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Transforming the Unsustainable Cost of General Education


Transforming the Unsustainable Cost of General Education
Indicative human costs of general education
Varieties of general education
Possible transformative reframings of general education
Achieving effective presence in Afghanistan through strategic absence

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Produced on the occasion of a new review of the strategy of the multinational coalition in Afghanistan, notably in the light of the request by General Stanley A. McChrystal for an additional 40,000 troops.


The military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the latter, highlight valuable questions about the cost of general education and the time apparently required for useful results to be achieved. The learnings from these experiences raise even more valuable questions regarding any general global strategy encompassing the full spectrum of crises that characterize the times and the challenges of the 21st century. These would appear to merit urgent attention in the light of a previous argument (We Are on the Brink of Failure in Responding to Global Crises, 2009) which endeavours to makes use of Afghanistan as a strategic metaphor.

In a report by The Economist (The War in Afghanistan, 17 October 2009) with reference to the tours of commanders there, it is noted that: The Afghan conflict, it is often said, has not been an eight-year war, but eight one-year wars. The best initiatives, it is claimed, are too often dropped when the best commanders end their tours. It remains unclear whether the length of the educational tour is too short or whether there is a subsequent failure to integrate individual insights into collective military learning.

It might similarly be argued that an eight year military campaign has been of questionable effectiveness in general education of the public, whether in the USA or amongst its allies in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Given the declared ambition to "spread democracy" it is equally unclear how effective has been the programme of general education of the Afghan population or their neighbours -- especially in the light of the level of fraud in the democratic election extensively supported by the USA and its ISAF allies there.

The question explored here is the adequacy of the approach to general education and whether, as currently conceived, its costs are inherently undesirable or unsustainable. In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, it was argued that the inequality created by huge bankers salaries is a price worth paying for greater prosperity (Public must learn to 'tolerate the inequality' of bonuses, says Goldman Sachs vice-chairman, The Guardian, 22 October 2009). This is reminiscent of the tolerance expected by a US Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, when questioned on whether the sanctions against Iraq (killing more children than at Hiroshima) were appropriate. Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it." (We Think the Price is Worth It, Fair, 2001).

Of much greater interest however are the insights from the above of relevance to the challenge of generality in contrast with specificity -- in a global context. In that systemic context disciplines, development programmes, and strategic initiatives of any kind, are all essentially specialized in nature and indifferent to consequences beyond their focus. Claims of multidisciplinary approaches tend to be of a token nature or are revelatory of the asystemic manner in which they are conceived and implemented in practice. Major intergovernmentsal "systems", such as those of the United Nations or the European Union, are systemic only in an administrative sense with very little facility for inter-sectoral coordination on substantive matters (other than to mitigate budgetary competitiveness). There is little sense from within such systems of the relevance of preoccupations beyond their administrative mandates.

The mindset is reinforced within academic environments, fragmented as they are into "faculties" with little concern as to how disparate intellectual faculties call for cognitive integration -- again, other than in an administrative sense. "Interdisciplinarity" and "transdisciplinarity" are viewed with disdain. So-called "general studies" have not engendered the requisite cross-fertilization essential for appropriate global governance. The educational value of "management schools" and "schools of business administration" has notably been called into question by the implication of their graduates in engendering the financial crisis of 2008.

Outside such frameworks much is made of the need for appropriate leadership -- as the keystone to operational generality -- and many programmes are designed to that end, notably in military academies. But, as with the education of generals, it is quite unclear that leaders of the quality required for the foreseen challenges of global governance are emerging. Those that do emerge as national and international leaders are as likely to be suspected or indicted for malfeasance as not, as the case of Tony Blair has so admirably indicated (Urgent Need for Blair as President of Europe, 2009).

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