How Could Ethics Guide a New Purpose for Education?

This article was originally published on 21 May 2021 in Intrepid Ed News.

Every once in a while, a report comes out from a behemoth transnational organization that rings alarm bells, warning us about how the education system is not equipping young minds to meet the challenges of tomorrow. A lengthy document outlines the skills students will supposedly need to survive in a world of increasing volatility and ambiguity, skills that are more about mental agility and network influence than content and technical know-how. Creativity, lifelong learning, problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking… [insert your random set of transversal skills here], which I will bundle up (for ease) into three words, future-ready skills.

No matter which skills specifically make up the list, the message remains: the only thing we can be certain about the world in 20 years is that AI will make millions of jobs obsolete because it will be more efficient and precise than humans. We tell ourselves that if we hang on to those essentially human qualities we believe distinguish us from computers, all those inaccessible realms that only conscious beings can access, we can safeguard our patch from the invasion of AI. Of course, there is no guarantee that any job we can think of today won’t be at risk of displacement by an algorithm that can communicate, create, collaborate, and make decisions better than any of us organic life forms. Without emotions of their own to distort judgment, algorithms will soon have better EQ than humans. 

That’s not to suggest that the skills put forth by these reports won’t be the most important tools in our arsenal. They certainly seem more relevant to face the future than what traditional educational structures have been proposing for more than a century: knowledge retention, exam preparation, and compliance. When the OECD, the World Economic Forum, or the Gates Foundation put out their list of skills, the public’s ears perk up, tuned in to the preternatural credibility and intellectual weight of business leaders and semi-public officials. The warnings from Davos have an almost religious-like quality that permits us to question the old ways.

Future-ready skills most likely are what young minds will need to be successful. The problem is that almost no one is asking what success means, and for whom. Almost no one is challenging the idea that these skills lead to success primarily in the world of work. Almost no one recognizes that these new skills will just be applied to the old system, which won’t do much to re-direct our behaviors toward a healthier planet and society.

If we don’t pay attention to the insidious narrative that continues to prevail, we risk getting caught in a trap. Under the pretense that we want our children to be work-ready, led by the fear that we are not preparing our offspring for the new economy, under the illusion that we are progressive and therefore so much more in tune with what is unraveling than our conservative peers, we reinforce the values, behaviors, and actions that have led to climate disruption, socio-economic injustice, and violent tensions between different groups. 

When we push only future-ready skills to meet the agenda of the workplace, we breathe new life into the meritocratic, linear, and alienating narrative that takes children from school to university to work, ending up back in school to ensure that their children have all the advantages, rinse and repeat. This path favors individualism over the community, inequality over solidarity, reckless consumption over regeneration. When we hyper-focus on job readiness and work skills gap, we feed the economic machine borne of the humanism that imagines us all rational consumers driven by self-interest, whose happiness is correlated with our ability to own goods and enjoy services.

We cannot escape our values. We must accept that there is no such thing as objectivity. The current curriculum can be malleable because it is laden with values. Every time it requires students to read Hamlet it declares Shakespeare’s play more worthy than every other play that could have been read instead. Every time it recounts the meta-narrative of national governments it crowds out stories of class and ethnic struggle. Every time it asks students to dissect frogs, it condones the subjugation of animals. If the curriculum represents an infinitesimally small part of the totality of human knowledge, someone had to decide what to include and what to exclude. Values drive these choices.

If values determine what we believe is important, ethics underpin what we believe is right. Ethics are the guidelines for our conduct and address morality, the principles by which to live.

Ethics are systems of moral principles shared by a collective. We may each value different things, but our ethics bring us together. The Hippocratic oath is one of the oldest sets of ethics. Not all physicians value the same things, but all live by the same ethics.

Ethics determine the choices we make before we take action. Skills are what we bring to improve the quality of our actions. Action then leads to impact. Impact is what makes the difference.

Given the precariousness of our relationships with the planet (climate disruption), other life forms (extinctions), and ourselves (socio-economic injustice, racism), it is time to address explicitly the ethics gap in parallel to the future-ready skills gap if we are to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene and create the futures we want — scratch that, need — in order to thrive. It is time for education to embrace its place within the larger ecosystem made up of all the complex relationships of the planet.

Let’s embrace teaching ethics for the Anthropocene. Let’s live by these ethics, eventually abandoning those values that perpetuate meritocratic cycles that breed elitism and injustice, values entrenched in humanism where our species is considered the apex, where decision-making is privatized and atomized, where individual wants and needs come at the expense of the community. As Otto Scharmer announces, we need “a deeper shift in consciousness so that we begin to care and act, not just for ourselves and other stakeholders but in the interests of the entire ecosystem in which economic activities take place.” Replace “economic” with “all life’s.”

We should nurture ecosystems where school extends beyond its physical and conceptual walls, where all members of the learning community live the ethics that will redirect the course of history away from ecological and socio-economic catastrophe. Alongside future-ready skills, we should teach future-saving ethics such as “practice eco-reciprocity,”  “stand up for justice,” “share with solidarity,” and “act with kindness.”

Learning then becomes a dynamic and symbiotic process where skills such as creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication are put to use for the welfare of all living things spurred on by these ethical norms. This would give learning and action a common purpose, the welfare of all living things, the bio-collective.

This purpose would be the pen with which we would write the story of the future we want. No longer one path that breaks off where every individual goes their way. Rather, multiple paths that all lead to one place, a thriving regenerative planetary ecosystem. Guided by the ethics for the Anthropocene, we forge through to a new purpose for education.

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