Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Kevin Rooney on What schools are for and why by John White

Have you ever stopped to consider why we teach the subjects we do in schools? Why is it that no rationale has ever been put forward to justify why English schools teach what they teach? This question forms the introduction to John White's pamphlet, What schools are for and why. The author has spent nearly thirty years thinking about this question. His latest thoughts are significant for two reasons. He goes further than ever before, in attacking most of the current subjects taught in schools as elitist and irrelevant. He also puts forward his own proposals for what the underlying aims and objectives of the National Curriculum should be. The author is correct to point out that the aims and direction of education policy are not the preserve of teachers to decide upon. This is a political question and links into what type of society we want to live in and what sort of society we want to create for the future. However, this is the only point in the book I agree with.

The climate in education today is one in which very few people are prepared to unapologetically defend knowledge content or subjects in their own right. White is hostile to academic learning for its own sake. He goes to great lengths invoking the Victorians, and the Puritans before them, to demonise the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Throughout the book there are constant references to subject knowledge being a middle class or elitist pursuit.

My concern is that this approach to intellectual enquiry in schools is a view shared by government and QCA. When no one makes the case for a broad based liberal education based on the pursuit and transmission of knowledge then it was only a matter of time before something else filled the vacuum created by the hollowing out of knowledge content in school subjects.
In the past society affirmed the role of schools in terms of the balance between the explicit transmission of knowledge and the implicit socialisation process. Now that balance has been reversed and the transmission of knowledge has been dramatically downgraded to make way for more instrumentalist demands.

The model of a young pupil is no longer a robust curious individual capable of thriving through the study of history, science or a range of ideas. As White himself notes more than half of the time is now spent on developing personal skills and character. The author argues that school should teach more relevant life skills and that these instrumental skills are more relevant and valuable than abstract study.

Unfortunately, this is what schools already prioritise: ‘Be healthy, stay safe, economic well being, sex and relationships, citizenship, participation, cultural diversity. These are now the staple diet of today’s schools. White’s attack on traditional subjects is packaged as radical and egalitarian. In reality he is singing from the same hymn sheet as the educational establishment. There is nothing radical or progressive in denying every young person no matter what their creed, class or colour the accumulated wisdom of humanity. This is a noble ideal and well worth defending. By downgrading subject knowledge and transforming schools into explicit conduits of socialisation tasked with a range of instrumental demands like tackling social exclusion or apathy and poor voter turnout the government make two grave mistakes:

1) they transform schools into philistine institutions more concerned with brain washing and behaviour modification than real education;

2) they look to schools to solve the perceived breakdown in social cohesion be it cynicism towards politics or the crisis of British identity.

The point is…these are political and social problems, best dealt with by politicians and civil society not teachers!

Contrary to White, subject based knowledge and enquiry is a universal aspiration that does not belong only to a particular elite. For me, it drives the very essence of what it is to be human. There is a body of knowledge worth defending. It’s time those of us who value our respective subjects came out fighting and entered the battle of ideas over exactly what schools are for and why.

John White’s What schools are for and why (IMPACT Pamphlet No 14: Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain) was launched on 27 February. Details are available from http://www.philosophy-of-education.org/branches/branch3.asp