If our education decides our future, what happens to upward mobility and equal opportunity?


A democracy depends on citizens knowing what they are voting for, otherwise the X is as rationally placed as a bet on a roulette wheel. Many politicians this year are betting on “truthiness” – a polarizing platform of gut feelings over facts. “I love the uneducated!” crowed U.S. nominee Donald Trump at a recent rally, a sentiment echoed by Michael Gove, whose winning Brexit campaign was based on a blatant lie. “People in this country have had enough of experts,” he scoffed. In Austria, the presidential candidate Norbert Hofer campaigns with the meaningless platitude, “I will give you your Austria back.” “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance,” quipped Goethe. Without facts, experts or educated debate, how are we supposed to make the best decisions for our future?

“Sometimes – when I am tired of imagining Sisyphus as happy – I would rather vote for good politics than for good education,”sighed Dr. Patricia Hladschik, bringing citizenship education to Austrian classrooms as Managing Director of the Zentrum polis at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights in Vienna. “Of course we can also hope for good education that leads to changes in politics, but we could make faster progress the other way round. The best education doesn’t help if we keep living in a divided society where many people feel powerless.”

Decline of the great equalizer

For parents and students struggling to obtain an affordable and useful education, choosing whether to go private or public is rife with economic, social and cultural implications. Public education is good for society, and the only option available to the vast majority. But in our global, highly competitive, post-financial crisis market, many are lured by the expensive educational arms race: Over-qualifying themselves with useful skills but having no guaranteed future.

A 2016 McKinsey report describes most degrees as bad investments, with poor return over a lifetime. Privately educated students at top “name-brand” institutions earn an average of €900,000 more over the course of their lives. A Russian oligarch’s son attends Eton at a cost of €35,000 a year and graduates after seven years as a proper English gentleman. This form of laundering is not open to the average person. The Guardian noted that the majority of the U.K.’s medals at the recent Olympics were won by privately educated athletes – no surprise considering the vast superiority in resources like playing fields and music equipment of private institutions.

Jonathan Tirone, the son of American public educators, moved to Vienna 13 years ago with his Austrian partner. When it came time to enroll their son, they enthusiastically signed on to the city’s bilingual education system. But then reality hit: “We recognized that for public schooling to work, it needs participation from the full spectrum of society,” said Tirone, who himself experienced the insides of public and private institutions. “But after three years it was clear we’d made the wrong choice. Our son’s weight ballooned after sitting in cramped quarters all day. Poorly-staffed classrooms relied on punishment and guilt to teach behavior.”

Tirone is not alone in his sentiments. Sir Ken Robinson, an educator whose lectures have been viewed online over 25 million times, speaks about the “systematic” destruction of children’s imagination by schooling. In the 2013 film Alphabet, directed by the Austrian filmmaker Erwin Wagenhofer, a German schoolgirl confirms forlornly, “Something must have gone wrong. School takes the most important thing I own: my childhood.”

Education as a means of training each generation to avoid annihilating one another has been with us since Neanderthals shared mammoth hunting tips. Each successive era developed the kind of education it thought it needed. For the Greeks, Plato extolled the nobility of “the study of what man is and of what life he should live,” albeit limited to the upper classes. Our current public education system derives from the industrial age, when political theorists saw a clear economic and social benefit in funding the standardized learning and strictly controlled behavior of the mid-19th century Prussian “factory model.” “For a very small expense,” wrote Adam Smith, “the public… can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people, the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education.”

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© OECD – Education at a Glance 2015
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© OECD – Education at a Glance 2015

Post-WWII, the education debate focused more sharply on questions of equality and quality, with politicians and TV personalities alike trashing initiatives to standardize education, such as the U.S. “Common Core” program that critics say places too much emphasis on badly phrased tests.

Even several years later, with his son now flourishing at the Vienna International School, Tirone has stayed up to date with Austria’s national debate around public education and can tick off reforms he’d make: “More teaching young kids how to self-organize and collaborate; more physical activity during the school day; healthier food. Random busywork and rote memorization may help teachers to track but they’re soul-destroying for young learners whose innate curiosity often finds no satisfaction in school.”

Parents unable to opt out are stuck in the public system, for better or worse. Has the “great equalizer” failed in its promise to offer everyone an equal chance to succeed? And if so, how can one fix it?

Broken Promises

The road to funding public education worldwide is paved with good intentions. Only two European countries out of 164 will meet the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring (GEM) commission’s lofty goal of “Education for All” by 2030. “There is a huge gap in all of our societies,” says Hladschik. “Those who have the resources get everything: the skills required for economic success, as well as artistic skills or personal or political empowerment. And on the other hand, the number of people who can no longer afford good education for their children is increasing. There is an urgent need for governments to guarantee equal access to good education.”

By 2030, half of the world’s 1.6 billion children will not get full schooling. We are €27 billion short to reach the UNESCO target, according to former U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown, now heading the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. “This is the civil rights struggle of our generation. These young children denied an education will be a source of massive discontent in years to come.”

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© OECD – Education at a Glance 2015

Austria, with over 60% of net private household wealth concentrated among the richest 10% (the second highest level of wealth concentration among 18 OECD countries after the United States), invests just 4.9% of its GDP in primary to tertiary educational institutions, below the OECD average of 5.3%. The U.S. and the U.K. invest around 6.3%. One in five children in the U.K. and Austria failed basic skills testing. The U.S. did even worse. The table’s top five was dominated by Asian nations. Sobering for Westerners is the report’s conclusion that lower basic skills have a negative impact on their GDP by as much as 3.5%. Adam Smith must be turning in his grave.

Austria has a long-standing tradition of publicly funded education. Its national constitution promises “a maximum level of educational attainment independent of an individual’s family background, origin or social situation and to prepare students to contribute to society’s economic and cultural life.” Esther Lurf, the educational policy consultant to the Green Party confirms, “Austria’s system offers chances and provides good education, but it’s still stuck in the last century. It’s characterized by a very complex legal framework and a vast number of players in politics and administration, which makes it hard to make substantial reforms.” Hladschik put it more strongly: “We have been depriving many children of their right to the best education for decades.”

The system is complex, as shown by the parliamentary report’s flowchart depicting primary and secondary education. Streaming children begins at 10. “How can we know at age 10 what the child’s real potential is?” asks Lurf, herself the beneficiary of parents who pushed her to surpass their educational level. Only 21% of young adults in Austria have attained higher educational qualifications than their parents, one of the lowest rates of upward educational mobility across OECD countries. Vocational training, which in Austria can begin at age 15, now accounts for around 80% of all students, compared with just 40% in the U.K.

Parents with gifted children often lose the opportunity to move up to the better stream if mediocre or poorly performing children have already filled up the spaces. Parents who know how to “game” the system, or have the right power and connections, can ensure a place at a renowned “good” public school. “This increases social divides, something which Austria works hard to prevent. The City of Vienna encourages mixed housing, with different social groups in the same building.” But as she notes, if you have the time and the mobility, you can choose to put your child in a school in a nice area, away from areas you think are too poor or have too many immigrants. “We have to work on equity. Even though the majority of schools in Austria are publicly funded, it makes a huge difference if one’s parents are well-educated or struggle with low income. We need a unified system.”

Tirone points out the disadvantage of the half-day schedule. “It is the relic of an age when one parent was expected to be at home. We both work. Picking our son up at 12:30 p.m. every afternoon wasn’t an option. That left us with a Hort (after-school care club), a badly ventilated schoolroom supervised by overwhelmed staff. The school and the Hort were managed by different entities that didn’t communicate. A child’s welfare seemed to be an after thought.”

The value of happiness

The educator Rudolf Steiner wrote in 1923: “Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility – these three forces are the very nerve of education.” This is impossible to achieve when our concept of education is stuck in Prussian workhouse mode.

Developing school with excellent resources in less desirable areas, which will also attract children of different social backgrounds is a priority for the Greens. “This is essential for a child’s social skills, which are important for future work,” says Lurf. “Knowing how to shake someone’s hand. For immigrant kids even more so.”

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© Photo: Andrew Standen-Raz

Tirone’s son blossomed in an environment that allowed more creativity. “It was quite literally like a weight being lifted from him. His body physically regained the form he’d had before entering the public system. Now we’re learning math and science together by engaging in real-world issues, like global warming or the carbon cycle.” Smaller classes and more teachers meant more time devoted to each child, something many public schools say they can’t afford. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program, founded in 1868, even includes a mandatory philosophy unit in the last two years. “The school works because it fosters a wider community that’s involved.”

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© OECD – Education at a Glance 2015

Bhutan’s change in 1972 from assessing its wealth in terms of GDP to GNH – the Gross National Happiness index – promoted valuing psychological well-being, community belonging, and cultural diversity over economic worth. This concept alone could make a great difference in children’s success rates: The International Joint Action on Mental Health estimates 20% of children will suffer serious well-being issues. The Finnish Board of Education’s stress on the “joy of learning” has proven benefits: Play-based learning predicts problem solving abilities better than reading and maths. Universal accessibility at later stages of life has positive effects too. Harvard’s Mass Open Online Course (MOOC) “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” connected 100,000 virtual strangers to debate “wicked problems” like the use of torture. Applying the Socratic method to find consensus across all borders of nationality, ethnicity, age and social background, the course encouraged empathy and cooperation rather than competition. Students, assisted by sophisticated gamification, developed an addiction to learning: Years later, discussion boards for “Justice” are still active. Ignorance is not bliss. As Oscar Wilde noted, “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.” Developing critical faculties and not what Timothy Leary called “brains dressed up with nowhere to go,” should be our education priority. “Thinking is fun!” Hladschik laughs. “It’s not painful. We just need patience. Those offering simple solutions are wrong. Complex issues require time.”A level playing field

Complaining about public education is a first-world problem. “In some parts of the world, students are going to school every day,” said Pakistani campaigner Malala Yousafzai poignantly. “We are starving for education… It’s like a diamond.” Blame is too easy to assign to any single stakeholder, like underpaid and overworked public school teachers who cope with classes far larger than those in private schools.

Education doesn’t guarantee that we will be nicer citizens, but it can be more than a tool, as Wagenhofer noted, “to condition us to the world.” A 1970s public education campaign to encourage more “at-risk youth” to attend college reminded them that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Through improving how we think, we can turn protest into problem solving, and avoid the mistakes of the past as we vote this year. Spreading quality education to combat the “ticking time-bomb” of inequality, intolerance and terrorism, will prove the pen is mightier than the sword. “Good laws, good education and a good standard of living – not only for the few but for as many people as possible – are three essential pillars for living together peacefully,” smiles Hladschik. “How can we not afford it? You couldn’t find any project with a better return on investment, could you?”

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Following studies in Anthropology at UCL, Film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Law at Loyola, Andrew worked for Miramax Films, 20th Century Fox Studios, and won two awards as a public relations counsel at Ruder Finn. After seeing the US political system from the inside while working for the VOA at a Democratic & a Republican political convention, Andrew returned to Europe to make documentary films, including "Vinyl: Tales from the Vienna Underground", which premiered at Karlovy Vary. He is currently curating for a film festival, developing new film projects, and developing an organic food app