The philistines have taken over the classroom

ESSAY: How did we get to a situation where teachers are even more cavalier about knowledge and serious schooling than politicians are?

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

In virtually every Western society, education is in trouble.

In part, the crisis of schooling is a product of the politicisation of education. In recent decades, education has been transformed into an instrument of public policy, a means for achieving objectives that are entirely external to learning. Education is now expected to put right the failures of adult society, to transform apathetic youngsters into responsible citizens. Education is meant to promote social mobility, multiculturalism, responsible sex, sound financial behaviour and emotional wellbeing, and to provide youngsters with a variety of key skills.

The instrumental transformation of education into a vehicle for achieving policy objectives means that it is rarely appreciated as something valuable in its own right. Education has been so instrumentalised that its main function is now to ‘provide skills’. The teaching of knowledge itself, for its own sake, is frequently dismissed as an old-fashioned custom that is not relevant to the twenty-first century.

That policymakers confuse education with training is regrettable, but understandable. Far more worrying is the fact that a significant section of the teaching profession has also embraced the philistine skills agenda. Indeed, Britain’s education establishment is if anything more ideologically devoted to instrumental pedagogy than is the Lib-Con coalition government. This became painfully clear at the recent conferences of English teachers’ unions, where opposition to the government was often expressed through denunciations of knowledge-based curricula.

So we heard Alex Kenny, a member of the executive of the National Union of Teachers, dismiss the government’s new national curriculum on the grounds that it is ‘high on content and low on skills’. Numerous delegates attacked the curriculum’s emphasis on core knowledge. A survey of 2,000 NUT members revealed that two thirds of teachers are hostile to the government’s plans to place less emphasis on skills.

This means we have a paradoxical situation, where politicians seem to take the teaching of subject-based knowledge more seriously than educators do. The philistine attitude towards education adopted by some NUT delegates was exposed most strikingly through their confusion of knowledge with facts. Kenny, for instance, said a knowledge-based curriculum is one ‘based on pub quiz-style chinks of information’. The NUT’s general secretary, Christine Blower, equated the acquisition of knowledge with rote learning and said ‘it doesn’t promote the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are essential for good quality learning’. Her words reflect the current wisdom of utilitarian pedagogy: learning and skills are better than education.

Knowledge and skills

In any discussion about the relationship between analytical skills and knowledge, it is easy to become one-sided. Often, too much of a polarising distinction is made between knowledge and its application. It is possible to make a distinction: knowledge is accomplished through learning principles, concepts and facts, while skills represent the capacity to use that knowledge in specific contexts. But in reality, these two things are inextricably bound together. The gaining of knowledge, particularly deep knowledge, requires such skills as the capacity to conceptualise, compare and critically engage.

Education unleashes a dynamic process in which a greater depth of knowledge can be achieved through application – that is, through using the power of abstraction or experiment. Through the greater acquisition of knowledge, one becomes more sensitive to, and better at, applying it. Contrary to the NUT executive’s prioritisation of skills provision, it is knowledge that provides children with the capacity to conceptualise, compare and abstract. Knowledge is logically prior to analytical skills. The logical priority of knowledge does not mean skills are unimportant, or even less important. It simply means that disciplinary knowledge provides the intellectual and cultural foundation for the exercise of what Aristotle called phronesis: the virtue of practical thought.

Critics of the ‘knowledge model’ of education are often really calling into question the authority of knowledge itself. The pedagogic devaluation of a knowledge-based curriculum is fuelled by a powerful anti-intellectual ethos that refuses to take ideas seriously. From this philistine perspective, knowledge is reducible to facts and information. Accordingly, acquiring knowledge is seen as being akin to memorising facts. Hence the misleading depiction of knowledge acquisition as a form of ‘rote learning’.

One recurring argument against knowledge-led curricula is that they quickly become outdated in our ever-changing world. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says that since ‘what is known to be true changes by the hour’, the ‘rote learning of facts must give way to nurturing through education of essential transferable skills’ (1). ‘Truth’ is depicted as a momentary epiphenomenon, and knowledge acquisition is caricatured as the ‘rote learning of facts’.

The view of truth and knowledge as unstable, transitory things is now widespread among opponents to rigorous, academic-based school curricula. The position statement of one 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’. Once again, critics fail to distinguish between knowledge and information. It is society’s knowledge that gives meaning to new information, through allowing people to interpret new facts and helping society to understand what significance or otherwise should be attached to such facts. Far from allowing the so-called ‘information age’ to undermine knowledge, we should trust knowledge, treated and transmitted seriously, to help people negotiate information highways.

Through appropriating new experiences and ideas, knowledge itself develops. But the ‘latest knowledge’ is always organically linked to that which preceded it. Today’s scepticism towards the authority of knowledge implicitly calls into question the meaning of education itself. Once the knowledge of the past is rendered obsolescent, what can education mean? If ‘what is known to be true changes by the hour’, what is there left to teach?

Educationalists often talk about ‘breaks’ and ‘ruptures’, claiming that nothing is as it was and that the present has been decoupled from the past. Their worldview is shaped by great short-termism, by a feeling of being so overwhelmed by the displacement of the old by the new that they forget that historical experience may actually continue to be relevant to our lives. Discussions about the relationship between education and change are frequently overwhelmed by fads and by the superficial symptoms of new developments. This overlooks the fact that the fundamental educational needs of students do not alter every time a new technology is invented. Certainly the questions raised by Greek philosophy, Renaissance poetry, Enlightenment science or the novels of George Eliot continue to be relevant for students in this age, just as they were to students who lived and studied long before the dawning of the Digital Age.

Knowledge is not simply the sum total of a body of facts; it is based on concepts, theories and specific structures of thought. So even if some of the content of knowledge changes in line with new developments, its structure and concepts can retain their significance for very long periods of time. Geometric theorems may be contested over time, but they nonetheless express a body of knowledge that transcends centuries.

Understanding change

The fetishisation of change, the obsession with ‘rupture’, speaks to today’s intellectual malaise, in which truth, knowledge and meaning are treated as provisional and arbitrary things. Perversely, the transformation of change into a metaphysical force haunting humanity actually weakens society’s ability to distinguish between a passing novelty and a qualitative change. That is why lessons learned through the experiences and knowledge of the past are so important for helping society face the future. When change is objectified, it turns into a spectacle, something we observe rather than affect; we become cavalier about the truths and insights that emerged from and through the greatest moments in human history. Yet these truths came from attempts to find answers to many of the deepest, most durable questions facing humanity, and the more the world changes, the more we need to draw on our cultural and intellectual inheritance from the past.

If the legacy of the past ceases to have relevance to the schooling of young people, what can education mean? Historically, serious thinkers from across the left-right divide recognised that education is a transaction between generations. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, wrote that ‘in reality each generation educates the new generation’. From a conservative perspective, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott said ‘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’. The liberal political philosopher Hannah Arendt said education provides an opportunity for society both to preserve and to renew its intellectual inheritance through an intergenerational conversation.

One of the principal tasks of education is to teach children about the world as it is and how it became that way. Although society is continually changing, education needs to acquaint young people with the legacy of the past. The term ‘learning from the past’ is often said sneeringly – yet it is impossible for people to engage with the future if they do not draw on the insights and knowledge from centuries of human experience. Individuals gain an understanding of themselves through becoming familiar with the unfolding of the human world.

In essence, the main mission of education is to preserve the past so that the young have the cultural and intellectual resources they need to deal with the challenges of the future. This understanding of education as renewal stands in direct contrast to the current trend for elevating change and unpredictability in the curriculum. Too often in modern Anglo-American societies, curriculum-planning is about cultivating an ethos of flexibility towards the future; of course, the capacity to adapt is a valuable asset, but exercising this capacity requires that we have an intellectual and moral grounding in knowledge and past gains.

The question of what balance education should strike between the gains of the past and the changes of the present and the future should be a constant source of debate. Today, however, when policymakers and pedagogues tend to be so fixated on the present that they seek 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 driven by a view of all ideas that are not of the moment as old-fashioned and irrelevant. Yet preserving the past through education does not mean uncritically accepting the world as it is; it means assuming adult responsibility for the world into which the young are integrated. The aim should be to acquaint the young with the world as it is so that they have the intellectual resources necessary for renewing it, for moving the human conversation forward.

A liberal humanist education is underpinned by a conviction that children are the rightful heirs to the achievements and legacy of the past. It is precisely because education gives meaning to the human experience that it needs to be valued in its own right. One of the principal characteristics of education should be a lack of interest in any ulterior purpose. That does not mean that it is uninterested in developments affecting children and society; it means that it regards transmitting the cultural and intellectual achievements of humanity to children as its defining mission. Once society is able to uphold an education system that values itself and the acquisition of knowledge, policymakers and the public can start thinking about what practical steps might be required to deal with current challenges in the classroom.

Frank Furedi’s new book, Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published by Palgrave Macmillan later this week. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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