To provide teaching of quality, we must get back to our roots

Tradition, not the empty processes of the 'excellence' agenda, offers the academy a road map to higher standards, says Thomas Docherty

July 9, 2009

On 18 October 1704, polymath Giambattista Vico told students of Naples University that the greatest benefit of learning is "to be educated for the common good of the citizenry". Their learning, and the teaching that went with it, was not for private profit but for the good of the community. What might this mean for the profession of the teacher?

In earlier versions of the academy, the novice teacher was an apprentice. An apprentice learns a craft, but is also "bound to serve, and entitled to receive instruction" from those who are already established.

This two-way obligation was vital: the apprentice was bound, but once experienced enough was set free; masters were likewise bound to give freely of their experience. Thus, the generations together found the intimacy of community. The apprentice learnt a craft but also shouldered its responsibilities, thus becoming a guardian of its values; masters were attentive to their responsibilities towards the future in a community that extended beyond the academy.

In this old academy, then, all learning was apprenticeship. There was no crude distinction between teachers and learners: we learnt and taught at once, that overlap vital to the organic energy of the whole institution, the arrangement of the community dignified or edified by the university. The community could be scholars in a discipline, but equally could be that large and material community that we call civic culture, the nation state, international dialogue. These were apprenticeships in the freedom of thought and citizenship.

T.S. Eliot thought something similar when he wrote about tradition in 1919. In his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent", he explained that the new can be made to happen only by one who embodies tradition. Newspeak "modernisation" can occur only if it is based on an organic continuity with the institution that is being modernised. Traditionally, apprentice teachers worked like this, and so felt themselves bound to institutions, to disciplines and to the governance of their standards: a tradition.

Sadly, this has been replaced by the qualities of "excellence", which strain belief. Ever since the establishment of a culture of mistrust in the university - a culture generated under Thatcherism in order to justify squeezing public funding out of the academy - we have decided that teachers need to be taught how to teach: hence the industry - a very costly one, publicly funded - of various forms of teaching accreditation in the university. The titles of the units that provide this vary, but they usually involve words such as "teaching enhancement", "quality", "development" and "improvement". Their effect is the same: they damage the community of free thought that is properly called learning and teaching. At the macro-level, they become "Learning and Teaching Subject Networks" or the Higher Education Academy: self-perpetuating bureaucracies that have lost any material contact with realities on the ground, despite voicing pieties about the sanctity of teaching.

These units have the effect of driving a wedge between generations, of raising a suspicious eyebrow over our apprentices, of delegitimising the experience of earlier generations; and, above all, of mechanising what should be the organic community of the academy. In focusing on allegedly generic skills, they empty disciplines of their traditions and disempower teachers, precisely at the moment when they accredit them. They demand allegiance to techniques, generic skills and the accompanying quality agenda, rather than an allegiance to a free-thinking community.

They are not there to improve the quality of teaching: rather, they exist because we used to have Teaching Quality Assessment, because we have the Quality Assurance Agency, and because we are bowed before a quality agenda that requires us to monitor our processes. But that is all they are: vacuous processes. The typical programme consists of "modulettes" where colleagues spend hours doing things that could have been covered in a ten-minute conversation between an apprentice and an experienced teacher. But that harks back to the days when we had time to talk, to think about things, to share teaching and experience, time to have a community that reached beyond the programmatic.

The community here - civic tradition - is under threat. Superb teaching happens, but in spite of, not because of, the quality agenda. That agenda, policed as it is by those who have made a career out of undermining experience and authority, replacing it with the mediocrity of "excellent" bureaucratic process, drives quality down to the lowest common denominator, and undermines what teachers and students are doing on the ground.

Time to modernise? Let's start by catching up with 1704.

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