Sunday, September 11, 2011

 

Love and Liberty VIII – Freedom from Ignorance (#LibDemValues 1.8)

Education, freedom of information and children’s rights are today’s issues in my ongoing republication of Love and Liberty, the booklet on Liberalism I originally wrote back in 1999. It’s part of my contribution to exploring what the Liberal Democrats stand for, as the coalition continues and Conference looms. I’ve added a few more notes and polished up a few sentences today, while stopping short of a temptingly total rewrite; I still mostly agree with myself, but if any of the instalments have dated, it’s this. Spot the one written just a year after discovering the Internet…

Liberty: Freedom from Ignorance

Setting out the aim that “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” doesn’t mean that these three giants have to be tackled entirely separately. All three stop freedom – all three are often linked. And perhaps the biggest link from one of them to another is, as I mentioned yesterday, that creating opportunities for people to free themselves from poverty leads directly into the Liberal fight for freedom from ignorance. Education, in its many forms, is at the heart of Liberal tools for people to take up their own power and opportunities – and much of building a Liberal society is based on involving people in decisions, which can only really be done with free information.

Practical Freedom of Information

Liberalism aims to increase the power and responsibility of every individual, yet the political system we have now often seems designed to have the opposite effect – something that’s not just counterproductive for unleashing the power of individuals, but of government as well. Making freedom of information a practical reality isn’t just about stopping all levels of government getting in the way and holding it to account, but making it work better, too. Individuals who are responsible, equipped with skills and information to take and use power need a co-operative, open political system, but equally the political system needs to be open to those individuals to work properly. Think about it – if the government orders people to implement difficult proposals like cutting energy use (or spending, for that matter), all they’ll get is resistance; give people the information and power to develop their own solutions, and everyone’s better off. Top-down, standardised solutions can never work as well as those where the people affected are involved in developing and delivering them – for example, redesigning estates through “Planning for Real”, giving those who live there control over their own space and pride in their own housing. This makes freedom of information essential to democracy, for the government as much as the ‘governed’.

Secrecy is used by governments to dominate and to reduce power and choice for anyone else. The British government has always been immensely secretive, shored up over centuries by a monarchy and now the practical exercise of prerogative powers whose lack of accountability is legitimised by tradition. By contrast, democracy is based on openness and on informed choice. No wonder that our undemocratic un-constitution makes corruption so easy, or that Labour have fallen prey to the temptation not to deliver on effective freedom of information. Choice isn’t a real choice if it’s a choice denied access to the facts, still less a deliberately misleading choice. The same is true of economic choices. Surely if you want as ‘free’ a market as possible, that depends on informed choices to work in an ‘undistorted’ way, yet Thatcherites in power – Tory or Labour – have seemed strangely unconvinced of its benefits, preferring to let the big businesses that coincidentally give them so much money give as little information as they like. I wonder what a really aggressive implementation of freedom of information might do to make markets more open (imagine the effect of ‘original cost price’ labels on mark-ups, or ‘longevity estimates’ on planned obsolescence or shoddy work)? It might even reduce demand and consumption (with better-made products more labour-intensive), and have even greater environmental effects than labels indicating non-renewables, artificial chemicals or genetic modification.

So how do you get hold of ‘free’ information? It must be available, easily and cheaply, to be of worth. It’s dispiriting that the last couple of decades of disastrously illiberal governments have presided over the crippling of public libraries, whether through central policy or through dictating local government spending by imposing capping and ring-fencing. And yet libraries are on the front line of freedom of information and education throughout life, a resource that should be there for all to use, the absence of which hits the financially disadvantaged worst. Librarian numbers, skills and conditions have been savaged in a way that no government would dare for, say, teachers; many services buy virtually no new books; opening hours are shrinking; and, increasingly, services other than books on the shelf are made available only to individuals willing and able to pay. What expansion libraries might have in the immediate future is as centres for Internet access, a massive tool that needs to be open to all and is much cheaper to provide than books – and probably the invention that most utterly undermines censorship since printing. Censorship strikes both at self-expression and access to information, stopping people speaking up or finding things out for themselves.

Education

There are few duties of government – local and national – more important, though, than education itself. And while giving people the knowledge and skills for work has to be a vital part of that, it can’t be everything: if you’re ever to grow up to hold government to account rather than let it be in charge of you, school’s where that instinct has to start. The more governments bleat that schools need to be more about discipline, the more you wonder if it’s not because they’re scared that schools might be too much about asking questions, when I’m worried that the target culture means it doesn’t do nearly enough of that. Make education about equipping people with knowledge, skills and self-confidence, make it about how to understand and fulfil your rights, make it the opposite of exclusion and discrimination. Above all, make it about giving you the opportunity to discover and develop your own potential. Education is the most powerful way for people to pull out of poverty, to shape their own future by developing their skills and enhancing their strengths for the benefit of themselves and for others. It should give, and to break down ignorance and give people the tools to make their own way. It is essential for equal opportunities, freedom and adaptation.

I’m sure all that’s something that most teachers want to do. And yet all that politicians ever seem to say about schools is that ‘standards’ are too low – then set targets to prove that they aren’t. It’s as if the priority is to pretend that everyone’s the same, rather than encouraging questioning individuals. Many teachers try; many pupils end up that way; but the basic system doesn’t seem to encourage it. One of the principal differences between most children and most adults is that children approach life with curiosity tempered by trust, while too many adults display only dull submission, tempered by suspicion. To talk of education purely in terms of economic investment and job training, rather than treating this aspect as only a part of wider development, is missing too much of the point.

The structure of the school system, too, seems to be all about the economy, with governments shouting, ‘private bad! Public good’ – or, much more often, the other way round – and being more interested in diversity of ‘providers’ than diversity of ideas or different backgrounds. If you want to build a society of integrated individuals, constructing a system that means even children only mix with ‘their own sort’ can’t be the right way to do about it. Wouldn’t it be better to look at ways for kids of different races, religions, classes and house prices to mix freely, so that by being encouraged to think for themselves, education breaks down prejudice and encourages different points of view through different experience, rather than hindering all that by splitting off children into schools based on money, background or the latest government ideology rather than diversity.

For the Sake of the Children

How should society enable the rights of children, when the media portray them either as ‘angels’ or ‘monsters’, one set too innocent to have rights and the other not deserving of any? Particularly for adolescents, as society drives both to ‘look after children for longer’ and to make them more ‘responsible’ earlier, which together are unlikely to inspire the development of real responsibility. Throw in this age’s biggest tabloid fear, of paedophiles lurking everywhere, and how to protect without losing childhood’s freedom or creating a climate of fear and persecution is a terrible dilemma. There’s no more tempting or dangerous line in politics than ‘For the sake of the children’ – and it’s not just children that are affected, with them touted as excuses by authoritarians whose real aim is to control adults like children, ‘for their own good’ (two-thirds of households don’t contain children; every censor appeals to ‘but what if children see this?’).

This is symptomatic of the areas where Liberalism has the most trouble: those where it’s difficult to apply democracy or informed choice. I’ve said that’s the problem with international action, which lacks appropriate institutions for informed consent, while children are simply unable to take up most rights. At what stage can they make their own informed choices? There is no reliable answer, as individuals develop at different ages. Set an age of ‘independence’ too high, and you suppress individual development. Set it too low, and you risk exploitation. Yet with most rights and responsibilities in society an either / or choice, it seems too often that children have to be cossetted away from the right to any decision about themselves (‘angels’) until, if they step out of line, suddenly they have absolute moral culpability (‘monsters’). Perhaps it’s not just by encouraging children to ask questions that schools might help bridge the gap, but by pupil governors and school councils coming back into fashion so that young individuals get used to finding more responsibility and more involvement in decisions that affect them.

If you want a real clash over the idea of rights for children, just ask a parent, more so than ever these days when every newspaper sees bigger sales in making every parent scared to death of any child that’s not wrapped up in cotton wool. I’m suspicious of the concept of ‘parents’ rights’, as if children are merely extensions of their parents until they hit sixteen and turn to adults with one bound. It clearly impedes children’s development and information to make their own decisions if parents are able to excuse them from sex or religious education; schools can be a bulwark against bigotry at home, or simply a chance to learn something new that isn’t primarily academic. Yet look at the alternative. I’m even more suspicious of the state deciding it knows best about parenting. Kids’ rights to decent facilities, learning, hearing different views and meeting different people must be balanced against their need for decent, loving families, however they decide to live; when governments use their power not to set minimum standards but to tell everyone how to live, things go disastrously wrong, whether in failed top-down solutions such as bussing children around in the States to get more socially and racially mixed schools, or setting too-eager targets to take children from their parents because ‘we know best’. Even when looking out for children, Liberalism still has to be the enemy of authoritarianism – however tempting it is to ‘do good’. Treating adults as children is surely not the answer.

I can see why I was having a crisis of confidence after reading these last three main instalments again last year; while a lot of today’s is still on the right lines, a lot of this one felt like a mixture of clichés strung together, topical policy ideas that I liked the sound of and wanted to cram in, and bits that have dated terribly (yes, what a good idea it was to deal with the whole subjects of the Internet and of censorship in two lines at the end of a paragraph about something completely different). But, again, I’ve only rewritten some of my more clunking prose here, though this was the one on which I most felt like starting from scratch. If I ever do that, it’ll have to be the whole thing, not just one piece. It does, at least, tie in quite neatly to what I had to say about Liberal Intervention and the sorts of issues where Liberalism’s philosophical basis of informed consent has nowhere settled to stand, as in my thoughtful and understated article, When Liberals Attack!

You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the liberty at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life.

Back to VII

Forward to IX

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Comments:
Just a couple of passing comments on children's rights. Parents obviously have to bring up their children as they choose. As you say there can be a tension between parents' bigotry and children being exposed to a more liberal way of thinking. But what about physical punishment. If I slapped you, I'd be done for assault. If I slapped my daughter, it would be seen as reasonable chastisement. Neither of you have anything to worry about cos I'm not a slapping kind of girl, but it annoys me that in this day and age the law does not protect my daughter from physical punishment. The mere mention of the words David Laws were at one time enough to send me into a frothing at mouth rant about orange bookers. Then when he was education spokesman he supported a smacking ban and I reconsidered my opinion of him.

Secondly, one of the best things I think the Coalition is doing is in respect to body image and body confidence. Girls have to grow up with the pressure of expectations that they'll look a certain way or be a certain weight. This touches on freedom from conformity as well but the freedom from ignorance part is about education from a very early stage, being taught to question these expectations and see them for what they are. I think Jo Swinson's complaints about ad companies for example are great.

Diet books aimed at 4 year olds, like Maggie goes on a diet (why Maggie, not Mark, for a start) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/maggie-diet-author-paul-kramer-defends-teen-dieting/story?id=14362132 can't be censored but kids must have proper information so that they can see what's nonsense. This is why you actually need a thriving "state" because the powerful interests who manufacture these expectations of women won't be challenged without it.
 
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