Knowledge core is learning's bedrock

26th February 2010 at 00:00

Times have changed. But I guess, as noted in Bob Dylan's song, this is not new. Or, as my old boss used to say before introducing another incomprehensible departmental restructure, "the only constant is change". But the obsession with change appears to be different today, somehow more incomprehensible - almost a thing in itself, unrelated to human activities or history. So where does this leave education, human experience and knowledge?

Education is rarely out of the news, partly because so many people have so much invested in what happens in it, not least politicians. Yet one of the strange things about all the discussion, policies and controversies is that it is rare to find any meaningful discussion about the content of education, and even more unusual to find a discussion about its meaning.

That's not to say that there is no discussion about education's purpose, but rather that these discussions are themselves often about anything other than what would historically have been understood as education.

Rather than discussing the knowledge or the subject matter of education, we end up discussing its purpose in terms of the economy, or with reference to social inclusion and exclusion, or ideas to do with self- esteem and pupils' motivation.

In conversations with teachers, I shudder when hearing about the time and energy spent on trying to please inspectors, to prove that different types of learning and learners have been facilitated by the correct teaching methods and techniques. I end up wondering what all this has to do with history, geography, maths, English or the sciences.

And then there is the Curriculum for Excellence which, as one astute observer noted, appears neither to contain a curriculum, nor to be anything to do with excellence.

With all the time, energy and money spent on both "improving education" and "motivating pupils", one would have thought education would, despite having its difficulties, be heading in the right direction. Not so, argues Professor Frank Furedi, in his latest book Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating.

For Furedi, the politicisation of education is one of the problems today, with education increasingly being seen as a one-stop shop to cure all of society's ills, rather than being focused on the question of educating the next generation.

As the meaning of education is expanded ever further, with for example the idea of "lifelong learning", the specific role of formal education of the young is undermined. Equally, the authority of the teacher is reduced through an obsession with relevance based on a belief that society is in a process of unprecedented change.

This dramatisation of society as being in a period of "constant change", as Furedi argues, is not new. What is new is that, more than ever before, the past appears to hold little source of meaning or authority for society, or indeed for education itself. What then becomes of the idea of human achievement and of accumulated knowledge?

Anyone involved in education may already know the answer to this question. It is that the content of the curriculum becomes drowned by chatter about learning to learn. Where knowledge - from the past - is seen as almost an irrelevance compared with the apparent need to create adaptable young people, where learning "skills" replaces actually knowing something and where we all become learners, the authority of knowledge is replaced by teachers who "facilitate". As Furedi argues, "in an era of (apparent) constant change where there are few `certain answers', there is little to teach other than the need to learn".

Unfortunately, for anyone who has ever read a government paper on education, this notion of "learning to learn" is largely rhetorical and smacks more of a management fad than of anything that can bring clarity or meaning to the notion of education. Relating to changes in society necessitates developments in education, but today a one-sided focus on the "new" and on change is helping to undermine academic subject-based education. This is something that "disinherits the younger generation from their rightful intellectual legacy", Furedi suggests.

This argument follows the line of the philosopher Hannah Arendt who noted in her paper, "The Crisis in Education", as far back as 1954, that education was constantly in "crisis" because of the tension between upholding the achievements of the past and relating to challenges in the present. Yes, education will constantly renew itself with each new generation but, as Arendt argued, the young can only face the challenges of the new by being taught about the world as it is. Schools in this respect must preserve the past for each new generation.

Whereas universities can and indeed should poke at, challenge and undermine the knowledge of the past, schools must first of all provide the foundations of this knowledge. But today, Furedi argues, the perpetual tinkering with the curriculum represents an act of irresponsibility on the part of the adult world "that recycles its own uncertainties through the medium of educational reform".

We may not have all the answers to the many problems in society today, but without a grounding in the achievements and indeed the pitfalls of the past transmitted through education, we risk undermining the centrality of knowledge, the authority of the teacher and the very meaning of education itself.

Stuart Waiton is a sociology lecturer at the University of Abertay Dundee.

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