Life's labour lost

11th July 1997 at 01:00
Education and the end of work: A new philosophy of work and learning By John White, Cassell, #163;45 (hbk), #163;15.99 (pbk).

This book recognises that education, especially schooling, for the past 20 years has been built on a Big Lie. It is obvious when you think about it, which is what philosophers do, that since the l976 Great Debate, schools have been blamed for unemployment. Perhaps through its repetition, this unsubstantiated argument has been widely accepted and vocational relevance to the needs of industry has been defined as the purpose of state schooling.

Yet everybody knows (when they think about it), this puts the cart before the horse, because neither schools nor teachers are in a position to create jobs. In fact, there are increasingly few jobs, and certainly not jobs for life of the type that our vocationally oriented schooling presupposes.

In fact, work is being transformed by new technology. So, as Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty argue in Thirty Years On, their book on comprehensive schooling, "For the first time in almost two centuries there is the possibility of our society reshaping itself democratically because there is the possibility of reshaping work itself." As White states: "The ice-floe doctrine of work's centrality to life may at last be breaking up."

Certainly, a stream of books has recently drawn attention to this fact. This book does so in relation to education - more specifically to compulsory schooling. As White points out, this can no longer be assumed as the necessary prelude to subsequent lifelong labour.

But this is just the supposition of the foundation learning presented in that "masterpiece of decimalised logic", as White calls the national curriculum, "with its 10 foundation subjects and 10 levels of attainment". The national curriculum has intensified school work, reinforcing the long school day as a grid to be filled with varied activities at which students may be working but from which they are not necessarily learning anything.

As a professor of philosophy in the English tradition, John White makes careful discriminations between, for instance, work and learning, to produce terms as unambiguous as possible. Thus, he comes to distinguish between work undertaken for others and work towards goals freely chosen for yourself - work that you would continue to do even if you did not get paid for it.

His method is hardly what continental philosophers such as Nietzsche would have called "philosophy with a hammer", but it gently chips away at the suppositions that most of us have taken for granted as a result of the Protestant work ethic under which we have been brought up. And when he comes to look at how other philosophers, from Aristotle onward, have "worked at work", White returns to the Greeks, for whom collective well-being was the goal of a democratic society.

He suggests a return to an ideal of the good life, rather than the indirect means of achieving it through producing, in order to consume. As everyone also knows who thinks about it, this consumerism and its accompanying "productivism" is unsustainable. Yet we remain obstinately dedicated to it: "To support economic growth and improve the nation's competitiveness", as the Department for Education and Employment (sic) defines its purposes.

It's not as if there is not enough work to go round to support human well-being by, first of all, working to ensure humanity's survival. It's just that if the work is not profitable, it will not be undertaken. White does not really investigate the reasons for this, but then, as he says, "Philosophy can only take one so far."

Patrick Ainley is co-author with Bill Bailey of The Business of Learning: Staff and Student Experiences of FE published by Cassell this month.

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