We're far too busy to be intellectuals

11th May 2007 at 01:00
Walter Humesis research professor in education at Paisley University

George Davie, author of The Democratic Intellect (1961), died recently. In a moving tribute, Lindsay Paterson wrote: "Sadly and ironically, the political autonomy which Scotland has now attained has been accompanied by a descent, in its official public life, into an intellectual and cultural vacuum."

That struck a chord with me. For some time, I have thought that much of Scottish education is anti-intellectual. That may seem a strange thing to say. After all, education is about promoting learning and the development of the mind. Other kinds of development matter too - physical, social, emotional and moral. But what I am concerned about is an excessive concern with systems, a narrow approach to issues and, above all, hostility to ideas, especially those that challenge existing practices.

Consider teachers' ambivalent attitudes to their professionalism. They are keen to assert their status, based on qualifications, training and so on, but are often critical of the courses they must attend as part of their initial training or professional development, condemning them as too theoretical and out-of-touch with classroom realities.

It is said that all that really matters is practical experience. Students on placement are sometimes urged to adopt this stance by staff who are wary of anything new. How would we regard doctors with that attitude?

Where can we look for intellectual leadership in Scottish education? The inspectorate is one potential source. Its reports are often judgments of what exists, but they do not look to develop a new agenda. A fondness for "best practice" leads to a conservatism of approach and they tread a delicate political path. This makes them wary of intellectual debate.

The directorate, another possible source of ideas, is beset by problems to do with staffing, buildings, legislative changes and so on. It too operates in a political context, having to take account of the wishes of councils, so they are under pressure to deal with pragmatic issues and disinclined to get involved in educational philosophy.

What about educational research? Surely that should be a powerful source of ideas? There are probably more studies being carried out now than ever, but most are concerned with current policy priorities determined by the Scottish Executive.

There is clearly a case for some of this work, but we also need "blue skies" thinking, with a focus on how major economic, political, environmental, technological and cultural forces will affect education systems of the future. The academic world bears some responsibility for colluding in its own intellectual containment.

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