Teach not thy lip such scorn

Have you ever seen those paintings where something actually extends beyond the frame -escapes from the two-dimensional prison of the wall where it hangs? It can make even the most banal of subjects command attention -as if it were reaching out to plead for recognition, or at least an awareness of its existence in an otherwise unremarkable hall.

But sometimes there are no compelling signs; sometimes I simply do not notice things. I do not recognize the caress of sleeve against my skin, or the gentle breeze across my cheek. I am blind to the overwhelming green on a forest walk as I negotiate the labyrinth of thoughts from which I feel no need to escape. We can all be trapped by the everyday, and unless we sense the tap on the shoulder, can find no reason to turn around.

I’ve always felt that education was a good thing. It’s something that should be universally available. It is one of those rare things that seems to have no downsides. I suppose one could always argue about the subject matter, and the message of the teachings. About the agenda of the teachers. About the freedom to question the validity of the content… But not about the value of learning new things. About thinking about thinking. About who and what we are.

We all learn things as time goes on, of course -experience, if nothing else, is able to modify behaviour and guide what we impart to those around us. And yet there is little doubt that a more formal process of organizing and teaching facilitates exposure to things we may never experience. Surely broad-based and far-reaching knowledge cannot be construed in a negative light.

Or can it? Can the very fact of its acquisition cast shadows on those who have not been exposed to it? And what might that look like?  I have to say I had not thought much about this until I happened upon an article in the BBC Future series: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20171219-the-hidden-judgements-holding-people-back?

Educationism, seems to be the coinage currently minted to describe this phenomenon, and suggests a social divide that may be seen in education. The word appears to have arisen from an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, by Toon Kuppens, entitled Educationism and the irony of meritocracy: Negative attitudes of higher educated people towards the less educated.

This bias against the less educated, is not a new one, of course. ‘Education […] appears to divide society in many ways. Higher levels of educational attainment are linked to greater income, better health, improved well-being and elevated levels of employment. Educational status also reveals political divides.’

‘What’s more, [Kuppens] says that one of the reasons the bias exists is that education level is somehow perceived to be something people can control. “We are evaluating people – giving them negative attitudes – even though we know that in reality they cannot be blamed for their low education.” The reason people cannot be blamed for low levels of education is due to its link to poverty. Those from poor backgrounds quickly fall behind their classmates at school and fewer teens from disadvantaged backgrounds go to university.

‘[…] there are complex reasons for this – namely that poverty effects day-to-day decision making in previously unforeseen ways. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington of the London School of Economics, says that a lack of resources is “psychologically constraining”. It adds a sense of stigma and shame that creates low self-esteem, a pattern she says is more likely in societies with meritocratic ideologies, where an individual’s achievement is seen as being based largely upon intelligence and hard-work. Poverty even affects decision making. […] “the cognitive skills you need in order to make good financial decisions aren’t readily available when you’re facing the stress of realising you’re doing worse than others,” she says. It’s not that their mental processes shut down, but rather that individuals were more focussed on the present threat to their status rather than concentrating on tasks at hand.

‘[…] Work like hers reveals a cycle that is hard to break: performance on mental tasks suffers when faced with financial constraints. And once these constraints exist, the ability to plan for the future and make sensible decisions is also negatively affected. This clearly plays out in the education system. Those who live in the present have less incentive to do well at school or plan for a higher education.’

‘And even if individuals from a working-class do reach higher education, they often have to “discard the original parts of their identity in order to become socially mobile”, explains Erica Southgate from the University of Newcastle in Australia.’

You know, I’m torn with research like this. It seems to cast education in an unfavourable light -one not terribly conducive to attracting new adherents. And one might reasonably argue that some of the possible mechanisms envisaged to correct the problem, such as scoring exams differently, or even doing away with them, might make it difficult to assess a pupil’s progress through the course, or to facilitate helping her in areas where help is needed.

Of course, one might also point out that things like positive reinforcement and role-modelling may go a long way to correcting perceived educational inadequacies. But I suspect that those deficiencies are not the real thrust of any of these articles. Rather, it is the attitude of the educated to the uneducated, and the often invisible barriers that this erects.

I recognize that in some circles, those with education may be fobbed off as elite, or arrogant and that their knowledge would be of little use in the world those circles inhabit. But I make no apologies for  my education. I like to think I wear it like a comfortable coat that I would be more than happy to lend to anyone who asked -after all, I also borrowed it from someone else. So, I do not feel guilty about education -only about its lack of universality. I feel similarly about health, and housing; I also fervently wish for an end to poverty -naïve as that may sound- but by the same token, I realize that we edge closer to those goals through education. And, as it becomes more accessible, it becomes more desirable to previous holdouts who will no doubt figure out a way to put it to use. We are really just a row of dominoes waiting to knock into the next in line. I think education has become a self-actuating prophesy -a seed. It is a flower-in-waiting. A mountain meadow longing for a morning sun to dissolve the mist.

It will grow, no matter… Give it time.

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