To discuss the purpose of education one must begin by defining terms. The corollary soon reached is that any such discussion is a necessarily broad church. Lacking the space here to toil in the wide open fields of such a debate I have chosen to focus on a single, essential and urgent purpose: that education creates individuals who can think independently and critically.
We live in a post truth world; politicians lie, fake news abounds and “alternative facts” are presented without irony. Some examples: On May 28th President Trump tweeted; "Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there (sic) parents once they cross the Border into the U.S.” Soon thereafter Trump told Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, "I know what you're going through right now with families is very tough, but those are the bad laws that the Democrats gave us. We have to break up families.” However, no such law exists. There is no law that mandates the separation of children from their parents. It was Trump’s own administration who devised the policy.
Online conspiracy group Q (aka QAnon) claimed in online posts that many senior Democrat officials have been arrested and jailed in spite of the fact that the same people are then seen walking around. They claim Kim Jong-un was placed into power b y t h e C I A . I n f a c t , t h e overwhelming majority of Q’s online assertions are hilariously untrue. “We live in a post t r u t h w o r l d ; politicians lie, f a k e n e w s a b o u n d s a n d “ a l t e r n a t i v e f a c t s ” a r e p r e s e n t e d without irony”
Boris Johnson’s battle bus was e m b l a z o n e d w i t h t h e memorable figure of £350 million a week bonus for the NHS from leaving the EU. Nigel Farage’s poster showed a mass o f i m m i g r a n t s m a r c h i n g towards our borders. In India hysteria has been w h i p p e d u p b y m e s s a g e reposting and relaying via WhatsApp leading to the lynching and murdering of people falsely accused of crimes such as child lifting. And who can forget the ‘sexing up’ of WMD documents?
How on Earth are young people to know what is real and what is not? What is true and what is false? How can they know the difference between fake news a n d f a c t ? H o w c a n t h e y distinguish between Instagram pics that are advertisements and those that are not, or YouTube content providers who are paid to sell/say/promote and those who are genuine?
We all live in a chaotic, media saturated world in which the truth no longer seems to matter and is certainly harder to get to. But I say that the truth does matter. Those in authority must be held to account for the lies that they tell. If they are not the virus of post-truth politics (with symptoms like fake news, alternative facts, foreign cyber m e d d l i n g e t c ) w i l l b e a contagion that cannot be stopped. To counter this we must e d u c at e a g e n e rat i o n o f students who have the ability to think critically. We must give them the skills with which they can independently determine the truth of what they see, hear, read in the media.
In ‘The Name of the Rose’ Umberto Eco says through William of Baskerville that “books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means.”
The urgent, necessary priority of education right now is to teach students how to subject all things to inquiry, not to believe them naively, not to swallow things hook, line and sinker; but to analyse, test, subject to investigation, think critically about them. Imagine a polity unable to think critically in this manner. I don’t think it is too absurd to reason that without this faculty, and with ever rampant fake news, democracy will fail and society as we know it will fall.