American businessman Malcolm Forbes once said, "the purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open one."
I couldn’t agree more.
From a political perspective, education has a profound impact on our development. It teaches us what values are important, and our place in the wider world. Our education system is considered one of the best thanks to a tradition of empirical analysis and freedom of thought. Our universities are considered the best altogether, with our status as the intellectual hub of Europe being one of our greatest assets.
In many ways, the British education system is as much a national treasure as the NHS, yet there has been very little attention given to a new set of rules put forward by the Department of Education that threaten those principles that empower it.
New guidelines restricting our very thought.
The government released guidelines for schools last week, perhaps realising after the disaster of GCSE and A-level results, that they were responsible for British schools. However, these rules are another blunder, as Gavin Williamson sleepwalks into an authoritarian dictatorship.
It bars schools from using material created by organisations which the government considers having ‘extreme political stances’, including those critical of a capitalist system. Not only is this a gross misrepresentation of political beliefs, but a further strain on teachers. The environment, corruption and LGBTQ+ issues are all important, but may now be left undiscussed because organisations providing information on them may have criticised the stock market.
Restricting thought by controlling education is no novel concept. Chairman Mao used mobs of indoctrinated students to intimidate his political rivals when he felt his grip on power slip. Adolf Hitler was quoted as saying ‘he alone who owns the youth gains the future’ and took delight in training a generation of fascists. Joseph Stalin had a similar view, regarding education as a way to forge weapons out of children. With censorship arriving in Britain, it is chilling to think that such a change would have been welcomed by these men were they still alive today.
Censorship within education is detrimental to all students. Freedom of thought, expression and speech are cornerstones to British schools, and is what has propelled our universities to the upper echelons of higher education for the last few centuries. Perhaps more importantly, not only does it harm the success of education, but is also fundamentally morally wrong.
This is why the new guidance the DfE has given to schools is nothing less than Orwellian.
Schools are being limited in power, specifically to legitimise the conservative ideology of the current government. This sets a precedent for governments to prohibit association with a political value simply because they disagree with it. It is no secret that young people are less active in our electoral processes than older voters, and this can only be worsened under an education system which discriminates against ideologies favoured by the youth. Or worse, we will see widespread indoctrination into far-right circles, as there is no alternative allowed by the government. These are the effects of hampering freedom of thought and may only be years away with the guidance outlined by the DfE.
We can no longer rely on schools, the basic source of information for young people, to be neutral. How long will it be before 1984 is banned for its critique of an overreaching government? How long is it before Mice and Men is considered too sympathetic to the disabled workforce for the Conservative government? Is the notion of teaching about the Cold War, the most consequential geopolitical events in modern history, too much to stomach for our enlightened educational overlords in Westminster? Freedom of thought and speech is the only thing that holds our society together and makes us distinct from China or North Korea.
I am a capitalist. I support the capitalist system. But what the government has done is not to identify themselves as the enemies of anti-capitalism. Gavin Williamson, with this decision, has identified his government as the enemies of freedom.
That scares me, and it should scare you too, whether you are a Conservative or not.