Towards laying the foundations for education policy in the 21st century (Part 1)

I should like to begin by thanking the organizers of this seminar for the opportunity of returning to the subject of education. I have dedicated almost eleven years of my political career -from 1982 to 1993- to the exciting task of working on reform of the Spanish education system. In 1993 Felipe González cut short my happiness, transferred me to the Ministry of the Presidency and made me work in media relations. My hair went grey and continued to fall out and my alopecia progressed in leaps and bounds. Before I begin in earnest, I should warn you that I may well get a little carried away with this subject at times as a result of my excessively detailed knowledge of the state of education in my country, in which case I apologize for that here and now. My speech will give an outline of the state in which education finds itself at present, before going on to list ten principles which I see as fundamental to the education policy we require in the 21st century.
Education might best be compared to landscapes, insofar as in each country its form differs, it has been fashioned over many years, and has its own peculiarities. Although I intend them to be of a general nature, some of the aspects I shall be touching upon could not be applied with ease to each and every education system around the world. Nevertheless, in my view they remain broad outlines which serve as a starting point for discussion.

I think you will agree with me that analyses of the current situation have thrown up very similar perceptions. The deep-seated changes we are now experiencing have introduced a prevailing sense of malaise and confusion into our societies. There are those who believe, wrongly, that the world has undergone great and, more to the point, sudden change. They associate this change with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which has come to represent the close of an era throughout which blocs stood opposed to one another, the cold war set in, the threat of a nuclear holocaust loomed, and ideologies clashed. Taking their lead from Fukuyama, they attempted to turn the page of history, hastily proclaiming that history itself had come to an end with the imposition of one of the two models of society which had once been in direct confrontation. The truth is that the world does not change merely because the Soviet Union breaks up, because German reunification takes place, because new conflicts (which are, indeed, old) emerge, or because a new international order is decreed. In fact, we have probably seen more historic events occur in the world since the end of history was decreed than in recent decades. No one in their right mind would deny the relevance of the events I have described above. Yet, at the same time, the radical and lasting changes that have been emerging over the past two decades will be far more difficult to reverse than those which the fall of the Berlin Wall might have produced.

I shall examine those changes very briefly, for they form the context within which education policies must be defined. Take, for instance, developments in communications, which, whilst ushering in the global village on the one hand, provoke trends towards the uniform, the banal, and a certain cultural anomie on the other. Or advances in the field of genetics, whereby production can be increased, illness prevented and reproduction revolutionized. Or the emergence of information technologies, whose influence extends right across all production processes and which are at the root of new means of organizing labour. Or the danger that the lifestyle led by most is jeopardizing the conservation of the natural environment and the respect for our surroundings, including recognition of the need to safeguard vital resources. Or longer life expectancy and its many different ramifications vis-à-vis the structure of society and its rules. Or greater plurality and widening gaps in society, with the emergence of new forms of exclusion, many of them linked to knowledge. Or migration levels and the increasing emergence of cultural mosaics, or what have been termed mixed-race cultures. Or, finally, the resurgence of irrational dogmas and trends. These extremely significant changes have engendered a crisis in traditional values. It is true to say that in today’s world a good many absolute certainties and unassailable principles have been called into question. We are no longer certain even of our most dependable secular alternative, namely our faith in progress.

As we seek out certainties, we trust that education will act as it always has done, that is to say that it will shape human beings, make it possible to introduce mature individuals into society, and prepare them for working life. These are three functions which education is called upon to perform in a dramatically changing world. The first of them – turning out mature human beings – has undoubtedly become more complicated than it was in the past, bearing in mind that as standards in education have been raised, so targets have become considerably more diverse. Extending and broadening studies makes pupils a more heterogeneous group, and helps them achieve in more areas. Alongside all this we see that inefficiencies in educational systems drawing upon excessively uniform criteria are worsening, thereby indicating the need for greater diversity and a more personal approach to education. I shall return to this matter later.