Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:45 am on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Sacks Lord Sacks Crossbench 10:45 am, 8th December 2017

My Lords, I too am grateful to the most reverend Primate for initiating this debate on a subject that is vital to the future flourishing of our children and grandchildren.

Perhaps I may be allowed to speak personally as a Jew. Something about our faith moves me greatly, and it goes to the heart of this debate. At the dawn of our people’s history, Moses assembled the Israelites on the brink of the Exodus. He did not talk about the long walk to freedom; he did not speak about the land flowing with milk and honey; instead, repeatedly, he turned to the far horizon of the future and spoke about the duty of parents to educate their children. He did it again at the end of his life, in those famous words: “You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up”. Why is there this obsession with education that has stayed with us from that day to this? It is because, to defend a country, you need an army, but to defend a civilisation, you need schools. You need education as the conversation between the generations.

Whatever the society, the culture or the faith, we need to teach our children, and they theirs, what we aspire to and the ideals we were bequeathed by those who came before us. We need to teach them the story of which we and they are a part, and we need to trust them to go further than we did when they come to write their own chapter.

We make a grave mistake if we think of education only in terms of knowledge and skills—what the American writer David Brooks calls the “résumé virtues” as opposed to the “eulogy virtues”. This is not woolly idealism; it is hard-headed pragmatism. Never has the world changed so fast, and it is getting faster every year. We have no idea what patterns of employment will look like in two, let alone 20, years from now, what skills will be valued, and what will be done instead by artificially intelligent, preternaturally polite robots.

We need to give our children an internalised moral satellite navigation system so that they can find their way across the undiscovered country called the future. We need to give them the strongest possible sense of collective responsibility for the common good, because we do not know who will be the winners and losers in the lottery of the global economy, and we need to ensure that its blessings are shared. There is too much “I” and too little “we” in our culture, and we need to teach our children to care for others, especially for those who are not like us.

We work for all these things in our Jewish schools. We give our children confidence in who they are so that they can handle change without fear and keep learning through a lifetime. We teach them not just to be proud to be Jewish but to be proud to be English, British, defenders of democratic freedom and active citizens helping those in need. Schools are about more than what we know and what we can do; they are about who we are and what we must do to help others become what they might be. The world that our children will inherit tomorrow is born in the schools we build today.