Education Matters – I

It is very difficult to say what education is for because the question has no single answer and any collection of answers will almost certainly not cover every possibility. Moreover, even a straightforward answer that might command general assent such as “that education has as a principal aim to ensure that new generations can grow into civilized human beings and play a part in making the world a better place” will fall foul of many questions about what is meant by “civilized” and how the world might be made a “better” place. And then there will be those who will rightly say that this is only part of the picture, and want to insert specific clauses about being ready for employment, being moral, being cultured, and so forth, just as there will be others who will want to say something about health, well-being, a life balanced by physical, mental and spiritual maturity, and so on.

Looked at from an entirely different perspective, the nature of a school as it reflects contemporary education theory will need to take account of its marketability. Here a different set of difficulties arise, for school fees are generally paid by parents, and those who pay the piper tend to call the tune. So whatever brand of education a school promotes and embodies needs to be marketable to at least a sufficient number of potential families as are needed to finance it or, more pertinently, to appeal to a sufficient number of donors to attract scholarship funds sufficient to render the contributions of families largely irrelevant. So what parents and donors think education is – a picture hugely influenced by their own school experience – will be at least one of the criteria by which the attractions of a particular school are judged.

However, one cannot be all things to all people, so the first task is to decide what we want to be; after that we can decide whether we have the resources to be it. So let me start with what I take to be a truism, albeit a truism frequently overlooked in many schools:

Great schools enthuse their students with the best discoveries from the past and equip them with the skills necessary to use them to create the future.

Any school that fails to acquaint its students with the best things of the past condemns them to reinvent everything themselves. Student-centred learning cannot be devoid of direction by those who know more than the students, and while it is perfectly reasonable to be conscious and aware of the dangers of all kinds of imperialism, that should not deter us from imparting the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of past centuries. Teachers have never been the source of all knowledge; there have always been libraries, personal experience and the collective wisdom and knowledge of societies; the Internet has not changed anything fundamentally, it has just altered the speed of access and scope of the resources available.

Enthusiasm for the best of the past – and the wisdom to decide what the best is – define the challenges and responsibilities of school common rooms and curriculum developers. A principle that should always be borne in mind is that schools should concentrate on those things that, were they not encountered at school, might not be encountered at all. This means that work in laboratories, familiarity with the difficult things dealt with in mathematics, acquisition of the critical skills needed for source criticism and evaluation of the provenance of knowledge-claims, and experience in theatres, in musical co-operation, and in art, should take precedence over the learning of languages and the reading of books that can be learned and read anywhere. In this respect the IB’s preoccupation with language-learning is mistaken and wasteful of resources.

Educators and government ministries of education in particular too readily swallow the demands of employers for specific skills, especially the tedious clarion-call for greater numeracy and literacy. Great schools will always produce students who are literate and numerate, but not necessarily in the ways employers would like them to be. But education is not training, and should never be confused with it. Schools that aspire to greatness should never therefore teach accountancy or business studies in preference to literature and philosophy, not because accountancy and business studies are not important features of commercial life, but because they are specific skills that can be acquired as necessary later in life as contrasted with general skills that if they are not learned at school may never be learned at all. What might be more surprising is that I also think most of the time we spend teaching mathematics in school is similarly wasted on arcane topics of neither practical nor intellectual merit. More on this later.

Schools should also take responsibility for knowing what might be good for their students. So a key part of early-years education, particularly as embodied in the IB’s MYP, is exposure of students to the full range of academic disciplines and as wide a range as possible of arts and sports so that no child ever leaves school without at least some idea of what is involved in them. There is enormous merit in a “sampler” system whereby during their early education children have to encounter everything that a “normal balanced educated” person (pace intercultural differences) might expect to know. Even if they do not continue with them, the merit of knowing what they are rejecting or being forced to miss because of lack of time to do everything cannot be over-estimated.

In a cosmopolitan world the content of these early educational experiences should not be limited merely to the traditional subjects of western culture and history. It is shameful that most Europeans think history (and sometimes even geography, too) ends somewhere around the Balkans, and have no knowledge of the histories and cultures of Asia, the Middle East, Africa or the Americas (pace Christopher Columbus, the Slave Trade, the East India Company, and all that).

In practical terms, of course, all this takes time, and there is a strong argument, which I endorse, for the only major transition during school being at the age of 11 after which all seven years of secondary education should partly be dedicated to provision of this fundamental grounding in world cultures. And on this score I should add that too much time is wasted in preparing for examinations if school transitions based upon entrance tests and IGCSEs are allowed to punctuate this seven years: at 13, at 16 and at 18 we take half a year out to ensure students are “prepared” for examinations that are summative without being formative. No wonder children become jaundiced about learning.

Granted this emphasis upon a grounding in world cultures, which satisfies the requirements of learning the best of the past including science and mathematics, another part of the academic curriculum should concern the acquisition of the skills and habits of creative, critical thought. To an extent the IBDP Theory of Knowledge meets some of the requirements, but it is largely too little too late, and it is more important to understand the issues within the framework of all other subjects than to study ToK as if it were a course in philosophy. Unfortunately, many teachers do not understand why ToK is so important because they have never themselves reflected critically on their own subjects.

Which brings me to the quality of teaching in its politically correct form, and to the quality of teachers in its politically incorrect form. And here there is no argument: a great education requires great teachers. Great teachers are not necessarily the most highly accomplished academically – it used to be the case that someone with a decent 2.1 honours degree was likely to be a better teacher than someone with a first, but now when so many get a first so we can’t really say that. But great teachers all share at least these qualities:

  • They are enthusiastic about their subject
  • They realise that they will never know all there is to know about their subject
  • And so are ready to be learners with their students as teachers
  • They are generous with themselves, with their knowledge, time and talents
  • They are interested in all their students, not just the most obviously able ones
  • They teach the way their students best learn, not as they like best to teach
  • They never give up on a child, and see student disaffection as a symptom of a problem with the way learning is actioned and perceived rather than as a fault in the student

All this is really just an extended way of saying that teaching and learning occur best when teacher and learner have a positive, honest, constructive, committed relationship, and that wherever that relationship is missing the teaching and learning process will be less effective.

How does a school attract the best teachers as defined in these terms? Certainly not just by paying huge salaries, although paying salaries that are competitive is essential. There are probably three motivating factors that are more important:

  • the quality and enthusiasm of students, who will make the teaching and learning experience rewarding in its own right;
  • a progressive and imaginative school environment in which the common room is a vibrant reflection of contemporary educational thinking and the senior staff and governors are supportive of those initiatives;
  • a rich cultural, social, sporting, geographical and political environment which will enable teaching and learning to engage with local culture through participation in service-learning and cultural events that reflect the full spectrum of human thriving.

In a residential school, provision of adequate housing and a strong community life are also important, especially when the school is in a relatively remote region; and in all schools teachers expect that their teaching will be resourced properly with books and equipment.

Aside: excessive dependence on textbooks kills creative teaching and schools need to be on their guard against allowing a textbook culture to develop where students and teachers imagine that only what is in the syllabus and the textbook is worth learning and knowing.

To ask what we want from education is to ask what we want from life, and this is not the place for such a discussion. But nothing less will do.

Language and Education

Language is what separates human beings from other species: it allows us to transmit knowledge and skills from generation to generation; it allows us to understand what we have not experienced first-hand; it allows us to imagine, design and create worlds and futures that would literally be unthinkable without language; and part of the price we pay for this power and freedom is that language allows us to lie. Once we employ a tool that allows us to lie, the questions of how we distinguish lies from truths, whom we should trust and what we should not, and what purpose lies could serve, become pressing.

Education at a minimal level allows us to transmit the knowledge of past generations to children and young adults, as well as to provide opportunities that can last a lifetime as we continue to learn new things and pursue new interests.

Education also transmits cultural values and assumptions in the way every culture shapes its education to direct the development of the next generations. So education is both a powerful tool of cultural transmission and survival while also being potentially an instrument of social repression and control in cultures that use it to resist change and divergent thinking.

Education for both these reasons has as a central problem the relationship between social conformity and social change, the question of the balance between tradition and development, the past and the future, preserving what is best while giving scope for the creation of what is better.

One of the most concise and powerful statements of educational objectives can be found in the report of the Secondary Education Committee published in India in 1952 (quoted in the Indian National Curriculum Framework of 2005):

Citizenship in a democracy involves many intellectual, social and moral qualities…a democratic citizen should have the understanding and the intellectual integrity to sift truth from falsehood, facts from propaganda and to reject the dangerous appeal of fanaticism and prejudice … should neither reject the old because it is old nor accept the new because it is new, but dispassionately examine both and courageously reject what arrests the forces of justice and progress…..

As a statement of educational objectives, this can scarcely be bettered, but it is one thing to say it and another to implement an education policy that achieves what it aims to achieve in terms of balanced citizenship. And of course it addresses en passant the challenge of distinguishing truth from falsehood as it affects citizenship.

The Problem of Education

It might be thought that to be given a blank sheet and be asked to write on it a completely new and refreshingly innovative educational scheme would be both exhilarating and exciting, but the challenge of such an invitation presents with formidable difficulties. John Dewey, considering just such a possibility as long ago as 1938, wrote as follows in the preface to his Experience and Education:

[The formulation of a philosophy of education involves] the necessity of the introduction of a new order of conceptions leading to new modes of practice. It is for this reason that it is so difficult to develop a philosophy of education, the moment tradition and custom are departed from. It is for this reason that the conduct of schools, based upon a new order of conceptions, is so much more difficult than the management of schools which walk to beaten paths. Hence, every movement in the direction of a new order of ideas and of activities directed by them calls out, sooner or later, (for) a return to the practices of the past …

John Dewey, op. cit., my emphasis.

One of Dewey’s most important themes, typical of his whole pragmatist philosophy, is opposition to an analysis of the human condition in terms of extreme opposites. He believes in particular that the extremes of “traditional” and “progressive” education are over-stated: “The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without”. He goes on to observe that what in modern language we would call teacher-centred and student-centred learning need to be held in balance if education is not to lurch from one extreme to the other. In particular, it is absurd for a teacher to pretend not to see further and know more than students, even if students often see aspects of a topic new to a teacher; the question is how best to deploy such advantages to the students’ optimal benefit.

Dewey then observes that in a “traditional” educational scheme, “that which is taught is thought of as essentially static” in two respects: it is taught as a body of knowledge independent of how it came to be discovered; and it is taught as if the future will be very much like the past. This point is of enormous importance, and of even greater importance today than in 1938: for the majority of human history the rate of development of knowledge and ideas was slow, so the education that sufficed for parents sufficed almost without change for their children. This meant in practice that education did not need to concern itself with active learning, still less with creative learning: everything that needed to be known was assumed already to be known; the task was simply to share it with every new generation. Consequently, accelerating change has largely caught education flat-footed, and change that has ensured that the time from childhood to adulthood covers more than a doubling of human knowledge and technological innovation effectively guarantees that the skills of teachers are disconnected from those needed to engage with their students.

In other words, the greatest challenge technology makes to education has little to do with the possibilities it creates for new methods of learning and different kinds of access to knowledge; it arises instead from the fact that it effectively disconnects teachers from students.

To illustrate this point, consider that when I started teaching in 1984 there was no Internet, no Google, no Facebook, that dial-up modems were running at about 500kbps, and that the storage capacity of most personal computers was around 16kB. We taught using “BBC microcomputers” with floppy disks and had negligible network interconnectivity. This technobabble is irrelevant as far as learning is concerned, but the distance between that and now is also a symbol of the disconnection between teachers whose own schooling took place in the pre-digital age and those being trained now. Whereas it was once the case that one skill-set would serve throughout a career, now one needs a new skill-set every few years as technology creates a race that nobody can keep up with, let alone win.

Question: But should education even be trying to keep up with all this technomania? Is education about training in ephemeral techniques of communication and knowledge-processing, or about eternal truths distilled from the collective knowledge and wisdom of the ages? Is there still a place for an education based upon the painstaking study of the classics that embraces all the difficulties they represent? What do we lose if we embrace technomania without reserve?

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock, 1934, §I

Part of the problem here is to do with the long-standing but almost entirely bankrupt notion that certain kinds of activity work on the brain the way physical fitness works on the body, the notion of the “mental gymnasium”. But it is now established virtually beyond dispute that, for example, doing multiplication of five-digit numbers makes us better at multiplying five-digit numbers but almost nothing else; that doing crossword-puzzles makes us better at doing crossword-puzzles, but almost nothing else; cf. The Invisible Gorilla for further examples and cross-references that indicate how useless mental gymnastics are (apart possibly from deferring the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which is not such a bad thing).

So, instead of teaching five-digit multiplication, we should teach students to understand multiplication so that when they are doing calculations on computers and spreadsheets they know what they are doing. And being able to do five-digit multiplication actually doesn’t help to understand multiplication very well. (Maybe a better example is the way we were taught to do multiplication using logarithms and antilogarithms: I was brilliant at it, could do it faultlessly, but I had absolutely no idea why it worked or what I was doing, and of course now it all seems pointless without that understanding because we can do the same thing so easily; in other words, I had not understood.) But this leads to a very deep and troublesome educational problem: it is far easier to perform five-digit multiplication than to understand the abstract notion of multiplication; it is far easier to design mathematics syllabuses that require us to learn techniques of differentiation, integration, factorization and so forth than to teach students to understand what each of these things is really about. So the questions educators need to be able to answer are: which skills matter; which knowledge is worth acquiring? And I want to suggest that although we know vaguely what the answers to these questions are, we do not know the concrete practical answers to these questions that will translate them into educational reform.

To be clear about what the issue is here: knowing how to do multiplication or logarithms as a mechanical process not only confers no useful skills, but in the absence of an understanding of the underlying principles that make the processes work it confers an illusory sense of mastery. That education has invested so much time and effort into getting students to learn to do things by rote is a reflection of the fact that to a considerable extent it was using human beings as machines in the absence of alternative machines. But the industrial and now the digital revolutions have transformed this situation: we no longer need human beings to do what machines can do; we no longer need human beings to do what computers can do. So what can human do that neither machines nor computers can do, and how can education optimise those skills and lead to a reaffirmation of what is best about being human while also addressing the question how those humans who have low abstract cognitive ability can have any role at all in such a future world?

And looking at the history of educational theory and philosophy will furnish absolutely no help in these areas because the realisation that mental gymnastics is largely useless for all purposes other than the skills they impart is relatively recent and the challenge to distinguish between mechanical processes and human processes only took place “yesterday”.

The usual candidates for the characteristics that are uniquely the preserve of humans come from such areas as the creative arts and writing, imagination, critical thinking, science and inventiveness, but these are of course the very things that many humans find most difficult.

In a sense, to answer the question of the purpose of education – What is education for? – is to answer the question of life – What is life for? – since an answer to the former can scarcely be given without an answer to the latter. But answers to the latter are not uniform and are certainly not agreed. So what would an answer look like?

What, first, does any answer look like? It could look like one of several things: it could look like an eternal, timeless truth; or it could look like a temporary truth that served its purpose; or it could look like something that could change in order persistently to serve its purpose even at the expense of not being fixed or even consistent. The last of these strikes most of us a very unlike an answer: surely, we say, an answer must be consistent at least and preferably permanent and timeless? But why? We change and the world changes, so an answer should change, and the best answers will change in a way that keeps track of the changes around us and in ourselves. Just as with the changes to the world economy that reflect an exponential rate of growth and that render obsolete a view of knowledge where what was good enough for our parents and grandparents is good enough for us and for our children, so answers must cease to be thought to need to be timeless or even consistent. In particular, what is worth knowing today may not be worth knowing tomorrow, and there is no reason why our values and aspirations should be any more static.

This presents education with a huge challenge: how to provide for rapidly accelerating change while satisfying assessment requirements that do not reflect accelerating change. How, also, to re-equip teachers with new skills to provide for these changes. Of course, for some it will seem that the solution is to opt for a view of education that delivers eternal, timeless truths, because then such reskilling and re-equipping is not necessary; and no doubt there are some elements of timeless truth in anything that is recognisably human education; but education must come to terms with change itself and the necessity to equip successive generations with the equipment needed to accommodate it if it is not to disenfranchise those generations from changes in the world.

Another example of this accelerating change and the challenge to education (if indeed it is a challenge education should try to meet) is that of the world GDP.

A few hundred thousand years ago, in early human (or hominid) prehistory, growth was so slow that it took on (sic) the order of one million years for human productive capacity to increase sufficiently to sustain an additional one million individuals living at subsistence level. By 5000 BC, following the Agricultural Revolution, the rate of growth had increased to the point where the same amount of growth took just two centuries. Today, following the Industrial Revolution, the world economy grows on average by that amount every ninety minutes. (Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence, OUP, 2014, p.2.)

But it is worth observing that this remarkable statistic has been achieved using largely traditional methods of education, and it is certainly not obvious why we should want to change them. Dewey, writing in 1938, asks the same question:

The question I would raise concerns why we prefer democratic and humane arrangements to those which are autocratic and harsh. (Experience and Education, Chapter 3)

The best answer Dewey can come up with is

Does not the principle of regard for individual freedom and for decency and kindliness of human relations come back in the end to the conviction that these things are tributary to a higher quality of experience on the part of a greater number than are the methods of repression and coercion or force? (loc. cit.)

But this surely isn’t enough. If one method of education is only to be preferred to another because it appeals to a sense of “kindliness” there will be many who will eschew it in favour of traditional methods. Dewey sells himself short here: something more must be achieved by changing the methods of education than just a nice warm fuzzy feeling. The changes must be demonstrably more effective. It is to establishing how that demonstration is to be achieved and what the methods are that it demonstrates that a philosophy of education must apply itself.

Somewhere here we need to engage with the hypothesis – which I now advance – that the traditional methods of autocratic and harsh education are not only responsible for the death of learning in older students alienated by them from love of books and knowledge, but also a contributory factor to the brutality and cruel indifference of human beings to the world. In other words – and it is strange that Dewey, who writes so much that brings him to the brink of seeing it, does not apparently see it – the isolation of education from living experience of the objective world typical of traditional education – Dewey says “The school environment of desks, blackboards, a small schoolyard, was supposed to suffice.” (op. cit.) – led to disconnection between learning and living, between education and formative reflective experience, and to exactly the attitudes of the world that manifest themselves in ecological disasters and environmental rape.

There was no demand that the teacher should become intimately acquainted with the conditions of the local community, physical, historical, economic, occupational etc., in order to utilize them as educational resources (Dewey, op. cit., Chapter 3)

In other words, as we shall see again when we consider and reconsider the question “What is education for?”, the errors of traditional education are not just a matter of autocratic and harsh methods over democratic and humane methods, and its success or failure relative to other methods cannot be measured only by asking whether it achieved economic success; rather, the adequacy and inadequacy of traditional education must be assessed relative to the world it has produced and the component societies of that world and the component individuals who live their lives in those societies. Education must be measured relative to the whole spectrum of human and earthly existence.

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. (Dewey, op. cit.; my emphasis.)

And “collateral learning” is not just about likes and dislikes; it is about honesty and integrity and intellectual hunger and fairness and awareness of the quality and provenance of knowledge. Students learn to respect others during classes not because they are learning history, but because they learn history in a particular way, because they learn to listen to and respect others, because they have a questioning attitude to sources and authority, because they learn to cross-reference and to connect what they learn with all their other learning.

And when all this is achieved through a school ethos that permeates every classroom, the conditions are ripe for lifelong learning.

The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning. If impetus in this direction is weakened instead of being intensified, something much more than mere lack of preparation takes place. The pupil is actually robbed of native capacities which otherwise would enable him to cope with the circumstances that he meets in the course of his life. (Dewey, loc. Cit.; my emphasis.)

Looked at in the terms of the challenge of change, this educational parable can be retold as a process of deskilling us in the capacity to accommodate change. Small children are naturally curious; they are naturally inconsistent and even fragmentary in the way they deal with things, lurching from one extreme to another in an emotional and intellectual kaleidoscope. Education tends to crush that capacity to deal with variation and prepares us for a life of conformity and stagnation in keeping with the static realities and expectations of past centuries. But those centuries are gone, and education needs to change to accommodate new realities.

This is consistent with a striking reality. Sometimes those who have had little schooling exhibit more vibrant attitudes to life than those who have had extensive education, Dewey adds, because they have not had to endure having life crushed out of them. “What avail is it …” he writes, if someone “loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative” (loc. cit.). And sometimes those who have been most rebellious during their schooling, even if they have had extensive schooling, go on to achieve far more than those who are compliant and in a limited sense of the term “successful”. So there seems to be a paradox: those who seem most successful according to education’s own criteria of success frequently do least well in later life, and vice versa.

Perhaps it is that a school’s inducement through “collateral learning” is more important than its ostensive learning objectives? In which case it is the values that a school embraces and the qualities of endurance and resilience it inculcates that matter more than its apparent successes as measured in academic results or sports.

What we can immediately infer is that the conditions necessary for an educational environment that will create conditions conducive to the generation of lifelong learning depend more upon the ethos of the school as it is embedded in the ethos of the classroom than on the quantity of knowledge acquired.

Golden Principle 1: the ethos of a school is of paramount importance, certainly of much greater importance than measurable results of external assessment.

Autocratic and harsh educational methods tend to produce circumstances in which the present experience of learning is felt to be unpleasant. This did not seem to matter much in the traditional systems because the assumption was that present experience was of no importance as measured against the acquisition of the knowledge and skills that pupils would require in the future, since “traditional schools tended to sacrifice the present to a remote and more or less unknown future” (Dewey, loc. cit.). Democratic and humane methods, by contrast, devote care to establishing the conditions which “give each present experience a worthwhile meaning” (Dewey, loc. cit.).

What is particularly interesting about this in a climate of accelerating change is that this mortgaging of the present to the future is no longer even theoretically feasible: we simply do not know the skill-sets that the future will require, so we cannot build a curriculum around them. Belief that we can is the product of a static, changeless view of what we need to know and to be able to do.

Ken Robinson, writing 75 years after Dewey, sees the answer to the question “What is education for?” as being “to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens” (Creative Schools, p.xxiv). He sees education as having economic, cultural, social and personal aspects (pp.45-53), and the things that are worth knowing as involving eight competencies: curiosity, creativity, criticism, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure and citizenship (pp.135-141). He also identifies the role of the school principal as being a mixture of visionary and manager where the principal needs to be clear which role he is performing at any given time. “In schools, great principals know that their job is not primarily to improve test results; it is to build community among the students, teachers, parents and staff, who need to share a common set of purposes” (p.188). Moreover, “In education, natural, sustainable learning depends on the culture  of the school and the quality of the learning environment. Sustaining a vibrant culture of learning is the essential role of the principal” (p.202).

Yet even Robinson in this regard seems to be operating with a strangely static view of what education is about: produce good circumstances and something abstract called education will arise. But will it? And isn’t the absence of “change” from the list of “c”s notable? Maybe we just don’t have a noun to describe change-readiness other than “change-readiness”. And thinking about The Stretch Cycle reinforces the sense that we need a dynamic, experiential way of learning that enables growth through change; in other words, learning through positively embracing change facilitates the stretch cycle and is facilitated by experiential learning and reflection. And a key part of this is the monitoring of the learning cycle, that we assess whether what we are learning seems to be taking us in the right direction, to a broader, more comprehensive grasp of things we need to know and understand.

Robinson also apparently fails to see that the principal also has at least part of the responsibility of any leader to weave the narrative that provides the coherence of the community he or she leads. Without such a narrative, an over-arching account of what the community is for and how it should address its purpose, there cannot be a ‘vibrant culture of learning’ because the community has no raison d’etre.

But how is the principal to generate and sustain – or help to generate and sustain, because this is never a one-person show – “a vibrant culture of learning”? There are two other parts to the answer in addition to the weaving of a suitable narrative: one concerns establishing the necessary conditions for learning, which is to say a proper mixture of freedom and control in a community properly resourced and staffed; the second involves motivation and direction of learning, which is to say intellectual passion and hunger.

What is striking about all this educational theory is that it always stops short of asking the question that alone can provide a framework within which its adequacy can be measured, the question not “What is education for?” but “What is life for?” Yet a moment’s consideration reveals that, especially in a world increasingly concerned about peace, equality, sustainability, respect for the environment, inter-cultural understanding and human and animal well-being, it is impossible to proceed with the enterprise of education without considering the kinds of lives that it encourages, and those lives will certainly and inescapably need to exhibit certain attitudes to such things as sustainability, energy, justice, international relationships and value. Dewey is just wrong to say, on this count, that the most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning (above): desire to go on learning must itself be contextualised by a value-system that makes the learning contribute to desired goals and avoidance of undesirable goals. Education may wish to duck the question of human values but it cannot do so and still espouse a genuinely open-minded approach to knowledge and learning.

Golden Principle 2: Education cannot assume that it is obvious what purposes it should serve or what values it should espouse and embody

But here we meet a very serious and deep problem. According to such things as the IB Learner Profile, we should strive to be open-minded, but how open-minded should we strive to be? The same problem besets a value like tolerance: how tolerant should we be? Clearly (well, the point here is exactly that “it” seems clear to me), not boundlessly tolerant: we should not (or so at least I think) tolerate cruelty, injustice, slavery, abuse. But who decides where open-mindedness and toleration hit the buffers, if not me? And as soon as I say that I am as open-minded and tolerant as its strikes me as it is right to be, how do I differ from someone who just draws those lines somewhere else and whom I regard as intolerant or closed-minded? In other words, the “or so at least I think” and that this seems clear at least to me is the heart of the greatest of all problems.

So when I say above, “Education may wish to duck the question of human values but it cannot do so and still espouse a genuinely open-minded approach to knowledge and learning”, we should pause and ask what exactly a “genuinely open-minded approach to knowledge and learning” might amount to. And there the entire educational enterprise threatens to stall, because it is far from clear that any conceivable answer would be deemed universally acceptable. So then we have to ask whether it needs to be universally acceptable, and conclude that since it cannot be, it need not be. What is acceptable becomes then the subject of the debate, and various answers such as democracy and ochlocracy and plutocracy and meritocracy and so forth have been suggested and, most of them at least, tried.

Even without this difficulty the statement raises another question: if education were once to decide upon human values, which is to say which values it serves, it would, it seems, already have “sold the pass” on open-mindedness, for to choose a set of values must be to reject others. We encounter the apparently merely semantic but actually more fundamental (semiotic) distinction between an open-minded and a free-minded approach to life including learning. Semiotic? Because “open” and “free” have different connotations and therefore stand for fundamentally different things. A free mind is free to choose, free to filter, free to say its yeah and its nay; an open mind is not. An open mind must perforce let anything and everything in, like an open gate without a sentry. But an open gate without a sentry makes the castle vulnerable to everyone and everything, and no sensible person would want to live in it, let alone advocate it.

And, in practice, education does not embrace, or even pretend to embrace, an entirely open-minded approach to knowledge and learning, and neither should it, because open-mindedness is a flawed concept born of sloppy thinking, like “tolerance”. Education should believe in free minds, not open minds, and with that distinction comes the requirement that it help us all to discriminate between the ideas we should let in and those we should not, the values we should espouse and those we should not, and so forth. And in practice, of course, it does this by defining a curriculum in which certain subjects, and certain aspects of those subjects, and certain books, and certain authorities, and certain traditions, and certain kinds of knowledge, and so forth, are given time and effort and resources, while others are not. Education therefore makes an attempt, based upon the values and traditions of its culture – for education is always acculturated, whatever we may like to think – to decide what is worthwhile and what is not. Its decisions about this reflect and affect the culture within which it operates. (It is worth pointing out that the question of faith schools therefore bears upon an utterly fundamental question about the self-definition of a nation, and not merely about expressions of human freedom. But mistaken decisions about this reflect the absence of a governing, co-ordinating meta-narrative in the minds of decision-makers motivated only by a desire to acquire and retain power and influence rather than by questions of the good of the nation or culture over which they preside.)

Typically, education avoids this question by burying itself in a chain of objectives each of which seems worthy in itself but the totality of which fails to address the ultimate question of values in life: yes you get into a good school; yes you get good results; yes you get into university; yes you get a good degree; yes you get a good job; yes you make a lot of money, achieve fame, become powerful, become influential, etc., etc., but to what end? In other words, what is your meta-narrative? Because in the absence of a self-consciously chosen meta-narrative we will find ourselves pursuing an education system governed by another meta-narrative that we may neither recognise nor agree with, one chosen and imposed by others.

Freedom and Control

Dewey argues that teachers are often forced into a position where they have to behave autocratically and harshly by the failure of the school (and perhaps the educational system as a whole) to have defined sufficiently clearly, and to have agreed upon sufficiently democratically and persuasively, the external objectives and focus that lead to self-imposed control and responsible behaviour. A vicious circle ensues in which lack of common purpose and community degrades behaviour, forces ever more severe restrictions and penalties, and finally drags the whole institution down to the level of something closer to a prison than a place of learning.

In a more democratic and humane system

The educator is responsible for a knowledge of individuals and for a knowledge of subject-matter that will enable activity ties to be selected which lend themselves to social organization, an organization in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute something, and in which the activities in which all participate are the chief carrier of control. (Deweyop. cit. Chapter 4; my emphasis)

What this means in practical terms is that articulating the purpose of the school, the external objectives which it aims to serve, is not just vital for potential students, parents, governors and donors, but for the management and control needed to establish a coherent life for the school itself. Without such a clear purpose the school will inevitably have to resort to greater and greater authoritarianism because self-control has palpably failed.

Golden Principle 3A school that needs to resort to authoritarian methods to retain or establish control has failed to win the hearts and minds of its students and staff to its overall vision and purpose.

To put it another way: such a school has failed to articulate its purposive narrative with sufficient persuasive power, perhaps because it lacks or has not yet developed sufficiently a shared meta-narrative under which to achieve that persuasion.

But this leads to another consequence of even greater significance: that persuasion, which I shall take here to be the key to the relationship between freedom and responsibility inasmuch as unless I am persuaded to use my freedom responsibly there can only be recourse to authoritarianism to establish order (and Hobbes will have won the centuries-old argument); that persuasion cannot be achieved without a shared meta-narrative. And achieving a shared meta-narrative is especially and acutely difficult in a multi-cultural environment in a brand-new school in an alien country to an extent that would not be conceivable in a Winchester or Eton where “the very stones shout aloud” and the implicit meta-narrative is defined by the institution itself and the country and tradition in which it exists.

Intellectual Passion and Hunger

One reason why I was so concerned not to scribble on the blank sheet of paper we had been given here was that I knew that the school of the future had not yet been designed, that nobody knew what it would look like, and that the only way to find out what it would look like was to learn dynamically as we went along with the process and the flow. Such kinetic thinking would only be possible if we did not prescribe the route or the destination in advance. And it would be hindered by prescriptive rules beyond the barest minimum needed to establish a coherent community.

However, I underestimated the need for a meta-narrative within which to define that emergence while over-estimating the extent to which the UWC already knows what its meta-narrative is. In practice, the UWC does not know what its mission is and actually has no meta-narrative to speak of at all. So under this blank umbrella there is no sensible structure within which to define the nature of the school, and we discover that we are alone, buffeted from side to side by the various nostrums that are quoted as if they were meta-narratives when they are only slogans. We claim to exist to promote peace and sustainability through education, but we could not say what we mean by “peace” or “sustainability” if we tried. And nobody is ready to ask whether peace is sustainable.

Now the challenge is to fire up the students with a vision that creates the energy needed for intellectual passion and hunger based upon the creation of the future by design rather than by default. The future will happen anyway, so the question is who will shape and control it. But that cannot be achieved without first defining a meta-narrative, a unifying vision that was once but is now no longer supplied by religions and various forms of ideology such as Naziism and Marxism. Yet without those meta-narratives we are ultimately defenceless against the persuasive powers of other ideologies such as Islamic State.

What is education for? All sorts of answers can be and have been given:

  • It is the means societies employ to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next and by so doing leverage the single most important advantage human beings have over all other known life-forms, the ability to learn from previous generations cumulatively
  • It is the means societies employ to transmit cultural values from one generation to the next
  • It is the means societies employ to control what the next generation will value, believe and think
  • It is a preparation for life
  • It is a preparation for work
  • It is a preparation for adulthood

So we could go on. The answer we choose – and of course we may wish to choose many and say education is for all these purposes, or choose none at all and branch out into a completely different description – will very much depend on when and where we wish the answer to be applied. What this means is that education is asked to fulfil many functions any one of which can seem of paramount importance at different ages: answer the question aged 12 and it is likely to have something to do with shaping life-choices and readiness for higher levels of education and specialisation; ask at 18 and the answer is likely to have something to do with either university admission or employment; answer it at graduation and it will be about finding a job and starting a career; ask it in mid-career and it could be about reskilling, broadening competence, equipping us for career-change or career development; ask it at retirement and it could be about persistent interests, enrichment and personal satisfaction.

Yet all these answers are strangely and persistently passive: they treat education as a provider, as a process that goes on in order to supply a consumer – the pupil or student – with something that he or she wants or needs (or that society thinks they should want and do need). Education as conceived in these answers acts as a reservoir and teachers as the keepers of the sluice-gates that make the reservoir contents available to those who wish (or are forced) to drink.

Revisit the list above from this perspective and identify the ways in which all these answers involve an implicit assumption that the education stream is from some external source to the recipient, pupil or student. Education is something provided for us and done to us on all these accounts, but that suggests that it comes from something over which we have no control and less say, namely established knowledge and tradition. So the structure of an education that equips us with the knowledge and skills of the past but does little or nothing to encourage or enable us to create and define the future is embedded in the heart of education conceived in terms of transmission.

A “meta-narrative” describes some account of existence that gives meaning,shape and direction to our lives. Because of its shaping, directing function, a meta-narrative too may seem like something external to us, something provided for us by some power or tradition over which we have little or no control. Yet any society or culture that deploys one or more meta-narratives to give itself meaning, shape and direction is almost certain to have embedded elements of that meta-narrative into its education system. Religious education is a good if obvious example: preservation of the shape and direction of a society, perhaps even preservation of what it is to be a member of a particular society, involves inculcating successive generations with a shared meta-narrative such as being Christian (or Muslim or Hindu or Jewish), just as being British (whatever that means), being moral (in some tradition) and even “being educated” (which usually means having absorbed certain kinds of methods of thinking and certain knowledge deemed important within the meta-narratives embraced by a particular culture) involves accepting certain externally-defined things as given. So here, too, education seems to serve a pre-determined purpose in the transmission, inculcation or, if you want to be unkind, indoctrination of succeeding generations with the same meta-narrative so that they remain identifiably members of a particular tribe.

Perhaps the least obvious but most important inference from this is that education in some sense or other presupposes a certain meta-narrative that embodies a sense of what it is to be a fulfilled or “successful” human being in some tradition; an answer – albeit implicit – to the question which meta-narrative we should choose, or have (implicitly) chosen or is best, or should allow someone to choose for us. For example, taking some of the age-related answers given above we can see that certain notions of a “successful” education are implicit in them: that a life is successful (and education has done its job well) if someone is gainfully employed, admitted to a university, successful in a career, prosperous and secure in some sense, financially stable, enjoys a fulfilling old age.

But suppose for a moment that all of this is mistaken: that while we need a meta-narrative, the ones we have been educated to employ, and that formed the unspoken background narrative to our own educations, are defective and the wisdom of inculcating them into successive generations at least questionable if not obviously misguided; that the notion of education as a process through which an external reservoir of wisdom, skills and knowledge flows into successive generations of pupils and students is hopelessly ineffective; that even the notion that education is inviting us to choose from a store of pre-configured meta-narratives and their associated traditions, thinking-skills, values, wisdom and knowledge is no more than a self-perpetuating delusion. Suppose, with even more force and weight, that this view of education is actually a major cause of the very problems that we are now hoping education will help us to solve. Suppose, in other words, that whatever education is, it is none of the things listed at the start of this section, and that to continue to practise it as if it were is only to condemn each successive generation to make the same errors that have caused all the problems in the past.

Specifically, let us ask this: do the skills we need to understand the past, and the knowledge acquired from the past that we become acquainted with through education, equip us adequately for the task of creating the future?

If we suspect – and I think we should – that the answer to this is “No!” then however important the element of education that supplies us with the skills, wisdom, values and knowledge derived in the past may be, it is woefully incomplete unless it also enables us to develop the capacities we need to create the future. This is explicitly endorsed by the opening Branding Principle below (Annex B), viz. that we are “Nurturing human talent to engage with the challenge of creating a better future”. Of course, this presupposes that we have some idea of what a “better future” would be, and that in its turn will depend upon the articulation of a meta-narrative.

Examine any educational system and you will almost certainly find embedded within it some preferred meta-narrative. In the case, for example, of the International Baccalaureate educational model and the associated Learner Profile, we find a meta-narrative where undirected and shapeless open-mindedness based upon essentially prophylactic qualities designed to exclude some of the worst excesses of past meta-narratives are thought to be sufficient for the creation of a future free from those excesses.

As IB students we aim to be: thinkers, knowledgeable, inquirers, communicators, balanced, principled, open-minded, courageous [risk-takers], caring, reflective.

But the IB steadfastly and resolutely shies away from any suggestion that we should be endeavouring to make education a means to create new, better meta-narratives that can have a directing, shaping effect on what we do with our lives. This, one supposes, is because underlying this expression of open-minded liberal idealism is a deep disdain for and suspicion of anything that might conceivably smack of “imperialism”.

Imperialism is here being used to denote the attempt by any individual, society, tribe, culture or civilisation to impose its meta-narrative on any other individual, society, tribe, culture or civilisation.

Do liberals who believe that all we need do is to specify the prophylactic qualities that will stave off the worst excesses of past meta-narratives also believe that new and better meta-narratives will evolve by themselves? Presumably they do, because nowhere in the literature of their educational systems do we find any attempt to spell out what such meta-narratives might be or how education as a process in which societies and their offspring share a common purpose might engage in the task of creating them. But so far, unless I am missing something, no credible meta-narrative has emerged from this tradition; instead, a plethora of pseudo-narratives have emerged that have filled the vacuum left by the absence of meta-narratives with trivial beliefs and aims and objectives that are ephemeral and essentially worthless or, as in the case of the UWC, with beliefs that sound noble but are in practice devoid of any tangible meaning. Food, fashion and fun may be sufficient for a vacation of self-indulgence but they can scarcely constitute the backbone of a civilisation that is to be capable of withstanding the assaults of those for whom far more serious meta-narratives are the primary motivating force (such as Islamic State).

Indeed, in its mission statement the IB includes the assertion that we should adopt the view that other people and cultures with their differences “can also be right”. Nobody would argue differently, but suppose one is firmly convinced that the members of a particular tribe or culture are not right, and the actions they advocate are absolutely wrong and an affront to all values of a civilised society? What are we to do then?

The United World College movement mission statement is:

The UWC aims to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

Fine as far as it goes. But here again the objectives are largely prophylactic: education is to unite us for peace and a sustainable future but with no attempt to engage with the need for such a peace to be sustained by a meta-narrative or set of meta-narratives that will need to be created. Without them peace is not sustainable and the establishment of peace becomes a recipe for disruption, dissatisfaction and war. What, in other words, are we to do with this “peace”; what is peace “for”?

In similar fashion the UWC endorses a view of deliberate diversity in its educational model but makes no attempt to suggest that such diversity needs to be managed if it is to be profitable, i.e. achieve positive and desirable results. Yet diversity left to itself will not produce a compelling meta-narrative any more than the IB Learner Profile, so from whence do these meta-narratives come?

In essence the problem is that to be ready to create new meta-narratives we have to be ready and courageous enough to say what human beings are and should be, and not merely what they are not and should not be. This particular via negativa leads nowhere and runs close to the kind of excessive over-reaction to traditional methods that Dewey is at such pains to point out. And so we come to a tentative suggestion about what education is really for:

Education is concerned with enabling successive generations to create new meta-narratives that will give direction and shape to life on earth in general and to human lives in particular, and facilitate the necessary conditions for sustainability.


One thought on “Education Matters – I

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