I posted these thoughts of Chomsky the other day on my FB page. At the time they seemed to be saying something important about education. Reflecting further they are also saying something about human formation and the processes that shape our values and our way of looking at the world. Then as I've gone on thinking about it I have the uncomfortable feeling that his words are a warning that we are well on our way to losing any conception of education as humanising gift, social capital, cultural treasury, creative possibility for the future, imaginative empowerment of the minds, affections and commitments of the recent and coming generations of pupils and students.
Trying to pinpoint the precise nature of unease isn't easy. Education does have to be paid for by somebody. Schools and Universities are expensive places where learning is impossible to measure in the pounds it costs, saves or will ultimately make. Chomsky's warnings ring with the alarm notes of a social prophet - trapped in debt, no time to think, thus unlikely, unable to think about chnaging society because of the burden of debt and the urge to earn. These two phrases "unable to afford the time to think" and "unlikely to think about changing society" are chilling outcomes of an educational process which requires the student to mortgage much more than large amounts of money. A burden of debt, and a sense of having been burdened, is deeply corrosive of social capital, and ultimately fatal to that altruism that springs from gratitude and instils a commitment to the common good.
An education bought at the price of long term debt, knowledge and know how purchased on a mortgage, a relentless focus on employability and the market as key drivers in educational aspiration, reduces education to commodity, pupil and student to customer, and having paid for my own education I am entitled to exploit it in the market place. When that happens what are the chances of intellectual energy focused on making life better, imaginative thinking towards new possibilities, creative and critical reflection on change and opportunities for others, and fundamental to each of these is, ironically, the feeling of indebtedness. A person's fundamental attitude to the culture in which they have grown and been nourished, allowing for all the social inequalities and diversities of life chances, is defined largely by how that word is used.
If indebtedness means I have been supported through my education, and if I have been enabled and empowered by the processes of learning and formation and growing, then I am likely to be a net contributor to my community. If I live in a culture that takes for granted the right to education towards fulfilling and living into my potential, and if that gift implies sacrifice for others on my behalf, and part of the educational process is a deepening awareness of such gift, then a sense of indebtedness will solidify into gratitude. The giving and receiving of co-operative and communal resources in the education of each person is one of the essential pillars of social security and the common good.
Indebtedness for a gift is very different from being in debt for £50,000 and seeing my education as something I bought and out of which no one has any further claim. Employability, career trajectory, personal development, earning potential, plus the debt I now have to pay off, have become the values that will drive my thinking and acting and sense of social responsibility. I have become through being in debt, someone who has no sense of indebtedness. My education is my possession, and my product with which to play in the market. I have become "an efficient component in the consumer market."
In debt or indebted. Resentful or grateful. Owing my community nothing, or owing it my life and my living. Education as product or as gift. University as knowledge supermarket or as school for life and living. I know. I'm fully aware of the issues of funding, grants, loans, part time work, sacrifice and sheer toil for very many of our students; and equally aware of Government spending priorities and the need for viable economic strategies of affordability in the economic realities in which we are enmeshed on a global scale. But training generations of our students to think of their education as purchased employability, rather than enabled humanity, is short-sighted and will have its own economic, social and ultimately political consequences. And they will be different from what might have been, had these same generations of students come out of University, not in debt, but nevertheless indebted, grateful, still employable and ambitious, but with an undertow of indebtedness, gratitude and acknowledged responsibility. Or so it seems to this erstwhile theological educator, who came late to University, and whose own personal story is of education as grant aided, as gift, and as otherwise impossible.