What's it all about, chaps?

20th January 2006 at 00:00
THE GREATEST EDUCATORS...EVER! By Frank M Flanagan. Continuum pound;14.99

No one seriously doubts that education is a good thing, but the debate on why it is central to a civilised society is as old as civilisation itself.

Victoria Neumark enjoys a guide to two millennia of great educators What is the purpose of education? Apart from keeping young human beings out of the hair of adults, that is. Many a disillusioned individual faced with, say, a class of 14-year-olds who care nothing for the imperfect tense in French or why Juliet kills herself, to say nothing of simultaneous equations, has asked him or herself this question in the rhetorical, what-am-I-doing-here sense, but how often do we question our profession more deeply? And is it useful so to do?

Teachers can be the people least interested in thinking about this thorny question; by definition, they are the ones most interested in maintaining the credibility a systematised form of instructing the young. Yet "Why exactly are we doing this?" and "What is it that we are doing?" can be the most fruitful of questions both technically, to help focus teaching, and existentially, to help focus our sense of ourselves in a professional sense. Frank M Flanagan's accessible, lucidly written series of potted biographies of great educators offers scope for both: it is a handy guide to the history of educational thought in the West which also offers thought-provoking insights on education -and the place of educators - today.

As Flanagan remarks, it is by no means obvious that education in a formal sense has a value, much less that it necessarily should take the form it does in Britain today. He identifies three trends in educational thought: perfecting technical skills, creating morally harmonious citizens, and developing a free, questioning mental attitude. These three themes are broadly rooted in the work of his first three educators, the ancient Greeks Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, though a narrow focus on technical skills he assigns to the morally dubious Sophists. All three, he hints, are desirable for the optimum outcome, which is broadly agreed to be a just, equal society.

This is quite a utopian vision and Flanagan's choice of influential educators is solidly in the bien-pensant, leftish-liberal tradition. Here is his list: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Quintilian, Augustine, Comenius, Locke, Rousseau, Froebel, Newman, Dewey, Montessori, Buber, Neill, Freire, Illich. The aristocratic point of view, as in Montesquieu, the satirical, as in Voltaire, the reclusive as in Emerson (or Wordsworth), the instrumental, as in Machiavelli, and the reactionary (anyone from the Daily Mail) get scarcely a mention, let alone a look-in. Nor is the focus widened to preoccupations from other cultures like the idea of the Indian guru and the associated intense master-pupil relationship, or the way in which many non-industrialised cultures use peer-group experiences and rituals to socialise young people in a particular age group. Given these limitations, this is a palatable and refreshing trip round the bases of some crucial thinkers.

Most challenging remains, perhaps, the granddaddy of western philosophy, Socrates, still after two millennia "a gadfly" as he described himself.

Here is his famous speech from Plato's Apology of Socrates: "(I) thought to myself, 'I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think that I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent: that I do not think that I know when I do not know.'" At first sight, not the most useful apercu when facing those restive 14-year-olds, you might think. But in fact, understanding that knowledge is rooted in ignorance is truly useful in helping others to learn, rather than simply pouring unwanted knowledge into unwilling pitchers, as Paulo Freire would have put it. There are technical skills of teaching, as Locke and Quintilian, a master of rhetoric, well knew, but there is also a need for education to match a child's organic development, as Froebel, Montessori and Pestalozzi understood. Without some meeting of minds, between teacher and pupil, the process will not work. Such a realisation drove Ivan Illich, among others, to despair, visualising a process where the "ignorant met the ignorant round a text they neither understood". But that was a false realisation of equality, missing out a vital ingredient: respect.

Respect is currently a buzzword, but for a deeper grasp of how it might work in education, this book is a reminder that we should look to Rousseau, whose ideas exploded into the highly wrought world of the 18th century. His passionate belief in human beings' innermost nature as the guide to what they needed to know, and how they needed to learn, offers startling pointers for today.

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