Shall I leave now?

Our new(ish) Education Secretary seems to have ruffled many feathers with her recent comment that we should be able to judge the respective worth of academic subjects by the eventual earning power of the recipients. I was appalled at this, and a bit of me suspects that even her not-much-missed predecessor would never have come out with something quite this crass. If I were to let it bother me, I could be very indignant indeed that the person in charge of our education system sought to devalue my own achievement purely because it has led to only relatively moderate earnings. Perhaps she would rather I left teaching and became a banker?

Daisy Christodoulou posted an eloquent and elegant objection to this hyper-materialisation of education’s aims here, pointing out that the perception of education as an economic tool is relatively recent, and that the cultural, societal and even political applications of education predate it by a long way. She perceptively observed that education was seen to have a desirable purpose long before people became as wealth-obsessed as they arguably are today.

Whatever industrialists and politicians might think, the actual effect of education can only ever be personal. Whatever learning does to one’s brain is ultimately of no direct relevance to anyone other than the individual concerned; that is why education remains fundamentally a cultural attribute. While wider society might reasonably be interested in who can do what, and the individual, too, might seek wider validation of their efforts, that effect remains entirely cerebral. Trying to misdirect it for economic – or any other – specific purpose can only result in the devaluation of its wider benefits.

As Lynne Taylor-Gooby, the principal of The Royal School, Haslemere wrote in The Independent,

“…the well-stocked mind [is] a virtue in its own right and… to be curious creative and spiritually aware [are] good things”.

This is a sentiment that I endorse wholeheartedly, and it is a major reason why I get out of bed on dark winter mornings. It ought to be possible for politicians (and others) to accept this on its own terms as a key component of a good society. This is about giving whatever meaning to individual lives that their owners later seek, and if some apparently ‘educated’ people really are insufficiently reflective to appreciate this, one is forced to doubt whether they really are very educated after all.

Some individuals may indeed choose to deploy their intellect for the single-minded pursuit of material wealth, but that choice is still the product of individual reasoning. So long as it does not involve the exploitation of others, it is hard to object, though one might hope that wider reflection would lead to a more considered understanding of the limitations of such a life – and also galvanise the potentially-exploited to resist their guile.

Like all teachers, I want my pupils to “succeed” – and for all the semantic arguments over precisely what this means, I think it is still a noble sentiment. For children’s consumption, we probably don’t need to engage too much in the philosophy, but what concerns me is that success is now only defined in terms of hard cash – as Ms. Morgan effectively suggested last week.

At its most extreme, applying this philosophy to education risks accelerating something that already needs greater investigation – the possibility that schooling (not Education, note) is simply making it easier for those who can to pull ever further away from the rest of society. It’s not as though there’s no evidence that that is happening…

I most definitely went into education to help people realise their potential, and there is always going to be a tension between that and the (in)equality of the outcomes. But I did not go into it believing that the only, or even most important, indicator of that is their earning capacity. While competition can be healthy, it does not by any means suit everyone and can easily become an obsession in itself. The notion that education is about gratuitously beating the opposition (and amorally either  ‘playing the game’  or ‘gaming the play’ in order to do so) is alien to me – and yet it seems to be the principal premise behind the values I see being expressed in school every day.

My own objective could not be more different. The  aggregate benefit of education to society can only be achieved by the success of each individual’s educational experience on its own terms. I see my role as firstly the development of children’s intellect and secondly, the transmission of one particular field of knowledge. What they do with it in later life is their concern, though I hope it will contribute to both an individually fulfilled life and one that contributes to the wider wellbeing of society. Narrowing this remit to economic supremacism devalues many of the other attributes needed for both of the above.

Securing a comfortable material quality of life is not a reprehensible aim – but it is diminished if not set in a more widely sustainable social and psychological context. I have deep reservations about the worthy teaching of ‘life skills’ as it reduces the development of personal qualities to just another external fix. The best way to promote enlightened thinking and behaviour is to equip people with the perspective to think it through for themselves – and this comes through the long-term development of thoughtfulness. This is not about creating champions (financial or otherwise) but about the development of the general fabric of society and its everyday quality of life. It is not about grit, so much as a sense of realism and proportionate expectation, of balancing one’s own needs with those of others. It is about giving people the ability and dignity to make their own considered life-choices rather than foisting political or economic ones upon them. There is a far greater total benefit to be had from that, than the production of the occasional winner – and thousands of also-rans.

A successfully educated person is one who can bring that perspective to bear on any aspect of life that they need or choose. Many thoughtful people realise that a widely well-lived life may even require the deliberate rejection of highly materialistic values. Arguably, it is also those academic disciplines that have a less direct line to high earnings that do most to promote such socially-responsible views. Yet by Morgan’s criteria, these people and their education count for little.

Success in this context refers as much to the quality of one’s relationships, one’s participation in wider society, the fulfilling use of one’s time, and a belief in one’s ability actively to influence these things, as it does to the size of one’s tax bill.  Shall I leave now?

5 thoughts on “Shall I leave now?

  1. Good to hear from you! You’re all too right – those of us who still think of ourselves in academic terms are living on borrowed time, I fear. Still, one small consolation – it seems even worse at university level. On second thought, that’s not much of a consolation.

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