Foggy day? Send in the philosophers

15th March 1996 at 00:00
As one who has sometimes shrunk in horror at reports of Dr Nicholas Tate's thinking, particularly on moral education, I was surprised to find that I agreed with all he has to say about the need for open, wide and charitable debate on educational issues ("To the lighthouse", TES, March 1). I fear that politicians and academics are, with few exceptions, hardly likely to grasp the point.

The "blanketing English fog" which covers us "with a pall of ... philistinism towards ideas", which he so aptly cites, is nowhere more dense than in the House of Commons. Ideas are hardly ever discussed there, even if one acknowledges that, occasionally, excellent ideas are proposed. The debate is not charitable, fair, open or dialoguic. The debating chamber is one in name only: it is more akin to a wrestling pit, the contenders not being rival ideas or practices, but groups and individuals seeking to further their own prejudices. It is, therefore, difficult to see how most politicians can understand the concept of Dr Tate's charitable debate, let alone participate therein.

It is also lamentable that university specialists in educational thought and policy seem to perpetuate the very fog they are supposed to be most able to dispel, being versed in critical reflection, and possessing sharpness of insight and clarity of vision. Do teachers and parents hear from these people? No. I can think of six reasons for this.

For one thing, few academics write or speak in a style that is both understandable and highly relevant to a wide public. For another, few publishers support works on education that meet both criteria simply because they do not sell here, except in academic institutions.

Third, academics are, for the most part, so deeply involved in the dull intricacies of scholarly writing that they have lost any sense of what a nationwide debate might be about.

Fourth, even if they have not, they have long ago lost the ability to speak the language in which it might be held. Fifth, they pour all their efforts into churning out obscure articles for irrelevant journals which are only read by those who have to churn out obscure articles to aid the all-important research rating of the hand that feeds them. Academic research and reflection in education has largely become an esoteric world of interest only to itself (with notable exceptions).

And, finally, even within this world, too few mechanisms exist for interdisciplinary debate on vital issues.

Dr Tate rightly urges upon us the importance of "defining our ends and purposes as human beings", since this affects all the practicalities of educating. But this is not on, at least until, at the bottom end of the cerebral spectrum, politicians see themselves as others see them, and, at the top end, academics are dragged out from the cloisters and forced to address these complex matters in a language the wider public can understand. For the public at large, there can be no hope for charitable, informed and critical debate until philosophy is included in the national curriculum.

MIKE NEWBY 20 Aboyne Drive West Wimbledon, London SW20

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