The domineering ways of the nanny state and the inadequacies of the traditional version of a liberal education are two of the running themes in Richard Pring's penetrating review of recent changes in this country's initial education and training system. He critiques the vocationalisation of the curriculum in schools, colleges and universities. He shows how we can avoid damaging dualisms between theory and practice and between the intrinsically worthwhile and the useful.
But he then goes beyond this to argue that the gravest challenge to liberal education is the subversion of the institutional arrangements through which standards used to be defined as part of an open and public conversation about values.
The critique of contemporary arrangements for the control of what young people learn and how it is assessed (the national curriculum, national vocational qualifications and all that) is devastating and almost invariably well-balanced and informed. But the heart of the book is a nontechnical philosophical scrutiny of traditional liberal education, an evaluation of the changing relation between school and the world of work and of the proper role of vocational training, and a revised version of liberal education.
Pring argues that its shameful disdain for the practical, its disconnection from the economic base and its neglect of less able learners disfigured the traditional idea of a liberal education. But he utterly rejects the idea of reducing what is valuable to what is useful.
In arguing that the vocationally useful can be taught in an educational and liberating way the only point he seems to miss follows from a slight tendency to exaggerate the influence of formal education and training relative to what is learned in the family, at work and in the community.
The way of the world at work is on Pring's side. For most of this century, Taylorist work organisation in advanced industrial economies prescribed a radical separation of thinking from doing. Now, increasingly, the reorganisation of work is characterised not simply by a fusion of thinking with doing, but by a fusion of thinking and doing with learning.
While sorting the wheat from the chaff of recent developments Pring identifies the real merits of the national curriculum as well as its serious failings. He uses sociology to throw light on the evolution of the curriculum but argues that there are strict limits on talking about reality being socially constructed.
He shows how bizarre is the notion of organising all learning around the concept of competence when so many cognitive achievements and mental qualities -imagination, creativity and judgement - could never be reduced to a list of "can dos".
More constructively, Pring puts at the centre of any education the exploration of what is worth valuing and therefore the nature of the good life, questions far beyond the ken of vocational training. Instead of perpetuating the false dichotomy between intellectual excellence and economic usefulness, he focuses attention on the primary directive of education: what it is to be human and what needs to be done to learn to be so. It is within this agenda for a (revised) liberal education that he works out an important role for vocational preparation.
Inevitably, within this more generous and useful liberal education, learning will not be limited to the acquisition of measurable behaviours, understanding and knowledge reduced to implied components of competences and educators turned into technicians.
Many of the author's messages resonate within universities, especially but not exclusively in the professional schools and among the successors to Enterprise in Higher Education units.
Although the concepts of education and training are different, the same activity can be both educational and useful training. Pring points out that skills training is not in opposition to understanding, but is often a precondition of it. Universities train doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers, but that experience can be educational. It is the author's achievement that he spells out so convincingly what this really means.
The usefulness of this book is doubled because the author writes without footnotes in a direct and often elegant style which will be as accessible to employers, parents and politicians - the gainers from the new balance of power - as it will be to the losers, professional educators. Indeed, if the nonprofessionals wanted a single set book on fundamental issues in modern education this would be a strong contender.
Keith Drake is adviser to the vice-chancellor on external initiatives, University of Manchester.
Closing the Gap: Liberal Education and Vocational Preparation
Author - Richard A. Pring
ISBN - 0 340 64409
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Price - £14.99
Pages - 204