Colm O'Doherty: The grade inflation in the formal education system controversy failed to get to grips with the critical issue around what constitutes knowledge and more importantly what is it for. The dominant thinking on education and knowledge infrastructure is that formal education is a commodity which generates economic growth through the market place. Our education system is now in thrall to a global phenomenon-building knowledge capital.
Economists define capital as that which has been invested. In the past a different type of investment generated economic growth. Investment of financial assets in physical capital - plant buildings and machinery- has been superseded by investment in human capital –education and training. Resources committed by governments or organizations or individuals to education and training are treated as investments within a capitalistic framework.
Formal education is increasingly viewed as a vehicle for investment , yielding individual wealth creation opportunities rather than social and cultural goods. Irish third level institutions are inordinately proud of the academic capitalism which not only informs their research strategies but their teaching and learning methodologies as well. Innovation and technology parks, enterprise centres, entrepreneurial boot camps and other commercialised forms of knowledge infrastructure rule the roost. The expansionist agenda of the marketeers is warmly embraced by third level institutions. Commerce has succeeded in capturing higher education by replacing educators with managers.
The essence of Enlightenment thinking is that knowledge is power but within our groves of academe the inverse relation also holds - power is knowledge. Power defines not only a certain conception of reality but all aspects of reality – physical, economic, social and environmental. Managerial power is based on ideas which have been developed chiefly in the worlds of manufacturing and commerce. There is no evidence that this approach to formal education produces smart citizens or more importantly a smart society. Students' “learning” is managed on behalf of the commercial sector by administratively tasked operatives. This process results in intellectual mediocrity rather than innovation, or enterprise or authentic learning.
Real learning is, however, taking place outside of the formal education system. Non formal and informal learning gained through volunteering is, according to a recent EU Report, Volunteering in the E.U., promoting social and economic cohesion. The Report provides evidence that, right across Europe, volunteering is a particularly powerful means to develop citizens commitment to their society and to its political life. Not only does volunteering make a direct contribution to our economy (between 1% and 2% of GDP), but it provides education and training opportunities that deliver significant added benefits to volunteer , local communities and society in general. Volunteer work provides important employment training and a pathway into the labour force. It is also a useful way for young people to test out potential careers and therefore make an informed choice about future education and training pathways.
There is now a growing body of evidence indicating that well-being is better correlated with equality, health, work satisfaction and positive relationships than with marginal gains in income. Our crash has revealed the folly of relying on financial markets to steer and supply both economic and social development. In the education sector, the ascendancy of an economic or business model has contributed to a fragile and brittle culture of competitive individualism where what counts as knowledge is determined by economic vicissitudes. The only way to rescue this situation is through a rehabilitation of the belief in education as an expression of collective action for the benefits of interdependence and generalised wellbeing.
The state needs to discontinue its present educational policy of using third level institutions as a funding conduit for opportunist capitalism. This is not smart behaviour. On the other hand, Volunteering in the EU provides us with a framework for post crash learning based on a politics of common interest. The E.U. Report calls for the non formal and informal learning accruing from volunteering to be taken into account when measuring the well-being and the wealth of Member States. Volunteering provides a platform for pursuing both individual and collective well- being and making them mutually supportive.
It is somewhat ironic, given the evidence of the value of volunteering to the development of a smart society, that the government is disbanding 180 voluntary management boards in the Community Development Programme. An unintended consequence of our formal educational policy is the creation of a disconnect between competitive individualism and collective life. This damages the community and trust which are vital to the smooth running of an economy. A new educational agenda incorporating the values of non formal and informal learning is a better bet for post crash civic renewal and sustainable improvement in levels of collective well-being than the boom and bust possessive individualism of the so called smart economy.