Thinking about teaching

Educational philosophy's traditionalists and progressives should put their heads together.

Ruth Chenoweth

Topics Politics

There are two grand ideas of educational philosophy: the progressives, with their child-centred, responsive approach to learning; and the traditionalists, with their liberal education canon transmitted through the authority of the teacher.

In their pure forms they appear to be as far apart as the north and south poles, but they are strangely united in their contempt for the UK National Curriculum.

The progressives despise its rigid control-freakery, cross-curricular barrenness, and obsession with testing. Despite its academic credentials, the National Curriculum comes in for equally vehement condemnation from the traditionalists. In All Must Have Prizes, journalist Melanie Phillips claims that the National Curriculum has been corrupted by progressive ideologues embedded in the education system. Traditionalists bemoan falling standards, knowledge-free content and tedious coursework dumped from the internet.

The two houses of educational thought are now tearing apart the National Curriculum, taking out chunks in the form of scientific literacy, optional languages or compulsory Shakespeare. With its inner coherence broken the National Curriculum staggers on, fatally wounded. In an effort to revive the patient and give it a will to live, the government has prescribed an injection of utilitarianism. Education will be about delivering what the economy needs.

But is this really what education is for? We might know, if educational philosophy was still a subject that people were allowed to talk about – but today’s teachers are not supposed to think philosophically. They are not required to ask questions like: ‘What does it mean to be an educated person?’ Teachers are meant to be technocrats delivering a state-prescribed curriculum and the instruments for driving up standards.

And heaven forbid that we should witness the horrible spectacle of a parent thinking philosophically. After all, parents who prefer a liberal education are elitist, perhaps even racist or sexist, and parents who prefer a progressive education are woolly minded tree-huggers.

Yet these two movements are not enemies – they are siblings, emerging from the shared parentage of the Enlightenment. Each expresses deep human needs for order, knowledge, creativity, spontaneity, intellectual play, truth and mastery. And it is in the creative tension of their sibling rivalry that the future of education lies.

Defending liberal education in The Closing of the American mind, American academic Allan Bloom describes an ideal education as one that frees us to explore the cumulative knowledge of our predecessors, and that gives us profound insight into how to live our lives. In this, he appears to be a straightforward traditionalist – but he also argues that the individual subjects need to break out of their dusty isolationism to help us address important questions.

And there are many important questions to be considered. Scientific advances might lead us to ask: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ If, as some claim, we are on the verge of being able to reshape our bodies, to create artificial intelligence or even new species, then this is a question that we need to answer with some urgency.

But we have hardly begun to equip ourselves or our children with the sophisticated subject-specialised, cross-curricular education that will be needed for such a conversation. It seems terrifyingly possible that our inertia and ignorance will ensure the fulfilment of CS Lewis’ prophetic words from The Abolition of Man: ‘The power of Man to make himself what he pleases [is] the power of some men to make other men what they please.’

Of course, it does not help that we no longer believe that there is any universal knowledge worth having, and believe instead that truth just depends on one’s individual perspective. We prefer to be islands rather than participants in a common human future. To escape the relativist dead-end we may need to exercise some very flabby muscles indeed – those that sustain the motions of philosophical conversation.

The two schools of education may not believe it is possible to reconcile one with the other. But the very act of debate may throw up new possibilities and, at the very least, put educational philosophy where it ought to be – in the minds and on the lips of teachers and parents.

Ruth Chenoweth is a parent governor and an education lobbyist.

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Topics Politics


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