It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
Aristotle (possibly a fake quote)
We are fantastically bad at recognising that our beliefs are based not on evidence, logic and reason, but on self-interest, preference and emotion.
When confronted with ‘others’ who disagree with our most fervently held beliefs, we tend to make assumptions that they are ignorant. When our opponents prove they are sufficiently well-versed in the particular issue about which we disagree, we jump to conclusion that they must be stupid. If they then prove that their arguments are coherent enough to admit some possibility of intelligence we then assume that they are evil. What other possibility exists?
Education is as hotly contested and ideologically riven as any other field of human endeavour – probably more so than most. It is rare indeed to move beyond knee-jerk biases and embrace the possibility that another human being could, at the same time, disagree with us and not be some sort of child-hating monster.
I’d like to suggest that no one goes into education to make a fast buck or to bathe in warm glow of society’s esteem. We do it because we think it’s important. But what is education for? In my last post I suggested that for as long as we disagree on the purpose of education we will never agree on how to improve it. These are, broadly speaking, the most common beliefs about the purposes of education I have encountered:
Enrichment – the belief that education can and should address the ‘whole child’ and aim to make them flourish. This would include the belief that education should attempt to make children happier as well as better people, and might also embrace the idea that cultural transmission of the ‘best that’s been thought and said’ makes us better people but, equally, could take AE Housman’s view that, “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.”
Economics – this belief takes the view that education is a tool of the state and as such exists to make its citizens more productive. This belief would include the view that children should be prepared for work and to become loyal and enthusiastic participants in the activities if the state. This is, perhaps, the rationale behind citizenship and ‘British values’, but at heart it’s a utilitarian model of education that places the needs of the many above the needs of the few.
Social justice – the belief that inequality should be eradicated and that children from lower social classes should be afforded the advantages enjoyed by those from higher social classes, and that all children have the capacity to rise to the top if disadvantage is specifically addressed and playing fields are level. But this belief could comfortably manifest itself in either Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Hirsch’s Common Core.
Each of these ideologies fractures into myriad splinters and sub groups. It’s possible to hold aspects of each of these beliefs whilst simultaneously denigrating others. We can, for instance, claim that it is more important to enrich certain aspects of a child than others; that wisdom is more important than intelligence. We can earnestly applaud efforts to make children easier to govern whilst raising an outcry against the pragmatic ideal of fitting children to jobs. This maelstrom of conflicting ideas and ideologies swirls beneath the level of consciousness in the minds of most teachers; we do what we don because it’s right, goddam it! But everyone, even Michael Gove, believes that they are right. But can we all hold such opposing beliefs and all be right?
This is the illusion of asymmetric insight. We only have access to our own thoughts and we therefore suppose ourselves to be deeper thinkers than anyone else. Those who disagree are, by their opposition, living proof that others do not share our sophistication and nuance. If others agree, well then, they must be almost as clear-sighted as we. This asymmetry makes us fiercely tribal and viciously inflexible.
For the record, I stand by my belief that education should exist to make children cleverer; we can all become cleverer, no matter our starting point. In the name of social justice I believe that professional ethics should not stand in the way of a working class child’s success. I believe that socially disadvantaged students should have access the same education as that received in elite public schools. I believe that if word-poor children are to have a chance at exercising free choice in how they live their lives, they must be explicitly taught the language of academic success. In the name of enrichment, I believe we should provide students with as broad and deep a knowledge base as possible so they can think and broadly and deeply as possible; after all, we cannot think about that which we do not know. I believe that creativity depends on knowing ‘the rules’ and that we should provide access to the most powerful, conceptual knowledge that exists in the history of the subject disciplines we teach. I want children to have every advantage they can in order to allow them to choose to do whatever they want to do. But I don’t given a damn about preparing them for work as this is a small, narrow-minded endeavour. We might never be able to close the attainment gap between haves and have-nots but we should certainly strive mightily to shift the entire bell curve to the right.
These are my values. This is where I draw my line in the ever shifting sands of policy and fashion. And this is what drives me to write and speak as I do. If you can look me the eye and state with certainty that your values are better than mine, you’re a fool: everyone’s values have equal value.
If we want to improve education and heal the divisions that exist, we need to cut through all the pedagogical crap and start describing those values so precious to us that we would never, ever compromise them. Then, and only then, we might find some common ground.