Monday, 22 August 2011

A Manifesto for Social Evolution in the UK: Part 2

Welcome to part two of my sociocultural evolutionary manifesto for reforming the UK's institutions.  Today it is the turn of education and housing...


If there were one sector of society that should evolve alongside communication technology it is education.  Knowledge is information, whose transfer directly benefits from technological advance.  Yet here we are in the 21st century with what appear to be factories attempting to force children of all shapes and sizes through the exact same hole, metaphorically speaking.  Education has a duty to embrace the tenets of cultural evolution mainly because they are also the basic tenets of a good education; communication, synthesis of ideas, progression of discourse, adding to human understanding.  They are thus because education as an ideal transcends identity, serving our basic, inherent desire to rationalise the world.  What we need to do is ensure it goes back to these ideals, out of the grip of Government Inc ideology.

First of all, exams are the most pathetic way of making or breaking years of hard graft; they utterly misrepresent any likely future scenario for utilizing these skills. We don't lock ourselves in the bathroom with naught but a pad and pen to complete a report due in 90 minutes, do we? The whole point of the system as it is is to ensure standardisation in evaluation so that grades actually mean something in the context of everyone else's grades.  Yet one person (me, for example) can study tactically and another person can work day and night on the entire course and they often  still come out with the same grade.   Perhaps it was because I am lucky in that I personally don't mind taking exams, but here again is another problem.  We are condemning the unlucky, those that for whatever reason can't handle pressure that is in no way necessary, to potential lifelong negative consequences. Such a simplified, artificial, irrational system as this cannot hold legitimacy in such interconnected, fibre-optic times.  We need virtual systems to track, accumulate and share knowledge we gain through education, borrowing ideas from RPG's.  Teach kids in ways that they understand; the benefits could be far greater than we know).  

Why do we still have textbooks?  They can't move, can't play sound, can only provide maybe a couple of gigs of pre-defined information, cannot join you in learning with kids all over the country, nay, the world.  They can't even be updated for crying out loud, you actually have to buy a whole new set!  Being centrally  controlled by the folks in Westminster, our education system is held hostage, condemned to evolutionary stagnation for all but a few schools, sorry, academies, that were lucky enough to be expensive political photo-ops.  We also need to accept that children come in all varieties, with different skills and interests.  We must find a way to vary methods of learning to fit each child; forcing all the children to fit the same antiquated and counter-intuitive system is absurd, something that particularly impacts boys.  Talking about fitting education to the needs of the child, any child in this case, why don't we start feeding them properly?  Complicated stuff I know. 

Not only do we need radical ideas, cultural evolution always works best when experimentation can happen in multiple, interlinked locations and knowledge shared and synthesised. For this reason we must decentralise power, preferably down to individual school levels, so that teachers are free to teach in ways that suit their students.  Give them the freedom to borrow from other teachers around the world ideas, games and techniques that might actually work; or else continue to do nothing in a system that is cracking at the seams. 

For higher education, I suggest we stop talking about how wonderful interdisciplinary work is and actually take the plunge.  I had to beg to be allowed to take the Philosophical Foundations of Cognitive Science course, a course that changed my life, simply because it wasn't in the school of humanities.  Putting these artificial walls up helps nobody.  What we need instead is a format whereby students are free to go to any lectures they wish during the first two years, perhaps with a minimum figure per week.  Lectures should be recorded and made available online with forums and chatrooms.  A weekly seminar allows you to present on the best/most interesting lecture you saw last week, or alternately respond to a previous presentation by another student.  The first two years should be about allowing students to take their own path, with the freedom to learn different subjects depending on where their thinking takes them i.e. no exams, no marking.  Come the third year, students would pick two dissertation questions, entirely of their choosing.  For each work, the student chooses three types of professor (e.g, historian, social scientist, cognitive scientist) to convene and mark it as a group.  This way, students are free to go beyond the knowledge of their teachers, force established professors to consider alternative views and break the closed structures of defined disciplines.  

Just because capitalism doesn't care much for History doesn't mean it isn't important, perhaps if they realised that they'd have a better idea of their own intransigence.  Universities must be about knowledge and only knowledge; enough with the GovCorp subversion.  They must be independent, affordable and seek to expand virtually to greater numbers of people.  Which brings me to my last point...

Most importantly of all, particularly in light of the fees hike, is the need for recognition of people's ability to educate themselves.  I resent the fact that in order to get jobs for which I am perfectly capable, I am required to get massively in debt so that I can own a piece of paper from someone assuring employers that I do actually hold information in my head.  Almost every person in this country now has access to a previously unimaginable wealth of knowledge and educational resources, factors greater than the entire education system could have provided just 20 years ago.  We cannot continue as if the only education that matters is the one granted official status by the state.  Not only does it mean a reliance an out-dated, nationalist-centred syllabus, but it also discriminates against those who cannot afford to go to university.  Giving individuals direct access to nationally recognised qualifications, to be completed in their own way, at their own pace, is long overdue and could radically empower those who feel excluded.    

Well, this is a pretty simple one.  Not much cultural evolution has to say on this one, unless you want to talk about architectural styles.  Or we could take about historical accidents?

Apparently, because I was unlucky enough to have come of age after the housing boom, I am now forced to pay one of the thousands of already wealthy people who bought up every cheap house going, split them in half, and rented them out. As with every other under-30 who doesn't have rich elders, my wife and I have absolutely no hope of owning our own home despite both having jobs.  Norfolk, where I live, has seen house prices treble and quadruple in the last 15 years, mainly as second (or third, or fourth) homes for greedy people.  The UK has one of the smallest average house sizes of the developed world, with rent accounting for an ever increasing portion of people's salaries. How can we as a generation take authority seriously when we see them doing nothing to tackle this gross injustice, while they sit on multiple homes, often paid for at our expense, earning inordinate amounts of money for doing absolutely nothing?!

Where are the new builds? Where is the investment in new home technology?  Where is the protection for those priced out of living near their family because of the artificial prices created by self-imposed mega-salaries of financial industries gone mad?  Is our construction industry so healthy that they don't need the work?

How does government, or the public for that matter, expect the young to have an inherent respect for property when they themselves blindly hoard it to the exclusion of a whole generation?  Where is the sense of shame or duty to rectify this betrayal?  It is the same place it has always been, throughout History, for property owning classes: nowhere.  It has ever been thus that ownership of land and property has acted as a barrier to sharing identity and moral concern; it shouldn't surprise us that by merely increasing that number to a large part of the older generation shouldn't change that dynamic.  Now it's become a generational divide, wonderfully illustrated in the book Jilted Generation, rather than serf and lord.  By denying us this opportunity, authority is satisfied to see us as cash-cows for the already wealthy, accepting huge chunks of our meagre minimum wages each month because we have no other choice. 

In the long run, I expect such greed to be seen as deeply immoral.  But, since evolution is a step-by-step process, reform must first come through affirmative government action: investment in new builds and investment in providing affordable mortgages to first time buyers.  Eventually, the issue of hoarding property will have to be tackled, perhaps through having upper limits on the number of properties you may own with the excess being offered to tenants with rent, back-dated, going toward payment of ownership.  The owner gets paid, the tenant feels they are not being fleeced, house ownership goes up and society gets a bit more equal.

Coming soon: The Media and the Internet.


Matthew Dickinson said...

Only weeks after finishing my degree in zoology I discovered that most of what I learnt in terms of information could be found in popular science books. What I learnt in terms of skills, whether critical or practical, was not. But then I wasn't as likely to come across them, zoology has more practical skills than many degrees. So I'm unsure whether I agree with you about the insignificance of a piece of paper, I don't think I have enough data to decide.

'In the long run, I expect such greed to be seen as deeply immoral.' On the subject of a change in moral norms I'm reminded of a piece by Sam Harris about lying

I hope I won't be accused of trolling here, but I thought if you hadn't read it before, you'd find it interesting.

I look forward to the next post :)

Ben King said...

I think you need to look up the definition of troll!

I agree with what Sam says, and I think that filtering the lies from the public, political arena in that way would have profound effects.

What he didn't mention though was that many crimes can be committed without having to lie at all, merely through having a different moral sphere. Plus, I feel that simply limiting it's use in formal, predefined times and locations would merely represent something to work around, easily done if it was controlled by the judiciary or politicians. I think to be truly revolutionary it would need to be open-source, put on the net for everyone's use (which it undoubtedly would at some point in the future)and hopefully not come too soon for us to mishandle the consequences (which, given how far technology would have to go, seems unlikely. If this system is still around in 20, who knows what sort of state we'll be in).

Matthew Dickinson said...

Well by troll I meant off-topic, perhaps it's used more extremely than I meant! I guess I was on-topic, but stretching the limits, plus worried Sam was being a little far-fetched. But I'm glad you disagree :)

Good point about not lying if you think you are telling the truth, but eliminating deception would still be quite a triumph for mankind. No it wouldn't be the end of crime, but it's the KIND of revolution in human interaction that is on the horizon. Of course people will find it unsettling because human biology and culture is ingrained with the usual ways of interacting, we've evolved to lie in both.
It would be great on for internet interactions (I'm not quite sure whether you were including that possibility) as a check on who you are dealing with. As long as there was some system so that for example a transaction wouldn't go through unless both parties were hooked-up/being monitored. I presume the real-time nature would make them hard to fake.

So when are you going to write your manifesto into a book? Or are we going to have to create a critical thinking political party? :P

Ben King said...

lol, I'm somewhat hesitant to put effort into a book. For a cultural evolutionist in this internet age, there is something rather vulgar about fossilising knowledge in that way. It's like planting a tree in a tiny pot.

E-book is a possibility, with free updates, forums at the end of each chapter etc.

Matthew Dickinson said...

I say book because books get publicity, something like The God Delusion (not that I'd compare you, other than using reason in novel spheres) wouldn't had been a best seller if it had only been on Dawkins website. But I was being somewhat flippant, it's a big undertaking, and perhaps open to accusations of hypocriticism, as you say.

Ben King said...

To be honest, a book also goes against my personality. I flit from subject to subject to quickly to maintain my focus for such an endeavour. I have considered just mining a collection of essays from my blog and trying to get that published as an e-book perhaps.