Michael Walker argues that Education is a Key to understanding Society and to changing it
How can we be concerned with the past and not with the future? Or with the future and not with the past?
These words, from T.S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion, are an apt introductory comment on education.
Education, which leads each coming generation into adulthood, is indeed and in a double sense, a link between past and future. Firstly, it invites one generation to join the community of elders. At a profounder level, education links past and future generations. At the practical and cultural level, education provides continuity. Its task is therefore vital: without continuity there is neither human civilization nor human culture. An education system serves to place those who are being educated, that is to say, it helps them find themselves in the society into which they have been born, it helps them to find their social niche in terms of class, nationhood and all the factors which shape their social identity. Education is radically concerned with understanding the past, learning from the past and repeating it. At the same time in all societies which do not remain static, education simultaneously propels society forward to new discoveries, leading a new generation out of the past into a future which in part at least it wants to control.
The word education derives from ducere, to lead, and education is indeed a leading from one point to another, not only in knowledge but also in time. Education implies change, since leading from one place to another implies a change of position and in that sense education is “progressives”. We can build on what we have learned from those who have gone before us. At the same time education is “conservative” in that it implies the passing on of acquired wisdom and discipline and the leading of a new generation, not away from, but into society. So education is at once progression and preservation, concerned with both future and past and forging links between them, so that society makes sense to those who are soon to become responsible members of it, and responsible in the true sense: capable of responding to situations in a way which conforms to a social consensus.
When we think of education we tend to think of schools. This is because the state has used schools to impose a dominant from of education on the population. In fact education includes the bringing up by parents of their offspring (in some languages “bringing up” and “education” is the same word), the informative and manipulative media, religious instruction, and even peer group pressure to conform. Bernard Shaw somewhere said that all his life was an education except for the time he spent at school. There is a “selfishness” to every theory of education. However anti- individualistic a theory of education may claim to be, its proponents wish to impose subjective views on other individuals for the personal wish of making the social world approximate more closely to their ideal world. This is not “wrong”: what use are any values if we do not wish to see them flourish? And if we wish to see them flourish then it is logical that we wish at the same time that competing values do not flourish. A major question of educational theory is therefore the extent to which given values may be projected to the exclusion of others. It is simply too simple to say that freedom of expression will be protected. Even assuming that total freedom of opinion could be allowed in schools (liberals themselves do not believe this) the decision on what to include and what to exclude in a curriculum is a political decision.
No revolutionary could hope to change society permanently unless the educational system which formerly existed has been replaced with one in accord with the new priorities of society. What use is an idea of society which cannot be passed on or is undermined by those who come after us? Whoever yearns for a new society must seek for a new formation, a new training, a new idea of what society should be, a new education. Education is political or it is nothing, for as Plato’s Republic made clear, education is a preparation for service to the polis, the social consensus, the state. The opposing view, which conservatives admire and call the non-political, was expressed by Hegel in his Preface to Philosophy of Law: “What is reasonable is real and what is real is reasonable” and thus to bring about a reconciliation between theoretical reason and the reasonableness of a given reality. The given world then is the reality which must be explained, as “reality” but this approach muddies the distinction between practical learning and cultural learning. Cultural learning gives a value and a bias to reality and judges it. Practical learning is about the best way to solve objectively established tasks. “Value free” teaching may be beneficial (relativism in religious teaching for example, takes the sting out of religious conflict). but contains the danger that it “devalues the sacred” (Alain de Benoist). By judging all things, including those in which the pupil is emotionally involved, from a neutral stance, a liberal bias is introduced, whereby the value of all things is measured according to their usefulness in promoting material advantage; whereas in practical education, the value of any system should indeed be assessed only in terms of its effectiveness. The practical (material) aspect of education refers to the instruction in the successful completion of tasks learnt from experience. The cultural (spiritual) aspect is about priorities beyond the physical senses.
Talking of this very important difference between the spiritual and material in education, Debesse and Mialaret in TraitÃ© des sciences pÃ©dagogiques (PUF 1969) put it thus, “all education is cemented by two indispensable elements, on the one side the accumulation of knowledge and facts brought to us by educational science, on the other side the scale of values which establish the aim of a given educational programme.” Briefly, an educational system, to be complete, must define both its methods and its aims. For the European revolutionary, the new education is open in debate on the methods (be they “progressive” or “conservative”, “non compulsive” or “authoritarian” etc.) but not open to debate on the aims, which is the enrichment of European culture and the protection of race, culture and living space. If education is presented in a cultural void, or if cultural variety is introduced in the classroom as some kind of liquorice allsorts, then school education is without a culturally defined aim or culturally defined identity. Education in the cultural sense will then take place outside the classroom, which is indeed what is happening today. But it is only the theoretical aspect of education, the cultural or spiritual aspect, for which a classroom is necessary. If all that remains for the school is practical education, then it will be objected that there are many alternatives for practical education to school. That being so, what is the need for school at all? The answer is surely that when school education for whatever reason abandons cultural homogeneity, there is no obvious reason why it should continue to exist.
Practical education is concerned with the success of methods. Cultural education is not about facts but about priorities. Ideally it does not so much try to preach the tendentious as fact but imbues the pupils with a sense of enthusiasm for what is important. For a French school to offer considerably more study of French literature than Russian, for example, is not an evaluation that Russian literature is superior to French but an affirmation of the greater importance of the former in a francophone context. The decline of the nation state and in Europe its emasculation in favour of a European conglomerate which eschews history, will make the teaching of history a delicate matter. Up till now history teaching in Europe has been a very national business indeed. Bertrand Russell mocked the “lies of national history” (this writer remembers being puzzled in learning about the Hundred Years’ War at his school that despite the British winning all the important battles, the French finally won!) But biased though it was, history teaching set the priorities which were necessary for the continuation of a national culture, a culture which is destroyed when a percentage of pupils no longer share the same inheritance. Any hope (as for instance under Britain’s last Tory government) that a national curriculum can restore a sense of identity and heritage in state schools and universities will shatter against the ethnic reality of pupils who have nothing in common with the national culture being presented to them. What interest can most Blacks in Britain be expected to show in the Battle of Hastings? Or even White pupils if they do not accept that they share the national destiny of which that event is part?
In the nature versus nurture debate, even those who believe in a preponderant role of nature, acknowledge that education too plays its part. If it did not, how would human beings differ from animals, since the knowledge and skills which they have acquired are in large part those which they have to learn from previous generations, not those which they inherit genetically? (Breathing, running,eating are such abilities, language is not.) It may be argued that human education is a complex form of the same transmission of experience through natural selection offered by nature, but this does not alter the fact that education by humans of humans is a key factor in the creation of human culture, human society and to some extent (to what extent is still a subject of fierce debate) individual character. The nature of an education, of the questions which it poses and seeks to answer and in the nature of the manner in which it seeks to impart skills and knowledge, is crucial for the future of any society.
Just as debates on art hinges on content and form, so any debate on education hinges on what to teach and how to teach. The one is cultural and the other is practical; too often, debates on education are muddled by a false belief that these two elements are much the same. Education lays down the priorities which we ourselves will bring into society. But education, which is also acquired knowledge, is a dialectical relationship between the individual and the rest of society. Education is the mutation of society. It can reasonably be argued that lived experience in its entirety is an education. The belief that school is superior to other forms of education is, to say the very least, highly questionable. An education does not begin with school, does not finish with school and can take place very successfully without school.
The belief that education is a matter for teachers and that education is essentially a science which only the experts can do well, is a belief which underlines the optimistic, now largely discredited view that education can be perfected once the perfectly gifted teacher has evolved, a teacher (liberals do not like the word “master”) who will banish prejudice and usher in the era of sweet reason and reasonableness. This was the view of the educational theorist John Dewey, who believed that educational practice should be above all a form of social engineering. Handing down from the past induced docility, according to Dewey; against this notion he argued for an education which would underline the importance of reason and evidence. For Dewey a knowledge of the past was at best a “potent instrumentality for dealing effectively with the future”. The incompetent teacher hides behind an authority for which he claims to speak and stifles the integrity and originality of his pupils, thus wasting the potential creativity of his charges.
This (liberal) belief that authoritarian, conservative teaching is “wasteful” of human potential plays an important part in modern attitudes to education. Liberal theorists work on the assumption that there is an immense hidden treasure trove of energy, imagination and talent latent within each pupil which is prevented from emerging in full by discipline, fixed procedure, prejudice and tradition. But the biographies of great men suggest that even harsh discipline was no hindrances to creative talent: Byron, Schiller and Nietzsche spring immediately to mind. Schiller’s case is particularly instructive since without the rigors of his education it is difficult to imagine that he would have been fired to writing his famous denunciations of tyranny! As Eric Linklater long ago observed,the best climate for creative energy is an incompetent dictatorship. But for the liberal, the aim of education is not the flourishing of individual genius, in itself anyway a suspect (or for the deconstructivist, non-existent) thing, what is important is human emancipation in general in the course of which process reason roles back the irrational. The difference for Dewey between civilization and savagery is found in the degree to which people learn from experience and improve their conditions on the basis of what they have learned. This bias underlies the entire liberal philosophy of education.
The argument that education should be left to the professionals is discredited by the evidence of the success of non-professional schooling and the utter failure of schools, or at least state schools, to show that professionals do the job better. Conrad Russell in an article for the London Review of Books (20th March 1997) candidly headed Leave it to the Teachers criticized the new Labour government in Britain for its wish to improve educational standards by penalising or even closing poor schools. It is the job of politicians, Russell explained with disarming arrogance, to find the money. Teachers will decide how best to spend it. Only Liberal Democrats, according to Russell, understand this. About the parents and pupils or society as a whole, this Liberal Democrat has not a word to waste. This approach follows Dewey’s belief that education should not be sullied by “politics” but left to the tender care of teachers, liberal teachers that is. But the fact that state education is in the doldrums can not be wished away by proclamations of independence from teachers.
The academic record of private schools is better on average than that of state schools. Would the total abolition of state education in the current situation be such a bad thing? The more state education moves away from offering a national education syllabus, the harder it becomes to see the sense in having state education at all. Worse, state schools have become identified not with fairness, progress and equal opportunity, but with arrogant central planning, bureaucratic inefficiency, complacency and anonymity, that is to say, with all the most hated aspects of socialism. State schools in most peoples eyes are rightly or wrongly associated not with the village school and the country but with the Comprehensive and the town.
The role of the state as educator originated in the development of the strong nation state, in which nationalism gradually replaced religious faith as the main justification for compulsory schooling. Throughout the nineteenth century there was a concerted attempt by the national states of the West to impose some kind of uniform education on their citizenry, although costs and class differences precluded the establishment of any truly comprehensive educational system. In Germany, state education developed with the rise of Prussia and the rise of Prussian militarism. (Compulsory school education had been introduced by the Protestant reformers: Luther was a keen believer in compulsory schooling. A main object in teaching children to read, from the Protestant point of view, was to make them read the Bible). In France state education was introduced by the Revolutionary government with the aim of making all citizens equal Frenchmen. In the United States free state education was quite literally conceived as an Act of War, first in 1862 and finalised in the Morrill Bill of 1867 against the defeated South. As Senator Morrill himself put it, “The role of the national government is to mould the character of the American people.” and elsewhere, “Ignorant voters endanger liberty. With free schools in the South there could have been no rebellion in the future…when our youth learn to read similar books, similar lessons, we shall become one people, possessing one organic nationality.” The bill was vetoed by President Buchanan but the principle of free state education as a means of undermining the independence and therefore the identity of the states was established. It culminated in forced bussing of black pupils to white schools and federal troops in Little Rock Arkansas to force states to comply with federal education policy (laid down in Brown versus Board of education 1954) of forcing adolescents to attend mixed race schools.
State education does not come cheap. About Â£20 billion a year is spent on education by the state in Britain of which about 65% is teachers salaries. Proposals to reduce the school leaving age to 14 with 50% taking advantage of the offer, would save the state over half a billion pounds a year. In France in 1992 the then Minister of Education, Jospin, made his commitment to egalitarianism and race mixing in education perfectly plain in his proposals to reform the system in such a way as to ensure that no group was excluded for any reason other than academic from any school. In 1992 17% of the state budget in France went on education with the French socialists demanding that 80% (sic.) of pupils gain the Baccalaureate (presumably if the horse did not go to the water, the water would have to go the horse, that is to say if pupils could not reach the required standard, the required standard would have to reach the pupils. Claims are rife that cooking the books so far as academic success is concerned is common practice in the British schools system and in the American university system).
The so-called “de-schooling movement” associated with the name of Ivan Illich, who wrote the book De-schooling Society (1971), won increasing favour precisely as social democratic theories of egalitarian state education had fallen into disrepute and the belief in the notion that “small is beautiful” gathered momentum. It argued that state schooling was a break with the idea formulated by such figures as Saint Basil and Michael de Montaigne that education should be the individuals voluntary search for truth. According to Illich, the notion that the state should be primarily responsible for education had led to a gradual degrading of the role of non-school education. Illich stressed that education included work experience, a fact that should be obvious but was not at the time and for many is still not obvious. De-schooling involves the rejection of the right of one person, as Illich put quaintly put it, “to oblige another to attend a meeting.” For obvious reasons, India has always been especially interested in de-schooling and in 1975 the first Non Formal Education Conference was held in Madras. Similar trends could be seen in the US where the Brown Report urged that “recognition be given to a wider variety of available alternatives ” and called for the lowering of the compulsory age of attendance to 14. The Wright Report in Canada in 1972, insisted that the emphasis of education should be shifted to “suit the needs of the individual.” Similar and more radical sentiments where expressed at the time on the political right, for example by AndrÃ© Cocatre-Zilgien, himself a teacher, who expressed the wish in an interview with the French New Right house journal Ã©lÃ©ments (December 1975) that the state should consider abandoning altogether the unequal task of providing satisfactory national education and allow the private sector to take over completely. But until recently what David Botsford called the “educational mafia” as represented by socialist and liberal journalists, politicians, commentators, teachers and not least education authorities, have throughout the Western world managed to stifle the debate about de-schooling and confine it to a ghetto of educational crankiness. But increasingly people agree that it is state schooling which has to justify its existence, not parents who wish to escape school who have to explain themselves. As the French novelist Paul Guth wittily remarked, “once people who didn’t go to school were illiterate. Today it’s the other way round”.
The radical education changes which took place in the sixties included of course, the abandonment of most forms of discipline, including notably, corporal punishment. Discipline is too often the answer to a failure which lies in the teacher or the educational method, a fact which should not be used, as it has been, unscrupulously, by the generation of 1968, to reject discipline altogether. The extent of imposed discipline in education should vary according to the kind of persons involved and the extent of homogeneity in a given classroom. When there is no interest in the subject being offered discipline is sometimes the only means of preventing instruction from sliding into chaos. But discipline also has a symbolic significance, of the power of the past, of the right of might, of the attachment to form (as opposed to content) for all of which reasons it is detestable to the liberal, and not least because it involves the direct application of the inducement of distress to achieve specific ends. The liberal philosophy is entirely different, the liberal believes that all can be negotiated, even agreement to pay attention in classes! For the liberal, a child is something terrible, a human being without full reasoning capacity. The liberal response is to treat children as little adults, which is fine to just the extent that the child is indeed a little adult. But children are much more and less than adults. The full force of reason can only be used with those fully versed, fully educated, in reason. Education which excludes reason altogether, just like education which only offers reason to impose itself, will never educate reasonable human beings.
Those who do not share the views of the libertarians on education have to side with them against those who agree with state compulsion in education, at least in the world as it is today. This does not mean that they agree with libertarian beliefs but it does mean that a time when the state is bent on destroying them (and what else is the destruction of a people in the name of a humanistic capitalistic ideal which recognises no true identity?) and the states values permeate established educational establishments, then home schooling and free education are life savers. Recent disclosures in the press about groups which attempt to set up their own alternative groups (Dr. Rieger in Sweden, Italian Catholics in Spain, sundry sects etc.) show that many already realise this. As more parents pull out of the state system, the ability of the state to control what is taught to the younger generation will of course decline. Well intentioned but naive attempts by conservatives to establish a national curriculum should therefore be regarded as a mixed blessing, if not outright dangerous, since “national” presupposes a national consensus and population which no longer exists. The danger is that a national curriculum can be turned and used to stifle alternative education in the name of imposing a universal national educational standard. The time may well come when non-school education is the radical counterweight to the educative propaganda of the advertising media and entertainment industry. The system allows diversity in order to thrive and that includes diversity in education but the danger for the system lies precisely in that diversity, which can easily run out of control and become rebellious. There can be little doubt that governments will come under mounting pressure in the future to constrain alternative sources and centres of education by imposing laws on what may be propagated and practised outside the mainstream. In other words, the weakness of liberalism is that it must allow different forms of education, if only because it knows that its own elite cannot be expected to rub shoulders with the socially deprived, at the same time, the existence of alternative education is a permanent potential threat.
The national consensus was the raison dÃªtre of the state school and the state school cannot long survive the emasculation of the nation state. Recent surveys suggest that children spend more time in front of the television and computer screen than they do listening (or more probably not listening) to their school teachers. A growing number of children are educated at home in Britain, where schooling is not compulsory and the academic results are strikingly better on average than the results obtained by school educated children.
The Scorpion nÂ° 19