The dangerous business of education

Glyn Davis

Cranlana presents E&S guest speaker, Professor Glyn Davis AC

The Cranlana Programme ran the inaugural Education & Society symposium in June 2018. This is the latest in our industry symposia, joining medicine, law, business and aged care specific courses. Our guest speaker was the Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Professor Glyn Davis AC.

From Aristotle to Malala: the dangerous business of education

It is a pleasure to join Cranlana participants for dinner this evening. I welcome the chance to think and talk with you about education.

Kate has given as our text for the day a quote from Aristotle:

All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.


Agree? Never mind that we no longer live in an empire. We might equally substitute ‘nation’ and still sense Aristotle’s meaning.

Yet it remains easy to poke holes in the claim, that national destiny depends on education of the young. The Third Reich had well-educated youth, by all accounts.

After World War II came the era of decolonisation, when the European empires which dominated the globe in the late 19th century all ceded ground and power to newly independent states. The education of European youth if anything contributed to decolonisation, by encouraging support for the process.

In this case the fate of empires may have depended on education – but not always in the way Aristotle suggests.

I do not mean to belittle the importance of the Greek sage: one of the central figures in European thought. But Aristotle does have a habit of getting things wrong.

During a long career Aristotle argued that men have more teeth than women, that the earth is the centre of the universe, that heavy objects fall faster than light objects – even though there were people at the time who knew each of these was wrong.

And he was not always the liberal champion of education we imagine.  He believed there are people who are born to be slaves, who naturally exist to take orders because they are not smart enough to think for themselves.

But it is worth thinking about what he is getting at in this passage: ‘the fate of empires depends on the education of youth’.

I have been mulling this while thinking about a news story has disturbed me recently. It is a news story from Nigeria where the radical jihadist group Boko haram has been blowing up schools.

Specifically, blowing up girls’ schools, with the intention of discouraging parents from sending their daughters to receive an education.

And it’s working.

So why is Boko haram so concerned about girls going to school, about youth getting an education?

Let me note the reasons have nothing to do with the mainstream of Islamic thought.

Islam is a tradition that values scholarship. Islamic scholarship helped frame our civilisation.

In fact, we would not have this quote from Aristotle if Islamic scholars had not preserved the Greek texts and transmitted them during the Dark Ages in western Europe.

So the story from Nigeria is not about Islamic theology. Rather, Bokom haram are worried what girls might do with an education.

This goes to the heart of a basic question: what do you get out of an education?

Here are three quick thoughts. First, you learn to read, which means you get exposure to all sorts of ideas, including those you do not find welcome.

Second, you learn to form arguments and how to discuss ideas in dialogue with other adult human beings – again, something not welcomed in some social settings.

Third, and most important, you just might damn well get a sense you can decide your own future.

After all, this is why we educate – we are helping people form their own capabilities. We make them independent.

And here is the rub.  Boko haram does not want girls to become fully formed human beings.

They don’t want girls with independent means to earn a living, able to converse with others in informed ways, to read the texts they choose.

Boko haram is trying to stop girls, in short, from having their own lives – a life they choose to value.

They have worked out – correctly – that education is the key to all this. For as Amartya Sen says, ‘Education makes us the human beings we are.’

Amartya Sen

Bombing schools is about stopping women from achieving their potential as independent, articulate people able to express and act on their own.

In 2012, at the age of 15, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a masked pro-Taliban gunman on a bus in Pakistan. She had been advocating education for girls on a blog while attending school.

Remarkably she survived and today studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford. She has become one of the world’s most powerful voices for education, particularly for girls.

It may seem remarkable this struggle remains so hard. Yet in the violence of those who tried to kill Malala we glimpse a grim worldview – men who see women not as ends but as means. Stopping education is designed to prevent independence. It is about control.

So Aristotle was on to something.

Education matters. When you equip young people to make judgments, to understand that there is a world to navigate, and give them the equipment to do it, you lose control of them.

This is freedom, the freedom to lead the life you have reason to value. Education does not give you the end, but it can give you means. It makes you responsible for yourself, and so able to participate as an equal in community decisions.

This is a point made about Australia by General John Monash.

Monash maintained close relations with his primary school, Jerilderie Public School, throughout his life, and his daughter continued supporting the school years later.

For Monash believed in the critical power of education for the individual and the state. Personally he knew what those early years of bush schooling, before Scotch College and the University of Melbourne, had done for him.

And having travelled the world and defeated an empire, he understood what education can do for a nation.

In the 1930s when authoritarian governments were on the rise everywhere and some Australian nationalists wanted to install Monash as benevolent dictator, he dismissed the idea contemptuously.

‘Depend upon it. The only hope for Australia is the ballot box and an educated electorate’.

By educating the young we give them the chance to decide for themselves. To decide whether a nation, or a social compact, or a religion, is worth supporting.

Those who do not wish these matters to be debated rarely welcome such education.  But we should. We want a nation that lives up to its values by educating the youth.

Education is a passport to the future for every human being, particularly the powerless.

It gives people the foundations of freedom. Deny it, and you deny them everything.

Honour it, and the world can change.

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