Cross-Channel bridges to understanding

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Postmodernity And European Education Systems, By David Coulby and Crispin Jones, Trentham Pounds 13.95

Europe's education systems have long been a mystery to the British, writes James Porter. This is an elegantly produced and stimulating book on teaching and learning in European education systems. Most of the chapters had their early origins in papers presented at conferences and seminars across Europe and retain much of the flavour of debate and argument around themes of substantial importance. The result is a book that opens up issues with originality and freshness but is less successful in presenting a coherent argument about the implications of post-modernism for European education systems.

In the first chapter, the writers indicate their hesitation about the term "post-modern", as they do not wish to support the concept of dramatic disjuncture in human history or to be seen as "chic post-modernists". Their caution is well founded and their attempt to relate their view of post-modernism to educational systems and practices is courageous but unconvincing.

The book contains perceptive discussions of current concerns in such fields as state policy in education, the definition of "European" knowledge systems and national curriculums. The post-modernist approach has little of practical value to offer in such areas - and even less so with regard to the writers' other concerns with racism, refugees and linguistic minorities.

On the European question, the book calls for the recognition of fluid borders and for the avoidance of common-market racism.

The writers point out that if "European" becomes an including rather than excluding category, the stage is set for a meaningful intercultural debate about Europe. Such a debate would need to acknowledge the contribution of many other cultures inside and outside the individual countries of Europe. Earlier concepts of European civilisation and culture and resistance to "outsiders" need to be dramatically revised if Europe is to be harmonious and secure.

However, individual states are still emphasising narrow nationalist intepretations in their increasing efforts to control the knowledge that is transmitted in schools.

In Britain, where there is more state intervention in education than in any other part of Europe, the response of government has been characterised by the slogan "Back to Basics". Canute-like, the dilemmas of the late modern social and educational agenda are commanded to go away in favour of a return to a vision of a 1930s suburban lifestyle of bliss and order.

In a short book, Coulby and Jones have opted for a very wide canvas and managed to challenge a great deal of contemporary wisdom. This has been assisted by the way in which they embrace the "complexities, ambiguities and contradictions of modern life".

Thus, they rightly assert that current emphasis on school effectiveness and delivery need to be seen in the light of what is to be taught and to whom. They call for teacher education to encourage intending teachers to examine more closely the nature of the knowledge they wish to teach to the next generation. However, their overall analysis fails to show what such an examination would be likely to achieve or how it would help to answer the question about "what is to be done on Monday morning".

Postmodernity and European Education Systems illuminates key concerns for educators attempting to understand education after the collapse of state socialism. Armed with greater understanding, the urgent need is to produce realistic policies and practices that can enable schools to go beyond the narrow simplifications of defensive nationalism and economic self-interest.

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