higher ed,  politics

When this is all over, we still have to clear up


Let’s be optimistic (remember optimism?) and assume that US and UK politics will return to some sense of normality within the next five years, and, you know, actual competent politicians will run the country. Only then will we really see the damage of the current period. For a start, I worry about the mental health of people having to endure this period. Waking up to a new piece of insanity and attack on humanity every morning is wearing. Being perpetually angry, frightened, vulnerable, confused is just exhausting. When we’re in it you keep going, but like looking after young children or going through a painful divorce, it’s only afterwards you look back and think “how did I do that?”. A lot of people will carry the toll of this period for a long time.

Then there is the social cohesion impact. Families and friends have been pushed irrevocably apart in a way that normal left/right divides never achieved. This is no ‘on both sides’, the rhetoric has been pushed by the right to a point of no return. The new right portray themselves as brave, free thinkers, but I’m guessing the old right just knew you couldn’t push it this far – they knew there was no coming back if you did and from there no-one wins. You don’t go on a Nazi rally at the weekend, and then come in to work on Monday like it was an outing to the mall. And you don’t say you support someone who backs that rally, then move onto talking about the football. There are no gentle comedies waiting to be made of this era which portray family members initially arguing bitterly but coming to understand that each side has a point. When one side wants to deny you or your friends’ right to existence, there is no common middle ground.

And then there is the damage to democracy, politics, the media and the role of the public figure. If lying is just ‘meh’ now, what does that mean for any of this?

But from our perspective, what is the role of education after all this? I’ve talked about combatting the unenlightenment, but the whole role of education will be shaped by how we look back on this period. These are some of the areas we will need to address:

  • Educating network savvy students – dealing with fake news, engaging in meaningful debates, understanding the role of tech companies, data, privacy and the social impact of all this will be cross cutting. Computer science degrees can’t operate now without understanding how algorithms shape power, and social scientists can’t work without appreciating how platforms shape identity. Pick a subject and the social element of the network needs to be part of the curriculum.
  • Digital scholarship – I’ve been updating my digital scholarship talk for someone recently, thinking about what has changed since I wrote the book in 2011. Then it was a case of ‘hey you should try using this stuff, it could be interesting for education’. Now it’s more a case of ‘we have a duty to use this stuff to help shape its future’. That’s a very different context for an academic.
  • Public engagement – how do academics and universities help shape the public discourse and politics so that facts, truth, knowledge, experts and research are no longer dismissed as irrelevant?
  • Building platforms and communities – interdisciplinary work involving tech experts, psychologists, designers, social scientists etc must help inform the next wave of platforms so that they facilitate the sort of discussion and community we once hoped for on the open web.
  • Policy – helping shape policy that makes democracy functional again.

This is quite a big shift in education, far beyond the ‘let’s get digital’ mantra. Maybe that’s too much to ask for education, but we need to start looking to a time when we’re not just firefighting but actively learning the lessons from this period and helping to shape a more functional, and hopefully positive, future. Assuming there is still a world with people in it by then, of course.


  • caroline Kuhn

    Deep and reflective! And not only are the big ones -US+UK- making a mess, it is happening all over the world. Venezuela has been completely destroyed by its inept and amoral politicians. Young people killed for nothing, families split apart (my own has had to split and each of us is trying to find a place where to start a life anew, if that is possible) and too many life’s ruined. Indoctrination instead of education is the mantra and corruption as the ethos that guides the country. Life is indeed a big mess nowadays! Surviving instead of living! What a pity!
    Education has a role to play, no doubt, and I share this idea of taking a more critical approach to the digital, it is our role as educators to unveil the hidden interests and the uneven power distribution in most of this platforms and tools that are so called social platforms to make us think that the solely intention of them is to facilitate collaboration and ‘democratise’ knowledge, hiding their not so democratic intentions in brilliant ways. I myself am developing an approach that starts with interrogating the tools we use or the ones we propose to use with students,asking those question of design and power to create awareness (at least) of those hidden and less democratic intentions of those influential social groups that design and shape technology.
    Whom is technology serving?
    The history of the bycicle is a great example 🙂
    Great reflections Martin, excellent advice!!
    Hope to see you soon!

  • Mark Brandon

    Cheerful post! But well thought out. The only thing I would add is I think the harder left has been culpable too in undermining the systems that have made our lives better. Most people hold reasonable views close to what was the centre.
    But the extremes have managed to shift the Overton window.

  • caroline Kuhn

    Excellent post Martin!! Timely, wise and grounded in the need of the coming generations! I wrote a longer comment yesterday when I wrote the post but I think it disappeared in the open 🙂

  • Mark Curcher

    A great thoughtful post Martin. Much to think about and to discuss as well. Personally I am sick of being told I should not worry. I was told that before Brexit and before the US election and now I am told not to worry, you will not have to leave where you live, your family will not need to split up – and I no longer believe it.

  • Madeleine Brookes

    Thanks for this.

    Thanks for this. Two points that resonated with me as an educator of High School students:

    1. Educating network savvy students. I have been fortunate to teach the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program subject Information Technology in a Global Society (ITGS) for many years (like forever!) which examines the social and ethical issues arising from the use of technology. This has allowed us to explore the role of social media in context, e.g. from the Arab Spring to Syria; look at data privacy in communication platforms such as China’s weChat – and so much more. Students need to understand how systems work to understand the issues that arise from their use.

    2. The role of tech companies in education: looking at the educator programs set up by companie, for example Apple’s ADE (Apple Distinguished Educator) program, Microsoft’s MIE) and the tension between the benefits of being part of these programs (such as massive development of PLNs) vs impartiality to ensure the right kit for the students.

    As Caroline Kuhn notes above: whom is technology serving?

    • mweller

      Sorry Madeleine, this comment went to spam for some reason so I’ve only just spotted it. I agree about the tension with tech companies – they may not want critical approaches but they offer benefits for practitioners.

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