Why disparity begins at school

Chomsky on MisEducation - The Inspectors' Calling
June 1, 2001

When I first came across Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, his writings on language made an enormous impression on me. Since then, Chomsky has become a powerful international figure, arguing passionately for what he sees as democracy. Donald Macedo's collection of Chomsky's conversations and lectures focuses on the roles and interactions of the privileged, highly educated elite who run our affairs and shape our thinking, and what Walter Lippmann has called "the bewildered herd". Chomsky states that members of this herd, the vast majority of society, are permitted from time to time, in an election, to choose a leader from the elite, but if they subsequently seek to query the status quo or the decisions made by them, the latter proclaims a "crisis of democracy".

The process of distinguishing the small elite from the unthinking mass is cultivated through the education system, he argues, a point that emerges clearly from a conversation between Chomsky and the book's editor. Macedo: "I was intrigued some years back by a 12-year-old student at Boston Latin School, David Spitzer, who faced disciplinary action for his refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which he considered 'a hypocritical exhortation to patriotism', in that there is not 'liberty and justice for all'. The question I want to ask you is why a 12-year-old boy could readily see through the hypocrisy in the Pledge of Allegiance, while his teacher and administrators could not?" Chomsky: "This is not hard to understand. What you just described is a sign of the deep level of indoctrination that takes place in our schools, making an educated person unable to understand elementary thoughts that any 12-year-old can understand... Far from creating independent thinkers, schools have always, throughout history, played an institutional role in a system of control and coercion."

Chomsky's thinking is strongly influenced by John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, seeing education as the production of free human beings, creating what Russell called "wise citizens of a free community". Indeed, the first essay, which is adapted from a lecture (1994), has the title "Democracy and education", one of Dewey's central concerns.

Other topics include "The craft of historical engineering" (reproduced from Necessary Illusions ) and "Market democracy in a neoliberal order". The last part of the book, "Unmasking a pedagogy of lies", is an acrimonious televised debate during the Reagan administration about the role of the United States in Central America, with John Silber, president of Boston University and a member of the Kissinger committee. Chomsky, the critic, confronts Silber the government adviser in what is not exactly a meeting of minds.

Anyone expecting a critique of education based on observations about everyday school life would be disappointed. The book is more about politics than classroom processes. It is an angry denouncement of US foreign and domestic policy, accusing politicians of abusing human rights. While thoroughly and passionately argued, it makes an uncomfortable read, for though the events of the last years of the 20th century are beginning to be dated, the issues themselves have not gone away.

The book requires a large leap, therefore, from the political to the educational arena.With the requirement that secondary schools, from 2002, must teach "citizenship", this political critique certainly challenges, more than many diatribes, conventional thinking about purposes and practices in education.

For more than 150 years, Her Majesty's Inspectorate was regarded as the independent watchdog in United Kingdom schools. Stuart Maclure, former editor of The Times Educational Supplement , has compiled a most impressive history of it, from the seminal 1944 Education Act to 1992 when school inspection was taken over by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).

Founded in 1839 as the body that would check how schools spent public money, HM Inspectors became known as the "eyes and ears" of the education ministry, people with professional insight who would keep civil servants and politicians informed about education in thousands of primary and secondary schools.

The Inspectors' Calling is in four parts, telling the history of the last half century of HMI's existence. First comes the reconstruction and reorganisation of schools after the second world war, 1945-70, when secondary education became free and available to all, when comprehensive schools began to appear and inspectors were powerful figures, both individually and collectively.

Next is the beginning of a reaction to the cosy status quo, from 1970-76, starting with Margaret Thatcher as minister, and ending with James Callaghan's Ruskin College speech, initiating a "great debate" about education in the only keynote speech he ever made on the subject. This was followed by the 1977-86 decade, wresting away any say over the curriculum by HMI, as Keith Joseph began to think radically about education.

The final section describes the "revolution", from 1986-92, when Conservative ministers turned their back on the Butler philosophy of non-intervention in the detail of schooling, and seized areas formerly thought to be sacrosanct. It was during this phase that the school inspection role of HMI was dismembered in its original form and replaced by the Ofsted model of tenders from private companies.

Inevitably, the book is not just a history of HMI but of education itself and it is none the worse for that, since it is authoritative, well researched and impeccably written. There are numerous references to people of significance, including many senior inspectors; events that changed the story at various points, such as the furore in 1975 over the William Tyndale school in London; key books, pamphlets and documents; organisations and less formal groups that exerted pressure, often successfully, on governments and decision-makers.

There are also accounts by inspectors themselves. Many are fascinating, some more cautious, others outspoken, something that in the past inspectors were not supposed to be. John Morris (joined 1947) describes a visit to a school where the head teacher suddenly made an excuse, seized his cane and dashed into the corridor to thrash miscreants. By the 1980s, John Brierley (joined 1959), responsible for health education, is documenting the concern of ministers over what should and should not be taught in sex-education lessons. The days of laissez-faire were over.

The end of HMI in its 153rd year was relatively swift, though the signs of its demise had been around for some years. Maclure details the last throes: an attempt in 1989 to pilot a joint inspection pattern, HMI working collaboratively with their counterparts in local education authorities. By 1990 it was clear that the new collaborative model did not stand a chance.

Two years later, a newly elected Conservative government was in no mood to strengthen the role of local education authorities. Working in close collaboration, John Major and Kenneth Clarke, in keeping with their citizen's charter, saw professional public servants as the enemy of the consumer and a market model was drawn up whereby private firms would bid for inspection contracts.

Maclure, while willing to be critical of some of what HMI did, makes no secret of his distaste for what followed. He describes the decision by Major and Clarke as "the sheer irresponsibility of making fundamental change in a trusted organisation with 150 years of history behind it for no better reason than to give extra spin to an ephemeral political gimmick" - many would agree. It was a pity that the short-lived experiment in 1989-90 to combine local and national inspection did not succeed, for it might have combined the best of national objectivity and breadth of experience with insider local knowledge. This excellent book is probably the definitive account of HMI. The story of Ofsted will have to come later, as Maclure does not attempt to chart its shabbier history, for which this reader is mightily relieved.

Ted Wragg is professor of education, University of Exeter.

Chomsky on MisEducation

Author - Noam Chomsky
Editor - Donald Macedo
ISBN - 0 7425 0129 9
Publisher - Rowman and Littlefield
Price - £13.50
Pages - 197

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