The Best of all possible worlds

All nations tell stories about themselves: it is a way of creating a shared consciousness about their place in the world. Unsurprisingly nearly all of them paint the nation concerned as the most virtuous and blessed on the planet. They need not be encumbered by more sober appraisals of reality, and one might even observe that the more flattering the picture, the less so may be the reality – after all, those most in need of a good story are often those for whom reality is most wanting.

We British are no slouches when it comes to the national story. In fact we’ve been at it longer than many, since well before the appellation ‘Great’ was added to our name. And we still are – for what other purpose serves the current imperative to be teaching ‘British Values’ to our young, as if they were not the values of other civilised nations too?

The last time this issue arose, the best response I read was from the excellent Mark Steel in The Independent. Unfortunately, I can’t find it, but I can well imagine him talking a pot-shot at this latest incarnation: the current reality of the British Story includes the most polarised wealth of any nation in Europe, the longest working hours, some of the least secure employment, a political system increasingly unsuited to modern governance (which has repeatedly failed to be reformed) and a government that has periodically contemplated withdrawing from its people access to European Human Rights legislation that is apparently perfectly adequate for millions of others, even in countries supposedly much less satisfactory than our own.

I have recently been reading The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart, a 1957 text appraising the ways in which working class life in Britain was changing in the post-war period. It became a classic of social analysis, and is well worth reading for anyone who has an interest in social affairs, whether from an educational perspective or otherwise.

In many ways, Hoggart’s observations remain very relevant today, and the book was reprinted in 2009. Hoggart’s description of the remants of northern working-class life provide much food for thought on the matter of social progress, particularly considering the priority that has been (and still is) accorded to that matter as a supposed aim of mass education.

The second half of the book is a polemic against the loss of a humble but authentic way of life under the assault of the commercial vested interests that were starting to seep into British society, principally from America. This was the beginning of the hollowing out of society that arguably continues today.

Hoggart acknowledges the material improvements that were coming to ‘ordinary people’ at the time, relieving the drudgery of daily life – and the increased educational opportunities being afforded as mass access to secondary schools did indeed lift some out their uneducated state. However, he bemoans the fact that this occurred hand-in-hand with an almost irresistible commercialisation of life that neutralised much of the potential cultural and intellectual gain by appealing to the mass populace’s instincts for the low-brow. In one fell swoop, liberation by mass education was defeated by the self-interest of base commerce. One can argue that this too has continued – even strengthened – to the present day.

Hoggart has much to say about the educational system (he was an academic from a working-class background). Even then, he perceived in the application of education (and commerce) to those with little aptitude for it, as much the destruction of the authentic working class as a force for social progress. He argued that it removed people from their roots without ever allowing them to settle comfortably in their new social milieu. This is the story of my own parents, whom I know took decades to feel comfortable in the middle class surroundings in which they found themselves by dint of having become grammar-school teachers.

As the book progresses, Hoggart becomes rather condescending, but what he says does still resonate:

“the over-importance of examinations, the piling-up of knowledge and received opinions…a technique of apparent learning, of the acquisition of facts rather than the handling and use of facts.”

“[the scholarship boy] learns how to receive a purely literate education, one of using only a small part of his personality and challenging only a limited area of his being.” He begins to see life as a ladder, as a permanent examination with some praise and some further exhortation at each stage…He rarely feels the reality of knowledge, of other men’s thoughts and imaginings, on his pulses; he rarely discovers an author for himself and on his own…”

Hoggart invokes Herbert Spencer, who in the 1900s spoke of education thus:

“The established systems of education, whatever their matter may be, are fundamentally vicious in their manner. They encourage submissive receptivity instead of independent activity.”

I found myself wondering what has changed. It is a significant point: acquiring the trappings of education is of little consequence if one has no idea what to do with the thing itself.

One can perhaps read in such sentiments the origins of the progressive movement of the 1970s, but despite this (and its many failings) I fear that the current system of education is reverting rapidly to the earlier model. For all that I support the philosophy and methods of traditional teaching, my aim is to develop in my pupils the capacity for rigorous independent thought, and thereby an ability to become one’s own person. I do not believe it exists simply to validate small-minded institutional conformity.

If we remove for a moment the man-made structures that surround education, there can remain only one real purpose: the enhancement of individual lives. Humans are born with large and active brains; learning is not elective – it is instinctive. The purpose of any education system should therefore be to harness this capacity to permit the individual to lead a fulfilled life during his or her time on this planet, and (ideally) to assist others in doing the same.

I found myself wondering whether we have made any progress at all in this since the 1950s. In many ways, that was a time of optimism, perhaps the only period in recent British history when there was genuine social mobility, from which my own parents benefitted. Material progress has of course been mind-boggling since then – but I wonder whether it has really had much effect other than the diminution of the loftier aspirations in people’s lives. But as the unsentimental Hoggart points out, there was a large sector of the population that was not in the least interested in furthering itself – and again the same can possibly be said today.

As the many incurious young people that I encounter would suggest, material abundance seems to have done little but dull any interest in higher aspirations. The commercial world whose emergence Hoggart was witnessing has since sated the vast majority of people’s desires, while simultaneously dumbing down the diet so as to placate them in a fog of materialist self-satisfaction. When life‘s reward comes from the next iPhone or a flat-screen T.V. why worry about anything more abstract? Or as one student said to me this week, in what way might aspiring to earn £5 million a year be seen as an unreasonable life-goal?

I find myself wondering whether it is really worth trying to impose educated values on those who seem to have little real desire for them, any more now than in the 1950’s. Maybe we would be better concentrating on those (of any ability) who do show interest and promise?

The post-war idealism is long-gone. I find it hard to feel positive about a national story that is increasingly built on consumption-derived conformity and a lack of critical thought. Most worryingly, while the masses are glued to their flat screens, I suspect we are witnessing the emergence of a new aristocracy – that of the executive classes, who are increasingly cornering the real power and wealth, even in supposedly socially-orientated fields such as health and education. Several stories encountered this week point to the fact that management is increasingly becoming an end in its own right. It scarcely matters whether it is a school, hospital, university or commercial company – or indeed an entire nation; what is important is that it be managed, that its operatives be controlled and aligned with the corporate mission-statement, that the self-promotion of the organisation is more important than the substance of what it delivers.

Management too often feeds itself at the expense of its host; it is becoming a parasite on the real business of organisations. The platitudes may flow from those in charge, but words are cheap, and I might feel more convinced by their sincerity if those issuing them showed less need to regard themselves as deserving greater perks and vastly larger incomes than their minions. I might have more confidence in the mission statements if they didn’t come at the expense of the work-life balance, pay levels and sometimes even health of those lower down. Let alone the sometimes-demeaning treatment of those who for whatever reason do not play the corporate game.

It is particularly regrettable that education, an activity whose authentic goal is the intellectual liberation of the individual, is being increasingly misappropriated to serve the corporate power-dreams of a few, who are looking more and more like a detached cadre of self-aggrandising  fixers than an integral part of cohesive learning communities.

So much for an education system that works in the interests society as a whole; the values it now promotes are to entice the next generation of this aristocracy to make it for themselves if they can. It rewards personal ambition, material recompense and the clinical exercise of power over anything closer to the humane founding principles of education.

And so much for a national story that still considers its values superior to much of the world. In the introduction to Hoggart’s book, the writer Lynsey Hanley says

“Without self-respect, [Hoggart] argues, you are open to … denigration and exploitation by those who see opportunities in human vulnerability.”

Yet it is just such a destruction of individual self-respect that the British national story is now facilitating through its abandonment of higher educational and intellectual ideals. I entered teaching with those higher ideals in mind and I deplore the way this new aristocracy is diverting my own working life too, to deliver its narrow, selfish corporate objectives.



5 thoughts on “The Best of all possible worlds

  1. The thing is, it’s not just nations who tell themselves self-aggrandising “stories”. I am uncomfortable with the way you have “framed” this issue, because while it contains elements of truth, it seems to me that a far more important factor behind the problems you describe is the way that “progressive” educationalists have for many decades now been telling themselves a “story” that refuses to acknowledge psychological and factual realities. A story which, just like national stories, is hugely powerful and addictive because of the way in which it flatters the tellers: a story in which they are the idealistic heroes, the enlightened vanguard, the liberators of the masses.

    This story includes many familiar elements: textbooks are bad, practice equals drill, factual knowledge equals rote learning, children learn best by socially interacting with one another, constructivism is a form of pedagogy, children can learn to read “naturally” in the same way they learn to speak, a disciplined, orderly classroom produces robots, young children should only learn through play, and many, many more.

    My point is that, in my view, the oppressive managerialism and testing you write about hasn’t arisen from consumerism, or capitalism, or an impulse to “validate small-minded institutional conformity”, Rather, it has come about as an inevitable reaction by governments to the refusal of progressive educationalists to accept that much of their story is based on myths, and that those myths are often actually detrimental to the disadvantaged children they imagine themselves to be championing. Thus, governments from the 1980s onwards have looked at the results of progressive teaching methods, at the lack of evidence underpinning them, and at the research (particularly in the case of reading instruction) that contradicts them, and have clumsily tried to use the extremely limited levers available to them in an attempt to improve matters.

    So this undesirable managerialism has arisen largely as an unintended consequence of the inadequacy of those levers, combined with the determined resistance of the progressive establishment to evidence-informed change. Labour governments attempted to micromanage changes, resulting in oppressive bureaucracy. Conservative governments attempted to use market forces, resulting in oppressive management structures. Ofsted, meanwhile, having been largely captured by progressives, ferociously enforced the use of poor teaching methods, preventing changes to better methods that might be capable of actually producing the improvements both Labour and Conservative governments desire.

    The key question is, would any of this have happened, if it hadn’t been for the rise and overwhelming dominance of progressive teaching methods in the 70s and 80s? Imagine where we might be now if teachers had instead kept on with their traditional methods in primary and secondary schools, but at the same time had incorporated evidence-based improvements in their pedagogy. Imagine where we might be if academics in university departments of education had been keen to work with their colleagues in departments of psychology, had been happy to hear about and pass on to teachers the growing evidence about the importance of phonics for teaching reading, and the growing understanding of the role of working memory and the importance of factual knowledge for critical thinking, to take just a few examples. Imagine if all of this knowledge had been used to devise effective curricula, and if educational research had been directed to actually discovering what works best to improve the learning of the most disadvantaged, rather than toward validating preconceived progressive ideas.

    There are plenty of countries whose governments haven’t meddled much with how education works. I think we could have been one of them, if only progressive eduationalists hadn’t been – and alas in many cases still are – so zealously fixated on their “story”, rather than on opening their minds to knowledge and evidence.

    • Thanks for that. I wouldn’t disagree with any of what you say. I was hinting at the fact that it isn’t only nations who tell themselves stories; maybe I needed to make that point clearer.

      I think your analysis of why governments intervened is largely accurate, but I think the tragedy is that they have unleashed forces that they did not anticipate. I have some inside knowledge to suggest that. In particular, I am thinking of the rising class of Academy Barons – and I’m afraid I am just not convinced that it is “All for the pupils” that they are claiming their elevated salaries etc. etc.

      I would, however, point to the complicity of government in promoting commercial models and interests, not only in education but in society in general. In particular, it is they who imposed bogus quantification as a means of evaluation, when they should have known better.

      Maybe there was a genuine belief that the market would lead to greater social justice, opportunity etc., but I think that was grossly mistaken. For example, local management would, on the face of it appear to be a democratising force – but it did not anticipate the emergence of a determined, even ruthless body of individuals determined to exploit that opportunity for their own ends. And even if that is too cynical, then I still don’t believe it justifies the treatment some of them are dishing out to their employees.

      Again, I agree about the stories of the progressives – one of which is a central theme of Hoggart’s book – the effects of the well-meant but perhaps misguided imposition of liberal educational values on communities and individuals that perhaps don’t need or want them. The worst crime of the progressives was claiming to know what ‘people like them’ need.

      Unfortunately, I can’t really make safe reference to the specifics, but it is not only in schools that I know this to be happening – the management class is rapidly gaining a hegemony that appears to be unstoppable, and they are using their own stories, dressed up as rational debate, supported by statistics etc. to ‘justify’ what they are doing. There’s plenty of coverage of management cock-ups and conspiracies in the media – but very little seems to be being done about it.

      One reason this isn’t being sufficiently challenged is the specific British mind-set which still seems to believe in its inalienable superiority while simultaneously failing to challenge sufficiently its various elites. Hence the back-story I chose for this post.

      Hoggart’s conclusions are interesting (now that I’ve finished the book). I may add a short post-script later today.

  2. p.s. I agree, too, with your view about other countries that have not suffered these problems – see what I have written extensively about the Swiss system, for example.

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