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To the lighthouse

The English are lost in a fog, reluctant to listen to views they dislike. If they don't change, warns Nicholas Tate, they will not be able to think clearly about the their culture and the curriculum that transmits it.

The philosopher Donald Davidson has a rule called the "principle of charity". By this, one responds to points of view with which one disagrees by saying: "This sounds like someone who is trying to get at the truth. I can't understand why they are taking up this position. But let's assume they are rational. Let's listen to their reasons. Then I can decide whether our views really are incompatible and, if they are, which of us is right."

Obvious, you might say, and just what we should be teaching our pupils. But it is a principle more honoured in the breach than the observance. How outrageous, I was told the other day, that we should invite a speaker who feels there is no such thing as a European identity to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's recent conference on Curriculum, Culture and Society. How outrageous, I was also told, that we should give space to someone who believes that there is no difference in value between London Underground graffiti and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. How much more comfortable if we only had to listen to those who confirm our own views.

People are too ready to ignore Davidson's principle of charity and to dismiss their opponents' educational views as "political". The pamphlet on the European dimension of the curriculum published last week by the Federal Trust illustrates the point. It accuses SCAA and the Government of the "political management of knowledge" in supposedly downplaying the European dimension in the revised national curriculum.

Now there is an argument to be had about the European content in the national curriculum. The pamphlet takes this forward helpfully. But the principle of charity forbids us from dismissing one position as the "political management of knowledge", and holding up the other as the uncontested truth. To do this avoids engagement with the real issues.

Dismissing one's opponents as politically motivated means that one does not have to argue or think further about one's own position. It is a tactic which helps to maintain the "blanketing English fog" which, according to Perry Anderson, one of the founders of the New Left Review, covers us "with a pall of . . . philistinism towards ideas . . . for which England has justly won an international reputation". This is not a reputation of which we should be proud when education is at the centre of political debate, when we are still sometimes far from clear why we are teaching what we are teaching, and when we need to begin thinking about the kind of curriculum we need for the 21st century.

For this last reason SCAA, after consultation with schools, has embarked on a programme of curriculum monitoring and review. The aim is to enable us to advise ministers on whether there is a case, as we approach the year 2000 (but not before), for making changes to our current curriculum.

The key element in this strategy is talking to teachers and visiting schools. We are gathering information on how the revised national curriculum is working in practice, and considering whether further support is needed. We are also holding a series of conferences to tackle some of the big issues from a comparative international perspective. Conferences held over the past year have looked at vocational and general education, at multilingualism (in particular the teaching of English as an additional language), at the mathematics curriculum, at moral and spiritual education, and - most recently - at the relationship between curriculum, culture and society.

Other events include conferences later this year on the impact of the communications revolution on the curriculum and on modern foreign languages in primary schools. Waiting in the wings, for wide-ranging debate, are other issues such as the early-years curriculum and citizenship education.

Many of these issues interact with fundamental questions about the nature of community, and the relationship between government and society. You cannot, for example, answer questions about whether the curriculum should help to develop a sense of English identity without tackling fundamental issues about the nature of education and the kind of society we wish to be.

From Plato and Aristotle to TS Eliot, thinkers have identified education as forcing us to define our ends and purposes as human beings. These arise whenever we discuss the transmission of culture, knowledge and values from one generation to the next.

This is why educational debates need to be opened to a wider audience. How does the curriculum relate to the different cultural traditions present in this country? How does it relate to what we used to call "high culture"? How vocational should it be? These are issues which involve us all, not just education professionals.

That is why I welcome the attention given to the issues discussed at SCAA conferences, and to my own speeches, over the past year. Judging from my postbag there is huge interest in these issues. The views of the general public should be taken into account.

Of course there is a danger that issues will be misunderstood or misrepresented - what Christopher Ricks called "the polemics of travesty". But the advantages of open debate outweigh the disadvantages.

I also understand the concern of schools to be left alone to get on with the business of teaching. I hope by now that the message has got across that how they apply the broad legal requirements of the statutory curriculum is entirely for them to decide. It is their vision, their sense of what it is all for, that matters.

This does not mean that they, or any of us in education, should be unchallenged. It is a key function of national bodies to stimulate debate about how the curriculum might be implemented in schools and how it might best be taught. It is also a key role for local education authorities.

When I became chief executive of SCAA, I said that one of its roles should be to act as a stimulant to the system, raising issues which might not otherwise be debated. This we have done, and will continue to do.

Issues such as national identity, the place of minority cultures, citizenship, spirituality, and the nature of moral education are not easy. However, they are there, implicit in what we do.

Long term, we will deal with them better if we give more attention to the place of critical thinking in both initial and in-service teacher education. Bad "theory" has been allowed to discredit the place of ideas in teacher training for far too long. Medium term, we will deal with them better if we all learn that the words we use to talk about these things "slip, slide, decay with imprecision, will not stay in place" (to quote TS Eliot). Short term, we might all remember Donald Davidson's "principle of charity" and be less ready to account for disagreements in terms of the irrationality or bad faith of others.

Dr Nicholas Tate is chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority

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