Richard Branson Wants to Limit Education

Richard Branson has thoughts about education. He’s undoubtedly a very successful man, and one with an interesting and fresh perspective on the topic, but I disagree with almost every single thing he suggests.

In brief, Branson wants simplicity and practicality in education. He suggests that students should take a gap year at age sixteen before deciding whether to enter higher education or not. He thinks that students should be educated in the basics of arithmatic only. He thinks that French should be scrapped in favour of Spanish, and that students should focus on modern history and “how big business works”.

Simplicity and practicality are obviously desirable goals, in education and in other spheres. But it’s very important to consider how those goals are to be achieved, and what that achievement looks like.

In the quest for practicality, I think Branson is suggesting a system which would dramatically limit the options of young people. A doctrine which states that “students should just learn the basics” is one that doesn’t allow, and doesn’t encourage, young people to truly learn. It doesn’t allow them to build off the sum total of human knowledge, because they only have access to the dregs of it.

Young people who are only taught the basics will struggle to go beyond the basics, because they won’t know that there is more to find. They won’t have the skills necessary to extend their understanding, and they’ll struggle to get them on their own. A minimalist, practical education does young people a disservice.

An education that focuses solely on basic skills is also not an interesting one. The interesting parts of learning aren’t the necessary, nitty-gritty foundations. They’re important, and required in order to access higher skills, but they don’t inspire. No one dedicates their life to science because of their lesson on lab safety. I like teaching punctuation, but it isn’t the most gripping topic.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

 – William Butler Yeats

And education needs to be inspiring. It needs to introduce new ideas and show young people wondrous things. Education has been presented as fire and light for thousands of years, from Prometheus and Pentecost to Yeats and this comic (which I’m rather attached to). It has to be a spark that lights a fire, pointing the way for students to explore and build upon their own knowledge. It has to catch students’ interests and help them realise that there is more to everything than the immediate and obvious.

Only through inspiring – through showing young people the possibilities that an education can bring – can we get innovation, and progress, and an entrepreneurial spirit. You can’t have people breaking new ground if they haven’t covered the old ground. You can’t have the creation of anything innovative and original if young people don’t possess the necessary skills and understanding to access and develop their ideas. You can’t expect anyone to engage in politics if their understanding of history is truncated and focused only on the most recent decades.

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”

– George Santayana

So I find Branson’s ideas limiting in two ways – practically and aspirationally. If we implemented his suggestions, then we’d end up with young people who weren’t able to innovate, and who didn’t even know that they could, or that they might want to.

Fundamentally, I think I disagree with Richard Branson about what education is for. He wants schools to produce workers, people whose education has been optimised for the workplace. Drones. His comments in the linked article and this article – “How do you prepare young people for the world of work?” –  on the Virgin Disruptors website (which purports to be “the future of education”) make that clear. Young people are to be prepared for employment, taught only languages which are likely to be useful in that arena. For Branson and for Virgin, education is about being able to perform well in a job – to know enough, but not too much. Anything not required for the workplace is a distraction – “you don’t need to learn much more”.

That’s not what an education is for. Education isn’t, and should not be, just about money. Our ambitions for students shouldn’t stop at employment. Yes, it should teach students basic skills, but it should also teach them advanced ones. Young people’s education should also have cultural and moral elements, introducing them to new perspectives and enabling them to take a full part in society. Education should open doors, and not just the ones to the cubicle farm.

No one is denying that young people need to learn basic, fundamental skills. Of course they do, and it should be a priority in schools. But those basic skills aren’t the only thing they should learn. Their learning needs to open up new opportunities and help them find ideas that they are enthusiastic about. The bare minimum necessary to be a worker isn’t good enough.

Richard Branson apparently thinks that “above all, kids should be inspired by the world around them”. But everything he suggests would work against that.

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