A discordant note in the 'moral jazz'

5th October 2007 at 01:00
At a recent Scottish Executive summer school on leadership, Richard Holloway offered some radical insights. In a world without consensus on absolute codes of right and wrong, he said an ethical life required the application of "moral jazz" improvisation based on a solid ethical core. He advocated a debate on the legalisation of drugs and urged resistance to conformity.

But there was one oddly conservative offering. He said a priority for schools should be the maintenance and transmission of the traditions of human learning, while universities might encourage challenges to them.

Schools must pass knowledge and culture from one generation to the next. Yet even Holloway's perception of the roles of schools and universities is elitist. Those who go no further than school are limited to tradition, but the intellectual elite that progresses to university is permitted to rebel.

Schools can become fixated on the "new" and the "good" not always synonymous. The best example was the initial teaching alphabet. Santayana was right: "For an idea ever to be fashionable is ominous, since it must afterwards be always old-fashioned." If Holloway is cautioning us against ephemeral educational fashions, good.

Yet his warning sounds more fundamental. Traditional learning has been historically determined. The great traditions of Scottish learning centred on philosophy, the classics and scripture. Traditionalists feared the introduction of science to Scottish schools and universities, and of English to university arts degrees. Modern languages and history entered the tradition only early last century. Even 40 years ago, the traditional curriculum largely pertained, with the highest status given to the classics, sciences in the middle, and practical skills seen as for academic failures. Tradition was as much a sifting mechanism as a value.

But, the world and the curriculum have changed. The sciences have become increasingly specialised. Today's young people will need skills to be updated several times in their lives. Information technology is not only a discipline but the most common portal to knowledge as well as to intellectual and ethical garbage. Consumerism impacts explosively on values, perceptions and culture.

A powerful curriculum should teach how to continue learning through life; develop self-respect, respect for others and a commitment to service; nurture enterprise, resilience and teamwork; and develop communication skills, critical thinking and interpersonal skills based on caring rather than exploiting. We need A Curriculum for Excellence and a bit more.

Perhaps Mr Holloway has a point. Traditional learning, languages and logic still have a contribution to make, and what discipline better develops critical thinking than the systematic study of history? While A Curriculum for Excellence has got the ends largely right, there remain questions about the rigour of the content.

What should determine the content of the new curriculum is not tradition, but what will help us shape a better, fairer world than the one we presently inhabit.

Alex Wood

is headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh

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