On education

In George Orwell’s prophetic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the various government ministries are named for the opposite of what they actually do: the Ministry of Peace is responsible for the perpetual state of war, the Ministry of Plenty is in charge of rationing, and so on. (I will admit that I was a little worried in 2007 when the UK government created a Ministry of Justice.) Is the Department of Education really that different?

Education is rather like prison, in that nobody is quite sure exactly what it is for. But everyone is quite sure what education – and prison – are supposed to prevent. It’s more explicit with prisons, because there are people that most of us can agree should be locked away to prevent them from doing more harm. My Uncle Raymond is a case in point. I have only the vaguest memory of him as a person, but I’m quite glad he was prevented from carrying on the stuff he was doing.

In theory, education is the “drawing-out” (Latin educare, e(x) (out) ducare (lead or draw, as in conduct), that is to say the drawing out of a child’s innate potential. Those of us with a classical bent – even more bent than having a tendency to reference Latin etymologies – might even be thinking of the passage in Plato’s Meno where Socrates elicits a geometrical proof from a slave-boy, thereboy showing that the slave-boy knew it all along without realising.

In practice, of course, none of this high-mindedness applies. I imagine, dear reader, you passed through at least some fraction of the official educational system in an industrialised nation, as I did. There was not a great deal of drawing-out to be seen. There was, on the other hand, a good deal of putting-in, or at least an attempt at putting-in.

It was the Prussians, God bless them, who laid the foundations of our modern school systems. For various historical reasons, Prussia was very much oriented towards the military, and a key objective of their system was therefore to produce people who would do what they were told. It’s entirely understandable that they should do this. The initial impulse came with Frederick the Great’s Generallandschulreglement at the end of the Seven Years’ War, a conflict in which Prussia was almost annihilated by the combined forces of France, Austria and Russia.

The main features of this regime are: segregating pupils by age, as opposed to (say) aptitude; having a standardised curriculum; and making teaching a profession, rather than something that certain people simply do as a matter of course. In many societies, those people are known as elders. I’d just like to take a moment to point out that industrial civilisation seems to be mysteriously elder-free. Ask yourself if that is a good or healthy thing.

As it turns out, having a general population that will do what you tell it is extraordinarily convenient if you happen to be running a factory. There are, of course, bonus points if those people happen to be drilled in those particular skills that you require. And, of course, the Prussian model has education be a function of the state, so the factory-owner is only paying a relatively small part of the cost. What’s not to like?

I was an exceptionally fortunate child. For one thing, my mother was an infant-school teacher, so I knew how to read before I ever went to school, as did both my siblings. (This caused much consternation when I got there, as it violated the rule that children of age X must know exactly Y, neither more nor less.) For another thing, my father had grown up in a family imbued with the spirit of working-class self-improvement that produced institutions like the Workers’ Educational Association and Ruskin College. The house I grew up in was therefore filled with books, and while we never had much money I always knew as a child that I could rely on my Dad to spring for an interesting book (always second-hand).

In many ways, therefore, my actual education occurred outside the official system. I regarded that as merely a system of hoops through which I needed to jump in order to obtain the various totemic pieces of paper which it can provide and to access the promised land of university. I did that, and I can’t complain too much about the results, but as a system of education it was not impressive.

Here’s the thing. Nobody emerges from the womb exactly the same as anyone else. Even identical twins have their differences (ask one if you don’t believe me). Therefore treating every child as if they were a lump of pig-iron is never going to bring out the best in them. There are kids who are ready to learn to read at the age of three. There are kids who aren’t ready to learn to read until the age of seven. Maybe there are even kids who never need to learn to read at all. (After all, nobody did until we came up with writing just a few short millennia ago.) To decree some arbitrary standard for all children is to guarantee that many will fail.

When I first went to school, I could already read to a reasonable standard. In a system designed to draw out the pupil’s talents, this would have been a cause for celebration. Of course, it was a complete disaster. I was taught to read a second time using a thing called the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which I’d like to think has died in a fire now, and with excellent reason. If that had any educational value at all, which I doubt, it prepared me slightly for the study of Greek, which also has a phonetic alphabet. Although their only shared character ɷ is pronounced differently, so go figure. Even at the time, the whole thing seemed like an attempt to retard my education, not advance it.

In every human society – in all places and at all times – there has been some process to convert a newborn infant into a functioning adult who can participate fully in that society. That process will be different where different results are required; it is one thing to be an Inuit hunter and quite another to be a Roman senator or a Javascript developer in California. But there will be some process there, and that, in the broadest sense, is education.

One of the oddest things about our civilisation, compared to the way most human societies seem to have managed this throughout history, is the way this process has been formalised. Nobody amongst the !Kung bushmen holds a diploma in the gathering of mongongo nuts. It’s just something you learn how to do when you live in the Kalahari.

It may be that in a couple of generations’ time the fetish for certification will have been abandoned. I’d like to think people could once again arrive at a way of living fitting to the challenges of their actual lives. But in order to get there, we will need to rediscover a kind of creativity and flexibility that our ancestors knew but which is utterly foreign to the kind of education we are foisting on our children today. If I had school-age children today, I think I’d want them to be home-schooled. After all, in most respects, I was.

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

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