Don't be stupid about education

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
When it was reported that adults and students without any learning disability, even the vague and questionable attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, could supposedly benefit from taking the drug Ritalin, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

There are no side-effects to taking it, we are told, and it appears we are on the verge of a brave new world in which brain-enhancing chemicals can make us clever. More than 20 per cent of American college students already take Ritalin before exams. Not a few college lecturers I've talked to thought it was a great idea for helping them calm down and focus, never mind the students! So what's the problem?

The problem is taking Ritalin makes you stupid not Socrates. It may not be the mind-numbing "soma" from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, but even contemplating taking it does nothing for your mind. If you want to improve your mind, think about reading a good book.

The welcome given to what is a medical solution to the inability or unwillingness to concentrate is part of a wider perception that we all have special educational needs. Problems that were often symptoms of a physical or learning disability are now accepted as normal for everyone. The number of students willing to wear the label "dyslexic" is one example of this.

When ADHD was rediscovered several years ago, I couldn't believe it would have any lasting impact. Now it's part of the lexicon of special needs that students, parents and lecturers draw upon to explain why learning can be difficult for young people today. The truth is that learning anything that improves understanding rather than simply picking up bits of information is always difficult.

It is not just the search for medical solutions and the easy adoption of pseudo-psychological syndromes, but every innovation in education that works on the assumption that all young people have special needs. The clearest example of this is the curriculum campaign by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers with the slogan "Subject to Change". This campaign supports a new national curriculum in which there is a "rebalancing" of "subjects" with physical skills, and other "skills" such as "creativity, communication, information management, learning and thinking skills, interpersonal, and citizenship".

Reading this proposal, I was reminded of the curriculum of the special schools and FE special education units I used to teach in. Their curricula were structured around the development of physical skills, learning to learn, self-reliance, health and personal education, and citizenship training under the guise of "social education". The justification for this shift from subject-based teaching was that the pupils had learning difficulties.

Now the proposal is for everyone to have such a curriculum. The impact of the Government's Every Child Matters policy, with the five outcomes of ensuring that children are "healthy, safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being" is the same. It turns education into educare, another form of special education. Teachers and professional associations are running with it as if it were an unqualified good thing. In fact, it is probably the most destructive and damaging attack on children ever devised. It means the end of any real attempt to provide education for them.

The trouble is we have forgotten what education is. We have simply lost the idea of education as an initiation into human culture. This meant an education that broadly covered an induction into the intellectual disciplines: mathematics and the sciences; social science; history; literature and the arts. The actual subject content of the curriculum can be disputed, but, unless young people are offered an education through something like these subjects, then they are being disinherited from human culture. Offering young people special education dressed up as innovation is to fail future generations.

Of course, what are currently called "subjects" contain very dubious content and not a little political propaganda. What I am referring to is what some people might call the "old" or "traditional" subjects that made up a liberal education. Thinking in this way is to get ideas about education the wrong way round. There is nothing old or traditional about a liberal education. It is the path to human understanding and culture. What current education innovations offer is a very old-fashioned form of social training.

A government educational handbook from the 1930s, that I have on my shelf, talks of the sort of special education that was necessary for the "dull or the dolts", those who had some intelligence but not enough for "normal civilised life".

If we don't regain the idea of liberal education and reject the medicalisation of learning, the transformation of education into social care, and, most importantly, any innovations that stand in the way of the teaching of subjects, we will be providing special education for all and ensuring young people are not capable of "normal civilised life".

Dennis Hayes is head of the centre for professional learning at Canterbury Christ Church university

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