In the past, thinkers of the Left, like Gramsci, of the right like Oakeshott, and of the Liberal persuasion like Hannah Arendt would have all believed in a broadly liberal education for all children. What’s happening today is that there’s a crisis of meaning – both the Left and the Right have forgotten what education means.
I keep getting invited to debates with topics like ‘What are schools for?’ or‘ What is education for?’ , and that’s indicative of this crisis. We’ve forgotten what education is. I’d always use Matthew Arnold’s famous formulation “the best that has been thought and known in the world” when talking about what education means. But it’ s no good just asserting it– you have to argue for it. So the Right advocates rote learning or learning by heart – which I’ m a great fan of. I once learnt all of Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart and can still recite many of them!
"Both the Left and the Right have forgotten what education means."
There are elements of that sort of memorising activity in liberal education. The Right have a dim memory of Grammar schools and education in the past and recall some elements of it– rote learning or using good textbooks – but what they have forgotten is that there are no technical solutions. It’ s subject content that’ s important. On the ‘Left’, or in the education status quo, almost every teacher you meet says that education is about social justice – they see that as the aim of education: learning in pursuit of social equality and concern with the poor and needy being paramount. But if you want more equality, you need to teach subjects and provide people with ‘powerful knowledge’.
"The Left have abandoned education and replaced it with politics. They’ve politicised learning and completely abandoned subject-based education."
If you teach subjects, then children will respond and have a love of learning. Any behavioural problems and character-building will then take care of themselves, and any social justice concerns will ultimately be resolved without ever being raised. The Left have abandoned education and replaced it with politics. They’ve politicised learning and completely abandoned subject-based education. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) – the education union – produced a book entitled Subject To Change, which said you had to replace subjects because they were elitist and old-fashioned.
For me, I’m influenced by the sociologist Michael Young who makes the point that subjects derive from the academic disciplines as they exist in universities and the knowledge they offer is based on an academic consensus. Subjects are the best protection we have against teachers just teaching what they want, and following fads and fashions, which schools today are full of – the likes of mindfulness learning, happiness classes and so on, which may occupy children and make them feel warm and confident, but they’re merely whims.
"Some schools we saw or heard about were obsessed with behaviour and self-esteem issues, while others just focused on teaching children. And it was just a matter of approach. The children came from the same catchment area but in some schools they are taught subjects and in others taught to behave. The latter doesn’t work."
They’re nothing to do with teaching in the traditional sense – to me, they’re an abandonment of education. I was on Boris Johnson’s Mayoral Education Enquiry which reported in 2012. Some schools we saw or heard about were obsessed with behaviour and self-esteem issues, while others just focused on teaching children. And it was just a matter of approach. The children came from the same catchment area but in some schools they are taught subjects and in others taught to behave. The latter doesn’t work. The same goes with the idea of ‘motivation’. Once you say have to motivate children first, and get them into a mindful state before they can learn, then you never actually get around to teaching them.
Some schools are really concerned with issues like radicalisation, so they make that a focus of the curriculum, but you can spend too much time dealing with that. The only real way to deal with such issues is through education – arguing about everything and bringing everything out. A friend of mine remembers what schools were like during the Lebanese Civil War and she tells this story... the teachers would say to the children, “we know you’re worried about your parents and siblings, and what might happen during bombing raids, but we want you to put all of your worries into this carrier bag and come into the school to learn”.
"The only real way to deal with such issues is through education – arguing about everything and bringing everything out."
That is the model for education – no matter what problems you have, whatever your social or cultural background, whether you’re male or female, you come to school to learn, and can leave everything else behind. If you have a bad home life, for instance, the last thing you want to do is spend all your time in school discussing it and worrying about it. We’ve become too interested in children’s internal lives rather than their external abilities and what they can learn and do. It’s like the belief that counselling is increasingly necessary in today’s 'troubled' world, but often, even with traumatised people, talking therapy can actually make things worse.