Saturday, 14 January 2012

Re-enter the Dragon

In the global age it’s not sufficient to learn just the history of one’s nation. We must deepen our knowledge of other countries, especially those with a major role to play on the world stage. So how well is China understood today?

China has an exceptionally long historical identity, and any snapshot analysis which takes in only the last 20 years, or even the last 200 years, could give rise to serious misunderstanding. This is a particular problem with those commentators who talk blithely about the ‘clash of civilizations’ and pit China against the West as an inherent antagonist.

From around 200 BC on when the Han Dynasty was established, China became one of the most prosperous and powerful countries in the world and remained so for the next two thousand years. Observers from across Europe, the Middle East, India and the rest of Asia marveled at its resilience, resourcefulness and longevity. Right down to the 18th century it was often cited as a model civilization: deeply moral without religious factionalism, culturally rich as well economically vibrant, and governed with a civil service to which the military was subordinate.

Yet the 19th century witnessed China’s eclipse as it came to be cowed by the guns and troops from Europe and Japan. Britain, embarking on one of the most extraordinary export drives, launched a war to secure the sale of narcotic drugs to a country which had sought to eradicate the spread of addictive opium. After losing the Opium Wars in the 1840s and 1850s, China’s decline was further exacerbated by protracted civil wars, heavy losses in the two World Wars, not to mention the disastrous social and economic experiments in the 1960s.

But the growing embrace of modernization and equality had by the 1980s shown signs that women as well as men could have new opportunities to attain a better quality of life. The rejuvenation of China at the beginning of the 21st century has brought two questions to the fore. First, should China’s economic power in relation to its trading partners be more directly constrained? Secondly, should China’s use of its political power within its own jurisdiction against those who dissent from the ruling regime be more openly challenged?

These questions can only be answered properly if one has thought through what kind of country China is and therefore what would be an optimum relationship to cultivate with such a global partner. China’s psyche is fixed on two perennial points: aspiration to peaceful prosperity, and aversion to violent divisions. It will pursue policies in support of worldwide economic stability, not because these are demanded by Western governments which have switched between free trade and protectionism as it suited them, but from its being treated as a key partner in securing a stable world order which is indispensable to China’s own peaceful prosperity.

It will accommodate dissent, not by being criticised by Western regimes which have to varying degrees supported regimes with atrocious human rights records all over the world for their own geo-political advantage, but from the constructive sharing of ideas between countries on how a diversity of views can, far from fueling violent divisions, strengthen civic solidarity.

It is not through the clash of civilizations but the cultivation of mutual understanding that our global future should be shaped.

[Note: Year of the Dragon begins on 23 Jan 2012]

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Educating Fodder

For those fearing feral youth behaviour (according to the November 2011 ICM poll conducted for Barnados, 44% of the UK population believe young people are “becoming feral”), fodder education can seem an attractive antidote.

Fodder education aims to secure a steady supply of thoroughly ‘domesticated’ workers who will do what is asked of them without question. It seeks to achieve this by sifting out the majority of each generation and processing them into submissive underlings who give up their own diverse potential so as to serve their masters.

When the political wing of the wealthy elite lament the failings of contemporary education, they are not saddened by the lost opportunities of countless children and adults to expand their intellectual, cultural and moral capacity to live a more fulfilled life. They are complaining that not enough of them have been turned into ready fodder to feed the corporate machines.

Advocates for fodder education do not want schools or lifelong learning providers to kindle the human spirit for uplifting endeavours. They dread the cultivation of a critical mindset which, instead of swallowing crass inefficiencies and gross injustice, would rationally demand a rethink of how productions are organised and resources distributed. All they want, in the name of ‘better education’, is a line of people who will accept their station in life, carry out whatever mind-numbing tasks are asked of them, and gratefully receive their low pay or the alternative stigma of being jobless.

It’s pertinent to point out that it was Adam Smith, so revered by ill-informed champions of unrestrained markets, who was amongst the first to attack the tendency of reducing workers to thoughtless automaton. According to Smith, habituating people into routine tasks which “give little exercise to the understanding” would render them “not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.” (Wealth of Nations).

Smith wanted to see publicly funded education develop the minds of people so they can think more broadly, cultivate understanding beyond routine work matters, learn to appreciate and pursue the common good rather than just obsess about individual advancement, and expand their imagination and sensitivity. Unfortunately, fodder education, combined with the incompetence of poorly regulated markets, have today left more and more young people with barely subsistent earnings, growing debts, and in many cases no job prospect at all. Instead of hope, all that is on offer is prolonged austerity for the poor, and bonus payment for the rich.

The majority of young people do not loot and riot like the irresponsible few any more than the majority of adults set about ruining the economy and people’s livelihood like the banking elite have done. What society really needs is education which not only equips us with basic skills, but nurtures our ability to uncover myths and dogmas, challenges the lies and iniquities perpetrated by the powerful, cooperate with others fairly in achieving shared goals, and exploring the potential we have in finding fulfilment in our own ways.

It should be the aim of education to produce, not fodder, but thoughtful citizens.