In a rather incendiary headline earlier this year, The Independent presented findings from a survey for Kings’ College London and the Royal Statistics Society that seemed to prove that the British public were “wrong about everything”. From overestimating the number of migrants in the country to believing that crime is rising whilst all the evidence shows that it is falling, it seems that we live in a society of stupid people who believe stupid things, which I’m sure The Independent are delighted about.
This survey should not be viewed in isolation though, as they are complementary findings that build a slightly more nuanced picture. Yougov regularly poll the public on the issues which they perceive to be the most important and nearly all of the issues which we seem to be wrong about are the issues we are most concerned with. Surveys also show trust at rock bottom for politicians and the political process, and, lest we forget, our country is quietly dividing down the middle between following Nigel Farage’s band of bewildered, wide-eyed luddites and Russell Brand with his crazy hair and strange belief that doing nothing will somehow fix politics.
Education is profoundly important, because, as author and internet-based teen-inspirer John Green argues, we all benefit from not living around stupid people
Academics working in the field of democratic theory often speak about deliberative democracy; a broad term to describe a potential solution to this: having regular discussions between different groups of people in order to form some kind of consensus around the issue. In theory, this would better educate the public on the issues that they vote based on and restore legitimacy and faith to the democratic process. Yet, whilst this may be a worthy long-term aspiration, it is nigh on impossible to teach a drowning person to swim.
If we look at the roots of the liberalisation of our society, we can see education at the centre; the generational renewal process being used to shape the kind of society we want to see. Education is profoundly important, because, as author and internet-based teen-inspirer John Green argues, we all benefit from not living around stupid people. It is more than that though; through education we learn independence, self-worth and find a deeper connection with the world around us. What makes little sense to me, however, is the cultural view that once we reach 18 we are considered ‘done’. The general public view university as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, and adult education is something little taken up and little taken seriously.
At some point there was a generation that had to learn how to create and use pens; now I always seem to have them, despite never having consciously bought one.
In a manner of speaking, it makes sense to educate people while they are young: their brains are malleable and they haven’t the strength nor the skills to be put to work yet, but keeping children out of the workforce is not an argument for keeping adults out of education. This is especially true when we consider the Flynn Effect; an observation that, throughout recorded history, scores on standardised intelligence tests have got higher and higher with every generation. This makes sense because every single part of society is based on what came before it. At some point there was a generation that had to learn how to create and use pens; now I always seem to have them, despite never having consciously bought one. Every generation of children is smarter than the last because they are born into a faster paced world. The previous generations find themselves isolated and baffled by the world around them and, to make matters worse, they have few opportunities for formal education.
Is it any wonder then that older people tend to vote Conservative? These are people that see the world changing around them at a rapid rate, with no opportunities to keep up. When a party comes along and tells them that all of this change is because of migration and violence in video games, rather than because this is just what society is and what society has done since the dawn of humanity, older people leap at the chance to vote for them, because they validate insecurities.
Adult education won’t stop the Flynn effect, nor suddenly turn this country into a liberal oasis, but it will, I believe, help adults to feel more connected to their society and help us as a culture to be more informed about the things we are most concerned about. Mass general ignorance leads to mass fear, and mass fear leads to governments who prey on that fear. As John Stuart Mill once said in a parliamentary debate with a Conservative MP: “I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it.”