The government’s counter-extremism Prevent strategy has come under serious criticism. Commentators say it risks intensifying the very extremism it is intended to “prevent”. Mounting evidence suggests that it is at best ineffective, at worst counter-productive. Surely, it is time seriously to re-think what effective educational responses to the rising tide of contemporary extremisms should be like.
Research confirming the validity of these criticisms comes from many sources. For example, a report from Coventry University, What the Prevent duty means for schools and colleges in England: An analysis of educationalists’ experiences describes:
- Uncertainty about, “even resistance to” the requirement for schools to discourage extremism by promoting “British Values”
- Considerable discomfort and uncertainty about the specifically British framing of these values and the resulting challenges for developing inclusive learning
- A “significant” lack of confidence felt by less experienced staff about implementing the policy
- Widespread and “in some cases very acute” concerns about Prevent’s stigmatisation of Muslim students
- Scepticism about the efficacy of Prevent, particularly among school leaders and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) educators.
Open Society’s October 2016 report Eroding Trust: the UK’s Prevent Counter-Extremism Strategy in Health and Education), outlines similar concerns.
These criticisms notwithstanding, there is no denying that we do indeed face a problem in that a disturbingly large number of young people are attracted to extremisms of different kinds, be they religious-fundamentalist, ultra-nationalist, or something else. Education clearly must play a role in countering extremism.
So, what would an alternative strategy look like?
Excessive focus over the past four decades on education primarily for employment and the economy has not only failed to create the desired social mobility, but also undermined the nurturing of critical thinking among pupils that is required if they are to identify, challenge and reject extremist narratives. The quality of education young people receive has become increasingly linked to parental wealth, both by the continuation of the privileged independent sector, as well as by increased student debt, reduced public support for schools and universities, and shrinking catchment areas of the best schools. School subjects that appear to have a clear employment or economic utility have been promoted at the expense of those which help inculcate critical thinking.
Against all this, education at all phases, from pre-school to post-doctoral, is now in urgent need of intellectual and financial support for a revival of liberal education revised and refurbished to meet the needs of individuals, communities and wider society in the twenty-first century.
In our new book Education and Extremisms: Rethinking Liberal Pedagogies for the Contemporary World (Routledge, 2018), we make a case for such an idea of liberal education, both as a response to the present concern about extremism, but also more broadly to resist the prevailing force of instrumentalist and neoliberal overshadowing of education.
A renewed focus on broadly-defined Humanities can help encourage students to develop their moral imaginations, critical thinking, effective communication across cultures, and the ability to understand and empathise with others – even those with whom they might be in profound disagreement. As the findings of Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog in their 2016 book Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education suggest, the Humanities can serve as a strong antidote to extremist ideologies.
The Humanities we propose are not merely a reprise of traditional syllabuses. Rather our vision is both cosmopolitan and inter-cultural, designed to open new aesthetic, ethical and philosophical vistas to become more global in their perspective, less Euro-centric, and truly inter-cultural, engaging creatively with new media, and a necessary concern for the environment.
We further emphasise a critical engagement with the “two cultures” dichotomy between Science and Technology on the one hand, and the Arts and Humanities on the other.
An economically instrumentalist approach to education has resulted in a worrying asymmetry between our economic and material capacities on the one hand, and on the other our moral and political ability to deploy these capacities for the common good. Our vision for a 21st-century liberal education would bring the sciences and technology and the arts and humanities into creative conversation.
Lastly, we emphasise the need for education to engage constructively with communities rather than being confined within educational institutions. We envision action-based engagement with communities, and critical truth-seeking outside of the classroom. Such engagement would go beyond mere “industry links”, extending to engagement with civil society and community organisations, particularly in communities facing social and economic disadvantage. This would help empower communities to deal with extremisms at grassroots level.
Historically, young people have always given powerful voice to both their ideals and their grievances. That now an increasing number of young people seem to be expressing their ideals and their grievances within frameworks provided by fundamentalist religious, ultra-nationalist and other extreme ideologies is a serious indictment of the state of UK education now.
Education is a necessary but not sufficient response to this situation. Society requires a comprehensive response based on renewed faith in a common good, social justice, equity and fairness.