Eyes fixed on a world of ideal possibilities;Comment;Opinion

8th March 1996 at 00:00
As the scale of the cuts becomes clearer, it is a good moment to ask why teachers teach. Not, if we care about our work, ultimately for money or prestige but to leave our pupils wiser and better people than we found them. If, however, we accept that learners are influenced as much by their broader cultural environment as they are by their time in school, then we must also accept that conditions in the 1990s make the goal of personal development increasingly difficult to achieve.

Take our attempts to use critical discussion of the world beyond the school gate to develop children's sense of civic responsibility. Recent styles of western government have brought closer to reality Hans Gerth's and C Wright Mills's vision of "the decline of liberalism as a style of thinking and the rise and spread of totalitarian slogan manipulation and opinion management", a state of affairs that does much to blur learners' perceptions of themselves as dynamic citizens in the making.

Our efforts in the sphere of moral development are similarly undercut. Through examining questions of right and wrong in the classroom we hope to awaken in children the sense of moral discrimination which will enable them to take charge of their own conduct. This, however, is no easy task with learners whose experience of an outside world in which morality is considered not absolute but relative teaches them the futility rather than the necessity of ethical inquiry.

No more certain are our endeavours to help children discover the diversity of their gifts as human beings. The value of the wide range of interests we encourage learners to cultivate is obvious to the initiated, but less clear to young members of a cybernetic society in which a person's function in the world rapidly narrows their outlook upon it. Lawyers litigate and bankers accumulate: further accomplishments are frivolities or conceits.

But if the present social and political climate does little to enable us to develop learners' moral and creative capacities, it does less to help us celebrate their individuality. Through the arts and humanities we encourage children to acquire the habit of investigating and articulating the condition of their inner lives. Yet close reflection on the things which set one apart from other people can seem a dubious undertaking in a milieu in which conformity is expected as often as originality is suspected.

Such obstacles to helping learners chart personal territory are considerable but not insuperable. Much might be done to remove them by the adoption of an approach to teacher training and development that lays stress not only on the technical skills needed to run a classroom but on the imagination required to allow children access to what D H Lawrence once described as "a new world within the known world".

Useful, too, would be the creation of a more democratic ethos in the classroom through which pupils' doubts about the goals we pursue with them might be interpreted as teaching opportunities rather than disciplinary importunities. Complementary to both initiatives would be the founding of a tradition of sympathetic inquiry into learners' outlook on the world: a lamentably and indefensibly neglected area in Scottish education.

The scale of the task may dismay educators who doubt that ideals of personal development can be upheld in a society patently indifferent to them. Yet to do nothing is to strip our work with children of a dimension that can make their lives if not happier or more comfortable then at least more meaningful.

"In depressing conditions," William Walsh observed of Matthew Arnold in The Uses of Imagination, "his eye was fixed on ideal possibilities." Our human legacy to learners in the years ahead may depend upon our ability to view our current problems from a similar perspective.

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