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Education books

The thesis of The New Idea of a University by Duke Maskell and Ian Robinson (Haven Books pound;18.50) is that the revolution in higher education has damaged universities beyond repair. Cardinal Newman started the rot, the authors say, when he speciously argued (in an essay whose title they borrow here) that a university education could be both liberal and useful. It only took Mrs Thatcher to ask the obvious question ("In that case, why bother with the liberal bit?"), and John Major to commission the Dearing Inquiry for the collapse to happen.

What are universities now? "A fraud", is the authors' answer. The tree of knowledge, they argue, has become a shopping mall, stuffed with meretricious special offers. Among which, of course, literature has few takers. Hence the anger of these "unwaged ex-lecturers in English", as the authors candidly describe themselves. Nonetheless, they hit some tempting targets.

Dearing is among them (savagely compared with his alter ego, Jane Austen's egregious Mr Collins), and so are most vice-chancellors (held guilty, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of "making love to their employment"), and the bureaucratic lunacies of what passes for quality assurance. So is rampant degree inflation, unreadable and unread "research", a corrupting examination process and an A-level "gold standard" now shoddily deflated.

It's a thoroughly entertaining read, like Woodhead with jokes. But it goes nowhere. The message is the old one, that "more means worse". The university, the authors say, should have nothing to do with "training" and should not even be primarily about research. It certainly shouldn't be about "teaching". What should it be, then? Simple: a place for thinking. "Without our thought," the authors say, "the nation loses its mind." It's a wonderfully arrogant conclusion. The trouble is that there's a grain or two of truth behind it. If we don't think about it, the promise of "education, education, education" could become a very threatening slogan. The control of education, after all, is on every autocrat's agenda.

But teachers, bombarded with the confident certainties of "we know what works" have little time for thinking; little time, then, for philosophers such as Karl Popper. Yet Popper's thinking, as Richard Bailey shows in Education in the Open Society: Karl Popper and Schooling (Ashgate Publishing pound;39.95), remains important. The title refers to The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper's classic post-war attack on totalitarianism. Popper was a passionate believer in the autonomy of the individual's thinking as the foundation of democracy, but he ecognised, too, that the way education is structured helps shape society.

In a country that has forgotten totalitarianism, distrusts autonomous learning and believes conveniently that standards are more important than structures, it is salutary to be reminded how Popper reconciled those two convictions. Bailey's account, particularly in the chapters "How Children Learn" and "Educative Democracy", is lucid, persuasive and timely.

So how do children learn? The conventional response is that they learn by being taught. More than anyone, linguistics philosopher Noam Chomsky has challenged this perception, citing the extraordinary ability of very young children to master very complex grammar and language. But a new selection of his writing, Chomsky on MisEducation (edited by Donald Macedo, Rowman and Littlefield pound;13.50), shows that his scepticism goes much further. He argues that "education" is far too readily perverted to serve the interests of the powers that be in any society - the "commissars" as he calls them. In the wrong hands it becomes a tool of control, not of enlightenment. His descriptions of "historical engineering" and "market democracy" offer some uncomfortable, persuasive recent examples.

It's an argument from the Left, of course. Chomsky is no great fan either of American politics or of global capitalism. But in any consideration of how children learn or how teachers teach, it needs to be addressed. It is central, too, to the developing debate about education for citizenship. This short volume, drawn from 20 years of still apposite polemic, is a powerful reminder that education is much more than a matter of schools and universities and formal information systems. It is also a lifelong process.

The term is in danger of becoming a cliche: everybody is in favour of "lifelong learning". But lifelong learning for what? In Learning in Later Life (Kogan Page pound;19.95) Peter Jarvis reminds us that the more we emphasise that education is really about employment, that "learning pays", the emptier that lifelong learning pledge is in danger of becoming. His message is optimistic, essentially humane. People need to learn in order to live full lives. Especially in the third age, learning can deliver intellectual and emotional fulfilment - a sort of autonomy that transcends physical capability. Physically, the elderly will always need carers. The important thing in Jarvis's book is that encouraging learning and encouraging thinking should be recognised as part of the caring process. Learning in later life, he says, should literally be lifelong.


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