Trapped in a vacuum

In the absence of a coherent philosophy the education system will always fall short of its ideals, says Joe Farrell

WHILE waiting to face the Scottish parliamentary committee inquiring into the state of education, I watched a group of intelligent, articulate pupils fielding questions that would have taxed Plato. What is your idea of a good school? What do you require of education to equip you for life? And, what is education for?

There is no final answer to these questions, not even from Plato, so each generation must pose them anew. This is not a country or culture given to abstract questioning, and for too long discussion of educational issues has focused on technical questions - examination systems, payment of teachers, financing of buildings. Debate on deeper matters - knowledge, objectives, standards - has been ignored. Maybe this neglect has contributed to concern about our educational standing in Europe, and maybe now it can be reversed.

Unlike our predecessors, we no longer have any shared philosophy of education. When at the height of the Victorian age John Henry Newman wrote his splendid Idea of a University, he could assume agreement for his conviction that the central aim was the formation of the gentleman, a creature sure of his place in society, equipped with a knowledge of classical culture and well grounded in a grasp of the values of Christian civilisation.

When this certainty crumbled in the face of the emergence of secularism, the growth of the sciences and the rise of democracy, no single overarching philosophy took its place and subsequent semi-philosophies have been tentative, partial and hesitant.

Empirical research into the impact of education systems is not the same thing as philosophy, nor is it an adequate substitute. When I proposed to the committee that we have to rethink philosophy, I was rebuked by one of its four consultants. Do we require a philosophy? Is the choice of diversity not itself an adequate substitute? Should we not content ourselves with a variety of schools each with an outlook of its own, each catering to different needs, each fostering its own surrogate for a philosophy?

There are, however, risks in leaving a vacuum at the core of things. My own experience as a university teacher persuades me that we have witnessed, at least in English, foreign languages and the arts in general, a calamitous fall in knowledge, and that this decline is at least in part attributable to a failure to address educational philosophy.

Two of the dominant elements of current educational thought and practice could be defined as utilitarian mechanism and pessimism. The mechanistic heresy is the modern substitute for Victorian humanistic notions, and is founded on an inchoate belief that education is essentially an applied activity. What is not useful, for example, grammar or knowledge of the structure of one's own language, should be jettisoned.

In practice, this outlook overlaps with the pessimistic credo that the capacity and attention span of today's students is so stunted that they can be neither expected nor required to undertake work which requires extended concentration or effort.

When the study of history showed itself to be demanding, it was replaced by projects, so we have ended up with minds marooned in the present with no sense of the past. When grammar required effort, it was replaced by free expression. When it turned out that the learning of other languages was not all beer and skittles, languages were downgraded from having a compulsory place on the syllabus to an even more anodyne position as an "entitlement". Together, the grim ogres of utilitarianism and pessimism risk producing in Scotland an under-educated generation.

The mechanistic heresy, that the success of an educational system should be judged by its economic return or contribution to industry or employment, has become an article of faith, shared across the spectrum of political opinion. No one would express themselves in quite such crude terms, but a variation of this notion lay behind the division by the Scottish Executive of ministerial responsibilities for education. Lifelong learning was twinned not with school education but with enterprise, on the grounds that the purpose of university research was to feed the needs of industry.

o object to this line of thinking does not entail acceptance of the opposite extreme. Only a sainted mystic could propose that education should refuse to cater for the needs of society, but a less saintly human being could well suggest that the currently dominant outlook is skewed and unbalanced. It has overridden any belief in a more humanistic idea of education and of the imparting of culture. Is it permissible to restate the belief that if education does not bring about the enrichment of the individual, it is failing? Or that it is of value in itself to deepen a critical sense and to widen the culture of learners, whether youthful or "lifelong", so as to give them resources to cope with a society dominated by the trivialities of an entertainment industry?

Perhaps the utilitarians could be appeased by an agreement to make the demands of a "knowledge economy" the centre of educational policy, but only where a concern with the economy is balanced by an insistence on knowledge itself. Our pedagogic beliefs and practices have been for too long imbued with an unnecessary and self-fulfilling pessimism. No reasonable individual can question the value of the drive to eliminate privilege and elitism from the education system, but it appears that when elitism and knowledge showed themselves to be in conflict, the knowledge, not the elitism, was jettisoned.

If the current debate allows this philosophy to be challenged, it will have served its purpose.

Joseph Farrell is professor of Italian studies at Strathclyde University.

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