Medical services, education, churches, and a variety of other institutions are experiencing a kind of existential crisis in the UK, and despite their obvious differences, there’s a common underlying cause for all of them.
Before the inevitable objection: yes of course the picture isn’t exactly the same everywhere: some places demonstrate the crisis much more distinctly than others, churches are an easy example, some have dwindled to next to nothing, others burst at the seams.
Across the board, proposed remedies abound, most of them involve resource, usually money, some of them seem to work, others demonstrably don’t – the same is true across the sectors.
What appears to be missing in some areas, perhaps most obviously the church, though, is a recognition that all of these institutions are dealing with the same set of problems. This set of problems arise from the fundamental paradigm shift from elite, through mass, to market. An easy way to demonstrate that shift is with education, even recently, education was very much something by and for the elite. That’s not to say that ‘ordinary’ people didn’t participate in education at all, of course they did. Ordinary people often learned to read and write, and some reaped the rewards of higher education to an extent, but fundamentally it was about the elite, they were the best educated, they had access to the best schools and the best universities. They had the capital (in all its various sorts).
With the era of industrialisation however, came a new need for mass education, and a new means of delivering it too – most notably it began to be made widely available free of charge. Slowly this filtered all the way through the education system, eventually becoming fulfilled only, I would say, in the second half of the 20th century. People like me, and others roughly categorised as Generation X, certainly experienced mass education, as did some of the Baby Boomers. But arguably, and this is a moot point I suppose, elite education was still phasing out for most of the 1960s, obviously it remains in pockets, as some private schools and ‘top tier’ universities demonstrate.
Mass education was very much seen as education for the common good, in part it was ideologically driven, just as the NHS was set up according to a common good ideology, and just as Bibles (long before) had begun to be made widely available in languages which could be read by the ordinary person, and eventually distributed free of charge. There was then a very rapid transition from mass education to marketised education, which is very much where we are now. Since the late 1980s in the UK, education has become branded and competitive, some providers appearing to lose a sense of the common good as they fight for market share and league table placement. In some places this is much more pronounced than others, you may have experienced it yourself.
In the same way other institutions have also transitioned from elite, to mass, to market. The mass era had everything to do with industrialisation, and much of what we did or do reflects that, even down to buildings that look like factories (as opposed to ‘elite’ era buildings which bore a resemblance to palaces or mansions). But while the transition into mass from elite took a long time to happen, and then worked its way though over a reasonably considerable period, the movement to market has happened with astonishing rapidity, leaving many confused and unable to keep up.
This movement too has been shaped by technology, in this case the birth and growth of the internet: all of a sudden choice is massively enhanced, and availability is entirely different. Our high street shops are dealing with the same issue, while they operate ‘as’ market, they are ill equipped to compete in a truly ‘marketised’ era, they struggle to compete with online competitors. Hence we see an increasing amount of ghost high streets, and empty shop fronts.
The other big factor of course has been a move towards a greater embrace, from Thatcher onwards, of neo-liberalism, and its prioritisation of the market. Education, healthcare, spirituality, all these things have become understood primarily as consumables, just as is the very act of shopping itself.
As institutions struggle to realise, accept and adapt to this, the existential crisis they experience (notwithstanding the individual differences) will certainly continue.
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