Submit to the chief inspector's metaphors? Never!

14th March 1997 at 00:00
I have beside me the transcript of the 6,900-word annual lecture given by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector (TES, February 28). It is a most illuminating speech, not for any light it throws on the state of education in England and Wales, but because of the light it throws on HMCI's thoughts and attitudes.

He begins with a typically idiosyncratic look at the "national culture". One of the points he makes is that we "live in a society which neither mentions nor believes in anything resembling fortitude".

Has he not visited a children's hospital, or talked to patients in a general ward? Has he ever, once, talked to a nurse working in a hospice? Has he been in a sustained conversation with someone who has just been told that a relation has a terminal illness?

He talks of a "narcissistic preoccupation with self". What does he attempt to achieve by airing these superficial comments? He decides that objective knowledge is still possible, that most of what is written about education is second rate, declares his dislike for anything "intellectual" and patronises teachers at the same time - the usual mixture, in fact, of poorly informed arrogant assertion.

He talks of the young being initiated (a strange word) into those aspects of "our culture that we deem to be worth preserving". Who are the "we"? What group of people have taken it upon themselves to decide what bits of culture are worth preserving and which not? Is the public able to listen in to their deliberations? Does being a schools' inspector give anyone the right to determine what shall, and shall not, be deemed culture?

However, it is on page 3 of the transcript that he uses a word, twice, that is highly indicative of the attitude he has towards pupils and knowledge. First he says that "education demands the willingness to submit to something hard and often unforgiving" (a bizarre picture), and later on he says that the "teacher (is) an authority in a body of knowledge which is external to both teacher and student. If the pupil is to be initiated into this body of knowledge, then he (sic) must submit himself to the teacher's greater understanding."

A number of questions are raised by these weird comments. It is the word "submit" that is particularly odd. Some of us have thought that one of the aims of education is to produce young people who can be responsible for their own learning, be independent thinkers, question and argue and think. Here we are told they must be submissive. And to what? A "body of knowledge". The metaphor obscures; it does not explain.

Does knowledge have that degree of corporeal solidity? Who has constituted this "body of knowledge"? Is it the same as it was in 1797 or 1897? Are there collections of papers to which we can turn find out what the body consists of? Who brings it up to date as discoveries are made?

The murderous violence of the 20th century has stemmed in large measure from there having been too many people ruthlessly determined to make the powerless "submit" to a peculiar view of what constitutes knowledge.

Dictatorships define what is acceptable knowledge, and try desperately to maintain that control. One can be thankful that HMCI is, ultimately, powerless, and that we do not have to "submit" to his views on any topic at all.

CHRISTOPHER BOWRING-CARR 27 Derryvolgie Park Lisburn, Co Antrim

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