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The same concerns since Plato's time

A HISTORY OF WESTERN EDUCATIONAL IDEAS. By Denis Lawton and Peter Gordon. Woburn Press pound;35, pbk pound;18.50.

We need history in the same way that we need memory: without it, we can't make sense of the present. And if we believe, as past societies always have, that one of the functions of education is to transmit to the young a sense of the values that hold their society together, we have a particular reason for wanting our teachers to understand not just their own history but that of their calling too. Teaching, after all, is as old as society itself.

All the more reason, then, to welcome this short but comprehensive and very readable summary of how teachers and thinkers over the ages have tried to resolve the problems and paradoxes that education poses.

What is striking is how consistent the problems have been. Universal concerns in our western democracies - about the roles of the state vis-.-vis the individual, for instance, or education for citizenship or declining standards of young people's behaviour - go back to Plato, Aristotle and Tacitus. Currently contested issues such as social class and inclusion, curriculum, examinations, inspection and accountability were all foreshadowed during the 19th century. Then, as now, pundits were quick to say: "We know what works." With the benefit of hindsight, the authors say, we can see more easily that such certainties may be shortlived.

So this book is "practical" and "academic". Teachers and students will find that it clarifies their knowledge and their thinking; those who want to contribute to the great debate (by definition, not yet over) will find it a stimulating companion and guide.

But it is more than that. It is also, importantly, a plea for optimism - the quality perhaps that above all defines great teachers. Optimism, remember, is out of fashion. The prevailing mood, in the academic world and in the media and politics as well, is one of post-modernism - a belief that disputes the validity of values, rationality, progress and truth. It holds everything (except itself, of course) to be relative. It has no time for history, which is, it claims, merely the discourse of those powerful enough to make it. What sort of basis is this, the authors say, for the commitment we need to the education of our young people and to the quality of their future?

There are, they claim, some better models, and though their book is superficially traditional (the usual thinkers and writers in a broadly chronological frame) it emphasises the way that some ideas and convictions retain their power through many stages and contexts. That is especially true, they say, of the Age of Reason, the belief of which, that education was about helping people to think rationally and to challenge the status quo, has survived the long onslaught of industrialism, nationalism and social Darwinism and will, they hope, survive the anomie of 20th-century globalisation and the tyranny of market forces. Modified and strengthened by these contacts, it provides a framework that will, in the end, they argue, resolve the classic tensions.

The final chapters develop this thesis with particular reference to curriculum and pedagogy and to issues of gender, and exemplify it through the thinking of some key players including the Czech reformer Comenius (1592-1670), who laid its practical foundations, Mary Wollstonecraft (1750-97), English author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the American teacher and philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) and Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929), the German pioneer of critical theory. Essentially, it is a call for humanism in a 21st-century context. Given the deeply problematic nature of that context, it makes for important reading.

It is, of course, easy to criticise. There are some omissions. Wesley, perhaps, deserves inclusion. There is nothing on the 20th-century "de-schoolers"; nothing on the impact of mass media, anticipated in the Sixties by the "the medium is the message" warning of the American Marshall McCluhan. Occasionally, the seams of co-authorship are visible.

But that's all unimportant. What matters are the arguments, and the resonances they have for us. And, sometimes, the asides. How nice to learn, for example, that in 16th-century Italy, the pioneer of boarding schools was called "la casa giocosa" - the merry house - and taught mathematics through games; or that Matthew Arnold, pioneer of school inspection, instructed his staff to "respect as well as inspect!". Or that Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria's first prime minister, had a lofty disregard for state-provided education. "What matters, Ma'am, is to prevent and discourage crime - and to preserve contracts!" It has a familiar ring.

Michael Duffy

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