Why it's smart to be well-connected;Opinion

4th June 1999 at 01:00
I once wrote an article for The TES in which I tried to define the "learning society". I argued that it would be a society where the dry cleaner would say to you not, "Nice weather, isn't it?" but "Can I recommend the best Christian-metaphysical novel I've ever read?" You would say, "Thank you very much. I didn't know Ivan Klima had a new book out".

This was based on a real-life experience with my Turkish dry cleaner in Islington. My weekly visit is now a significant cultural event for me.

About a year ago I had found myself - accidentally - starring in a front-page report in the Guardian on the subject of ethics. The report had the striking (but wholly misleading) headline "Blair adviser proposes code of ethics to replace God". I had actually said that education should enable young people to grow up capable of making moral and ethical decisions for themselves. Needless to say a week of controversy ensued and my dry cleaner followed it in the media. When I went in, he said, "You've been in the news again". I said, "I know. You can't rely on the media to report anything accurately". "That's not your real problem," he insisted.

"What is then?" I asked, confused. "Your real problem," he said sombrely, "is that no one in this country understands Nietzsche". I'd been told. It may even be true.

Cut to a few months later. I'm in Australia sharing a cab with an American colleague as we travel from one conference to another. On the way I tell him the story of my Turkish dry cleaner and deliver the punchline. Instead of laughing, however, he asked: "What is Nietzsche?" At first I thought this was a clever philosophical enquiry. Then I realised it was simple ignorance. While I hesitated, the conversation took a new twist as the Aboriginal cab driver chipped in: "I've just been reading a bit of Nietzsche. The Twilight of the Idols is a remarkable book. Nietzsche was a leading German philosopher at the turn of the century", thus answering the American's question. "He's most famous for declaring that God is dead, but his influence is far more profound than that."

From there to the end of the ride we covered everything from medieval Muslim philosophy (on which our cab driver was an authority) to the prospects of two non-Australians ever understanding Aussie Rules Football (the answer is zero). I was left to reflect that my definition of a learning society was no longer adequate. There was more to it than cultured dry cleaners.

It would certainly need to take in cab drivers who fill you in on a millennium of philosophy for a start. And what could I say about Americans? That they ask good questions?

Then I found myself thinking about the latest word on everyone's lips. It suddenly occurred to me that the "learning society" had become a dated concept. It's all about "connectedness" now. Someone who had travelled in North Vietnam recently told me that even in remote villages where bicycles were the most advanced form of transport, there was nevertheless always a cyber cafe. We're all connected now and the pace of this revolution is frightening. Last week following the advertisements in The TES, to take one small example, our standards site received 160,000 hits.

So while my definition of a learning society is under review, I ought, at least, to have a shot at defining a connected society.

Here goes. It's when an ignorant British professor finishes a conversation with an Aboriginal cab driver in Melbourne by saying, "You should get in touch with this Turkish dry cleaner in Islington. You and he have got a lot in common, not least Nietzsche. Here's his e-mail address".

Then the American would probably say "Where's Islington?" The British professor would sigh and tell him to look it up on the World Wide Web.

Michael Barber is head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit. Website address:www.standards.dfee.gov.uk

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