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Could Education Learn Something From the Brexit Vote?

27/07/2016 10:43 | Updated 27 July 2016

A referendum - such as Britain's recent EU vote - says a lot about how people reach decisions. Most striking is the correlation between how people voted and their overall level of education. Those educated to a higher level tended to be against leaving; those with lower education tended to vote in favour of leaving. But do not jump to conclusions: there is a bigger picture here.

Though politicians used a lot of confusing statistics and contradicting predictions in their speeches, overall, expert opinion favoured the Remain arguments. It seemed by far the more rational choice. But voting is not always done with the head: many will follow their heart.

Many people living in economically deprived areas that have received considerable funding from the European Union voted Leave - against their own immediate interests.
Why? Probably because it felt like the right thing to do. Their gut instinct overruled rational thinking.

This battle between head and heart, between reason and emotion, is a very common one. After the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the emergence of science, reasoning became the standard in education rather than belief - or worse, superstition. Analytical skills, logical thinking, and detachment from emotional influences gradually formed the basis of scientific progress, whilst emotion and sensitivity became the domain of the creative arts.

But things continue to move on - not just in academe. The introduction of the concept of fast and slow thinking was ground-breaking. This concept suggests that the mind of a human being has the ability to make split second judgments ('fast thinking'). For instance, it takes less than a few seconds to decide whether you trust or like someone. It takes even less time to decide on an action in a life-threatening situation, making fast thinking an essential survival tool.

Slow thinking is considering the pluses and minuses, taking a balanced view, and possibly correcting a first impression. It heavily depends on analytic skills and being able to take calculated risks. But there is a down side to this slow thinking: it can lead to indecisiveness, or reach the wrong conclusions with insufficient or excessive information. For instance, how much data do you need to trust someone? Hard facts might suggest someone is reliable, but your gut feeling may tell you that there is something wrong.

Head and heart do not always agree with each other. Some people might reach one conclusion with their head and yet still prefer to follow their heart, and vice versa.
Because head and heart do not always reach the same conclusion - and also because rationality cannot always give a definitive answer - some people argue that our education has moved too far in one direction.

In order to be successful in life, you need to develop your rational skills and be comfortable with your emotions. The strict separation between rational analytical skills and irrational creative thinking might hamper the all-round development of individuals. We should not assume, it is argued, that the rational conclusion is by definition more valid than a gut feeling.

For instance, when it comes to buying a house or a car, many of us will have felt that internal battle between heart and head. When we plan an investment we will rely more on our analytical skills; when selecting our life partner and friends, we act by the heart. It also seems that with advancing years we often become more relaxed, happily - or perhaps lazily - following our gut feeling rather than making a rational assessment. This might also explain the divide between younger and older voters in the EU referendum.

When it comes to the outcome of the referendum, there are strong views on whether the outcome was right or wrong. But when it comes to decision making in general, the conclusion is less obvious.
The argument that education should make a more relaxed divide between the scientific approach and creative arts, embracing both rationality and emotion, is worth serious consideration.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is Rector and Chief Executive at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) and Chief Academic Officer of Global University Systems (GUS).

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