Let’s give children the ‘store of human knowledge’

In flattering kids as ‘digital natives’ for whom the past is irrelevant, we degrade a vital adult mission: transmitting knowledge.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics

In virtually every Western society, education is in trouble. Unfortunately, however, policymakers tend to obsess only about the symptoms of the problem – unsatisfactory standards in core subjects, growth of a cohort of poorly schooled underachievers or erosion of classroom discipline – and not the cause.

Yet the main reason education often is not educating is because it finds it difficult to give meaning to human experience. Time and again, curriculum specialists inform us that because we live in a world of rapid change, the conventions and practices of the past have become outmoded, outdated or irrelevant. Present educational fads are based on the premise that because we live in a new, digitally driven society, the intellectual legacy of the past and the experience of grown-ups have little significance for the schooling of children.

The implicit assumption that adults have little to teach children is rarely made explicit. But there is a growing tendency to flatter children through suggesting that their values are more enlightened than those of their elders because they are more tuned in to the present. So children are often represented as digital natives who are way ahead of their text-bound and backward-looking parents.

Although education is celebrated as one of the most important institutions of society, there is a casual disrespect for the content of what children are taught. Curriculum engineers often display indifference, if not contempt, for abstract thought and the knowledge developed in the past. Both are criticised for being irrelevant or outdated; only new information that can be applied and acted on is seen as suitable for the training – and it is training and not teaching – of digital natives.

In policy deliberations about education, the acquisition of subject-based knowledge is often dismissed as old-fashioned. Typically, an emphasis on the intellectual content of classroom subjects is labelled an outdated form of scholasticism that has little significance in our era. Policymakers often represent change as an omnipotent force that renders prevailing forms of knowledge and schooling redundant. In such circumstances, education must transform itself to keep up with the times. From this perspective, educational policies can be justified only if they can adapt to change.

Since they are likely to be overtaken by events, classroom innovations by definition have a short-term and provisional status. The instability that afflicts the education system is turned into the normal state of an institution that needs to be responsive to the uncertain flow of events. Although fads come and go, the constant feature of today’s throwaway pedagogy is a deep-seated hostility to teaching academic subjects to young people, especially to those who come from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. So-called modernisers regard the subject-based curriculum as far too rigid for a school system that must adapt to a constantly changing world. The dramatisation of change in Anglo-American education-speak renders the past irrelevant. If indeed we continually move from one new age to another, then the practices of the past have little relevance for today.

Sadly, the ceaseless repetition of the idea that the past is irrelevant desensitises people from understanding the influence of the legacy of human development on their lives. The constant talk of ceaseless change tends to naturalise it and turn it into an omnipotent autonomous force that subjects human beings to its will. This is a force that annihilates the past and demands that people learn to adapt and readapt to new experiences. From this standpoint, humans do not so much determine their future as adapt to forces beyond their control.

In the worldview of the educational establishment change has acquired a sacred character that determines what is taught. It creates new requirements and introduces new ideas about learning. And it encourages the mass production of a disposable pedagogy. Educationalists adopt the rhetoric of ‘breaks’ and ‘ruptures’ and maintain that nothing is as it was and that the present has been decoupled from the past. Their outlook is shaped by an imagination that is so overwhelmed by the displacement of the old by the new that it often overlooks historical experience that may continue to be relevant.

The discussion of the relationship between education and change is frequently overwhelmed by the fad of the moment and with the relatively superficial symptoms of new developments. It is often distracted from acknowledging the fact the fundamental educational needs of students do not alter every time a new technology influences people’s lives. And certainly the questions raised by Greek philosophy, Renaissance poetry, Enlightenment science or the novels of George Eliot continue to be relevant for students in our time and not just to the period that preceded the digital age.

Often change and social transformation are represented as if they are unique to our time. Innovation guru Bill Law makes this pronouncement: ‘We may not know precisely what shape the future will take but we do know that the futures of our current students will not much resemble those of our past ones.’ But when did we last think the future of our children would resemble our own? Not in 1969, or in 1939 or even 1909.

The idea that we live in a qualitatively different world serves as a premise for the claim that the knowledge and insights of the past have only minor historical significance. In education it is claimed that old ways of teaching are outdated precisely because they are old. Knowledge itself is called into question because in a world of constant flux it must be continually overtaken by events. Policy has become so focused on keeping up with change that it has become distracted from the task of giving meaning to education.

The fetishisation of change is symptomatic of a mood of intellectual malaise, where notions of truth, knowledge and meaning have acquired a provisional character. Perversely, the transformation of change into a metaphysical force haunting humanity actually desensitises society from distinguishing between a passing novelty and qualitative change. That is why lessons learned through the experience of the past are so important for helping society face the future. When change is objectified, it turns into spectacle that distracts society from valuing the truths and insights it has acquired throughout the best moments of human history. Yet these are truths that have emerged through attempts to find answers to the deepest and most durable questions facing us, and the more the world changes the more we need to draw on our cultural and intellectual inheritance.

If the legacy of past achievements has ceased to have relevance for the schooling of young people, what can education mean? Thinkers from across the left-right divide have always realised that education represents a transaction between the generations. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker, wrote ‘in reality each generation educates the new generation’. Writing from a conservative perspective, English philosopher Michael Oakeshott concluded ‘education in its most general significance may be recognised as a specific transaction which may go on between the generations of human beings in which newcomers to the scene are initiated into the world they inhabit’. Liberal political philosopher Hannah Arendt said education provided an opportunity for society to preserve and to renew its intellectual inheritance through an intergenerational conversation.

One of the key tasks of education is to teach children about the world as it is. Although society is subject to the forces of change, education needs to acquaint young people with the legacy of its past. The term ‘learning from the past’ is often used as a platitude. Yet it is impossible to engage with the future unless people do draw on the centuries of human experience. Individuals gain an understanding of themselves through familiarity with the unfolding of the human world.

The transition from one generation to another requires education to transmit an understanding of the lessons learned by humanity through the ages. Consequently, the main mission of education is to preserve the past so young people have the cultural and intellectual resources to deal with the challenges they face. This understanding of education as renewal stands in direct contrast to the present predilection to focus the curriculum on the future.

In Anglo-American societies, curriculum-planning is devoted to cultivating an ethos of flexibility towards the future. Of course, the capacity to adapt is a valuable asset. But the exercise of this capacity requires a grounding in an understanding of the world in which we live. The question of the balance that education should strike between orienting towards the past and towards a changing world should be a source of debate. However, today, when policymakers tend to be so fixated on the present that they attempt to distance education from the past, it is essential to reaffirm the importance of a traditional humanist education.

The impulse to free education from the past is influenced by a prejudice that regards ideas that are not of the moment as old-fashioned and irrelevant. Yet the project of preserving the past through education does not mean an uncritical acceptance of the world as it; it means the assumption of adult responsibility for the world into which the young are integrated. The aim of this act is to acquaint the young with the world as it is so that they have the intellectual resources necessary for renewing it. Through education, all the important old questions are re-raised with the young, leading to a dialogue that moves humanity’s conversation forward.

Education needs to conserve the past. As Arendt argued, conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of education. Her objective was not to conserve for the sake of nostalgia, but because she recognised that the conservation of the old provided the foundation for renewal and innovation. The characterisation of conservation as the essence of education can be easily misunderstood as a call inspired by a backward or reactionary political agenda. However, the argument for conservation is based on the understanding that, in a generational transaction, adults must assume responsibility for the world as it is and pass on its cultural and intellectual legacy to young people.

An attitude of conservation is called for specifically in the context of intergenerational transmission of this legacy. Until recently, leading thinkers from across the ideological divide understood the significance of transmitting the knowledge of the past to young people. Conservative thinker Matthew Arnold’s formulation of passing on ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ is virtually identical to Lenin’s insistence that education needs to transmit the ‘store of human knowledge’.

A liberal humanist education is underpinned by the assumption that children are rightful heirs to the legacy of the past. It takes responsibility for ensuring this inheritance is handed over to the young. It is because education gives meaning to human experience that it needs to be valued in its own right. One of the key characteristics of education is its lack of interest in an ulterior purpose. That does not mean it is uninterested in developments affecting children and society; it means that it regards the transmission of cultural and intellectual achievements of humanity to children as its defining mission.

Once society is able to affirm an education system that values itself and the acquisition of knowledge, policymakers and the public can begin to envisage the steps required to deal with the practical challenges facing the classroom.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here. This article was first published in the Australian and is an abridged version of his opening lecture at the Battle of Ideas conference, which took place at the Royal College of Art in London on 31 October/1 November.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi argued that education has been hijacked by single-issue campaign groups with little concern for pedagogy. Jennie Bristow interviewed Frank Furedi about this latest book, Wasted. Neil Davenport said education was suffering from a low level of ambition. Elsewhere, he argued that the establishment are making learning uncool. Michele Ledda felt that children ought be challenged by subjects. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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