Education Is Not Activism

A recently-published Australian book on education has been receiving rave reviews from the great and good on social media. I haven’t yet read the book so I can’t offer any comment on its content, but a section of the book’s conclusion caught my eye when one of the authors quoted it on his Twitter feed.

The cry that “all teachers are activists” and “education is a political act” is hardly a novel one; in fact, such a sentiment was virtually de rigueur among both academics and fellow students during my own teaching degree. Over the years I have come to disagree with it strongly, and it is worth explaining why.

Those who make such statements are occasionally inclined to take refuge behind the malleable definitions of words like “activist” and “political” when the less savoury implications of these sentiments are pointed out. But if such statements were not intended to carry such implications, they should surely have been expressed differently.

Needless to say, political indoctrination of any kind is a no-no for teachers, for obvious ethical reasons. But perhaps this in itself does not preclude the idea that education is a political act; after all, isn’t one of the purposes of education to provide children with sufficient knowledge to become confident political actors in their own right, regardless of their social background?

Indeed it is. But this is the point: in this sense, education constitutes the preparation for children to take part in political life; it is the pre-political stage. I would like to suggest an alternative definition which takes this distinction into account:

Education is a civic act, not a political act.

Let’s delve into the etymology here once again. A civis (Latin) is a citizen: the polis (Greek) is the state. Political acts are those which seek to influence the form or the conduct of the state as a whole; civic acts are those which are undertaken in the interests of citizens, either individually or collectively.

The business of education is to form the citizen: the rational, informed person who is capable of forming judgements more or less independently, and therefore capable of taking part in a modern democracy. Any attempt to short-circuit this process by presenting any political issues as indubitably settled will necessarily mean that knowledge is presented in an incomplete, jaundiced way. To put it less politely, taking the phrase “education is a political act” to its logical conclusion means taking the first steps on the road to totalitarianism of one kind or another.

By way of conclusion: recently I’ve been perusing the famous mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell’s book On Education, and despite being infused with the various intellectual foibles of the inter-war era, it is a thoughtful and interesting work. In his introduction, Russell shows that he is well aware of the distinction between civic and political aims in education (emphasis mine):

There can be no agreement between those who regard education as a means of instilling certain definite beliefs, and those who think it should produce the power of independent judgement.

Count me in the latter camp.

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