Tradition need not be the enemy of progress

2nd May 2014 at 01:00
The tension between teaching respect for the past and nurturing independent thinking should be recognised - and embraced

What is the point of education? Is it to pass on the traditions and knowledge that have stood the test of time, with a respect for institutions and authority, and to get children to follow well-worn paths? Or is it to free individuals, encouraging children to think for themselves, to challenge and question the status quo, and to create paths of their own?

In England, for example, the current "progressive" national curriculum states that schools should create "confident individuals" who can "learn independently" and have "enquiring minds". The more "traditional" curriculum that will replace it this year states that teachers should introduce students to the "best that has been thought and said" through study of the "essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens".

Education is political and our opinion of the sort of society we want for our children inevitably affects how we want them to be educated. So it was a surprise to read in a recent interview that England's education secretary, Michael Gove, believes the purpose of education is to allow people "to be the authors of their own life story".

What happens if children become the authors of their own lives in school and come to the conclusion that what they are being taught is not the best? What if they decide that what they have to say might be better? Does the government really want schools to create independent thinkers who are liable to question everything it holds sacred? Or is it contradicting itself? Is its desire for an authoritative traditional education at odds with Gove's socially and economically liberal desire for people to think independently and author their own stories?

Progressives of the libertarian Left and Right think that teaching a core curriculum of privileged knowledge is akin to brainwashing. They argue that instead of teaching the "best that has been thought and said", we should follow the child, allowing them to take control of their own learning. This idea of the autonomous learner, with a personalised curriculum that responds entirely to their own self-perceived needs, is Margaret Thatcher's famous quote writ large: "There is no such thing as society." This is libertarian progressivism taken to its logical conclusion: every thinker is independent of everyone else, the individual has dominion over the group and every child authors their own story.

In February, the BBC aired a controversial Panorama programme about a Western-style university that educates the future elite of North Korea. "Can the mindset of a brainwashed generation be opened up?" asked reporter Chris Rogers. That the leadership in this ultra-secretive, anti-Western, anti-Christian state permits the influence of a Western-funded Christian university is extraordinary, yet this gives us an insight into the contradictions in education. North Korea recognises the need to educate a small number of its citizens - the children of the elite - and these young people are encouraged to think independently, to a degree, despite the problems that this might cause.

Across the demilitarised border in South Korea, Samsung sends many employees to visit schools in the UK, to find out how they educate children to be creative. In 50 years' time, will a creative Korea have overtaken the UK as a hotbed of independent thinking?

Creativity and contradiction

This, then, is our paradox. On the one hand, we have a traditional, authoritative national curriculum, stating that we want our children to realise they are standing on the shoulders of giants. On the other hand, we want children to be individuals who can criticise, challenge and even destroy those giants. Perhaps the reason Britain is known as a creative country is that, within our democratic traditions, we are able to hold completely contradictory positions at the same time.

As Michael Oakeshott wrote in The Voice of Liberal Learning, "an educational engagement is at once a discipline and a release". Is the strength of British culture and education that we are able to embrace discipline, authority and tradition, while at the same time nurturing the release of freedom, often represented by an anti-authoritarian "shock of the new"?

Perhaps we are good at producing independent thinkers because our society tolerates a broad range of contradictory views: for every Edmund Burke we have a Thomas Paine; for every prog-rocker we have a punk. We can be authoritarian conservatives and radical revolutionaries, and we can often see both traditions in the same person.

I believe that instead of pursuing a progressive or traditional education, we should hold those competing ideologies together in creative tension. We should educate in a way that harnesses critical thinking while retaining a respect for our cultural and social inheritance. Instead of the Thatcherite distrust of society, we should celebrate it, for society can give us the context to produce not only independent thinkers but also the maturity to absorb that independence for truly creative ends.

Rather than children being the authors of their own stories, they should be writing chapters in the same, albeit complex, storybook - a book rooted in our shared humanity. We should be shaped by our cultural traditions and valued knowledge, but also by the belief that everything is open to critique and challenge. It is through this dialectic that we end up with the ability to think independently and respect the thinking we hold in common.

Martin Robinson is the author of Trivium 21c: preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past, published by Crown House Publishing, pound;18.99. Follow him on Twitter at @SurrealAnarchy

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