“We are something like a great nation”: so translates, from French to English, a famous phrase of Québec’s first independentist leader, René Lévesque. He was making a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Durham Report, written by the Englishman Lord Durham, John George Lambton, who described Québec as a “small nation with no history and no literature”.
With that statement, Lévesque, this law school dropout – because he found the course too slow and boring – was saying to the people of his home nation, ‘We have the potential to be more than what we currently imagine ourselves to be.’ Lévesque is little known outside of his native Québec and Canada generally. Yet for those of us seeking self-determination for Wales he is someone with much to teach us.
Industrial Age to Internet Age
René Lévesque was a liberal and, in 1960, was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Québec as a Liberal Party member. Serving in government, he had a leading role in nationalising hydroelectricity and ensuring that the natural resources of Québec benefited those in Québec. He later left the Liberal Party to form the Parti Québécois, the first independentist political party in Québec.
But I believe his biggest impact on the lives of the people of Québec was his incessant love of knowledge. And a belief in the power of learning and education to drive his fellow citizens to greater heights.
The Welsh Government has begun to bring in reform of the curriculum, aiming to make the education our children receive more relevant to today’s realities. An education better suited to a world in which the internet, smartphones, and the increasing dominance of artificial intelligence reign. But do its reforms go far enough? I believe they do not.
We live in the most exciting and stimulating time in human history. In seconds we can pick up a smartphone and be on a video call with someone on the other side of the world. We can find out any number of detailed pieces of information, or make money, or create new things, all through a handheld device or a laptop.
Isn’t it madness, then, that we still use a model of education which was brought into existence over 150 years ago? A time when the industrialists of the British Empire needed children and workers with the ability to read and count but who would still obey the manager and the factory clock.
What is education for?
There was, and still is, an hierarchical structure for education, with the ‘elites’ in society paying to retain their influence. It is an educational system that continues to fail children, teachers, parents, governments, and our society itself. We drastically need to reconsider the purpose of education.
Wales is full of people with imaginative ambition. People who want to create something new. Cymru requires a very different approach to how our citizens gain the information and skills needed for future success. A major rethink is needed, about the types of capability and capacity that are required for the economy.
Our society is better served by:
- adopting an unambiguously international perspective to the economy;
- embracing immigration to fulfil skills gaps;
- understanding the opportunities of working with our European partners; and
- welcoming a fully egalitarian society through the structures of our educational system.
But it will be no good if Wales achieves economic advancement yet forgets itself. At its heart, education exists to imbue our citizens with a sense of cultural identity. As Wales opens itself to the world, everyone, whether born in Cymru or arrived from elsewhere, must have a sense of what it is to be a Welsh citizen. Core to this are a language, a sense of place, and a sense of self that are distinct from elsewhere on the British Isles.
A truly Welsh education
After a century of Westminster and Cardiff-based governments tinkering with the status quo, it seems only a fundamental change can deliver the necessary revolution in Wales’ education system. A sovereign Cymru would be the jolt needed to think anew about education.
Under our current educational structures, the concept of surpassing oneself and carrying this ethos through life has given way to that of subjecting the majority to the lowest common denominator and conformity. As Cymru moves towards its certain future as a global partner under its own name, let’s make sure that at the heart of that story is a revolution in the way our children – and adults – are taught.
Because, as René Lévesque once said, “Knowledge must be at the heart of our independence … creating ingenious policies which take traditional government by surprise.”