Surprisingly often, I am asked to justify why the government should continue to pay for post-secondary education. Knowing that anyone who would ask such a question likely won’t be swayed by principled arguments, I usually cite evidence of the economic benefits that an educated workforce confers upon society as a whole, and stress that merit, not privilege, should dictate the composition of that workforce.
As of today, I will respond to the question differently. From this point on, I will insist that a well-funded system of higher education is a society’s only protection against being led to war by cabals of incompetent oligarchs who are so corrupted by their own power that they deserve to be physically ejected from office.
Why do I say this, and why now? Because of the release of this classified memo, which was obtained by the New York Times and which proves, as did the Downing Street memo before it, that the Bush and Blair administrations were determined to wage war on Iraq regardless of whether it possessed weapons of mass destruction. Worse, the memo confirms that the two leaders seriously discussed provoking Iraq into a military conflict that would follow a preset timetable, and which, they claimed, would carry no future risk of internecine struggle.
Is this the jaw-dropping scoop that it first appears to be? No, not really. Although the details contained in the memo are, arguably, new, the possibility that the war against Iraq was based on an agenda that had little to do with terrorism, Al-Qaeda, or democracy should have been obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of recent history. Which is to say, it should have been obvious to anyone who had taken the time to read a few newspaper articles, or to watch a single television documentary, during the twelve-year interval between the first and second Iraq wars.
Education policy, like geopolitics, is fundamentally market-driven, and as a result the current trend is geared toward encouraging post-secondary training in science and technology (China, remember?) at the expense of the humanities and social sciences. However, a strictly science-based education will do nothing to expand a student’s knowledge of history, politics, or philosophy, and it certainly won’t provide them with the critical skills that informed citizens need to evaluate media discourses or political rhetoric of any stripe. How marvellously convenient.
Nevertheless, the consequences of this approach to both education and the world are palpably real, and will, in time, be felt by every single one of us. Flawed energy policies, skyrocketing oil prices, historic levels of government debt, to say nothing of simmering ideological conflicts that will be with us for generations to come, are all actual or potential effects of the present situation. Even if we presume to have no motivation other than radical self-interest, we are plainly shooting ourselves in the foot.
However, if we assume that we are also guided by some shred of humanitarian principle, then the present situation becomes completely unconscionable. It has to be said: we are, all of us, complicit in the deaths of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of our fellow human beings. These human beings are American, British, Polish, Pakistani, Afghan, but of course they are disproportionately Iraqi, and they have died and are still dying because we who are not Iraqi have given our governments license to kill them. Honestly, how many memos does it fucking take?
So yes, governments should pay for the education of their citizens, if for no other reason than because they clearly cannot be trusted to think on our behalf. And if we believe that a few dollars in tax cuts are more important than this, then we will get exactly the governments we deserve.