’ and educere: ‘to lead forth’. Unlike its German counterpart bildung, which historically focussed on self-formation, education thus has a distinct social dimension. The perennial question is: To bring up for what? Leading to where? More generally: To what end?

Two overarching and conflicting purposes of education have existed in Australia’s national educational policy dating back to the 1989 Hobart Declaration – the first of its kind. These have been education as preparation for employment, versus education for active and informed citizenship. Consider the definition of an employee according, somewhat ironically, to the Australian Government Fair Work Ombudsman: an employee “performs work, under the direction and control of their employer, on an ongoing basis” and compare this to the following characteristic of “active and informed citizens” who, according to both the Melbourne and Alice Springs Declarations: “work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments”. Readers can decide for themselves which of these two officially sanctioned purposes of education are being better achieved in Australia today.

Despite the ever greater desperation with which education has been tasked with conferring ‘employability skills’, at both high school and university, rates of un- and under-employment have grown during the neoliberal era and have hit young people especially hard: taken together, these are disparagingly referred to as ‘underutilisation’, and according to the ABS about one in three young people (those 15 to 24) in Australia today are ‘underutilised’. Yet Modern Monetary Theory teaches us that sovereign governments that issue their own currency can never run out of money and can always afford to utilise whatever ‘resources’ are available for sale in that currency – including labour. That is, unemployment is a political choice, not an economic imperative. Indeed, as part of the age of austerity, governments have been using unemployment to combat inflation via the so-called Phillip’s curve. Like a game of musical chairs, large and growing numbers of people are being shut out of paid work by design, and then framed as though unemployment were an educational problem, rather than a political and economic one.

Meanwhile, social ecological problems mount – exploitation of labour, climate change, racial and gender discrimination, biodiversity loss, and gerontocracy – to name only a few, all fundamentally deriving from a finite, non-growing planet hosting the capitalist demand for the endless growth of human numbers and economic activity (anyone doubting the capitalist demand for a growing population is directed to Silvia Federici’s brilliant work).

The worldwide protests of 1968 were a time of great social upheaval, progress in civil rights, and were led by the student movement. This was also a time when all western governments successfully pursued a policy of full employment, thus harmonising two apparently antagonistic purposes of education: by effectively guaranteeing every student employment upon graduation, they were thus freed from the exigencies of preparing for a competitive labour market, and in turn were free to fulfil the purpose of education as preparation for active and informed citizenship – those who “work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments”.

Our converging social ecological crises today require an urgent demand to the end of education: What is it for, and how will it be achieved? I have no simple answers, but making good on the government’s policy that all young people become “active and informed citizens who…work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments” seems like a good place to start.