Bootham Quaker Education Conference, 25 January 2023
Paul Parker, Quakers in Britain
How can education create a better world?
I’ve been wrestling with this question ever since Martin asked me to answer it – both from my perspective as a Quaker, and as a former teacher myself! It’s so urgent. Our world is imperfect in so many ways, and there are so many things which need fixing. So for me, a big part of the answer is that education is crucial in preparing people for the labour that will involve.
Each of us lives in the world, and each of us leaves our imprint upon it. There is a wonderful piece of Quaker advice which reads ‘Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak.’ How do we equip our young people to make that choice? Someone once said to me, after hearing that advice, ‘our lives speak, whatever we do. It’s how they speak, and what they say, that matters!’
The young people in our schools today are growing up into a world which is deeply fractured. We are struggling to avert foreseeable climate breakdown that is already destroying ecosystems, lives and livelihoods around the world. There is a war on the threshold of Europe, and many others elsewhere – we have not yet learnt to deal with conflicts without violence, heavy weapons, death and destruction. There is widening inequality in our own society, with many struggling to make ends meet while others become ever more wealthy. Our politics has become dominated by those who seek to set us against one another, rather than seeking to include, to learn, to seek out our neighbours and build loving communities with them. And public trust in the institutions which maintain our communities and our national and international life together is fading because of the low value placed on truthfulness and integrity in the public square.
So what is the role of education in addressing these huge challenges? We should remember that for many young people, school and family are the world. So unless those things are better, the world is not yet better, for them. Change starts here, with us. We must create, together with our young people, school communities which are the microcosm of the world we want to live in. That means equipping them to rub along together peacefully, to deal with conflict creatively, to challenge themselves and each other, to lead and question, and to challenge authority when it is misused. It means resisting the growing pressure to see education as a transaction – a process purely of installing a set of useful, monetisable skills – and instead seeing education as a process of formation, of emboldenment, the privilege of accompanying young people on their journey towards the people the world needs them to become. And the world needs inspirers, peacemakers, empaths, leaders of integrity, dependable truth-tellers and edgy creatives. And they will be the same people as those who have the employable skills and knowledge we tend to think of as the role of education to instil. So I’d like us to think of education not so much as the what of teaching and learning, but the how.
Last year, Quakers published a major report, Peace at the heart, the result of years of careful thinking by our Peace Education team. It’s available online, and worth a good read. It has four main pillars – peace with myself – taking care; peace between us – working together; peace among us – coming together; and peace in the world – taking a stand. Between them, those seem to me a reasonable basis for thinking about this. We need to look at our schools and retool them to be not so much institutions, but communities of shared purpose.
Our schools should be places where the values of peace, equality, truth and integrity are modelled and can flourish. Places where young people understand how to take their place in the world, not as pieces in someone else’s jigsaw puzzle, but as active and responsible participants in their own right. Places which put good relationships, empathy, love and care at the centre. Places which value their students not as the economic units of the future, but the leaders and citizens of today. Places full of bold peacemakers, visionary reconcilers, loving change-makers, compassionate leaders and passionate contributors to the society we seek to create – what we Quakers might call realising the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
In the old days, we’d have called such people prophets – the people who had visions of the world to come. People who live adventurously and let their lives speak. These days, all too often the profit-motive (with an F) trumps the prophet-motive (with a P-H). For education truly to build a better world, we have to redress that. Let’s educate for the common good. Let’s educate for prophets, not profit. If we’re to meet the challenges facing our world, everything depends on it. That, for me, is how education can create a better world.