Don't Stay in School: inspirational teacher bashing
There’s a video doing the rounds that you might have seen. It’s called Don’t Stay in School and it’s by a passionate young rapper called Dave Brown. I'll be playing the ball here, not the man. I delight in effort, and earnestness, and zeal, and what I know about rap could be comfortably encompassed by the lasso of a Times New Roman zero. But the video is an angry attack on the school curriculum and how we teach it, so GAME ON.
Dave stands in a country lane and spits truth to power about what he thinks should be on the school curriculum, and what it should replace; something that I’d be keen to see the secretary of state do now and again, frankly. And boy, is he angry. For your comfort and ease, I have summarised his ‘one in, one out’ demands:
Things that shouldn’t stay in school
- Dissecting frogs
- Loads about Shakespeare’s classics
- Defining isotopes
- How mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell
- The Old American West
- How Henry VIII killed his women
- The wavelengths of different hues of light
- Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary rocks
- Rehearsing cursive
- Quadratic equations (THAT’S INSANE, THAT’S ABSOLUTELY INSANE, he’s quite clear about that)
- Abstract maths
- If numbers are prime
- The ancient Hippocratic method (eh?)
- Mental maths (maths is obviously a sore point)
- Using a condom
- Being fluent in only one language
- The Solar System
Things that should go to school, probably
- How to get a job
- How to pay tax
- How to vote
- How to look after your health
- Current events
- What laws there are (HE WAS NEVER TAUGHT WHAT LAWS THERE ARE, he’s particularly annoyed about this)
- Financial Advice
- My human rights. Apparently there’s 30. Do you know them? I DON’T
- Reciting these rights by rote
- Trading stocks
- Where does money come from?
- Budget (see: disperse my earnings)
- The cost of raising a kid
- What an affidavit is
- Basic first aid
- Recognise the most likely mental disorders
- Diseases with preventable causes
- How to buy a house with a mortgage
- Advice that could literally save thousands of lives
- Present day practical medicines
- Domestic abuse (and get the facts)
- How to help my depressed friend with a mental state
- Teaching the kids how to parent
- How to have kids when you want one
- Being fluent in two languages
- Political systems
- What I’m voting on
- What policies exist
Now, it’s perfectly right that people constantly question what we teach and why. The content of the state school curriculum is not a settled matter, and must reflect to some extent the desires, needs and heritage of the community in which it is contained. But that doesn’t mean that any criticism is valid. And the only reason I’m bothering to dissect this is because:
a) It’s representative of an unwelcome view that constantly rubs itself up against teachers.
b) It’s got considerable traction; MC Dave has 40 million views under his belt, and the comments burst with fist-bumps of approval. Ken Robinson’s RSA video suffers from similar celebrity.
So here’s why he's wrong:
Most of these are actually taught in school anyway
He appears to have never heard of citizenship, or PAL lessons, which comfortably encompass almost all of his wish list: voting; taxes; laws and financial advice. MFL deals with the "fluent in two languages" thing (and I am curious to know which schools don’t teach languages, that he even thought this).
How to look after your health: PE teachers all over the country will be tearing their tabards at this; never mind all the healthy eating advice that gets given out in various ways. And still kids will come into school with their lunch boxes (packed by their parents) full of lard and Toblerones. All the star jumps and lentil school dinners in the world can't overcome the habits of home.
Some of them aren’t exactly hard to find out
How to vote? Have you ever seen anyone outside a polling station, constipated about how to tick a box? Or does he imagine schools should teach about individual candidates and their policies? Which would be both weird and a minefield.
Some of them are incredibly hard to actually teach in a meaningful way
How to have kids if you want one: I’m going to take a punt here and propose that most people have a rough idea how this happens. And even then, it usually gets taught along with the condoms.
What laws there are. This really, really upsets him, along with the human rights stuff. Given that in 2010 alone, over 3500 laws were introduced to the statute books, I’ll take a rain check, cheers. Citizenship, RE and history mention specific laws frequently. And I’ve just taught a unit on human rights in Year 11 AND Year 13 religious studies, so forgive me if I wonder what I’m doing wrong.
Teaching kids how to parent: yeah, good luck with that. Even parents don’t know how to do that, it’s like juggling apples in a NASA centrifuge. Somehow, I can’t see much of what we could teach about this sticking for very long with your average 13-year-old.
But there’s a much broader problem, and perhaps unwittingly it’s one he’s stumbled across which is a live issue in education: relevance.
Irrelevance: Never Forget
His main agenda appears to be that of utility: how useful in the real world is what we teach children? After all, the saw goes, when will you ever be asked to solve a quadratic equation? But that misses an important point about why we teach, and therefore what we teach. We don't aim for irrelevance, but simple usefulness itself isn’t our aim either. What we aim for is value.
We do not teach because it appears to be immediately practical and useful; we teach because we are helping children to inherit their intellectual heritage, the pearls and rubies of science, art, the humanities. We don't teach it because we think it will help them change a plug (yeah, why isn't he raging about that? Or a million other things I’ll categorise as ‘handy to know’?) We teach them literature, and mathematics, and art, and science, and a dozen other taxonomic milestones, because they are valuable; because they are important. Because without their acquisition, this generation is dislocated from the last one and every one prior to that, and every cultural and scientific asset is lost.
In any closed system, this is vital – if we’re teaching x, we teach less y. It’s easy to imagine, in the manner of a student procrastinating before their finals, or a teacher at the start of the summer break, that time is in infinite supply, and that the hour will never be late. But teachers have approximately 200 days of five hours apiece per year. As it stands, we barely get them through the syllabuses. Every week I hear a different call from a segment of the chattering classes, insisting that some social ill or other be fixed by (of course) shoehorning something into the curriculum. That’s what they aways say: teach it in schools, and the evil evaporates: sexism; body image; bullying; vandalism….
But if we focus on what will expedite practical matters alone, we rob them of their birthright. Worse (and here I’ll make a practical point), you’ve hobbled their further studies. If they’re learning about mortgages and how to sign on the dole, the cruel mathematics of time insists they don’t learn about Under Milk Wood, or Stalin, or Copernicus. If we dispute that a child should learn quadratic equations, then we leave the next generation of mathematicians helpless until university. And it’s no good, no good at all to bleat, "Well, we should teach them both then." We can’t, we just can’t. There aren’t enough hours in the day.
This is one reason why it is so maddening that teachers are so regularly and comprehensively sidelined from discussions about education. We know what can be done; frequently, we know how to pull off miracles. But we can’t change the laws of physics. Other people, external to the system, are free to say what they like; to imagine that the teaching week is infinitely elastic, and worse, to believe that any dogma or ideology can be transmitted as easily as a jingle. We can teach them healthy eating, but we can’t make them eat healthily. We could teach them about compassionate relationships, but that wouldn't cure cruelty.
A curious assumption appears to underpin this attitude: that everything that ails society could be mended, if only the education system were tinkered with and tuned in just the right way. A drop more Tolpuddle Martyrs, a pinch less Planck. The curious continuation of this philosophy leads us inevitably to the conclusion that we, the schools, the teachers, are the enemies of utopia; we are the barrier to a new Golden Age. Well, to hell with that.
If it barks and lives in a kennel, I call it a dog; if someone claims that what we teach them is worthless and abstract when we pour our souls into its service, I call that an insult to the profession. If this were a Westminster suit raging against the curricular machine, they’d be damned as teacher-bashers. But if you’re a rapper, or indeed Ken Robinson, tilting against the windmills of the timetable, they call you Gandhi.
Appealing as such appeals might be, they’re made of mist, a TED happy thought with no respect for the reality of what we try to do. There are many people interested in education, and they’re all entitled to their opinion. But that doesn’t mean that their opinion is equally valid, informed or desirable. And those of us who stay in schools need to say that more often.