Wider horizons

One of the consequences of the division of labour in advanced societies is the tendency for people to focus closely on their own specialism at the expense of the wider view. The more pressing the demands, the more this becomes the case – and I would argue that the intense pressure on teachers in recent years has led to an increasingly inward-looking profession – ironic, really, since we are meant to be teaching children about the wider world.

With workloads being what they are, and the fear of failure as pressing as it is, one can hardly blame people for directing their attention towards their own activities – but here, arguably, is another own goal of the current regime. Teachers need enough time to remain aware of wider societal developments in order both to understand their own profession, and to educate their pupils effectively.

There is, of course, a self-developmental aspect to this as well – and regrettably, experience suggests that the appetite for an independent life of the mind amongst teachers today is patchy; again the current national climate hardly encourages this, and teachers are not immune from wider societal pressures. One cannot blame people for wanting to use their precious down-time for something – anything – other than yet more professional duties, but that may be to miss the point. While one may wish to avoid specifically school-related activities, reading and thinking about the issues really ought not to be a burden; for learned people, the divide between professional activity and what is simply personal intellectual development should be blurred to the point of invisibility.

This may of course vary with subject-specialism but in my own case as a teacher of humanities, reading material related to economics, current affairs and social psychology is no imposition. Yet it has also allowed perspectives that are useful in the specifically professional arena. For example, wider reading around recent economic trends has cast further useful light on why British education has headed in the direction that it has, and why we have encountered the problems that we have as a result. Reading around some of the philosophical objections to the current orthodoxies has allowed me both to understand and challenge my own instinctive reservations about some of what teachers and schools are being required to do. A failure to appreciate these matters can only hinder one’s wider understanding of the climate in which one is operating, let alone engagement in professional and wider debate.

A cynic might observe that ‘the system’ has a vested interest in reducing the ability of its minions to ask too many questions – the current model in particular – but this is precisely why it is so important that that the grass-roots teaching profession does not abandon its wider learnedness. Keeping people’s noses to the grindstone and preventing them from considering the alternatives is not, in my view a constructive model for the profession; that way lies the kind of merely competent mechanical instruction that is a denial of both the teacher’s real professional realm and what is needed long-term by an educated, engaged populace.

It is only by staying abreast of developments in the wider world that we can guide our students appropriately. I am certainly not talking about indoctrination here, but in my own field, if one is not aware of current thought then one is hardly in a position to provide students with a balanced, up-to-date picture. The temptation at that point is to fall lazily back on established views without due acknowledgement that the argument may have moved on.

The case in mind relates to the objections currently being advanced that challenge the dominance of free-market philosophy in the U.K., many of which are still operating somewhat below the public radar. I would suggest that teachers have an important role in promoting such discussion, both within their profession, and within their classrooms; it is arguably part of their democratic duty not just to promote entrenched establishment views and assumptions.

For those who advocate the re-birth of traditional teaching there is a further gain: many of the economic and educational principles presently being advanced are surprisingly congruent.  They can add to the growing argument that both education and society at large need to move on from the economised view that has prevailed in recent decades.

All of this is by way of prefacing two books that I have recently read, which I shall be discussing in forthcoming posts: What Money Can’t Buy by Michael J. Sandel, and Will Hutton’s latest treatise How Good We Can Be – both of which contain much thought-provoking material for the teacher – and both of which are not remotely likely to feature in any professional development programme to be found at work…


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