It’s too black and white. Too partisan. To ask such a question almost pleads for correction or complexion or at the very least a cough of polite disagreement. This week I posted something to twitter that was retweeted more times than any other 140 character message I had put out there.

Tweet from last week which sparked a fair bit of discussion.
Tweet from last week which sparked a fair bit of discussion.

It came from one of the many bubbling pools of thought in my mind, originating with Sir Ken Robinson (and others, including the Australian Government getting on the bandwagon) that we need a learning “revolution” in order to end the education-industrial complex we have built for ourselves and on which so much of our national knowledge and social infrastructure is based.

The premise for a learning revolution is quite simple, as is the case for many revolutions of the past: the status quo no longer serves the people it is meant to, nor is it possible to change the structure without significant shifts in power, resources and mindsets. This is resisted by those in power – especially when money is involved – and seen as something harmful to society as a whole.

The idea of revolution is supported by those who find no solace or progress in the structure as it is. Whether it is a political system, an economic environment or social norms, an individual or group is a voiceless outcast despite contributing to it with part or all of their lives.

The main trouble I have with the idea of a learning revolution is not the imagery conjured of my paternal ancestors storming the Bastille or the overthrowing of an anachronistic autocrat in St Petersberg, both of which proved symbols for modernism and the throwing off of medieval age power structures. The problem I have with the concept of a learning revolution is, as so very briefly (and probably naively) listed in my little tweet is that with every revolution is an undercurrent or overtly acceptable level of violence and destruction which, at the time, is believed necessary towards the status quo in order to achieve the new stage of history. To draw on a personal example, our family history ends precisely at the moment when Jacobean radicals burnt the church records in our home town in the north of France. It may not have been a history we want to read, but it should have remained for this very fact that we can learn from the past without needing to erase it.

On a quick Flickr search, I found this. How appropriate! By Phil Balchin.
On a quick Flickr search, I found this. How appropriate! By Phil Balchin.

This doesn’t fit with what I foresee as the future of learning. We need to respect some of the people, processes and perspectives of the past even if we overturn or adapt most of these to new contexts. We cannot do what so many revolutionaries do and give in to our more radical urges to completely purge ourselves of the past.

On a purely practical note, calls for a learning revolution have been sounded for at least 10 years, in some cases a generation, in others such as John Dewey well over a century. This is a significant lack of progress in any sense of a revolutionary timeline. I call this a neverlution rather than a revolution.

Just as some elements of revolution don’t fit, neither does the analogy of the Renaissance perfectly gel with what I want either. My historically minded colleagues were quick to remind me of the failings of the Renaissance (e.g. that it was for the elite and limited in scope – which, on a nerdy historical point is what some argue the American Revolution boiled down to). However, if I had the ability to flip the coin between revolution and renaissance and choose which side landed face up, I would choose Renaissance every time.

To me, the Renaissance drew on the genius of past times to liberate and expand the human experience well beyond anything that had come before. Perhaps ironically, this led to revolutions and conflict, especially in the case of the invention of the printing press and the mass spreading of ideas (quite often used as a comparison to the Internet today), but the creativity and inspiration that drove so much of the Renaissance is precisely the aim that Sir Ken and others espouse.

We still live with both the pain produced by revolutions and the light produced by the renaissance. Both, I suppose, have their place, depending on how desperate one is and how political one’s aims.

During a revolution, people must focus on war and conflict, on “them” and “us”, on violent competition. During a renaissance, we must focus on creativity, beauty, community and collaboration. A 21st century renaissance would surely not be by or for the elite, for we are living in a time where everyone has a printing press, a Da Vinci studio and a well-resourced university in the palm of their hands.

So let’s shrug off the blood-stained overcoat of revolution and don instead the paint-stained apron of renaissance, and get to making the future. What do you think?