Prosperity or democracy – why does education matter?

Posted on 28-01-2015

In modern discussions of education, the value of education is quite often defined in economic terms. We saw this very recently with Nicky Morgan’s comment that we could link subjects to later earnings to determine their ‘true worth’. The idea that public spending on education is justified by its impact on GDP is shared by many across the political spectrum.

There are huge problems with this consensus. First, as Alison Wolf showed in her brilliant book Does Education Matter?, the link between more years of education and greater GDP is not as clear-cut as it might seem. At a basic level, universal literacy and numeracy are important for the economy, and at the elite level, expertise in science and technology drives innovation. But beyond that, it is far more complex than some glib statements suggest. In Wolf’s words:

‘We know that basic literacy and numeracy matter a great deal, and that the labour market rewards mathematical skills. We also know that technical progress depends on the best scientific and technological research; but that there is no evidence that education spills over to raise productivity in a general, economy-wide way.’

Not only that, but as Wolf remarks at the very end of her book, the idea that education must always be justified and defended on purely economic terms is a very recent one.

‘Our preoccupation with education as an engine of growth has not only narrowed the way we think about social policy. It has also narrowed – dismally and progressively – our vision of education itself. This book reflects that narrowing…The contribution of education to economic life is an important subject, and an interesting subject, and it can actually be investigated empirically. But it is only one aspect of education, not the entirety, and it does not deserve the overwhelming emphasis which it now enjoys. Reading modern political speeches and official reports and then setting them alongside those of twenty-five, let alone fifty or a hundred, years ago is a revelation. Contemporary writers may pay a sentence or two of lip-service to the other objectives of education before passing on to their real concern with economic growth. Our recent forebears, living in significantly poorer times, were occupied above all with the cultural, moral and intellectual purposes of education. We impoverish ourselves by our indifference to these…The history of public education in any modern democratic state concerns issues of identity and citizenship quite as much as the instilling of more or less utilitarian skills…The role that schools play in creating citizens, and in passing on to new generations both an understanding of their own history and society and particular moral, intellectual or religious values, should concern any modern state with a public education system.’

Modern liberal-democratic societies depend on a well-informed and well-educated citizenry. They depend on knowledge: on people knowing the contours of contemporary debates, the functions of government, the history of civilisation, the difference between the supernatural and the natural, the language and literature of their society, and much more.

As Thomas Jefferson said:

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

And R.H. Tawney:

No one can be fully at home in the world unless, through some acquaintance with literature and art, the history of society and the revelations of science, he has seen enough of the triumphs and tragedies of mankind to realize the heights to which human nature can rise and the depths to which it can sink.

I would also urge you to read this brilliant blog post , where @HeatherBellaF shows the impact of ignorance with reference to North and South, Henry Mayhew and Chinese history.

Education may be important for prosperity, but it is vital for democracy.