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The facts of school

Cedric Cullingford regrets a return to utilitarianism. Facts! When Dickens opened Hard Times with a satire on utilitarianism he was drawing attention to the aridity and intellectual impoverishment where all learning is reduced to the accumulation of information and education to the honing of basic skills. Hard Times was written 132 years ago and utilitarianism has long been discredited, and yet there are times when we seem to be re-inventing the nightmare.

When one reads political statements about basic skills required for the needs of industry, and about all those competencies by which people's abilities are measured, we seem to have more than a hint of a return to the past. But nothing so clearly demonstrates the principles of utilitarianism than the national curriculum itself.

The national curriculum is weighed down with facts. But the tyranny goes beyond the sheer number of them. It is the attitudes towards the domination of facts that really causes the damage. It is the learning of facts as if they had a life of their own and the belief in facts because they are the most efficient means of testing people. Memory for facts is far more easily measured than the quality of thought.

The national curriculum is a monument to the closed system of being either right or wrong. For children, schools have always been to some extent closed systems in which they realise that the purpose is for them to guess what the teachers want and try to give it to them. Nearly all the questions that teachers ask are closed. "What is a watershed?" is a typical closed question as is "When was the battle of Hastings?" The answer is either right or wrong. An open question on the other hand is one which elicits thought and debate.

The problem is that for children in school every question is a closed one. Even if the teacher asks a simple question the pupils try to guess what she wants to hear. "How are you today?" provokes the thought "Why is she asking me? What does she want to know?" Guessing what the teacher wants to say is the implied art of survival. But it's not just teachers any more who appear to ask closed questions. It seems as if the whole edifice of closure and inhibition is becoming a national system. Grandgrind would have been proud.

Cedric Cullingford is professor of education at the University of Huddersfield

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