This is Jack Ma. If you don’t know who he is, then dig a little into China’s recent booming economy and you’ll dig him up sooner or later. He is the founder of Alibaba Group, which runs sites like TaoBao, an online and hugely lucrative shopping empire that pretty much keeps China’s city population in all manner of things purchased online. In China, where money is king, he has achieved almost divine status.
I’m no economist, nor am I a successful business anything. He’s massively successful and he’s certainly hugely welathy. I’m sure he shares this wealth in morally and ethically sensible ways and I have nothing against him at all. He is a remarkably persistant individual (he was rejected by Harvard ten times), he has worked in low-pay jobs once earning $12 a day teaching English so he knows a few things about what it is to ‘make it’. He’s now become a go-to voice to advise on how we can all ‘make it’, too and he’s now taking the platform to give his opinions a voice. In fact, he has been for some time.
However, listening to his recent lament about global education, put me in mind of why it’s dangerous to listen to actors on politics or nutrition. Many of these people do not inhabit the same world that you and I inhabit. They may have once upon a time, but now they inhabit very different places with very different concerns and it does nuance their views away from the ordinary to sometimes the closeted and even bizarre. In our Capitalist, consumer-driven world, we look up to this kind of success – just look at the buzzing sales of self-help manuals – but we can also be guilty of listening to it blindly.
Jack Ma spoke about education and in particular about how mankind can battle the rise of machines in the future. His comments gained some Facebook and Twitter observations that lauded his honesty, vision and insight and concluded that he was ‘true’, ‘right in his concerns’ and that we should ‘listen to him’ and ‘act.’ But there’s the trouble, many people who said these things were not working within education but in commerce and industry and I think their view is tainted but also wrong and potentially dangerous in their own ways. Is the purpose of education to provide a skilled workforce (I thought that was the education system of 200 years ago)? Sometimes the needs of corporations skew what schools are trying to do. Well, it seems that way to me.
Anyway, he said this:
The knowledge-based approach of “200 years ago”, would “fail our kids”, who would never be able to compete with machines. Children should be taught “soft skills” like independent thinking, values and team-work. We should stop teaching knowledge.
There are two central problems with this argument:
- If we get rid of knowledge from education then what will these children be ‘independently thinking’ about?
- Aren’t schools investing quite a lot on teaching ‘soft-skills’ and values?
- (no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!) and also that it is such a blanket statement that it easily becomes the verbal equivalent of ‘click-bait’; easy on the ear and so factual: “it’s true because it rhymes”!
I know that this is a speech to reach a global audience and perhaps he is tipping the lance towards schools in developing countries and in China but I also think when you use blanket terms about schools, you need to be careful, especially when you are addressing the World Economic Forum.
However, my main contention is that this, while seemingly virtuous on the surface, is another way of imposing the corporate ideal on the individual; it’s a form of social propaganda aimed at dulling the very independent thinking he mentions. It’s also another packaging of the ‘future fallacy’: if we don’t know what the world will look like in thirty years, how can we possibly prepare students for it?
Let me explain. Coaching is a fashionable leaders’ tool in industry and now increasingly in school management structures. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of coaching generally; it can help to resolve issues in effective and non-confrontational ways. However, under the benign surface lurks a more malevolent force at work. Coaching might really be about altering behaviour to suit the ‘on message’ nature of an organistation that doesn’t really want independent creative thought but does require aquiescence or compliance. I think this is what is implied by the “soft skills” message of the speech.
Part of leadership is handling difficult conversations. While this is a useful skill for any leader, the problem is the assumption that anyone who disagrees, does things differently or who won’t ‘toe the line’, stay ‘on message’ or isn’t a personifcation of the organisational values, is being ‘difficult’ and needs to be changed. But. But, what if they are right? What if they are just being difficult because they feel unfairly treated or that they feel things are moving in the wrong direction. Well, perhaps all they need is some re-calibration!
On another, possibly more worrying level, what are these soft-skills? These values might well just be the kind of values that promote a drone culture of unknowing humans unthinkingly buying up Apple products, subscribing to the dulling effects of YouTube videos and blindly voting for Donald Trump or Brexit. Oh, hang on!
Brave New World!
I have the same reservations about Ma’s speech. Surely, knowledge is a good thing? The very machines that he is worried about were not invented by people without mechanical, mathematical or verbal knowledge. Independent thinking can only take place on the foundations of knowledge. It is only by knowing things that we can be creative in finding new ways around obstacles. That’s kind of what creativity is. For a useful insight into the ways in which we get duped by this kind of argument, read Pedagogy of the Opressed by Paulo Feirie.
I’m not talking about dropping the soft-skills but Mr. Ma is wrong on this; the problem will not be facing us in thirty years, it’s facing us now and probably has been facing humanity for ever. But it won’t be solved by making us more amenable workers; it will be worked at by experts with knowledge. It strikes me that the best way to do this is to teach knowledge as these are the foundations of values and thinking not a hindrance to them.