Education should make us anxious

This is my #500words for the Purpos/ed project:

Firstly I’d like to make it clear that I think the education system in the UK is excellent.

We hold education to be so important that we’ve made it a legal requirement to engage with it and to a large extent any failings in the system are a reflection of larger societal challenges. Education as a system is woven into these challenges but cannot solve them directly. After all we don’t appear to become less greedy and self-serving the more educated we get…

Much of the recent concerns around the sanctity of education are centred on Higher Education, a level so luxurious by global standards that our complaints look like the whining of the over-privileged.  It is a pity that it’s only when the cash stops flowing that we are suddenly keen to discuss what values we stand for. Ironically our debate in this sense has been economically driven.

My view is that education should make us anxious: anxious to discover new ways of understanding and influencing the world.  It should challenge our ways of seeing and force us to question our identities and our positions. Education should disrupt as much as it builds, ultimately teaching how to learn not what to learn. Individuals leaving formal education should be agile in their thinking and equipped with intellectual tools which broaden their choices. They should retain that anxiety and have an understanding of their incompleteness in a less than perfect world.

Ok, it’s easy for me to spout ideological niceties in a blog post so I will step down from my white-collar-Guardian-reading-degree-educated soap box for a moment and ground my thoughts.

Unfinished CC - Piano Piano!

Clearly if anyone is to survive the form of education I have described they will need a helping hand and a nurturing environment. What students want from the education system is generally structured, organised and goal orientated, in essence, ‘formal’.  And yet we understand that today’s students need to be agile, not relying solely on traditional institutional structures.  That sets an interesting challenge for institutional education. How do we provide rigorous structures, those protected ‘spaces’,  whilst equipping our students with the ability live-out the on-going process of being and becoming in a world of constant change ?


This is not a problem to solve but a tension that can be successfully negotiated given a shared understanding of purpose.  The shift towards a market place model of Higher Education has woken us from our stupor and forced us to reassess what we value. Both those who bring structure and those who seek to disrupt can have a common purpose in a system which rightly contains many opposing elements and, much like ourselves as learners, will never be complete.


13 thoughts on “Education should make us anxious

  1. Doug Belshaw Reply

    Thanks Dave! Really like the idea of education as enabling young people to navigate spaces – and you should *really* write that Digital Visitors/Residents book! 🙂

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  3. Steve Philp Reply

    I agree with your assertion that the UK education system is excellent. I think the balance between creativity and academic achievement has usually been a good one in this country. However I disagree with the notion that education should make us anxious – for many students their anxiety caused by societal factors inhibits their learning. I think I get what you mean – a kind of discomfort with the status quo that would motivate students to learn what is currently beyond them, but for me ‘anxiety’ is a word too far.

  4. David White (@daveowhite) Reply

    @Steve Anxious is a strong term but I think there is both good and bad anxiety. Bad anxiety is caused by a lack of structure such as not knowing what room your lecture is in or the criteria work is going to be assessed on. The Anxiety I’m alluding to could also be called curiosity – the impulse that makes us want to question norms and to discover new approaches.

  5. Frances Bell Reply

    Lovely post Dave. Got your priorities right on the privileged nature of HE.
    However would like to take issue on ‘anxious’ – I prefer the idea of ‘hunger’ – we are hungry to find answers to significant problems. Your other facet of anxiety is to me reflexivity – that we stand outside ourselves and look at how we interact with the world. Graduates with this facility could help make the world a better place – unlike some of the ‘successful’ w*nkers driven by self-interest and reward systems (who mentioned bankers?).

  6. David White (@daveowhite) Reply

    @frances Perhaps I’ve gone a bit hunter-gatherer in my use of anxious as a an emotion that drives us forward. 🙂

    It’s interesting that you use the work ‘successful’ in quotes. Current moves in HE will strengthen the perception that success and material gain are closely linked. It is a very immature approach for a ‘developed’ nation but then again ‘developed’ appears to mean ‘owns-a-lot-of stuff’ much of the time.

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  8. Andy Heath Reply


    as an educator and a human being for 58 years I think you have some ideas mixed up here. Education should make us curious and give us the tools to learn – you are right about that. But one of the things we learn is that anxiety and curiosity are not the same thing at all. Anxiety is NOT a necessary component of change – and its learning about life that leads us to know that – the young don’t know it, – they don’t need to – they can adapt easily to change – as can those who have learned that anxiety isn’t helpful. Its happiness that’s related to being able to learn – anxiety is a harmful process. Being critical, being happy, being aware and being socially well-adapted are all necessary to learning and are all products of learning. Anxiety is a red herring. Will there be change on a scale you advocate ? Yes. But lets reassure people and help them learn. If I ever created anxiety in any of my pupils or students then I failed. Education is about happiness not anxiety. Of course that requires many things, such as equality, lack of poverty and compassion for all. Anxiety doesn’t increase adaptability to change, it hinders it.

    So – nice to see your enthusiasm (keep it up) but I disagree about the emotional processes involved. Happiness is a better goal, and it *does* facilitate the things you want. And without “anxiety” we don’t need to “influence” to create change in people and organisations – it happens on its own.


  9. [...] “Education Will Make Us Anxious“. My brief presentation builds on this idea (which was take...
  10. Mira Reply

    This reminds me of Michael Sandel’s introductory lecture to the Justice series shown on the BBC in conjunction with the OU. Sandel issues a warning about political and personal risks arising from the unsettling effects of probing philosophical texts and making the everyday strange. “Once the familiar turns strange, it’s never quite the same again. Self-knowledge is like lost innocence; however unsettling you find it, it can never be unthought or unknown”. He then goes on to caution against expectations of becoming a more effective citizen, and warns about the potentially debilitating effects of moral philosophy.

    The effect of his caveat is like a surge of adrenaline – like the beginning of a quest. He is telling his students that they are intrepid and courageous. Brilliant.

  11. David White (@daveowhite) Reply

    @Mira Yes, noble courage that may one day overcome the anxiety (but probably won’t) Real learning is a risky business…

    @Andy I don’t mean to use anxiety in a wholly negative sense. My version of anxiety could be linked to curiosity. I refute the idea that happiness is the result of a life without care or concern though. I also disagree that change ‘happens on its own’ if so then why does positive change not come about ‘naturally’?

  12. Sue Beckingham Reply

    Ever read a great book and then been anxious to read the sequel and curious to know what happens next? Or understood why a young teenager will become anxious to read or listen to every report about his/her football team (for example), then be able to tell you in infinite detail where teams are placed in a league, the number of goals scored, the value of many a transfer fee, the tactics they would have deployed if they were either the Manager leading the team or on the field themselves and yet whilst clearly capable of absorbing knowledge, yet remain unengaged in school? I believe that it is because for this individual he/she has found a passion for learning and a purpose to know more and more about his/her chosen topic. Sadly for too many school is seen as an activity enforced upon them and clearly they cannot see the value or purpose. Learning has to have meaning in the context of today’s world, their world. They need to be shown how they can apply the skills they are being taught and what advantages they will bring in the real world. It is no different for those who move on to higher education and yet students continue to enter university with no idea as to why they are there, other than it was expected of them or they believe it will provide an easy passport to a higher paid job. Attending is a chore and assessment an irritation. Perhaps we should be asking them what the purpose of their continued education is? Are they making the right choices as young adults.

    We only need to ask ourselves what subjects we were most successful at, and they were most likely the ones that we were passionate about ourselves or where we were inspired by the teacher. Equally we will have more negative memories. To this day I cannot tell you what the purpose of trigonometry or algebra is, let alone do it, but I can vividly remember asking the question as I struggled in class and being told I didn’t need to know that, to stop asking questions and just get on with it. Fortunately it was only in maths I stopped asking questions…

  13. David White (@daveowhite) Reply

    @Sue I’m musing over this idea of anxiety, curiosity and passion being linked. I wonder if we only truly engage when there is the risk of loss or failure. I’m sure others have written about this with great perspicacity but I’m reflecting on my use of anxiety in the post and considering how it can be woven helix-like with notions of curiosity and passion. How to express this without sounding like a nineteenth century novelist? 🙂

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