In brief

21st November 2003 at 00:00
AGAINST THE FLOW. By Peter Abbs. RoutledgeFalmer pound;24.99.

Many people working in education are opposed to the prevailing climate of political domination but, as a creative artist, the poet Peter Abbs is able to row upstream more elegantly than most in his aptly named analysis.

The horrors he describes have been well captured by writers telling how an aggressive and determined political culture can seize people's very soul.

Winston Smith, in George Orwell's novel 1984, eventually won the victory over himself and loved Big Brother. Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, warns that an efficient totalitarian state, through its rulers and managers, can control the population by persuading them to love their servitude.

Abbs makes a powerful case for people having a significant say in their own learning, rather than being driven down a track. There needs to be room, he argues, for probing the unknown, reflecting, questioning, imagining, all sidelined in today's politically controlled education system. His life view is strongly influenced by the Socratic nation of elenchus - a cleansing of the psyche driven along by one's own ignorance, a questioning of conviction.

The first part of the book deals with what he calls "the poetics of education", while the second part covers, more surefootedly, "the poetics of culture". In this second part Abbs surges through each of the arts with a vigorous analysis of how they have, in his view, failed to link with our historic past, to find anything other than a tiny, faddish, minority audience. He tries to pick out people rowing against the flow.

The book is impressively illustrated, with text examples and photographs. I would have welcomed a stronger link between the two parts, but I suppose that would have been contrary to the Socratic principles he espouses so eloquently, so I shall forge my own.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor at the school of Education, Exeter University

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