Tuesday 19. October 2021
#140 July-August 2011


The Commission’s narrow conception of Education

A society’s guiding values are evident in its vision of education. Education systems initiate the young into their culture’s ethos and heritage, so that they may understand and appreciate the richest accomplishments of their civilisation: and (no less), become aware of its blindnesses and limitations, so learning openness to a wider world than their own. Education enables a participation in society that is both creative and properly critical, and is thus at the heart of active citizenship. Exclusion from decent education is a key factor of social marginalisation. Education, formal or informal, needs to continue through life as part of ‘personal growth’. And because any civilisational project requires the provision of decent livelihoods, education rightly and necessarily prepares the young for economic life.


Education has cognitive, vocational, affective and spiritual dimensions. Both humanistic and scientific education can develop capacities - to reflect and to weigh evidence, with intellectual rigour and honesty. According to Article 13 of The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a UN treaty which entered into force in 1976, education is to be directed towards ‘the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity’, enabling all persons to participate effectively in society. It is both a human right and as ‘an indispensable means of realising other human rights’.


The EU’s Commissioner of Education and Culture, Andrea Vassiliou, has recently given a series of talks and other presentations about the contribution of education to the life of the EU. Her instrumental proposals seem admirable. The Commission’s Education Report of April 2011 outlines statistical targets for 2020, such as reducing the proportion of ‘early leavers’ from the system from 14.4% to less than 10%, raising the percentage of those in tertiary education from 32% to 40%, and assuring increased opportunities for lifelong learning.


Far less convincing is the stated purpose of these programmes. She lists three ‘policy priorities’ for education: (1) Help Europe compete globally; (2) Equip the young for today's job market; (3) Address the consequence of the economic crisis. In an article of April 2011, Securing Future Prosperity, she writes of higher education reform in the service of ‘the EU 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’. Universities need to be reshaped ‘to meet the needs of a fast-developing global society and economy’. The ‘knowledge triangle’ of education, research and business should ensure that students ‘gain access to the latest scientific knowledge’ and ‘the opportunity to apply this knowledge in the business environment’.


At no point in these presentations does Ms Vassiliou acknowledge any role for universities in enhancing social relations, the appreciation of art or nature, or for generating critical perspectives on (for example) the growth paradigm or the business environment, some elements of which have led to the present financial crisis: still less any critique of the hegemony of economic considerations themselves. Economic sufficiency is just one, certainly significant, condition of a good society. It is a crippling mistake to represent education, a fundamental and potentially life-enhancing cultural system, as principally an instrument of economic growth.


Frank Turner SJ


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