On education

When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him.

thomas Love Peacock, Nightmare Abbey

All human societies produce children in much the same way; education, in the broadest sense of the term, is how those children are turned into functioning, well-integrated adults, and this process is far more variable. I am going to focus here on the way we do things in our society, particulary education in the UK as that is what I know best, but I want to remind you that formal schooling is by no means the only way to educate children, and that even among us a lot of education happens outside the schoolroom.

It appears completely normal to us, for example, that children should be taken from their families to a special place – a school – where they can be taught by trained professionals. Some schools even provide accommodation for the children, so that they can have a completely immersive experience. Since this is routinely offered by the most expensive private schools, presumably this is considered a benefit. We shall return to the question of who the beneficiary might be.

Schools play many roles in modern industrial society. One function that became conspicuous by its absence when they were obliged to close during the pandemic is that of day-care for children. The days are long gone when a single wage-earner was enough to keep the average family afloat; both partners must work, and therefore something needs to be done with the children. Given the high cost of childcare, schools fill a clear economic need for many families.

By extension, schools have tended to become providers of social services to children. In the UK, children from poor families are given free meals at school, and a reluctant government has been pressured into continuing this during school closures after a campaign led by the footballer Marcus Rashford. Increasingly, UK schools are referring children to social services; this is logical, since it is in schools that children are mainly available for official supervision and inspection.

This is all well and good, but tangential to schools’ declared purpose of educating the children in their care. But what are the aims of this education, and (crucial in a manager-led culture) how can its success or failure be measured? These questions have been with us as long as formal education, and have become increasingly urgent since compulsory schooling was introduced in the nineteenth century.

Broadly speaking there are two approaches to schooling, that of Plato and that of Mr Gradgrind. The Platonists hark back to the origin of the word, the Latin educare, which literally means “to continually draw out”. As in the famous passage in Plato’s dialogue Meno (82b–85b), they see the teacher’s role as that of a sympathetic guide, drawing out the child’s innate abilities, and school as a facility to enable this by providing books, experimental apparatus and so forth, and a structured environment. In this picture, education is a pleasant experience for all involved, pursued for its own sake. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University is a classic exposition of this ideal; Montessori schools embody it to this day.

The Gradgrind tendency, by contrast, has a more starkly industrial approach. They are manufacturing a product for the marketplace; nothing more, nothing less. The aim of education is to drill the child into a knowledge of useful facts (and, less obviously, a set of useful habits). A successfully educated child can regurgitate these facts on command. This can readily be measured and quantified. Whether or not this is pleasant for either pupil or teacher is only material to the extent that sugaring the pill can make the medicine go down more easily. The point is to get it down the child one way or another.

I think it is probably fair to say that most teachers would prefer to be Plato, and most Secretaries of State for Education would prefer them to be Mr Gradgrind. This tension runs through our entire education system.

Why is education compulsory in the UK? Originally it was justified on the grounds that parents would be prevented from putting their children to work, and indeed it is fair to say that a child would have been better off even in Mr Gradgrind’s classroom than up a chimney. That is less of an issue nowadays, however. Wouldn’t most parent want their children to go to school, if it were the Plato model? Indeed, wouldn’t most children want to go there?

Something that emerges clearly from the contrast between the two approaches is that in the first it is the child who is the primary beneficiary, and in the second it is – someone else.

All societies have rules, and well-socialised adults follow them, at least most of the time. An important function of education is to impart knowledge of those rules to the next generation. This is a benefit both to the child, who will know how to fit it, and to the society as a whole. In industrial society, those rules are designed to prepare the child for its future as an employee, as I’ve argued in a previous post.

What the child is not prepared for, however, is its future as a citizen. By this I mean someone who understands their part in (what is supposed to be) a democratic society, and is able to fulfill it. This requires at least three things:

  • The ability to think critically about the utterances of politicians, and in general about the endless blizzard of messages intended to persuade us to buy X or believe Y.
  • Knowing how to do research into the facts of the case, so that one can accept or reject such statements on a sounder basis than mere prejudice. One could characterise this more generally as knowing how to learn.
  • Being able to participate in a discussion in which the aim is to establish the truth rather than to score points; perhaps even being open to having one’s mind changed.

I am not arguing that all children should be made to read classical philosophers in the original, although it would be no bad thing if more of them did. I merely wish them to be given the tools with which to engage in the political process. Perhaps more people would do so if they had them; it might even improve voter turnout.

Now one does not have to be a cynic to imagine that there are some influential people who would find this scenario uncomfortable. Tragic though this may be, I still suggest it would be of benefit to society as a whole. Incidentally, those skills will be useful to anyone who needs to adapt to a new situation and find new solutions. Today’s children are certainly going to find themselves in that category.

Through no fault of their own, however, the bulk of the adult population, certainly in the UK and I suspect in most industrial countries, has not been provided with these tools. Even the graduates of our finest universities are deficient in them, if the example of our current Prime Minister is anything to go by. Most people, I think, have enough sense to be aware that they are being sold a pup; trust in the mainstream media seems to be declining, and I suspect that trust in online newsfeeds will follow the same trend, if it hasn’t already. The question is, how are people to fill the resulting vacuum?

The collapse of political discourse is evident – compare the Lincoln-Douglas debates with anything said during the last few US presidential elections – and unsurprising. In the words of former US President and all-round sage George W Bush: “You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.” Education should be aiming to minimise the number of such people. It is failing to do so.

Ironically, the UK education system is also failing in Mr Gradgrind’s terms, according to the very employers who are its real customers. Institutional reform appears unlikely, although I expect plenty of tinkering. Homeschooling was increasing in popularity even before the pandemic, but it isn’t for everyone; as I pointed out above, few families can afford the time.

But education is more than schooling. Personally, I learned at least as much out of school as in it. I was lucky enough to be brought up by parents who believed in the value of education; they came from that tradition in the working class that gave rise to things like the Workers’ Educational Association. When I came to read Plato, I was reminded of the discussions that used to take place at home. Even though we weren’t well-off, there were always books.

It was the formal educational system that gave me the bits of paper which have made me (more or less) acceptable to employers over the years. That’s not, however, the same as an education. I know which has the more lasting value. Nor did my education cease when I graduated. Yours needn’t either – but then you’re reading this blog, so you probably already knew that.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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