Bridging the gap

For several years I have sensed a coming together of several previously disparate strands. Both in education and in politics more widely, new thinking is galvanising around what the future of liberal-progressive thought might look like. Despite this emerging thinking, there also seems to be a disconnect between the possible future and the status quo. Here are a few thoughts, again very much a ‘work in progress’…

In education, there has been a renewed focus on the evidence from cognitive science to inform teaching and learning. There has also been a return of knowledge and the curriculum to the forefront of educational discussions. Beyond education, the drastic changes in the political landscape over the past five or so years on both sides of the Atlantic have seen a revitalised discussion around the future of liberal and progressive thought.

To some degree, this post builds on my earlier posts in 2015 (Progress) and 2016 (Good life, good politics). Those strands which I saw converging have continued to do so. There seems to be a greater consensus around what I would label liberal/progressive thinking which applies not only to education but to society and politics more widely. When this liberal/progressive offer is viewed, it can sometimes seem like ‘motherhood and apple pie’ – common sense, reasonable, moderate, centre-ground – how could anybody disagree? And yet, there is a disconnect between this possible future and the current direction of travel. A disconnect between what evidence and rational thinking tells us is possible and the choices we are actually making into a reality.

Disparate strands

When I was researching my Masters between 2011 and 2013, I focused on the ideas of social realism and powerful knowledge (See my previous post for more on this). Around this time, the related idea of a capabilities approach to (geography) education was also being developed (See the work of David Lambert and Richard Bustin for more on this). These ideas were very much about adopting what was, to me, a (small ‘L’) liberal attitude to education, where the principal aim of schooling is around human empowerment. As a liberal I believe that education is the most powerful tool which a society has for improvement. Ideas around powerful knowledge and capabilities seemed to fulfil this.

Alongside this work on education, I also came across a growing number of pieces around what progressive politics and policy-making looked like (see those earlier blog posts mentioned above). With the advent of Corbynism and the leftward lurch of the Labour Party, I think that debate around what progressive politics looks like is especially relevant now after Labour’s 2019 General Election defeat. I was also very interested to see some of the analysis of why some US Democrats felt they lost so much ground, and of course the Presidential election in 2016. A growing emphasis on ‘identity politics’ was held up as a potential problem. I appreciate this is a vague term, but I have some sympathy with the argument. Whilst identity issues are clearly incredibly important, their importance varies to different sections of the electorate. This is not simply a communication and campaigning issue, it also poses a wider political issue. What are the big ideas? And to link back to communication: what is the big narrative? Unfortunately the political right, be it US Republicans or the Tories here in the UK, seem to be very effective at finding winning big narratives: ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘Get Brexit Done’.

As I also mentioned in one of those earlier posts, some commentators including philosopher John Gray, suggest that liberals have lost touch with where the broad majority of their countries public are. The results of the 2019 General Election may be considered evidence of this.

A question of purpose

To start reflecting on how liberals/progressives may have lost ground, or lost touch, it makes sense to go back to the starting point. As Simon Sinek would say: start with why? Go back and re-evaluate purpose.

To look at the area I am most familiar with, consider education. A common and not unfair criticism of education (at least in the UK, but elsewhere too) is that it has become too focused on public examination results. This partly can be attributed to the growing obsession over the last three decades or so, with focusing on measuring outcomes. This obsession is not limited to education. It stems from Thatcherite reforms and the introduction of market forces into public services which has led to ‘performativity’ across education, health and other sectors. We have become obsessed with measuring outcomes and this has in turn shaped us to focus only on what is measurable and quantifiable. We can measure exam outcomes and turn them into statistics and league tables. Unfortunately this may be one of the major reasons why our education system doesn’t look more at wellbeing and other possible aims of schooling which cannot be easily quantified.

This goes beyond our obsession with measuring though. As a society, have we lost a sense or adopted a misguided sense of the purpose of schools, the NHS or the state as a whole? When have we gone back to first principles to ensure that the current operation of the state and its many institutions is actually fulfilling the right principles and aims? There has been some interesting work in recent years around our global obsession with GDP and economic growth (for example David Pilling’s Growth Delusion). Somewhat linked back to my previous point around measurement, government’s slavishly design and adjust policy to deliver economic growth, reporting GDP figures as a sign of success. Is this still the right guiding star?

This is about more than the obsession with quantification though. It is clearly ideological and it also reflects vested interests in society. I don’t think I am straying too far from moderate thinking, let alone anywhere near radical Marxism, to suggest that the apparatus of the state has been subservient to the needs of the economy for some time. Indeed, I was delighted to see that my party, the Liberal Democrats, argued that the government’s prime focus should shift from economic growth to wellbeing as part of their 2019 manifesto. As I will return to later though, the electoral failure of this manifesto points to the disconnect between a possible future which surely appeals to the ‘moderate middle majority’ of the electorate, but doesn’t cut through for whatever reason.

Shifting the focus of the government and the state to wellbeing shouldn’t be a hard sell. It needn’t mean a drastic shift in policy at all. All it means is that we are putting people’s wellbeing, their opportunities and futures at the heart of policy-making. It little bit like a broader, more fundamental version of David Cameron’s ‘family test’ for policy. So whilst more investment in local government might require some increased taxation, which may not be the best option from a growth perspective, it is the right thing to do from a wellbeing perspective. Of course, wellbeing relies on economic success. We need a strong economy to generate taxes and, equally importantly, people need good jobs, with good salaries and actually just a quality work experience as part of a fulfilling life (Howard Gardner, amongst others, has done some interesting work around the notion of ‘good work’). So shifting the focus to wellbeing is not left-wing nor socialist. It isn’t going to cripple the economy. It just requires policy-making to be more balanced, so that social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes are considered together. Actually, this kind of policy-making is likely to be economically beneficial in the long-term as it generates better educated people, healthier workers, attractive communities for people to live and work in, all of which make it easier for businesses to thrive and to do so across the whole of the country, with no ‘left behind’ places.

Obsessions are distractions, principles need a story

Our obsessions with quantification and economic growth have stopped us delivering a state and institutions which could be better for people. The frustration is that we know this. We can see how these obsessions are holding us back – exam factories failing young people, hospitals not able to meet care needs, local government not providing quality services. We also know how we can improve our institutions for the betterment of society. This is far from just increasing investment though. So much policy-making is driven by quantification, economic growth or other irrelevant ideologies. I say irrelevant because they lead to policy choices which fly in the face of evidence. When we go against evidence, we go against common sense. A fairly uncontroversial aspect of liberal politics is to go with evidence and common sense.

To return to education for an example. The curriculum reforms instigated by Michael Gove had some laudable motivations, such as an appreciation that schools needed to provide knowledge to everyone as knowledge is empowering. Gove didn’t quite put it like that, but the ‘knowledge turn’ wasn’t the problem. The devil was in the detail, or rather the amount of detail. GCSE reforms in particular saw far too much subject content being detailed. Teachers and schools complain about the time pressure of getting learners to master the content required in the time available. This isn’t to say teachers are not ambitious. Far from it. Teachers are just aware that the content demands and time constraints fly in the face of the cognitive science which tells us how the brain learns. We understand more now than ever before about how we learn, including the speed with which people can assimilate given volumes of knowledge. Chunking, spaced learning, retrieval practice, working memory, long-term memory, recall. We know how the brain works. Unfortunately, what we know about how the brain works suggests that it is very difficult for the majority of learners to memorise the huge amounts of content now required of them by new GCSEs. There is only so much we can transfer into long-term memory at a time (note, transfer into not store – once its there, we can store lots, this is about the speed with which people can do the storing). This is a huge barrier, not aided by the social factors around education performance in terms of the conditions which young people need to optimise learning and memorising.

And just as an aside, in case you’re wondering why I’m talking about memory and you think I’m reducing education to rote learning, I am not. In order to understand concepts and perform higher-order skills (e.g. analysis, evaluation, prediction, etc) we need to have a body of knowledge with which to embed that understanding and practice those higher-order skills. Quite simply, we need to remember stuff in order to learn, understand and do even more.

Anyway, back to the disconnect between curriculum content and cognitive science. The fact that we can identify this disconnect should be all that needs to be said. Why, in the face of evidence, do we then introduce curriculum content which we know will be problematic for teaching and learning?

This is just one example of the disconnect (if you want to know my thoughts on what the alternative would look like in terms of curriculum, to avoid this disconnect and far more besides, see that previous blog of mine). Measurement, economy and ideology – or just an ignorance of evidence – is stopping our state and society from being better and surely that shouldn’t be a hard sell.

(I don’t mention short-term thinking here, which is also a major concern – one problem I’m particularly interested in is how policy-makers and especially politicians have ignored obvious problems looming on the horizon, leaving others to carry the can. For example, creating an NHS but not recognising and responding appropriately to the consequential challenges to pensions, social care and the transition from treating acute to chronic health conditions flies in the face of the common sense that providing free healthcare would lead to those challenges. Maybe that could be a future blog).

Would it be a hard sell to voters – who ultimately are asked to choose between the status quo and alternative possible futures – to say we’re going to have less content because cognitive science suggests its not working for many young people. Or would it be a hard sell to argue for the principle of a more holistic education which empowers people, rather than just based on exam performance. Again, just as with wellbeing, a broader more holistic education by definition has to include economic empowerment. It is no good educating people if that education doesn’t enable people to have a fulfilling working life. This isn’t asking ‘the economy’ to make sacrifices. Education just wouldn’t stop with economic concerns.

Is this kind of holistic education a better narrative than the status quo? Think about it – exam factories, stress, one-size fits all, lack of vocational and creative opportunities, etc. The problems of the status quo in education (read also health, benefits system, etc) are clear and obvious. They are also known to a sizeable chunk of the public. So why are alternative narratives not being chosen over the status quo?

As the 2019 General Election showed, people voted for (almost) the status quo. (Amazingly, Boris Johnson pulled off the feat of campaigning against his own party’s record in government over the past nine years). Some people suggest this reflects where the British public resides politically/ideologically: that we are a small ‘c’ conservative country. I think this may apply more broadly to the human race, as conservatism does appeal to basic human instincts – looking after yourself and your family, providing shelter and security. Whether you agree that there is an element of truth to this, the suggestions I’ve discussed above don’t propose swinging the pendulum to some statist or socialist alternative that seems too far from the natural comfort zone of our national political culture. They are moderate, centrist and evidence-based policy suggestions. Radical only insofar as to challenge vested interests and ideologies which don’t actually empower ordinary people to take more control over their lives (Anand Giridharadas put together a fantastic work on how global elites have become masters of virtue signalling and nominally tackling social and environmental issues, whilst not changing the power structures or vested interests which cause those issues to persist).

One mistake we shouldn’t fall into, which is often the stance taken by ideologues and idealists (Momentum take note…), is to work on the assumption that you are correct and the electorate will eventually wake up to that fact and change their mind. You have to see where the middle of the electorate is – that determines the centre ground in my opinion, rather than the mid-point between the left- and right-parties. Look for the ‘middle ground majority’. It is self-evident truth that the majority lies between the extremes. In a democracy, we must govern with the will of the majority and it seems the best way to find that majority is to govern from the centre, for the centre. I am not suggesting a complete capitulation of principles, but without power to enact those principles, they become a matter for philosophical debate not making a difference. By interpreting your principles in a way which appeals to the electorate (a la John Precott’s description of New Labour as ‘traditional values in a modern setting’), perhaps even ‘meeting them halfway’, then you can win the power and influence you need to shape policy and the future of the country.

As well as having a narrative, it is also in part a problem with communicating that narrative. As I said at the beginning, conservatives often do a fantastic job of selling their narrative, often with a resonant slogan (although ‘Strong and Stable’ was a rarer flop). I don’t think liberals and progressives do a very good job of packaging all the good things they have to say about empowering people, creating and spreading opportunity or scrapping vested interests. Sadly, the language which should be the cornerstone of the liberal lexicon is actually hijacked by conservatives, who then talk about ‘equalling up’ or social mobility as though they’ve been concerned about those problems all along or that they’re ever going to truly solve them. There is an issue over who controls communication channels, but I think the first challenge liberals and progressives have to deal with is that which they can control, namely what their big narrative is and how that narrative is better than the conservative alternative. As I’ve just scratched the surface of in this blog, there is lots of good thinking out there about where we are as a society and where we could be. This could add to a compelling narrative. Is it a winning narrative? Who knows. That is for us to communicate and for the electorate to decide.

A big narrative needs a simple but powerful message at its heart, that can be repeated ad nauseam and will thread together all aspects of the story. To me, the idea around empowering people and human flourishing is the key to a liberal narrative. That isn’t rebranding class politics (For The Many, Not The Few) and isn’t a token nod to an inequality which you were responsible for creating and don’t really want to fully solve (One Nation). It isn’t taking a scatter gun approach of having distinct policies for each group which the electorate can be split into, which can often lead to incoherence with no unifying thread. It’s the message which sums up, in a nutshell, what you stand for and which allows people to realise how you tick and how you’re going to change their lives. I won’t suggest a slogan, I haven’t got one (yet). I know this needs more work, but as with most of my posts it is a ‘work in progress’ (and a work about progress! – how clever).

As always, I’d be very interested to hear people’s thoughts on this.

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