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Future could be tense if lessons of the past are ignored

Gary McCulloch says that reforms must not ignore two centuries' worth of experience. The unspoilt promise of the 21st century is also having an increasing effect on the Government's education policies. The changing needs of the future are invoked as a reason for insisting upon radical reforms of the education system.

The reforms are also presented as ushering in a new era of prosperity "to meet the needs of the next decade and the next century", and to "offer the prospect of a workforce with first-class skills to produce the wealth on which our society depends for its standard of living". The 21st century, it seems, will offer something for everybody, as long as current policies are maintained intact.

Laying claim to the future in this way means casting it in the image of the present. The priorities of the 1990s are worked out in practice to fashion an untroubled, seemingly perpetual Golden Age. This is also a process that encourages a disregarding of the past, since it appears that the problems that afflicted education in the 19th and 20th centuries will somehow cease to exist after 2000. Cultural and social issues can be dismissed as "historical".

Some criticisms of current educational reforms, for example those produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research, sketch alternative visions of the 21st century that are said to depend on developing a different kind of education policy. These ideas are clearly very different, politically and ideologically, from those of the Government. And yet in some ways there are important similarities between them.

Both see the 21st century as a tabula rasa, selecting their favoured ideals and trends and projecting these forward into the future. Both see the imminent arrival of the new millennium as a rhetorical device to emphasise the urgency of educational reform. They remind us not only that the year 2000 is closing fast, but also that those who are now entering the education system will not complete their formal education until the early years of the new century. These children apparently require a new vision, and it is up to us to provide it.

These projections of education in the 21st century also share some important assumptions about the sense in which educational reform is a means of preparing for the 21st century. They suggest the idea of education as a preparation for a changing society: if society is changing, education must follow suit. In other words, they assume a functional relationship in which education serves society. At the same time, they suggest that by developing education in a particular way, we can systematically reform the nature of the wider society in a straightforward fashion. That is, they assume that education is an efficient means of social engineering. It can help shape the future, and indeed help to engineer the shape of all of our futures and those of our children and grandchildren. These two ideas - on the one hand that re-education stands in a functional relationship to society and on the other that education can shape the future of society - have been perhaps the two key rationales for the public project of education in the 19th and 20th centuries. It appears that they remain as strong as ever, being virtually taken for granted as we approach the 21st century.

In these circumstances, there is a particular need to insist upon a more substantial sense of history that may help us to improve the prospects for reform in the years ahead. Such "lessons of history" can help educational policy makers to avoid "re-inventing the wheel".

We may also note some more positive features of a strongly historical approach. For instance, it should help to restore a sense of education in its wider cultural, social and philosophical relationship, as was noticed much more in the educational reforms of the 1940s.

Those reforms also had a notion of continuous development that was rooted in the past. Their historical sense, we might say, warned them the social and political fashions would continue to change, and often in unexpected ways. Unlike many of the reformers of our own day, therefore, they did not make the mistake of assuming that theirs was the last word in reform, or that educational history had come to an end.

It should also help to provide a major resource for policy and planning to take advantage of the experience gained of the problems and possibilities of public education over the past two centuries. .

We might examine two issues in particular as part of the rediscovery of our historical experience. The first is the idea of education as a means of social engineering.

This has been an underlying assumption about the project of public education since the early years of the 19th century, and clearly it continues to underpin ideas about education in the 21st century. To what extent does our historical experience support this notion? How far should we continue to expect education to engineer our futures?

Similarly, we need also to examine the idea of education being in a functional relationship to society by making greater use of our historical experience. For example, the assumption that technical education serves the needs of employers and the economy can be evaluated by examining the impact of the many different initiatives in this area.

Investigating such issues for the purposes of policy and planning may help us to understand the limitations of the schooling project, as well as to understand the hopes that made schooling possible in the first place.

Creating schools and teachers for the 21st century should involve constructive and articulate use of the experience gained beforehand. In such a way, hope might at last begin to be reconciled with experience. Which in a profound sense, after all, is what education should be all about.

Professor Gary McCulloch, Division of Education, University of Sheffield.

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