Niall Ferguson on the devolution of Education to a bigger society…

This podcast of Niall Ferguson’s last Reith lecture (transcript, h/t Nev) is well worth listening to, not least because a really sharp Scottish audience which is not prepared to let him off with anything sloppy.

There’s some very good stuff on de Tocqueville, and Democracy in America at the beginning plus a great line on technology. On education, I rather think his own rather too strident ideology gets in the way his making a good point on how devolving greater autonomy and greater ownership of schools (anticipated by another sharp itinerant Scot, John Kay), either to the governing body or indeed out of the wider educational system.

His example of the Harlem Success Academies, has some staggering figures of success, although he sort of ducks the question of academic selection when he notes that entry to these are by old fashioned lottery.

He asserts that the welfare state is somehow responsible for failing schools but removing them from the convening power of the free associative power of citizens, but does not, in the Q&A, address the first base problem of poor association in working class communities and the overwhelming capacity of the middle classes to monopolises scarce resources.

His allusion to Sweden and Denmark is instructive but he does not go into great detail on the situation where state funding follows students into the privately run Free Schools… Nor does he admit that in Denmark at least these have a long tradition and are embedded in the wider liberal tradition of Grundtvig.

Finally, it is good to hear some real conversation (even with some of its ideology side alleys) about Education for once. Our conversations on education in Northern Ireland has got stuck in an instrument (and largely pointless) argument about selection.

A larger conversation about what we think education is for, its relation to the state, its capacity to enhance social mobility and harness creativity and ambition is long overdue. Ferguson’s lecture is far from a perfect holiday, but at least it gives a glimpse of other possible ways of doing things.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • I like this snippet from the transcript:

    Like Tocqueville, I believe that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better in than central state action not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens. For true citizenship is not just about voting, earning and staying on the right side of the law.

    It is also about participating in the troop – the wider group beyond our families – which is precisely where we learn how to develop and enforce rules of conduct. In short, to govern ourselves; to educate our children; to care for the helpless; to fight crime; to clear the beach of rubbish.

    Perhaps we just need a better balance between rights and responsibilities – and to keep an eye on the size of the troop!

  • Thanks Mick and Nevin

    Where to start. Well, I think NF makes good points about local activism. We would probable all agree that it is a good thing. However ultimately those local activists are going to want to associate with other similarly motivated local activists across the country. Clearing a beach of litter – no problem. Stopping a local factory spewing effluent into a river – Ah now you have gone political.You see the problem.

  • Greenflag

    ‘and to keep an eye on the size of the troop!’

    And on the amount of power , economic and political held by the alpha baboons who have looted the world financial system for their narrow benefit for the last couple of decades .

    Yes a balance is needed between rights and responsibilities but that balance has been skewered over the past couple of decades as people in the Anglophone world and elsewhere have seen those former ‘bastions’ of society the clergy /churches , and the elite bankers and politicians of all parties and large financial corporations and parliamentary institutions descend to the level of pimp and prostitute . Once upon a time a clerical collar or a bankers striped pants were seen as symbols of ‘integrity’ . Now they are seen as sheeps clothing for some very nasty wolves .

    Local activism is a critical component of a healthy democracy but there will be no local activism if the alpha baboons can behave as irresponsibly as they so desire without personal consequence and thus destroy the economic foundation on wghich a modicum of civilisation is based.