Why teachers should aspire to be scholars

Too many educationalists today believe an intellectually informed curriculum is only suitable for the elites and not the masses.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

One of the central characters in Glee, the American musical comedy-drama series, is high-school Spanish teacher Mr Schue. In one episode, he is reported by a student of his for being a poor teacher. It turns out that he doesn’t speak Spanish and only took the job because no other teaching positions were available. Towards the end of the episode, Mr Schue resigns so that a genuine Spanish speaker can take over. We learn that he will now teach history, since there is an open position available in this subject. Presumably Mr Schue’s lack of expertise in history is not an obstacle to his teaching it.

Sadly, Mr Schue is not simply an invention of a TV show. Nor is the phenomenon of the unqualified secondary-school teacher confined to the United States. According to the UK Department of Education, tens of thousands of teachers have no qualification in the subject they teach. Is it any surprise that young people leaving school often lack basic knowledge of maths when more than a quarter of mathematics teachers have no qualification in their subject? More than 20 per cent of English teachers have no higher than an A-level in their subject and the situation is far worse in subjects like physics and geography. The teaching of languages is particularly affected by the absence of qualified teachers. The majority of Spanish teachers and a third of German teachers do not possess a relevant university degree.

Of course, it could be argued that you do not need a first-class degree in mathematics or history or French to be an effective and inspiring teacher of that subject. There are many teachers of physics and biology who, because of their intellectual interest in their subject, have become self-taught masters of their discipline. But a high-quality system of education depends on a cohort of teachers who have mastered their subject to the point that they can use their scholarship to guide their pupils through difficult intellectual terrain.

What the figures suggest is that far too many teachers in English schools lack the academic knowledge required to develop intellectually their pupils. This is not a minor problem. The act of learning and the very pursuit of knowledge require pupils to accept the authority of the subject through its representative in the classroom, namely, the teacher. When children go to school, they rely on their teachers to help them comprehend new forms of knowledge.

Not taking scholarship seriously

The trouble with England’s school system is not simply the relative absence of qualified teachers, but the fact that this is not seen as a problem by the education establishment. Sadly, the education establishment finds it difficult to believe in the power of ideas. Instead of encouraging teachers to gain a mastery of their subjects so that they can go on to inspire their students with the quality of their ideas, pedagogues prefer to put their faith in motivational techniques to manage classroom behaviour.

Most of the so-called reforms and educational innovations of the past three decades have side-stepped the question of how best to cultivate the intellectual development of young people. Instead they draw upon market and psychological research to devise schemes that promise to motivate students. Hope is invested in the capacity of this new psycho-pedagogy – learning styles, brain functioning, thinking skills, emotional intelligence or multiple intelligence – to engage students. This pedagogy is fixated on learning styles but cares little for the knowledge to be learnt. The minor status assigned to knowledge by current pedagogy reflects its studied indifference towards the intellectual content of education. Worse still, schools are influenced by a pedagogy that has little faith in the potential of academic education to transform and develop children. That is why teaching without having demonstrated mastery of an academic subject is not seen as a big deal.

Education may serve a variety of different purposes, but unless a central role is assigned to the acquisition of subject-based knowledge, it is not really education. Only through the acquisition of such knowledge can children transcend the limits of their experience and gain the intellectual independence required to make their way in the world. It is regrettable that in the twenty-first century it is not always possible to assume that schools are prepared to uphold this sentiment. One reason why the central role of the acquisition of subject-based knowledge needs to be upheld is because so much of what goes by the name of ‘pedagogic innovation’ has been frequently designed to undermine pedagogy.

Most parents and non-specialists would be surprised to discover that many educationalists have a very low opinion of a subject-based curriculum devoted to the cultivation of children’s knowledge of history, literature, maths or science. These days, professional educators frequently refer to an academic curriculum as an irrelevant, elitist, nineteenth-century relic. They take the view that a subject-based curriculum belongs to the Victorian past. Since intellectual and scientific development occurred, and continues to occur, through distinct academic subjects, it is far from evident why a curriculum based on these disciplines should be outdated. The knowledge that children gain through the study of these subjects is no more outdated today than it was a 100 or 200 years ago.

The charge that an academic curriculum is outdated is rarely informed by a serious reflection on the content of subjects. The justification for this hostility to a subject-based curriculum is not that maths, science, history and literature have become less relevant to life today than in the nineteenth century. Rather such criticisms are usually justified on political or social-engineering grounds. More specifically, a subject-based curriculum is blamed for perpetuating an elitist culture of schooling. It is frequently asserted that a subject-led education discriminates against children from poor homes because they are likely to struggle with its intellectual content.

There is little doubt that children from poor homes are likely to face difficulties when they engage with a school culture informed by an ethos of scholarship. Indeed most children – including those from the middle classes – are likely to be stretched by an academic school culture. However, the role of educators is to establish an environment where children are helped to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of attaining a good academic education. Decrying the value of such an education avoids confronting the challenge of how to provide quality education to everyone regardless of their social circumstances. It also significantly underestimates the human capacity for learning. Sadly, the currently fashionable pedagogy of limits distracts society’s energies from realising the formidable potential that education has in inspiring young people to develop their intellectual powers.

There was a time when radical educational reformers sought to provide working-class people with the opportunity to gain access to a curriculum with a high level of intellectual content. As the academic Harold Entwistle recalls, the issue for these reformers was ‘discovering ways of bringing to the socially and economically disadvantaged the benefits of the kind of education which has traditionally been reserved to the ruling class’ (1). This approach was forcefully argued by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who believed that the problem with the kind of education monopolised by the elites was that the rest of society was prevented from gaining access to it (2). In contrast to Gramsci’s valuation of the ‘great works of European culture’, today’s reformers assume that such a classical education is elitist and therefore not suitable for a national curriculum.

It is hardly surprising that in an age where education was the ‘property of the privileged, the subjects thought worthy of inclusion in a curriculum were intellectual’, states a report hostile to knowledge-led schooling. Instead of proposing that this kind of education ought to be available to everyone, the authors of the report acquiesce to the age-old prejudice that an academic education is not suitable for the mass of students. They insist that ‘the classical and elite model containing a narrow range of intellectual knowledge and skill is inappropriate for an age of universal education’ (3). Typically, intellectual knowledge, which has a unique capacity to expand the mind and the imagination, is caricatured as narrow. But, paradoxically, this polemic against the classical model is based on assumptions that are surprisingly similar to those held by the elites that they criticise. For today’s anti-subjects crusaders implicitly agree with traditional hierarchical educators on one important point: an intellectually informed curriculum is only suitable for the elites and not for the education of the masses.

Criticism of the ‘knowledge model’ of education is often expressed through statements that explicitly question the authority of knowledge. One recurring argument used to contest the knowledge-led curriculum is that it is quickly outdated in an ever-changing world. It appears that since ‘what is known to be true changes by the hour’, the ‘rote learning of facts must give way to the nurturing through education of essential transferable skills’ (4). Typically, ‘truth’ is represented as a momentary epiphenomenon and knowledge acquisition is caricatured as the ‘rote learning of facts’. The representation of truth and of knowledge as an unstable and transitory phenomenon has become an unstated, core assumption of opponents of an academically based school curriculum. A position statement by a teachers’ union asserts that ‘a twenty-first century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core for the simple reason that the selection of what is required has become problematic in an information-rich age’.

The claim that transmitting knowledge to children loses its relevance in an information-rich age fails to understand the distinction between knowledge and information. A society’s knowledge gives meaning to new information. It allows people to interpret new facts and helps society to understand what significance to attach to new information. Through the appropriation of new experience, knowledge itself develops. But the latest knowledge is organically linked to what preceded it. Scepticism towards the authority of knowledge implicitly calls into question the meaning of education itself. Once the knowledge of the past is rendered obsolete, what can education mean? If ‘what is known to be true changes by the hour’, what is there left to teach? The alternative offered to the knowledge-based curriculum is an agenda that encourages students to acquire skills that allow them to adapt to a constantly changing environment. From this perspective, what’s important is not what students know but their ability to adapt to new circumstances.

And this is where we come back to Mr Schue. He is an adaptable classroom manager whose lack of knowledge does not inhibit him from teaching a language he does not understand. After all, from the perspective of current, throwaway pedagogy, what is there to teach in our information-rich environment?

But there is no point in blaming Mr Schue. The real problem lies not with unqualified teachers, but with an ethos that discourages them from aspiring to the status of scholars.

The current debates among policymakers regarding the examination system and the content of the curriculum need to shift focus on to the teacher. Restoring the intellectual authority of teachers, and encouraging them to gain academic depth in their subject, is the precondition for improving education. That requires an almighty challenge to the philistine attitude prevailing in the educational establishment today.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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