Putting the soul back. Part 1.

I was greatly uplifted by Geoff Barton’s recent call to return the ‘soul’ to teaching. That is probably the only thing that would make me consider setting foot in a classroom again. In my experience, the whole profession has been shorn of precisely those things that made it worth the effort, while the unwanted, unneeded hassle has correspondingly increased. The condition of ‘being a teacher’ (as opposed to the act of teaching) had indeed become  soulless. And they were hacking away at the classroom experience too.

My concern, though, is that it has been this way for so long now, that returning the soul may be nigh-on impossible. Like many cultural assets, this is hard-won and all too easily lost. We have several generations of teachers who, having no alternative experience of their own, may lack an appreciation of what it means – and if they don’t know, there is no way we can bring it back.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am giving consideration to this kind of issue, that has been shoved so far to the back of working teachers’ consciousness by the overload of more pressing practicalities, that it might need someone at a slight remove to highlight them. I hope I can be of some use in that respect. I have serialised the following intentionally rather provocative piece, and will post it in five short sections at intervals of a few days. I will be delighted even if it only provokes dissent!

Part I

I suppose we’re all, to some extent prisoners of our value-systems. Coming from a teaching family, it was probably inevitable that for me, education has never needed any external justification: it was enough of a self-evident ‘good’ for that to be all the reason needed.

I have always dismissed the functionalist view that education needs to be ‘for’ anything in particular – let alone just the gaining of employment. Its effect on people, in my experience is always very significant so long as it is congruent with those people’s innate potential. Often, however, for a variety of reasons that is not the case – and I would suggest that education fails more often because of this, rather than either poor teaching or a lack of ability or commitment by the teacher or student. I would add a caveat to that, however, namely that as an investment in a person’s future, a pupil’s current preferences should not be to only consideration for the form that education takes. This is why the guidance of an enlightened adult is so important – by which I mean someone who has developed a mature perspective of their own, on life.

So it came as something of a surprise, some days ago, for a long-standing former colleague to demur on this point; in his view, for the majority of the population, gaining employment probably does constitute virtually the sole reason for being put through – or putting up with – school.

I’m not in a position to dispute that view; experience suggests that in terms of current social attitudes it may well be correct – but that does not in itself make that position either tenable or justifiable. It should even less define what education professionals decide to make school ‘about’. Attempts to define education as being ‘for’ anything in particular come up against all sorts of philosophical and indeed practical difficulties, and the increasing attempts of society to do just that have arguably corresponded with a period in which the education system has lost sight of its some of the many domains in which it can have an effect.

Most fundamentally, education is a speculative investment in people’s future lives – lives that neither they nor anyone else can anticipate in detail. While there are certain known ‘likelihoods’, there is no way of knowing the specific future needs of any one individual. Therefore attempting to second-guess what individuals will need in future is problematic at anything more than a very general level. The other risk here is that future-anticipation becomes self-fulfilling. For example, if we strongly promote education on its economic benefits, it is likely that the recipients will believe what they are told; as a consequence it is even possible that they will prioritise its economic benefits and neglect the other things that a more diverse education could have offered. But given that education is an investment, to me it makes little sense prematurely to limit its potential by making closed decisions about what is ‘suitable’ for certain people. Surely we should give them all the opportunity to access the best our culture can offer? If they then reject it, at least they have had their chance.

I think there is much evidence of such limiting behaviour having happened – even to the extent of having shaped teachers’ thinking about the purpose of what they do, as my former colleague’s comments suggested. The potential consequences of this are more far-reaching than might at first seem possible. To be blunt, the emphasis on employment in education is a euphemism for the acquisition of money – whether at one extreme the millions to which the would-be rich aspire, or at the other, the minimal self-sufficiency that the State requires in order to keep people off the social security books.

I am not going to suggest that this is an unimportant aspect to education – but I would suggest that it is insufficient in terms of life-enhancement. Money is only as good as the people who spend it: there are plenty of recorded cases of multi-millionaires having a demonstrably poor quality of life, and equally those of people with limited means having the opposite. I will discuss why that is so in a subsequent post.

A more cynical view might claim that the emphasis on the economic aspects of education actually represents an abandonment of the individual as a locus for concern; while it is possible to sell the dream of wealth and life-fulfilling employment to every child, the reality is that only some will achieve it. What is more, the current thrust of economic development suggests that it may deliver to fewer and fewer people in future. This is without the increasing body of evidence that poor working lives and poor life-balances do significant harm to people’s health; surely education should not be promoting situations that lead to decline?

In a system where management priorities are so dominant, can we be sure that ‘education for employment’ is not just a new inversion of the intentions of the national elite over several centuries – that the masses should be employable not for their own sakes, but for those of their bosses? If so, the risk is that we are dangling prospects in front of people which are largely illusory; they may ensure the compliance that educational managers desire in order to meet their own targets – but that is very different from guaranteeing an experience that provides a meaningful legacy for those who undergo it. Were this correct, it would not be unreasonable to claim that the education system was morally bankrupt.

There is a plausible case that we should increasingly be educating people to help them find fulfilment in places other than the work that for many, may in future be both increasingly dreary and in short supply.

The fundamental mistake is to assume that money provides the means to acquire a fulfilling life – this is not necessarily so. By focussing on certain specific, mechanical goals such as these, education may be harming its own opportunities for providing a more meaningful life-experience for individuals and society as a whole.

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