Sunday, 26 June 2016

Europe, post-truth, and the role of education

I had a blog post written on democracy and the common good, that tried to link the Brexit vote with e-learning and digital citizenship in a positive way. I'll post it soon. But for now, as the real meaning of what has just happened sinks in, I find myself as worried about the quality of the debate we have just had than the actual outcome.

I'm assuming we can all take for granted now that the referendum was a cynical exercise in Conservative party politics. None of the key players on either wing of that party ever believed Brexit would win, so they used the British electorate as a tool in their political games. (If they'd looked a bit harder at the history of referenda they might have been more cautious about the outcome.)

Their political goals were various: to do down their rivals in their own party, to drag our national debate further to the right, to direct people's anger at 8 years of austerity and wage decline towards immigrants and 'Brussels', and to disempower other parties by forcing them to play second fiddle in a broad front coalition. These goals really shouldn't matter to us now. No party that lies, cheats, manipulates and plays Russian roulette with our future to sort out its own differences should be allowed to govern again for a generation. Unfortunately that isn't how this will play out.

It is difficult to blame the majority of people who voted to leave. As is clear from the number who are now regretting the outcome - at least in its details - Brexit was a protest vote against a governing class that has failed to deliver. Job security, housing, public services, standards of living have all declined since the crash of 2008 and the Tory government has ensured that the most vulnerable pay for the greed and recklessness of the financial elite they largely represent.

And we were lied to. The lies are unravelling already, but they were persuasive, and pervasive. Like other big lies we've been told, such as the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we can only revisit them from a world that has been re-shaped by their consequences. So it's difficult to know - and we are discouraged from asking - how differently things might have turned out. The right wing press lied, and lied, and lied, as they always have done, as they always will. But the mainstream press and media were negligent. They seemed so fascinated by the opinions falling out of people's mouths that they forgot they had a responsibility to report the truth. I don't remember a single serious analysis of what Leave would actually look like, or challenge to the motives of the main players. I don't remember any attempt to educate us about the institutions of Europe, their history and constitution, their real political powers and economic role. Other people were taking the BBC to task for this on Feedback just this evening.

But it would be patronising to say that people who voted for Brexit had no idea what they were doing. If we are in favour of universal suffrage, and of more rather than a less participative forms of democracy - as I am -  we have to give people credit for their own decisions. There are millions of disadvantaged people in other parts of the continent who continue to support the collective project that is Europe, recognising that it is imperfect and compromised, and most days of the week works in the interests of big business rather than their own. But that it's better than the alternatives. It's better than beating your nationalist breast and going it alone. You don't need a huge stake in society to want to stay with an international arrangement that has brought Eastern Europe out of communism and Southern Europe out of its infatuation with fascist dictatorships, that has looked after the most disadvantaged countries, regions and people of a whole continent as a matter of principle (not of elected government whim), that established the first and best international agreements about workers' rights and the environment, and that has kept the peace in a fractious part of the world for 70 years.
(I say this in the unhappy knowledge that the UK result is giving comfort to populist far-right organisations across Europe, and that what I've just written may not be true for much longer).

So what have we got wrong? Does my own sector - Higher Education - share any of the blame, or have any of the answers?

We're going to be hit harder than most by the Brexit result, even though we're one of the few sectors of the economy where the UK can realistically still claim to be a world leader. (Financial services and the arts are the other two - and it's not looking good for them either.) We in HE are completely inter-dependent with other EU countries for research funding, collaborative opportunities, and bright young people wanting to travel and learn. Today we are frightened for our jobs, for the free exchange of ideas, about what will happen to our many colleagues from other nations. We are, perhaps, feeling a particular fear when we see 'liberal intellectuals' held up everywhere for disparagement, even among the people who voted Remain. Immigrants are far, far ahead of intellectuals in the queue for bigotry, and we will stand up for them wherever they are threatened or made to feel unwelcome, because it's the right thing to do. But the kind of anti-rationalism, paranoia and fear of the other that is walking our streets this weekend has never, historically, been kind to thinkers either.

There are things we can be proud of. In every part of England and Wales where people have had the opportunity of higher education, the vote was to Remain. University towns (with one or two exceptions - Sheffield?!) were solidly pro-Europe: so were 90% of HE staff (note: not just the academics). More than four in five (81%) of those still in full time education voted to stay. Education works. It gives us a stake in the wider world, it makes us more likely to question the lies, damned lies and statistics. It makes us more tolerant and open to other cultures and ideas. But the same voting patterns show us that higher education is just one of many opportunities that the same half of society enjoys, and that the other half doesn't. That's why it would be a tragedy if the new White Paper on HE and the creeping privatisation agenda make it even harder for people to move across the divide, and send to the wall those universities that have taken the most local students and done the most to advance their own regional economies.

As educators we also have to deal with the fact that millions of people turned their backs not only on the liberal values that the intelligentsia hold dear but on rational argument and informed debate as well. Why are so many people actively hostile to evidence and reasoning, turned off by 'experts' (in the main, people who have studied a subject deeply and know what they are talking about) and unable to deal with any admission of complexity, uncertainty or nuance?

It was manifestly untrue that leaving the EU would pop millions of pounds a week back into the British exchequer. It was incredible that right wing conservatives would use any extra public money to pay for public services like the NHS - and has indeed proved to have been a lie. It turns out not to be true that we can just slip out of the European door and start 'making our own laws' again - at least, not if we want to trade with the rest of the world. Nor is it true that the problems in our public services are caused by immigration, though it's a lie with a very long history. It isn't even true that the European Commission is larger, less efficient and less accountable than our own civil service. And yet, rather than go on explaining and illustrating these truths, we are supposed to make way for the people who espouse the opposite because opinion, 'passion', belief, is all that counts.

At this point I could go consider the many the post-isms we have endured and enjoyed over the last 30 years, but it is crediting academia with far too much influence to suggest that people have been turned off the truth by continental philosophy. It has more to do with poverty. The voting patterns for Leave correspond very exactly to levels of poverty - and hardly at all with patterns of actual immigration. Our voting system doesn't help - the fact that once every five years, a fraction of the electorate living in marginal constituencies get to decide which of two varieties of capitalism we will all live under. There was a profound nihilism in the decision to put a cross by 'leave' in defiance not just of the present establishment but of the whole rational, post-enlightenment settlement - the idea that from rational collective decisions, collective solutions will flow.

And perhaps there is something more going on. These last few days I've started to wonder if social media isn't partly to blame. I hear Leave voters wringing their hands because they never thought their vote would actually make a difference in the real world, and I see not only decades of political cynicism draining them of self-determination, but an array of facebook polls and pop-up petitions. No wonder people struggle to take voting seriously. We have become a culture of endless, irrelevant choice and no power or capacity to make decisions. In other dark nights of the soul I remember that paranoia and unreason, of the kind shown in the panic over voting with pencils, have always been the bedfellows of extremism.

So if we're going to have democracy, we need democratic education. Out leafleting and just talking to people I know, I've been shocked by how little understanding there is of the basic idea behind taxation and public spending, of democratic decision making, and of international trade. In other European countries and America, citizenship is a compulsory part of the curriculum. In our country you can be a well-educated grown-up and not know how our own government works, let alone the institutions of Europe. Ironically, the only way to be certain of a citizenship education is to come to the UK as an immigrant

To come full circle back to my usual topic, surely there is a role that e-learning can play. If the advantages of higher education lead people to make good decisions, not just on their own behalf but in all of our interests, then it is in all of our interests to make it as widely available as possible. There are no short cuts to a stake in society, or the skills to think critically about evidence, as Stephane Goldstein observes in this post about Brexit and the costs of information illiteracy. But we can develop and make freely available resources for citizenship education. I am particularly thinking of the work of all my colleagues in the Open Education movement who are motivated by this every day of their working lives. We need resources that encourage people to develop their facility with digital media into a deeper engagement with political ideas and civic movements. Resources that can be shared and added to by political and community organisations of all kinds. And as people who understand the power of digital media to change minds and lives, we can use it to call to account those who have abused us. Not with opinion, not with post-truth confections, but with lies.

A few blog posts along similar lines that have come to my attention since posting this: 
Lorna Campbell: This time it's Different (i read this after writing my own blog post, which is probably as well or I'd just have said -> this)
Why open data is the key to democracy and citizenship

Stephane Goldstein's post on Brexit and the costs of information illiteracy
Positive thinking from Martin Weller 
Frances Bell: Processing our grief