This is the first of a three-part series in which Frank Palmer examines how schools became places of anti-learning.
I WAS fortunate to be given a traditional education in the academic disciplines before the rot set in. For example, my school study of English Literature opened my eyes to a vast treasury of beauty and knowledge.
Chaucer was a fascinating journey into our historical roots, the development of the English language, the values and social customs of our forebears and his moral criticisms consisting of the gentle irony of a kindly and forgiving eye.
The solemn power of Milton’s verse led me to absorb the classical references to Ancient Greek mythologies. The entrancement of Alexander Pope’s fluent and fiery satires gave me an idea of the political scene and the corruption he fought against. Shakespeare’s plays, with the dazzling beauty of the poetic drama, put me in touch with some deep-rooted truths and inspiring insights into human folly, good and evil, and the constancies in human nature that give his works their universal significance. All this was not mere ‘aestheticism’ (à la Oscar Wilde) but an initiation into collective wisdom.
I was dimly aware at that age, though I could not have expressed it in these terms, that education involves above all the transmission of a heritage, that the purpose of schooling is to pass on knowledge and culture, and that the ideal teacher is one who, having gained some level of mastery in a subject, has the personality and character to inspire pupils.
During my years in teaching I saw that conception being ripped apart. It started in the mid-1960s when teacher training colleges began their sabotage. Although some ‘main subject’ specialists retained the approaches I cherished (I was fortunate to have the brilliant and ebullient Patrick Anderson, ex-President of the Oxford Union, writer, poet and critic), the lecturers in the growth industry of a pseudo-subject called ‘Education’ were propounding a new ideology which was de rigueur for any student wishing to gain a teaching certificate.
The leading names in this new bible were Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori and John Dewey, who were invoked to inspire the shift away from a subject-based curriculum to the woolly Romanticism of ‘child-centred learning’. When I was on teaching practice I derived particular amusement from the asinine complicity of a headmaster who said ‘we don’t teach subjects, we teach children’, and another head who said proudly ‘our aim is to make a rounded child’ (a desideratum surely more cheaply and quickly achieved with an ample supply of iced doughnuts).
Apologists for the idea of a liberal humane conception of education, such as Matthew Arnold who advocated acquaintance with ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ and the philosopher Michael Oakeshott who spoke deeply of education being ‘a timeless conversation between the generations’, were not advocating some narrow notion of passing on mere facts. If it is to be called a body of knowledge, it is not a corpse but a living body, with a past, a present and an unpredictable future. Knowledge in this sense is something deeply moral and spiritual. It encompasses not just values but immersion in culture and tradition, (as T S Eliot called it) a ‘historical sense’ that gives to the learner a sense of identity that challenges self-love and vanity.
The onward march of child-centred education, which eschewed ideas of discipline and authority in all forms, was in effect a move towards what I would call self-centred education, in which the immediate desires and interests of ‘the child’ are paramount. This so-called ‘progressivism’ insisted that everything must be ‘relevant’ to the child’s own experience (despite the fact that ‘relevance’ here means relevant to the experience of the uneducated). So in primary schools, play flourished and learning decreased.
The prospect of broadening their horizons, of getting pupils to attend to things not immediately easy or attractive, is thereby abandoned, and the idea of a teacher as an authority on anything becomes as unacceptable as the term didactic, which has become a dirty word.
It was noticeable that most lecturers in ‘Education’ were Left-wing, at least in their espousal of educational theory, which was ‘anti-elitist’ and pro-comprehensive schools. (The influential director of the London University Institute of Education at that time was Lionel Elvin, who was obsessed with elitism and wrote a book on the subject.) Woe betide any student who even considered writing an essay in defence of grammar schools.
Into the schools went the new enlightened teachers. So with the gradual erosion of a knowledge-based curriculum the gates were opened to a series of further assaults on traditional educational practice, from the huge rise of the pastoral system set up in such a way as to wag the educational dog, from the growth of reductionist pseudo-scientific conceptions of ‘the learning process’, and of course from political manipulation from both Left and Right.
I shall be exploring these further.