We're over the rainbow

21st November 2003 at 00:00
State schools have served their purpose and the time has come to move on to a less authoritarian system, says Ostap Melnick

My favourite topic in the history of education is the condition of the lives of working children in the 19th century. But, in the debates about child labour, it never occurs to educationists to ask: "If children labour in school, is it is ethical for the Government to require them to do so, and without remuneration?"

One of Michel Foucault's interests was the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects. Ivan Illich described modern school as oppressive and saw it as a mechanism for subjugation. A matter that is conveniently ignored nowadays, but which was the theme of vigorous debates in the early and mid decades of the 19th century, was to what extent the population should be moulded into a uniform mass. John Stuart Mill lost the argument, and state education followed.

In 1898, George Gissing, in writing about Dickens and approving of the changes, remarked that "60 years ago, grotesques and eccentricities were more common than nowadays . . . education had not yet set up its grindstone for all and sundry". Dickens, had he been living in 1898, might still find eccentrics but "would have to search for them amid the masses drilled into uniformity".

It is accurate enough to suppose that compulsory education in the UK was a response to the militarisation of Prussian life, especially of mass schooling, which commenced in the 1820s. The Prussian military felt deeply humiliated after a series of defeats by the French. They intended to avenge those defeats and planned decades ahead. Victories led to euphoria in 1866 and again in 1870.

It is no coincidence that, after decades of debate, compulsory education laws were enacted in 1870 in England and 1872 in Scotland, shortly after the Prussian victories against the French. The culmination of Prussian plans for military glory came in the 20th century with the catastrophic consequences of two world wars.

From a British perspective, state school served an admirable purpose. But the objectives have long been achieved and we live in a new age. We ought to be thinking of how our future education system will look.

In 1918, DH Lawrence wrote an article on "Education of the People", for The TES. It was rejected for being too long. The essay is contained in a Penguin paperback, Lawrence on Education, which unfortunately is out of print. I must have read these when I was aged about 20. It was only when I became a father a couple of decades later and was researching schooling that it slowly dawned that this book had formed the basis of my outlook on education.

As always, Lawrence goes over the top, suggesting that school sports should include arming boys with swords and shields and teaching them how to fight to the death. Still, despite the frequent exaggerations, this book is well worth a read. For an electrifying denouement read the piece "Assistant Teacher" which is extracted from The Rainbow. Lawrence the teacher was a romantic who struggled against harsh and brutal reality to control working-class children in an Edwardian classroom. In "Assistant Teacher", he has Ursula Brangwen play out his experiences.

Away from education, Lawrence frequently railed against the mechanisation of life. He argued that modern man had lost something essential and needed to get back to a pagan way of thinking. He traced the downfall back to our Judeo-Christian origins. In addressing the human condition, Lawrence seemed to propose a return to barbarism.

All societies arrange for their members to be made subjects. To be a civilised human being means to be repressed. The debate ought to be about the degree of our subjection, and the methods of achieving it. Modern mass education is sneaky. Its purpose is subjection but pretends to be otherwise. After every reform, it becomes more controlling.

We need to change schooling so that it becomes less authoritarian and more capable of organic growth. We need systems that will diminish the negative effects brought about by treating life as a machine. Nobody is going to throw away the benefits of the modern age but it is possible to devise a system that is better than the one we have at present.

Ostap Melnick is a chartered engineer with an irrepressible interest in education.

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