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Society needs a ‘new abnormal’: time to shake up the social contract

I see two movements that have contributed to the current malaise: the creeping ascendance of training over education and the misapplication of post-modernism. Professor of Philosophy Peter Rickman makes clear the distinction between the former. He writes “If my daughter told me she was getting sex education in school I’d be pleased. If she told me she got sex training I’d go straight to the police.”. Education to paraphrase his words, fosters the mind to think independently whereas training is about skill, learning and how to do things.

Training, well done, leads to certainty. We sign off on a tradesperson who we are certain can bake the cake, or make the window frame. Education, when done properly, should lead to doubt – and in the words of Oscar Wilde, the ability to play gracefully with ideas.

There has been a shift in society towards training and away from education. The emphasis on credentials, the demands of professional associations, and the competency movement dominate the design of a lot of not only training but also education.

Post-modernism, when abused, can encourage extremist scepticism where we are encouraged to doubt the existence of any form of reality beyond our own perception of it on the one hand; and to refuse to consider ideas in isolation from the behaviours and characteristics of their originators on the other.

Those that argue that everything is socially constructed have clearly never been thrown through the window of a vehicle in a head-on collision. We might not like the fact that accidents happen and glass can injure, but acting as though it is not a fact, if anything, makes it more likely to occur. And those suffering extreme privations are unlikely to be convinced that their experienced circumstances are nothing but a product of their thoughts.

This thinking leads to the idea that all thoughts and perceptions are equally valid. Any attempt to challenge those thoughts is characterised as some form of power or privilege in play. If someone challenges your world-view, rather than play with the ideas gracefully, you denounce the character and background of the challenger.


DissentCredit:Kerrie Leishman

Ironically, this can lead to a kind of mob rule, where certain ideas are sacrosanct and not open to challenge. This behaviour is found in workplaces too. Certain ideas, practices, or people are never to be challenged. Divergent thinking is frowned upon, and anything that goes against the orthodoxy is likely to invite a firestorm of character assassination.


I am not sure I want a “new normal”. I’d like to see a new abnormal: where we are all educated to play gracefully with ideas and out of that play will come new perspectives, novel solutions and more knowledge – which can then be transformed into training programs.

But as I said, I am not sure. Perhaps a little less certainty in these uncertain times is what we all need to embrace. As Peter Ustinov said, “certainty divides us, uncertainty unites us”.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy. Email to Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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