Is the present secondary state education system letting down our young?
According to this article, 'The Reader Gets Angry', the answer is un unhesitating and unequivocal 'yes'.
Before moving onto the arguments and the objections to them, let's clarify some assumptions. Common sense tells us that education should be free to all and everyone should have equal access to it regardless of race, creed, colour. These oft-repeated principles of equality and freedom are very powerful almost to the point of banality. Now we know, don't we, that nothing is really free - someone, somwhere pays for what others may regard as being free. Based on this idea, let's add to this another assumption: education is a political tool that can be used (or misused) to shape the minds of a generation of youth. It is a tool, moreover, whose power is usually centralised in the hands of the existing Government. This can have its advantages, but it can also be dangerous as the article suggests.
Government shapes its education policy based on certain key values associated with those principles of equality and freedom mentioned earlier. As is often the case with the realm of Ethics, this often leads to a clash of values and raises the question: who decides on which values should determine the delivery of education? Government? So here's another key question which leads to our final assumption: if education is centralised in Government and Government makes policy based on its perception of what is and is not educationally valuable, who actually makes sure that these values get promoted in schools? Answer: Government civil-servants provide the educational framework which embodies its core values and pass it on to the school managers who enforce (if you permit this extremely emotive word) it upon the teachers. And teachers either disagree with this approach to education (which is relatively rare these days) or, as the article suggests, become 'fatalistic'. There are two main consequences: first, the advent of mediocrity in school managers and teachers alike, inherited from the bureaucracy of Government institutions. Second, the students always suffer in the end.
Let's look more closely at the article itself and the comments posted on the website on which the article was originally published, in order to unfold some of the values embedded in our thinking about the purpose of education. What we find are two sets of educational values: those promoted by so-called 'educationalists' (usually Government civil servants or other pawns of Governement agencies) and those that are closest to our own sense of being teachers with a vocation.
The core values of education (according to 'educationalists')
1. Anti-intellectualism : This is what happens when the educational system is structured in the same way as Government organises itself - every aspect of thinking and working is micromanaged until it becomes mechanical, deadened.
- inaccessible ('intellectual') literature or even teachers should be avoided in the classroom
- language structures not needed in the day to day communication of the work place should not be taught in the classroom
- 'learning by doing' is the best approach in the classroom and linguistic learning should be sacrificed - the 'manual labour' or 'apprenticeship' approach
- instructions play a more important part than explanations
- knowledge is irrelevant to teaching
- grammar is obsolete and has no place in teaching
2. Inclusion : This is the guise in which the principle of egalitarianism parades itself in education - it means, in short, that everyone has the right to be treated equally, even if (and especially if) this means dragging down educational standards to the lowest common denominator (are we getting close to communism?)
- all kinds of difference must be negated in the classroom - it must be an 'inclusive' environment
- treat students as infants or invalids and make them rely on teacher like a child relies on a nursemaid or babysitter (effectively, this is what the teaching role becomes - ask anyone who has covered a lesson for an absent teacher)
- the pursuit of topicality is paramount - cultural references should be limited to popular and celebrity culture and idolised as such an not questioned in any way
- Avoid class discussion or note-taking since it can exclude those who can't or don't want to take part in exchanging ideas and interpretations
3. Classism : This manisfests itself in the divergent expectations we must have of students as inherent in the various 'initiatives' through which teachers are to support them.
- avoid expecting too much of students - do not expose them to abstract ideas
- illiteracy is something precious that ought to be preserved - it keeps the masses unthinking and unquestioning so they cannot or never want to change things
- minimise the ability gap between the highest and lowest achievers (even though this conflicts with the setting of students in some schools)
- 'gifted and talented' students set them apart from low-achievers who can never raise themselves to this level
- students' minds cannot (and therefore should not) be changed
- students' backgrounds are their fate and these cannot be overcome
The core values of education (according to the 'vocationalists')
1. Growth : students must be encouraged to be the best that they can be and to create the best possible society in which to grow and adapt.
- education ought to expand one’s horizons
- students should be introduced consistently to new ideas
- study involves internalising knowledge, making a body of knowledge one's own
- students must be encouraged to work hard
- students must be shown how to raise themselves to equality not to sink down towards it
2. Creativity : students must be encouraged to experiment, to make mistakes and to fail in the classroom before they go into the world.
- words, grammatical structures, are a way of modelling our world - students should be allowed to play with language
- students should be trained to think for themselves, to question everything
- inspiration through sharing, decent discussion
- building a 'community of enquiry' ('Philosophy for Children')
3. Eloquence : students must be given strategies to make a unique mark on the world in a way that is at once expressive, elegant and graceful.
- encourage reading for its own sake and the use of dictionaries to empower students to speak and write well
- prioritise self-expression as a means of giving students a way of standing up for themselves, sometimes against the world
- promote honesty and integrity, care and confidence
There is a world of difference in these two sets of values. In simple terms, the former leads onto the path of misery, for students and teachers alike; the latter leads onto the path of happiness.
Moreover, while the former enables Government to control the minds of the masses; to create a ready-made indolent and bovine workforce and to perpetuate their own power (why else would anyone desire to promote unthinking, unquestioning behaviour in youngsters?), the latter goes some way towards enabling our youth to free themselves from any attempts to possess and pack their minds into little boxes; to navigate the world on their own terms and, above all, to have the strength to be themselves in spite of being judged by everyone around them.