Gary Day

July 16, 2004

If all about you are losing their heads, keep your cool and remember, learning is all about being led astray.

I work in a university so I don't usually think about education, but I did last week-end when I attended a conference called "Crisis? What Crisis? Re-examining What Education is For" organised by the Institute of Ideas.

The British are not afraid of abstract thought, they're just not very good at it. The virtue of the institute is that it gives them an opportunity to improve their skills in this area. Gosh. Did I really say skills? Its distinctive style, short panel papers and plenty of contributions from the floor, mean the blooming of a thousand thoughts. That's more like it. While most were reasonable offerings, some teetered on the brink of insanity. And a couple of delegates were completely barking, making me think I was at Crufts instead of an intellectual forum. "Abolish sex education." "Get rid of subjects." "Make classes boring." The focus was on schools but, as someone rightly pointed out, there isn't much difference between schools and universities these days. They're both underfunded and overregulated and, worst of all, they're both being privatised. Consequently, we find creationism being taught in schools and corporations dictating the research agenda in universities.

A big concern was that the curriculum is apparently not demanding enough. Did you know that in primary schools children are colouring in pictures instead of mastering calculus? And what's more they spend breaktime running round playing silly games such as "tag" when they could be raising much-needed money by organising a sponsored smack, especially now that the Lords in their wisdom have ruled that you can hit a child but you mustn't hurt one. Ah, the English genius for compromise.

Mercifully, no one advocated bringing back the cane, but there were calls for a return to traditional values such as rote learning of the names and dates of the kings and queens of England. Judith Judd, associate editor of The Times Educational Supplement , challenged the claim that subjects were being dumbed down, pointing out that the various complaints about bad grammar, poor maths and patchy general knowledge have been a common cry throughout the past two centuries. Even longer if you believe "the tremulous hand of Worcester", who lamented the decline of learning after the Norman Conquest. Ms Judd also underlined the tangible improvements in examination results; in 1999 48 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSE passes at grade C or above and in 2003 it was 53 per cent. And as for the claim that exams were getting easier, "there was not a shred of objective evidence". But we all know what you can do with statistics.

Another anxiety was that cultural transmission was being threatened by the need to develop the self-esteem of students. What they know doesn't matter, it's how they feel about themselves that counts. Children must start each day sitting in a circle and saying what problems they have, and if they haven't got any, then would they please get some, otherwise the teacher will think there's something wrong with them. One mother shared her feelings with the rest by declaring how upset she was that her five-year-old had come home saying that he didn't like some boy and wondered what he should do about it. "I wish he could just fight him," she said.

The hostility to the idea that teachers might show concern for their pupils' welfare was in some cases quite chilling. Given the sort of world we're living in - market instability, global warming, the terrorist threat and England's early exit from the European championships - it's not surprising that the young feel emotionally battered.

For the most part, discussion did not touch on the wider context of the crisis in education. The most salient fact is that at both secondary and tertiary level there are obscene inequalities, and any discussion of standards that does not take these disparities into account itself falls short of the standards you might expect in serious debate. As for what education is for, well take your pick. Adam Smith said that it was for promoting loving sympathy with others, John Henry Newman that it was for the perfection of the intellect and Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, that it's for getting a job. I rather liked Roger Scruton's distinction that we need to distinguish between external function and internal purpose in education. He drew an analogy with friendship. Although you can say that the function of friendship is to bond with others to create a harmonious society, you wouldn't describe your relationship with your best mate in such terms. Nor, if you had any sense, would you describe what you do in the seminar room in terms of outcomes. Perhaps the best definition of education is John Dryden's: that it leads you astray. For it's only by wandering off the beaten track that we discover anything new.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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