in whose interests?

Every state and territory department of education in Australia states that it encourages corporate partnerships and other commercial arrangements with schools. It is not difficult to justify this if we view the purpose of education as being exclusively to obtain a job.

Militarism in our culture is not something that we think about often. When we don’t think about something, we don’t talk about it. When no one is talking about something, it has space to move around without anyone noticing or scrutinizing what it’s doing.

Recent rising tensions with China have caused some people to start talking about the way we view war, the military, and their roles in society. The way we frame these issues matters. Hawks will generally speak about war as if it is both necessary and inevitable. There will always be bad people out there, and thus the good guys will always eventually be called to fight the bad guys. This is noble and natural.

In a logical argument, this is a premise. It is something that is established at the outset and thus not up for debate. It is the starting point from which logical argument sets out. This is important because it sets boundaries on what is up for discussion. If we begin with the premise that war is essentially unavoidable, then the project becomes being on the right side of the war. Choosing which wars are “just” and which are “unjust” wars to fight.

From where do we get our premises? I argue that most of the time, they are culturally ingrained. No one really teaches us these things, we just infer them from our surroundings, things others say, ways others act, and our own unique set of experiences. Often, they are assumptions that we don’t even realise we are making, because we treat them as premises so their validity is not questioned.

This is why we often hear young people referred to as “impressionable”. They are still forming their set of premises. They have been on the planet for less time than older folks, so they simply have fewer experiences over-all from which to base assumptions. This means their world view is malleable during this stage of life. The clay from which they build their mental model of the world has not yet dried and set.

Having outlined my premise above (see what I did there) I now want to question the role of corporations within education. Every state and territory department of education in Australia states that it encourages corporate partnerships and other commercial arrangements with schools. It is not difficult to justify this if we view the purpose of education as being exclusively to obtain a job. Industry informs schools of what skills they need their workers to have, and schools deliver those skills to young people thus making them more “competitive” in the job market. I am not here to say that we shouldn’t be equipping young people with skills that will be relevant in their adulthood, in fact I intend to argue the opposite. I am however questioning whether that should be regarded as the sole purpose of education.

Given that high school is a crucial period in the development of one’s sense of self, and sense of relationship to the world – should education not be designed with this in mind? What assumptions about the world do we unknowingly leave in young people’s minds in our single-minded quest to get them employed? If we allow businesses to decide what skills are necessary and important, and design education around their needs, what do we NOT teach young people simply because businesses do not demand that they know about it?

Enter weapons companies. The Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW), released a report in which they identified more than twenty STEM education programs that are wholly or partly delivered through sponsorship from weapons companies. Some of these programs include students being taken on a tour of weapons company lab facilities. Some of them are designed for primary school children. In 2017, the NSW Government released a document that outlined their plans to grow the NSW defence industry. One their five “key strategy areas” identified in this document was [quote]. Five years later we have a proliferation of STEM programs being delivered via weapons company sponsorship.

Weapons companies, like all companies, exist to make profit. Any good or bad that they do is secondary to this imperative. Furthermore, our global economic system is designed around the premise of eternal growth so companies not only exist to make profit, but each and every year they are expected to make more profit than they did last year. If your company happens to make profit from selling weapons, then you must sell more and more weapons every year. In times where there are fewer wars, demand for weapons slumps. This might be bad for the shareholders and executives of Lockheed Martin, but I think we can all agree that it is net good for the world.

So, if our education system is taking cues from the weapons industry about what skills are necessary and important for young people to learn, we are actually prioritizing the need for weapons companies to make profit over the need for peace and stability in the world. We teach young people skills relevant to manufacturing lethality, and the moral frameworks to justify this manufacture.

Furthermore, we teach these moral frameworks implicitly and in a seemingly depoliticized context (i.e. science class). But questions of war are inherently political. They necessarily involve value judgements, something which science cannot inform when it is taught devoid of context. Nuclear physics, devoid of context, is apolitical. It’s application to bombing Japan in WWII, is absolutely and unavoidably political. But the ability to contextualise sciences and technologies is not demanded from graduates by industry, so there is no point in teaching it.

Lots of things which are valuable are not profitable, and lots of things which are profitable are not actually that valuable. I cite the incomprehensible volume of minions merchandise and the profits made from their sale as evidence for this claim. As a corollary, fire fighting is a socially valuable service, but it is not profitable which is why the government has not managed to privatise it.

Young people today stare down the barrel of an adulthood of precarity and instability. The world is becoming increasingly volatile and current trends will only intensify as the climate continues to collapse and loses the ability to provide ecosystem services. The global weapons industry stands to do very well for itself.

This means that the weapons industry has an interest in preparing young people for a future full of armed conflict, as this will secure it the greatest profits. It does not have an interest in equipping young people with a STEM education that might allow them to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, address income inequality to make the economy fairer, or avert famines caused by agricultural collapse. There is just no money in it. In fact, if you do anything that largely benefits poor people, there tends to be no money in it.

In NSW, this phenomenon which could be described as a conflict of interest, has been identified and certain industries are prohibited by Department policy from having commercial relationships of any kind with schools. Those industries are tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and “anything illegal”. So we have, as a society, already kind of identified that certain industries, which have certain sets of interests, simply have no place in schools. We are not comfortable with the Bundaberg polar bear, Ronald McDonald, or Joe Camel teaching our kids nothin’ about nothin’. But we are okay with Raytheon? A company whose missile struck a school bus full of children just like them – but in Yemen?

We need to examine the role of profit-driven corporations in education, and to do that, we need to examine the role of education in society. Education as it is lived is not just the transfer of knowledge and skills, but also the environment in which young people spend most of their time. Whether we like it or not, that environment shapes them – but what does it shape them into? Can we aim a little higher than simply “employable”?