Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Frank talk about education

Here's Rafael Behr recalling a visit to a school in the Midlands:

A few years ago, I visited a school in Leicester that inspectors had declared to be outstanding in the provision of classes in "citizenship". This was a subject only recently invented by government in response to nagging national anxiety over "social cohesion". No one seemed to have any idea how, pedagogically speaking, to make citizens. Except, apparently, in the Midlands.

I was told how the citizenship "agenda" was woven through the rest of the curriculum – sequins of political liberalism sewn on to the fabric of other subjects. One history teacher explained to me how she had met her citizenship obligations by placing al-Qaida terrorism in the context of CIA support for Afghan mujahideen during the cold war. A 14-year-old pupil proved he had internalised this long view by explaining that, while the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks were bad, they were also, in a sense, "payback". A statutory duty to inculcate civic mindedness had somehow equipped British teenagers with a pseudo-jihadi notion of terrorist murder as historical quid pro quo.

The anecdote is by way of an introduction to Behr's review of Frank Furedi's new book on education which 'devotes several pages to the ill-conceived citizenship agenda, but as just one example of the way our classrooms have become inadvertent laboratories in queasy liberal social engineering.' It's not that Furedi necessarily disagrees with the liberal values being thus inculcated: 'His core argument is that the aspiration to fashion children's souls according to political criteria is not really education at all; at least, not as he thinks that word should be understood.'

I haven't had a chance to read Furedi's book, but if Behr's summary of its argument is at all accurate, then it echoes some of the themes I was banging on about in these posts. This paragraph from the review goes to the heart of it:

The curriculum, in Furedi's analysis, has come to be seen by policymakers as an easy tool for the correction of wider cultural and behavioural problems. Obesity epidemic? Teach children about healthy eating. Too much teenage pregnancy? More sex education. By extension, teachers have become mediators in a process of socialisation – policing "values" rather than directing thoughts; a secular political clergy with the education secretary as pope. Pedagogy, meanwhile, has come to look more like therapy, with motivational and psychological techniques coming to the fore, along with a fashionable horror of allowing children to get bored. Everything must be "relevant".

Of course, those who advocate this kind of utilitarian, therapeutised form of education claim that they are being 'progressive' and that the defenders of a subject-based curriculum are reactionary and elitist, when in fact the opposite is true:

Furedi admits it is a small "c" conservative view, but he rejects the charge that it is elitist. If, in the past, only the elite had such an education, the policy challenge is how to extend it to all, not how to make it seem worthless by denouncing it as irrelevant in order to teach something easier instead.

Incidentally, one of the best books on education that I've ever read (as I've mentioned before) is Harold Entwistle's study of Gramsci's pedagogy, which is subtitled 'Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics'. Behr ends with this:

None of that solves the problem of how to turn children into citizens. But then, perhaps, if they have a good enough education, they can work it out for themselves.

Precisely. Moreover, being introduced to, and made to feel participants in, the history, culture and knowledge of our society is what prepares children to be citizens of that society (not being encouraged to empathise with jihadists). In the past, it's what made working-class men and women into radicals and (who knows) if we had a truly democratic education system, rather than elite knowledge for those at private schools and skills and therapy for the rest, it might do so again.


Minnie said...

Martin, greetings from a lurker coming out into the open (blinking, stumbling, etc). I resent people repeatedly visiting my blog without comment, hence my appearance.
Found this post - as others - interesting & enlightening. Being pig-ignorant on the subject, have nothing to contribute - which explains why I've been following (oh dear, circular argument = fallacious in itself!). Keenly interested in Furedi's work, as is composer-cousin with whom I compare notes so will alert him also.

Martin said...

Thank you for stepping out of the shadows, Minnie, if only so that I could find my way to your wonderful blog. Buddhist art, Nick Drake, Tom Lehrer - what's not to like? I'll definitely be adding you to my blogroll.

Minnie said...

Thank you, Martin - high praise. Am also a fan of 'Les Enfants du Paradis', Carlo Levi's 'Christ stopped at Eboli' (+ the film) & Jan Garbarek, although prefer Ian Ballamy to Andy Shepherd ;-)!
Having a break from blogging; but am so encouraged by your approbation. Now zooming back to mine to add yours to blogroll.