Intrusion, intrusion, intrusion

When education becomes about turning young people into obedient, healthy-eating, environmentally aware conformist-citizens, then it is not really education at all.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Books

One of Gordon Brown’s first actions as British prime minister was to abolish the Department for Education and Skills, establishing in its place a Department for Children, Schools and Families, and a Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Keen observers will have noticed that the word education does not appear in either title.

This is no accident. Anyone who has been following education policy in Britain under New Labour (and indeed going back to Thatcher’s Conservatives) will have recognised a predictable assertion of other government priorities in place of education itself: namely socialisation in the first case, and economic competitiveness in the latter. A cynic might see a Department for Lunchbox Inspections and Combating Teenage Pregnancy, and a Department for Training More Boffins than India respectively.

The Corruption of the Curriculum is a collection of essays by teachers in Britain with direct experience of working in schools at a time when ‘education’ is regarded as little more than a means of achieving other ends. Indeed, when those ends float free of the actual content of education, as they increasingly do at secondary level in particular, it is not so much that education is used instrumentally, as sidelined altogether while schools get on with supposedly more important things. The strength of the book is that, far from being made up of vague bluster about ‘standards’ or ‘dumbing down’, each chapter takes a particular academic subject and shows precisely how it is being corrupted, or hollowed out, by political manipulation of the curriculum.

It is important to distinguish between instrumentalism in its traditional sense, which to some extent still dominates government thinking about higher education and especially scientific research, and the current subordination of education to more questionable policy goals. For example, one might expect an instrumentalist approach to school science to be focused on teaching the basic facts and skills necessary to prepare more young people to train as scientists in particular fields with a proven social or economic utility, albeit perhaps at the expense of a more rounded appreciation of science as a creative enterprise, and the opportunity to lark about with bunsen burners. (In fact, at school level, a traditional instrumentalist approach to science education may be indistinguishable from a properly humanist one.) Instead, as physics teacher David Perks shows in his chapter, the current trend, embodied in the new science GCSE, is to focus on ‘issues’ surrounding science at the expense of science itself.

This is not about using science education as a means to a simple economic end, but subordinating science to a quite separate citizenship agenda. Perks explains that, ‘The reason given for the change is a desire to empower students as future citizens and consumers of science, rather than to train them as future scientists – the producers of science.’ The idea of ‘science for citizenship’ is in part a response to perceived public distrust of scientists, and by extension the political establishment, on such issues as genetically modified (GM) crops, the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine (MMR), and nuclear power. But as Perks shows, there is no evidence that teaching general ‘scientific literacy’ can counter anti-science sentiments, much less rebuild civil society as some advocates suggest.

Worse, this approach both neglects the three actual scientific disciplines and necessarily over-simplifies the other questions involved. If we eschew boring old molecular chemistry in favour of a more ‘relevant’ consideration of the issues surrounding complementary medicine, for example, schoolchildren ‘will inevitably end up rote-learning curtailed and largely inappropriate explanations of scientific epistemology and public health policy, which will be of little use to them outside the classroom’. This is not ‘instrumentalism’, so much as a hijacking of the education system for ill-considered political purposes that don’t make sense anyway.

Other chapters on geography, history, modern languages, maths and English make clear that the same trend is happening throughout the system. The loss of faith in the value of traditional academic subjects, and in the ability of children to study them, is a hugely significant development, the causes of which lie beyond the scope of the book. Suffice to say that it has opened the door for a host of other government priorities, from citizenship to environmentalism and cultural diversity, which now dominate the curriculum almost regardless of the subject ostensibly being taught.

Importantly, while the corruption of the curriculum undoubtedly amounts to political meddling, education is not being ‘politicised’ in the sense that it is a matter of political debate. What political disputes there are concerning education – about the Tories and grammar schools, about whether or not we should encourage faith schools, or even about academic selection – do not begin to touch on the crucial developments described in the book. Despite its obvious failings, the government’s agenda has the status of common sense, a series of technical reforms to be implemented by experts with the cooperation of the teaching profession, rather than a wholesale redefinition of the role of schools, which ought to be subject to public scrutiny and debate.

Indeed, these developments can only happen because there is so little public engagement in politics in Britain today, such a gulf between the state and citizens. Any considered public debate about what is happening in schools would soon reveal the trends described in the book to be both ill-conceived and destructive. The weakness of civil society is both the premise for the corruption of the curriculum and its rationale, in fact.

Lacking any political or ideological means of cohering society, the government is desperate to use the education system to foster active citizens and create a constituency for itself, despite the lack of any reason to believe that education can achieve this, even if it were desirable. As Michele Ledda, author of the book’s chapter on English, argues, the government hopes to use education and other public services to shape citizens in its own image, instilling in them a belief in the importance of healthy eating, recycling, emotional wellbeing and other shibboleths of New Labour’s depoliticised conception of citizenship (1).

In a memorable passage in her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark has the eponymous heroine explain her philosophy of education to her class of schoolgirls:

‘The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.’

This emphasis on what is already there in the pupil’s soul might sound somewhat hippyish and not very rigorous, but it at least credits the pupil with having a soul. The assumption is that young people are thinking, feeling human beings who can be expected to engage with knowledge and especially the arts, Miss Brodie’s passion. This idea is entirely missing from current educational thinking. While Miss Brodie objects to her headmistress Miss Mackay’s Gradgrind-like insistence on facts, the current emphasis on values is even more intrusive. Rather than filling children’s heads with facts, the idea is to instil them with values, to drill them in how to behave and even feel.

This is not education at all. It is not why teachers go into the profession, and it is not what parents want for their children. The Corruption of the Curriculum is a reminder that meaningful education is embodied in particular subjects and disciplines, which cannot be reduced to mere vehicles for whatever happens to seem topical or relevant at any given time. The book should be the beginning of a debate about education and its true value to society. Those of us who believe that education should be about the liberating power of knowledge rather than indoctrination in values need to make that case publicly, and start challenging the low horizons and conformism pervading school education under New Labour.

Dolan Cummings is editorial director at the Institute of Ideas, and a co-founder of the Manifesto Club, which has an education hub for research and campaigns around humanist education.

The Corruption of the Curriculum by Robert Whelan (ed) is published by Civitas. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA))

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Topics Books


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