Many of today’s big stories are fundamentally driven by politics, whether it’s the election of Trump, the schism in the UK over BREXIT, the use of Facebook data to influence voters, or trying to uncover whether the poisonings in Salisbury were a Russian attack or a means to control Russian expats in the UK.
My teachers always told me to follow the money and the power – one of the questions we all need to ask is whose interests are being served. In a world where our data is exchanged for cash, and that data is used to influence the way in which we think, children need to be armed with the tools to ask the right questions.
As Professor David Runciman at Trinity Hall, author of How Democracy Ends says, ‘today we’re seeing the failures of the democratic process in the rise of racist rhetoric in politics, the spread of conspiracy theories and the growing deep distrust of mainstream institutions.’
He looks at lessons from history to explore how democracies fail but seems convinced that democracies that fail this century will fail in new ways, driven by the forces of technological progress – such as the rise of intelligent machines - and growing social divisions.
Populism is currently right wing but it could just as easily swing left as democracy itself is being pulled apart by digital technology. Democracy delivers two critical things: social benefits (such as prosperity and progress) and human dignity (the right to express oneself and be heard) Digital technology enhances these two things but separates them and thi sis the issue.
Given how technology has invaded so much of our lives, we need to introduce our children to new ways of interrogating what they’re told, the information bubbles in which they live and an understanding of how to think for themselves. The internet of things (IoT) is being rolled out everywhere but little thought seems to have gone into its impact on children. It’s not just a question of security and privacy in the devices they use, but also how technology will influence and shape their social, economic and political environment.
Everyone has their own biases and blind spots, whether it’s a developer unaware of how a new product or service might be exploited or an individual judging others for the way they think or behave. Runciman argues that while Facebook may be a service that connects people, it is subject to abuse. It appears to be a platform where no-one, inside or outside politics, understands how to manage the social impact or bring it under political control.
In the last couple of years the airwaves have been full of concern about the rise of populism, the dumbing down of debate. Perhaps what we should actually be focused on is how our political systems could be transformed to keep up with the dramatic changes that technology is driving within human society. It’s possible that technology itself might help to shore up democracy and find new ways to integrate informed decision making for social benefit – however this can’t, and won’t, happen on its own.
Society itself needs to understand more about political systems, about the history of why countries behave in certain ways under certain pressures. We need to understand more about human geography, cultural psychology and the ways in which we might respond to new technologies. That means that we need to learn more than history or geography, we need to teach politics, at least the frameworks and what they are intended to achieve.
That education needs to start as soon as possible – why can’t KS1 and KS2 history include modern geopolitics instead of just the Vikings and the Egyptians? If we hope to create citizens that can manage the ever increasing rate of technological change and the impacts that this has on human behaviour, we’re going to have to look at education through a new lens.
The original version of this article appeared in Education Today.