Looking to utopia as a new alternative horizon for realists

Darcy Moore

Consider this: The word utopia means both “good place” and “no place”. What we need are alternative horizons that spark the imagination. And I do mean horizons in the plural; conflicting utopias are the lifeblood of democracy, after all.

In the revolutionary year of 1968, when young demonstrators the world over were taking to the streets, five famous economists — John Kenneth Galbraith, Harold Watts, James Tobin, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Lampman — wrote an open letter to the US Congress.
“The country will not have met its responsibility until everyone in the nation is assured an income no less than the officially recognised definition of poverty,” they said in an article published on the front page of the New York Times. According to the economists, the costs would be “substantial, but well within the nation’s economic and fiscal capacity”. The letter was signed by 1200 fellow economists.

Eradicating poverty in the US would cost only $US175 billion, less than 1 per cent of GDP. That’s roughly a quarter of US military spending. Winning the war on poverty would be a bargain compared to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which a Harvard study estimates has cost us a staggering $US4–$6 trillion. As a matter of fact, all the world’s developed countries had it within their means to wipe out poverty years ago. (Excerpt from Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There 2017)

The Dutch intellectual, Rutger Bregman, has generated considerable discussion by advocating that citizens should be provided with a “basic income”. Most reviews and commentary about the ideas of this author, most recently from his book, Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (2017), focus on this advocacy, but relatively little has been said about his analysis of the direction of our education systems and the importance of good teaching.

If you were to draw up a list of the most influential professions, "teacher" would probably rank among the highest. This isn’t because teachers accrue rewards such as money, power, or status but because teaching shapes something much bigger. If there’s one place, then, where we can intervene in a way that will pay dividends for society down the road, it’s in the classroom.

Yet, that’s barely happening. All the big debates in education are about format. About delivery. About didactics. Education is consistently presented as a means of adaptation — as a lubricant to help you glide more effortlessly through life. On the education conference circuit, an endless parade of trend-watchers prophesy about the future and essential 21st-century skills, the buzzwords being “creative,” “adaptable,” and “flexible.” The focus, invariably, is on competencies, not values, on didactics, not ideals, on “problem-solving ability” but not which problems need solving. Invariably, it all revolves around the question: which knowledge and skills do today’s students need to get hired in tomorrow’s job market — the market of 2030?

Bregman believes this is precisely the wrong question. In 2030, we will more likely need “savvy accountants untroubled by a conscience” if the current trend continues where multinational companies dodge taxes and where countries such as Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland become even bigger tax havens”. He posits that “egotism is set to be the quintessential 21st-century skill” unless we make sound, wise shifts in policy direction. Bregman has a much better question for educators and politicians to ask, “which knowledge and skills do we want our children to have in 2030?”

It will be attractive to many educators and parents to hear that Bregman suggests we restructure education around values and ideals rather than merely following business and market trends. Instead of anticipating and adapting, the focus must be on “steering and creating”. He suggests that the “job market will happily tag along” if there is more art, history, and philosophy in the school curriculum. This will lead to “a lift in demand for artists, historians, and philosophers”. I certainly would like this to be true. Either way, education policy must reflect our larger human ideals rather than that of those firmly in the thrall of marketplace thinking.

Recently, an academic article, "The Cult of the Guru: the Neo-Taylorism of Hattie in School Leadership and Management", argues “that the message of brand Hattie [Professor John Hattie is the influential Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne] has been uncritically adopted and spread across Australian education systems in a previously unmatched scope and scale” and that it is “not only the latest fad or fashion, almost to the point of saturation, but reached a level where it can now be labelled the ‘Cult of Hattie’”. The article’s author, Scott Eacott, would likely be nodding in agreement at much of Bregman’s analysis. Eacott states: “The pursuit of effectiveness and efficiency that was central to Taylorism was once again popular. Hattie has provided the means through which scientific management can be achieved in educational leadership.”

No-one needs to read Bregman’s book to know that the business of making money is in the ascendant, with government policy-making held hostage to market needs. This is having an impact on our children and change is desperately needed.

There are more people suffering from obesity worldwide than from hunger, according to the World Health Organisation; depression has become the biggest health problem among teens. Ironically, it is not just the processes but the ideology of the fast food industry that has permeated education in recent decades, making it easy to understand the essentially correct nature of Bregman’s analysis. When we neglect our values in favour of dubious societal trends in education, the impact is profoundly disturbing.

Today, the market and commercial interests are enjoying free rein. The food industry supplies us with cheap garbage. Advancing technologies are laying waste to ever more jobs, sending us back again to the job coach. And the ad industry encourages us to spend money we don’t have on junk we don’t need in order to impress people we can’t stand. Then we can go cry on our therapist’s shoulder. That’s the dystopia we are living in today.

Bregman will hearten many readers who understand how important education policy is to the wellbeing of civil society when he talks about a vision of progress that “begins with something no knowledge economy can produce: wisdom about what it means to live well … we have to direct our minds to the future. To stop consuming our own discontent through polls and the relentlessly bad-news media. To consider alternatives and form new collectives. To transcend this confining zeitgeist and recognise our shared idealism”.

Darcy Moore teaches at Dapto HS and blogs here.

Note: Due to a formatting error, quotes and excerpts included in the print edition of this article were not correctly italicised. With apologies to the author.