Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:27 pm on 8th December 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 2:27 pm, 8th December 2017

My Lords, I begin by congratulating the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on securing this debate and, more importantly, on introducing it with a beautiful blend of insight and compassion.

The one disadvantage of being the last Back-Bench speaker of the day is that you are not quite sure what you are going to say. Every time you hear a speaker, you cut out a paragraph from your notes. After hearing 40-odd speakers, there was not a single sentence in my notes that I could keep. I was therefore confronted by the arrogance of a virgin sheet of paper, and I thought that all I could do was to write whatever I could rustle up as being relevant to the debate and say it. So I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not sound very profound; rather, my concern is to raise certain important questions which, in my view, have not been raised but need to be.

The educational system of any country is generally shaped by two factors: first, what kind of world do we live in that imposes constraints and parameters that you cannot cross; and, secondly, what do we want to do with that world? Therefore, we need some understanding of the factuality of the kind of world we live in and some aspirational element regarding the kind of world we wish to create. The dialectic of this gives us some idea of the kind of educational system that we wish to create.

My first question is: what kind of world do we live in? That world has four characteristics. The first is diversity. It is a world in which there is a constant movement of people, ideas, new ideologies and new religions. Every day we are confronted by people we have never seen before, whose dress, manner of talking and morals are unfamiliar. Diversity is one inescapable feature of modern life.

The second is technology. Increasingly, our lives are dominated by technology. That is happening more and more with artificial intelligence, on which my noble friend Lord Giddens has been doing some excellent work, robotics and computers. Technology is in danger of replacing reflective human reason by reducing it to a pure technique.

The third factor is globalisation—the interdependence of one part of the world on another, but also, more importantly, bringing home to us the suffering of other people in the world and making it real to us so that the whole idea of the human species is replaced by the idea of a shared humanity or human community. The treasures of another civilisation matter to us as they did not matter to us before. Starvation in other parts of the world matters to us not because television presents us with pictures, but because we have come to make them a part of our mental universe.

The fourth feature of the world that we are living in is the market. Whether we like it or not, the market is here to stay. It is being extended into areas where it has not been before—namely health and education. If this is the kind of world that we are condemned to live in, what should we do to flourish in it? How can we bend it to our will or improve it? How can we negotiate our way through it? Of all the capacities that human beings will need to negotiate their way through the world that we have all been talking about, I want to emphasise three that have not been given the attention they deserve. In my view, they are critical. I say that as someone who has spent 60 years of his life in the field of education, first as a student and more latterly as a vice-chancellor.

The first capacity that we badly need is imagination—not just analytical intelligence, which is easy, but imagination. By that I mean the capacity to conceive an alternative, asking a question about anything that we face. Can it be done otherwise? What are the possible ways of doing this? Is this the best way? Can we not only conceive an alternative but appreciate others’ alternatives? If I see other religions, I ask myself, “Why are they different?”. Why is Hinduism different? The noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, talked about Hinduism and how the Guru-shishya tradition is pursued differently. Why is the Indian guru different from today’s western teacher, who is different from the earlier teachers of Socratic or Stoic tradition? The question is about understanding and appreciating alternatives and, in the process, expand our moral consciousness so that we develop sympathy.

Imagination is the only way to expand the range of sympathy and to take others into our mental universe and make them ours. Imagination is also the capacity by which we can counter the power of technology. Machines and robots can do anything except imagine. Their imagination is limited to what we put into them. Imagination is the capacity that allows you to prevent reason becoming a mere technique—a mere Cartesian tool—and to make it reflective and self-critical.

The second capacity that is important for us is self-criticism. Self-criticism means seeing through prejudices as they accumulate over the course of one’s life. As one grows up in a particular culture, certain prejudices come naturally to us, but to be able to see through them and then rise above them is rare. I give one example from Indian history. India has a long tradition of public debate. In 1820, when the Christian missionaries came out to India, the maharaja of Benares organised a public debate between them and the Hindu Pandits. There were 6,000 to 8,000 people in the audience. The Jesuits asked the Hindu Pandits the first question, “Do you believe in one God or many?”, expecting the answer to be obvious. The Hindu Pandits said, “Your question is incoherent and blasphemous because you are presupposing that God is a being. If God is Shakti—power or energy—the question makes no sense. Is electricity one or many? The question is absurd because you are assuming that God cannot be or is not an impersonal power. It is also blasphemous because you are reducing God to the limited categories of the human mind. Why can God not be both one and many, or why can he not be neither? Whether God is one or many presupposes that these two between them exhaust the range of possibilities”.

What is wrong here? It is not the questions but the inability to question the questions themselves. You ask the other questions expecting an answer which you can then decide is right or wrong, but you are judging the answer by your categories of what a conventionally good answer should be. But what if the addressee of your question turns on you and says, “I question your questions”? I could go on but I shall stop before the Whip stops me, as she tried to do last time.

In that context, rising above prejudices, since the noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, mentioned a Sanskrit quotation, I might show off my knowledge of Sanskrit. In Sanskrit literature, which I have studied closely, knowledge or education is defined as, “Sa vidya ya vimuktayeh”, which means, “That alone is learning which liberates you”. It liberates you from your conditioning and your prejudices, making you increasingly able to liberate yourself from this or that prejudice. The whole of life is the accumulation of prejudice and the gradual liberation from it, and that process is learning.

The third characteristic, which is absolutely important in this capacity, is, in the absence of a better word, what I would call wisdom, which is what philosophy is supposed to be about: philo and sophos. Wisdom is basically the capacity to understand the value of something. To understand the value of something is to know both its significance and its limits. Human rights, for example, are very valuable, but when we push them in an area where we talk about an old lady being asked to eat sitting on her toilet seat and say that her human rights have been violated, or when we talk about a child’s right to be loved, you have to ask: is the term “human right” being used properly? Is everything a matter of human rights? Human rights are important, but they have their own place and should not stray beyond a certain point.

Likewise the market, which is very important but has its limits. In my view, and I say this with great humility, what Margaret Thatcher did was to extend the market into areas where properly speaking it did not belong. The market was extended not only into the welfare state but into education. The scandals of vice-chancellors’ salaries and students complaining about not getting a proper education that is worth their money is all the fault of the marketisation of education. That marketisation is the result of not having sufficient wisdom and not knowing the value and limits of the market.