Fungible*

Wherever you look, there are signs of the damage being done to our civilisation by the effects of an overly-economised view of the world. The growing disparities of income and resultant life-opportunity are simply the logical result of a worldview that only values what it can measure. The most obvious example of this is money: an essential proxy for value without which our society could not function, but which seen another way is simply the most easily-made measure of a commodity’s worth – and not necessarily the best. All that money really does is to put a number on the supposed value of something, as positioned by the collective forces of supply and demand; it is only money’s fungibility that makes it valuable.

But value in this sense is simply a reflection of the availability of an asset, not its intrinsic qualities. There are many examples of vacuous ‘qualities’ having high values placed on them simply because a lot of people decide they want more, rather than because they are (arguably) anything of intrinsic worth. The ‘market value’ of certain C-list celebrities comes to mind – people who have little of substance, just superficial gloss or gimmickry that makes them briefly highly in demand.

It’s not easy to substantiate how some things have more inherent value than others, when one can argue that value, as a human construct is simply what people decide to make it. But there still remain certain natural truths about the world, which persist despite the superficiality of human values. For example, it is fairly demonstrable that educated minds tend to have a functional advantage over uneducated ones – and that is independent of the priority that society as a whole chooses to place on the matter.

This is the kind of issue that conventional economised thinking cannot account for. Indeed, were businesses to decide that what they needed above all else was sheer brute ignorance from their workforce, one could see how they might start paying a premium for stupidity over intelligence. But it would not change the enduring natural fact that educated minds perform better. In the same way, sheer force of sales numbers might suggest that pulp ‘airport fiction’ is superior to the great works of literature simply because it is more profitable.

Countering this argument is extremely difficult – not least because it is habitually framed in terms acceptable to the bean-counters who have been in the ascendant for so long. Approaching a senior executive with a plan that may make qualitative sense, but which cannot be proven in improved bottom-line figures is extremely difficult when the bottom line is the ultimate arbiter. I know: I tried – and I didn’t get anywhere…

Unfortunately, education has now been thoroughly monetised in the same sense: this is why it ‘makes (economic) sense’ to pay vice chancellors vast salaries while their lecturers remain on temporary contracts: if business prowess is your key criterion, then a modern V.C. is indeed more valuable. But it should come as no surprise if that institution subsequently loses sight of its academic-intellectual remit. The same goes for the secondary sector, which increasingly seems to be following the same pattern.

It is extremely difficult for bleeding-heart liberals to whinge away convincingly that ‘education is about more important things than money’ when they can’t bring forward the hard facts to prove it to those for whom the numbers are everything.

The supreme irony is that education is, in the harsh-speak of economics, a ‘post-consumption good’: in other words, you only appreciate its value once you have already got it. And there is no guarantee of the quality of what you will end up with either, because that is down to the recipient as well as the provider. I am increasingly convinced, simply from everyday observation, that having a certificate is not the same as being educated. Indeed, the hard-heads who so often are in charge these days are the living proof of the matter: in conventional terms they are often well qualified – and yet they have either completely lost sight of the value of non-economic matters, or they never understood them in the first place. That, to my mind is not an educated stand-point.

And yet nobody – not even the bean-counters – believes that the power of Shakespeare comes from the sheer number of words he used; nobody thinks that a Beethoven symphony’s quality derives from the number of notes on the score. And nobody argues that the essence of Picasso was in the number of brushstrokes in his paintings. We do not go to concerts or plays or exhibitions to be wowed by numbers. These are matters where we have no choice but to accept that the only way to communicate their value is through a cumulative, societal/cultural canon of shared subjective appreciation. One such is the ‘consciousness’ that the particular contribution of the Impressionists was the way they portrayed the effects of light – which informs why so many appreciate those paintings; try explaining that in numbers! It is in that very specific, non-quantitative meme that their cultural value lies.
Thanks to those same hard-heads who seem to think that educational value can also be expressed in numbers (most significantly those of their own salaries), the language of education has headed off down the long cul-de-sac of quantification. There is only one destination – the valuing of the measurable, and the ignoring of everything more complex. But neither salaries nor aggregated exam-passes can measure real educational worth.

The act of teaching and learning is not inherently an economic act. True, one might consider it to be a matter of supply and demand, but that is to latch onto a peripheral description of how it is provided, not what it is. In essence it is an interpersonal exchange of intellectual-cultural information effected through the distinctly non-quantifiable medium of specific human interactions. I will modify that: yes, it is possible to categorise and even quantify aggregate human interactions – but that is not at all the same as capturing the personal-intellectual essence of any one of them.

And in real educational terms, it is only the latter that matters – the nature of each and every specific educational act that occurs, whether in a classroom or indeed anywhere else. The impact of that act is exclusive to the individuals who experience it, not least because it lays down a memory of the experience that cannot be fully known by any who were not party to it. It is also worth adding that the presence of outside ‘others’ – such as lesson observers – cannot but modify the effect simply because their presence became a factor in the experience itself. It is known as the Hawthorne Effect.
This is why I have come to think that statistical analyses of education can only ever have very limited use: they may inform the decisions made at institutional or policy level – but they simply do not have either the relevance or level of resolution to encapsulate the real nature of the billions of individual interactions that comprise daily human educational experience.

The better alternative would be to construct a different conception of education: one that gloried in its subjectivity, that accepted that it can never truly be otherwise, that put on a pedestal not fictional production statistics but the real, demanding soft skills of those who are able to steer human interactions in an educationally productive way – classroom teachers. What’s more, the benefit those people endow – a capacity for rigorous thought – is at least as fungible as cash.

Certainly this would require a major culture-shift: it would mean conceiving of the body of professional educational expertise more in the form of the canon of work of a Shakespeare or Beethoven (and the body of critical awareness that now accompanies it), and less like an Excel spreadsheet. But that is the reality of what teachers do every day; that is where their value lies – and if one listens to teachers talking about their work this fact becomes utterly apparent, for all that managers have forced them to talk about spreadsheets too.

This is not an attack on the general need for logistical management in education – but it is a criticism of the way production management values have supplanted educational ones. This is why education has lost sight of what it is really for and about: the measures by which it is now appraised are simply not appropriate. We need competent managers – but they should never forget that theirs is a support function to the core activity – not the other way round.

Using this frame of reckoning, recognition would go to those who are culturally-intellectually the most valuable, while those who have removed themselves from the classroom, who choose instead to deal with targets, spreadsheets, agendas, policy initiatives and data would find their value – and with it their salaries – withering to something more proportionate to their real worth.

* In economic terms, a fungible good is one that is inter-exchangeable with another. Hence, something that is transferrable or universal in its use. 

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Two-way Grit

The Headmaster of Gresham’s School, Douglas Robb, has hit the headlines with his criticism of a potential employee who had the temerity to ask a question along the lines of, “Why should I work for your school?” He criticised the sense of entitlement that he perceived in the interviewee’s attitude, and went on to criticise the ‘snowflake’ generation for its lack of grit.

I was initially tempted to agree with his views, and I am as certain as one can be that they were well-meant. I have certainly come across many people in my time who exhibited the outlook that he criticises.

But on second thoughts, it becomes clear that Mr. Robb may be suffering from a certain restriction of vision. I have no particular insight into the conditions of employment at Gresham’s, but I would suspect that they are demanding but fair – in which case, the comments are probably justified. One might have thought that the opportunity to work in a prestigious school would be sufficient additional enticement for a young professional.

But the situation is very different in the wider workplace. Mr. Robb suggests that young people should not flinch from taking first jobs in menial work, and this is probably equally fair enough; I did the same, working for a year as an ancillary in a large psycho-geriatric hospital. It put quite a lot of things into perspective for a young, recent graduate. But for those, increasingly including the highly educated, for whom such employment may be rather more than a temporary prospect, I suggest the matter is rather different: it seems perfectly reasonable to me for them to question the value of what they are contemplating.

The same is not completely unreasonable of teachers. In the current climate, where the demands of the job are as extreme as they are, and the rewards have barely shifted in a decade, then I think anyone entering the profession and meeting a potential employer is entitled to ask what the other half of the ‘deal’ is. I worked for a school that majored on how much its staff could do for it – yet it was, for most of the time remarkably reticent in terms of what it felt its obligations to its staff were in return. Those who have been following my recent experiences will appreciate the poignancy of that – and no, the pay-cheque is not sufficient reward for a high-functioning professional of whom great demands will be made.

When schools, as much as any other influence spend so much time encouraging young people to aim high, think critically and expect a lot, it is rather ‘rich’ for them suddenly to expect those same people, when they return as would-be teachers, to accept ‘put up, shut up and be grateful for what you get’ as an adequate response. One wonders whether senior leaders practise the same attitude when it comes to their own prospects.

The demands on teachers are great, and it seems entirely reasonable for a self-respecting young person to enquire what the other half of the deal is. For too long, educational culture has regarded it as a privilege to work as a teacher, to wear the hair shirt and sacrifice one’s life for the ‘calling’. But there are limits – and they are very close to being reached, as the recruitment and retention crisis shows. Particularly when those at the top are visibly taking an ever larger slice of the cake for themselves, and grass-roots level employment seems in contrast ever more insecure, it seems only a matter of prudence and self-respect to safeguard one’s own position on entering a contract. I would hope that Mr. Robb offers an attractive package to his staff – but there are plenty of school leaders out there who do not, and who seem to consider the way they treat their staff to be no more than an afterthought. It would be no bad thing if they were given more cause for reflection on this, and perhaps themselves showed more ‘grit’ when it came to looking after their staff, especially during difficult times.

A great deal in the exchange described by Mr. Robb depended on the subtleties of inflection and attitude, which the rest of us cannot know – but I increasingly wonder if his real objection is more to the apparent breach of the deference which schools – and in particular private ones – seem to expect from their staff almost as much as from their pupils. In which case, the problem is his: in an equal society, it is not reasonable to expect one’s employees to be any more beholden to their employer than the opposite. It is no more a teacher’s privilege to work for a school than it is for the school to have the teacher work for it.

Saliently, it was once observed, “If hard work is all it is cracked up to be, those at the top would have kept it all for themselves”. If people realise that they need to tread carefully, that is no bad thing.

Putting the Soul Back. Part V

Concluding this series. A good life is a discriminating one, in the sense that it allows people to make their own informed choices, no matter what the field. We need teachers who can show the way.

It is this failure to emphasise expectation that has been the undoing of education: whether through the well-meaning but misguided belief that learning needs to be made ‘accessible’ (i.e. undemanding) or through the neglect of cultural capital altogether. The most serious omission is the cultivation of the self-expectation that does so much to define people’s experiences of life. People who lack financial wealth but have high expectations will often find ways around the money problem; people who don’t even have the expectation won’t bother. And it does affect people’s external standards too: if they expect to be treated as inferior, they will accept that treatment when it arises. Thumping the table and demanding ‘respect’ is only another expression of the same thing. It is the presence of self-expectation – or what we might more habitually call self-respect – that determines how others treat us too.

What is most unforgivable of all is that the education system has come to collude in this evasion. By arguing that mass education (which in effect means state education) can only be a relatively functional affair “because that is what the punters expect from it” it is unwittingly perpetuating the cultural elitism that keeps personal standards and life-experiences so low for many in Britain. (In the last week, government ministers have been calling for public support to be removed from degree subjects with no perceived economic benefit: why do they see no wider benefit or purpose for education?)

It is worth noting that this country suffers more than many, as a result of its embedded class-system; I have experienced much more egalitarian situations elsewhere. But the way to tackle this issue is not through the traditional class-warrior wish to ‘destroy the system’ – but to give access to those same parts of the ‘good life’ to as many as want it, such that it becomes untenable for the cultural elites to reserve them for themselves. ‘Ownership’ of those things cannot be prevented by social snobbery. I would, however, caution that dumbing them down is yet another way of in effect saying that we cannot expect ‘the masses’ to appreciate fine things without their being diluted for their consumption, in a way that will only perpetuate the same snobberies.

This is why it is so important what we expect from our teachers. Children who come from families that already access cultural capital do not need external help; this is not to say they should not enjoy the consequences just like anyone else – but theirs are not the critical cases. More pressing are the many who do not understand that complexity is the key to fulfilment, who self-select out of the ‘good things in life’ on the grounds that they are “not for the likes of them” – whether expressly vocalised or not.

The key to this is again the locus of expectation: such people need to be encouraged to see that access to the more complex aspects of life is not barred to them by anything other than their own unwillingness to make the necessary effort. And an effort it really is. The appreciation fine music, art, clothes, food, design, wine, or indeed anything else – and likewise the expectation and ability to experience good relationships and be treated well by others, be they partners, friends or employers – are not things that can be bought: they require work by each and every individual to access them for them self, no matter what their wealth. And if it is true of these relatively tangible matters, then how much more true is it of abstract matters such as the capacity for critical thought or social and political engagement? The fact that wealth often conceals a lack of these things behind a veneer of apparent and assumed privilege is neither here nor there.

The teacher is absolutely critical. We need to forget about trying explicitly to teach anything in particular; our academic disciplines are more than sufficient when it comes to teaching material. What’s more, they inherently foster the inclination to think at a higher level about things, to understand in depth, and to develop the intellectual rigour that will equip young people to aim high. But even more than that, we need teachers who, in the memorable words of a headteacher of Nancy Kline’s, will “teach themselves – and make darned sure that [they are] good”.

We need people who are able to exemplify those high expectations, who are equipped to lead the uncertain into the world of higher matters. It is not helpful if those people themselves are so utilitarian that they have no appreciation for themselves: they cannot be guides into things they don’t themselves know. This is why it is so important that they are authentic – so that they know the ropes, and experience the love that needs to be transmitted for themselves. It is why they also need to be sages on stages rather than the alternative: if the role of the teacher is simply to enhance children’s own instincts, they will never take those children into the many (often difficult) areas that it may never occur to them to explore by themselves: the realm of the ‘unknown unknown’ is where the teacher should habitually reside. And they should lead their pupils onward by confident example, and occasional direct instruction, rather than sheepish confession of their own ignorance.

To do this means that those teachers need a certain sort of life of their own to begin with – one where they themselves have high expectations – and not only of their working lives. Unless they are given the opportunity to become and sustain themselves as rounded individuals, then they will never own the skills required to help the next generation to do the same. And yet many schools have become places that have totally lost such understanding, both in their own sense and on behalf of their teachers. In the school where I worked, even the senior leadership never expressed any aspiration for the school or its staff beyond vaguely “being a good local school” – even when pressed by its governors to do so. I don’t think they knew how – or what ‘good’ meant, beyond a good Ofsted report with which to feather themselves. In many cases it was startlingly clear that they lacked cultural capital themselves; it was a case of the blind leading the blind.

I expect some will take me to task for my apparent emphasis on the more conventional forms of the ‘good life’ – but that is to miss the point. Complexity can be found in very many areas of human endeavour – but that is the critical element: endeavour. Many find their credibility and (self) respect in fields well off the cultural beaten track, and that is fine. The important thing is that people gain the agency to become masters of their own lives, to have a sufficiently clear sense of their own ‘meaning’ that they make the decisions, that they become active agents in the course of their own lives, and gain their own ‘grown-up’ distinctiveness. The real enemy here is not perceived cultural acceptability, so much as those forces that would prefer people to remain passive, indiscriminate, infantilised consumers of whatever they are given. And that includes politicians and the media as well as the more obvious commercial interests. That said, there probably are some fields that have more potential for complexity than others – those obviously lacking it being the offerings of indiscriminate mass-consumption, whose output is often shorn of anything demanding, deep or controversial in the interests of lowest-common-denominator marketability. Education should not under any circumstances become one of them.

A rudimentary, utilitarian preparation for a mere existence in the passively-compliant corporate workplace is no substitute for a properly cultured education: it does our country no good that its bounty is monopolised by so few, and even assuming that the employment-preparation is a success, good lives will only be lived if those people know what to do with what they earn.

Putting the Soul Back Part IV

Essex: the societal epitome of our time…

When it comes to the good life, expectations are everything. There are those in society whose expectations are that they should have access to what they deem to be the ‘best’; there are plenty of others who seem to believe – or are resigned to – the opposite about themselves. While access to ‘the best’ is often equated with money, that is by no means the whole story. In Essex, where I worked, much of the population did not want for cash. But the county nonetheless struggled to escape its benighted reputation – and it was its own, self-referential mistake to think that cash was the reason. The county is a fascinating and rather saddening example of ordinary British society today. What irrevocably blighted Essex in the nation’s awareness was not its lack of wealth – but its lack of taste (by which I mean its inability to access valued cultural treasures). Or rather, its conflation of the two.

Perhaps the most telling thing about many of the pupils I taught was that despite their often coming from very wealthy homes, they lacked much sense of conventional social confidence or awareness. I don’t mean pretentions (of which there were plenty), but even basic social courtesies and codes. In many cases, this derived from homes that were cash-rich but values (and parenting time) poor. This was a significant factor in the life-chances of those young people: the social self-limitation that they often expressed was far more powerful as a life-constraint than any lack of wealth (or intelligence). The most extreme expression was the number of individuals I encountered who possessed the raw ability to give them a good shot at Oxbridge entry – but who were too socially intimidated to apply to institutions which they felt would be “too posh for them”. A similar phenomenon manifested itself on those occasions when we took students to the theatre, classical music concerts, museums and major institutions or events: despite the plentiful, even excessive spending money in their pockets, they were often noticeably intimidated. These were people who had financial assets galore – but very few personal or cultural assets to match.

They knew it. And despite the reticence that appeared in formal situations, their more usual out-of-school response was a big fat, sneering Essex V-sign. They expressed their self-perceived inability to access higher social and cultural situations by actively revelling in the brash, crass proletarian culture of Essex – inverted snobbery, even when they should have been perfectly capable of doing otherwise. In doing so, they unknowing perpetuated precisely the kind of social prejudices that cause other segments of British society to turn up their noses – and ensure that they patronise entirely different places. Essex may not care about its reputation – but those children still demonstrated an emergent awareness that their inability to access wider social norms was going to disadvantage them in anything other than a financial sense.

I do not wish to appear an Establishment apologist; I am torn between sympathising (but disagreeing) with the reactionary instincts of those young people in the face of a socially discriminatory system, and my own distaste of their values and behaviours. The fact is, they nonetheless demeaned only themselves by self-defining as crude, uncultured and tasteless. They also excluded themselves from access to many of life’s more complex experiences, of precisely the type that offer the greatest opportunity for self-development. If we return for a moment to the analogy with wine: the inverted snob’s refusal to drink anything other than bargain-basement plonk ultimately achieves little beyond that person’s inability ever to learn to appreciate something more.

If it is true of wine, how much more so it is of just about every other aspect of cultural capital: the riches of literature, music, art, food, design, travel, deep human relationships and more? I accept that this list is partisan, but that is beside the point. The key thing is the complexity, and that delivers quality; it is also essential to look inward for fulfilment, to the kind of person one becomes, at least as much as to any outside player. Besides, I struggle to believe that there are many people for whom high rates of knife-crime, relationship break-down, sub-standard housing, unemployment or material deprivation are highly desirable; maybe there is a consensus after all…

The single most effective means of exclusion from the better side of life is self-censure. The opposite is also true – but it requires personal effort. Certainly, money plays a significant part in accessing better things – but money is not actually essential to their appreciation. Where wealth has been used to create social differentiation, one might easily argue that the best weapon with which to counter it is the genuine subscription to the same cultural standards so as to disarm the wealth argument. No amount of money can remove someone’s appreciation of, say, an orchestral symphony, even if a lack of it can prevent access to the best seats. No amount of money can buy it either, even if it can increase the desirable exposure to such things.

Putting the Soul Back. Part III

A notorious historical phrase claimed that ‘Arbeit macht Frei’. It was wrong then and it is just as wrong now.

As I suggested in the previous post, the narrowing of educational objectives has been a cultural disaster. And not only that, there is only very weak evidence to suggest that the impact on Britain’s economic performance has been anything other than slight. The nation’s poor productivity and overall skill levels have stubbornly refused to improve; average earnings remain depressed and the range polarised. Furthermore, I suggest there is little evidence that our society is becoming generally more sophisticated, cultured and thoughtful – which might equally be reasonable a expectation of a more educated populace. What has perhaps been achieved is a supplier-side benefit in terms of making education (supposedly) more easily definable for the purposes of the accountability processes imposed on it by government – but that is hardly the principal aim of the exercise.

In a post-modern, secular society, difficult questions arise as to precisely what education is for. The initial societal gains in terms of the elimination of absolute poverty, and the controlling of adverse demographic and public health conditions have largely been achieved. In a morally and culturally pluralistic situation, it is no longer possible to impose universal moral imperatives on education such as were used by religious educators in the past.  So what is it for?

If one looks at those societies generally accepted as being the most advanced in the world, one notices the generally high-quality of nearly everything:

  • Certainly the material quality of goods available is generally high, but so often is the access to cultural and artistic capital by a wide proportion of the population. Wealth is not just monetary.
  • People seem confident in their ability to steer their own lives and make their own decisions. They accept ‘agency’.
  • There are relatively high levels of social discourse and political engagement.
  • Local democracy often seems to be strong, as do social support networks and institutions;
  • Electoral systems are sophisticated enough to reflect the pluralistic views of a thoughtful electorate.
  • Large percentages of the workforce are engaged in high-skill, high remuneration work, often in innovative sectors such as R&D, environmental sustainability and artificial intelligence.
  • Often, those societies are receptive to social experimentation and innovation in terms of ways of living and the relationship between the state and the citizen.
  • Quite often they support high levels of direct taxation in the interests of good social provision.
  • The level of basic needs provision, especially housing, is high – not only in terms of quantity but also quality. People feel secure.
  • There seem to be low levels of social or economic envy.

I have sourced these characteristics from a number of countries, mostly in Europe where the model is most prevalent. Denmark, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Germany and the other Scandinavian countries feature prominently. Britain does not.

I think the only workable answer the question of education’s purpose in such societies is the optimisation of every individual’s life experience. It should not be defined any more closely than that, for fear of excluding certain aspects of great importance to some of those individuals. That is enough of a big ‘ask’ to keep us going for some time. I consider it consists of two interlinking matters:

  1. The ability of the individual to achieve autonomy, authenticity and self-actualisation;
  2. The understanding that that ability needs to function with consideration for the needs of others to do the same.

One might hope that an understanding that peaceable negotiation is the optimum means of dispute resolution would figure in there somewhere, too – as might the cerebral skills necessary to resist the incursions of others through means of deception or manipulation. As the psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihalyi has said, “People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.” The recent past holds a clear lesson for Britain in this respect.

That ‘internalised symbolic system’ means a set of values, priorities, preferences and insights that are specific to the sovereign individual concerned; education has a major role to play in developing it. For me, Csikszentmihalyi’s statement sums up superbly the absolute imperative for education to be a liberating force, rather than an enslaving one in the way educating for employability greatly risks being. Our role as teachers is not primarily to subjugate the spirit and free will of young individuals to the requirements of their future employers, even if encouraging them to develop the qualities and aptitudes that may appeal to those employers is part of it. Neither is it to deliver cash-ready consumers to corporate markets.

Far more important is the need to enable people to follow their own inclinations as far as they choose, provided of course that this does not impair the ability of others to do the same. Where this happens, it tends to demonstrate the kind of active engagement with life outlined above, rather than the very passive, delegated experience that I suggest many in Britain currently have; it is widely known, for instance, that the British have the highest level of T.V. viewing, some of the longest recreational shopping times and the lowest levels of physical activity engagement in Europe.

There remains the vexed question of what those values should be; either we submit to a set of accepted norms, which are by definition externally-defined, or we descend into a morass of cultural relativism where nothing can be deemed either to be superior to anything else, nor to be of any intrinsic value itself. If that is the case, the only resort available is indeed the transfer of purely utilitarian assets. The likely consequence of this is a life lived in an equally utilitarian way, which also tends to mean a low-level functionalism, without the personal ambition or emotional investment necessary to savour many of life’s best experiences.

Csikszentmihalyi has useful things to say about this too: rather than pass arbitrary judgements about what is worth doing and what is not, we should, he suggests, focus on developing complexity. No matter what the activity, doing it at a high level, with personal challenge and the resultant sense of both achievement and growing insight, should be our aim. This is what causes individuals to ‘grow’ as people, and what provides the incentive for further development. From the perspective of the employer, it is these attributes that will provide effective employees – and they are only delivered by a much wider type of education than one aimed specifically at ‘employability skills’. It is worth noting, however, that if such individuals are indeed desired, it is more likely that they will be autonomous and independent-minded – and less susceptible to domination or exploitation by unscrupulous or uncaring employers (or retailers). In a wider societal sense, this surely has to be a good thing.

I would argue, however, that it is not beyond the abilities of modern societies to come to at least a loose consensus over what the ‘good things’ in life are. These need by no means all be material, though many of them contain material elements. One of the problems with modern consumption is that it largely happens for the wrong reasons – and this too is partly an educational matter. If we accept even a vague notion of ‘the good life’, then it perhaps implies an expectation on the part of the individual to be able to access it. The problem is where those expectations are perceptually ‘located’ in people’s minds.

An economic reading of the world implies that most of one’s needs are satisfied externally, via some form of trade and consumption. While this is often the case, modern societies have taken it to such an extreme that it seems that anything one desires can be had depending only on the size of one’s wallet. This is a fundamental mistake: as study after study has shown, beyond a fairly basic level of material need, the acquisition of more externally-supplied assets does little in itself to create a more rewarding life, and may even do the opposite. The error is to believe that happiness comes from outside oneself. In fact, even in situations involving material goods, the satisfaction that they (can) bring is largely internal, through a developed sense of appreciation and enjoyment. Mere ownership, let alone competitive ownership, is not enough to do that.

The interesting thing from an educational point of view is the fact that the ‘only’ thing that separates an inexpert consumer from a connoisseur is the ability of the individual to appreciate what they have. It is not the ability to pay: there is nothing to stop a rich ignoramus from buying, for example an expensive wine that he or she will largely fail to appreciate, and nothing to stop a relatively impecunious connoisseur saving up for one from which he or she will derive far more satisfaction than the rich-but-inexpert person. The significant difference between the individuals is not their wealth but their complexity – and that is a matter that education can do something about. And yet even education, these days, is making the error of suggesting to people that it is their (financial) wealth alone that will provide a good life.

Putting the Soul back. Part II

Narrowing the remit of state education has proved counter-productive and divisive.

There are hidden implications of taking a work-related functionalist view of education that go beyond the simple difficulty of now knowing what will be appropriate preparation. In fact, I suggest that the supposed focus on workplace skills is precisely what is responsible for the never-ending complaints from employers that ‘young people’ lack the necessary initiative, motivation and more to be fully employable. I will come to this in a moment.

Furthermore, for those intent on the social equality agenda, narrowing educational purpose like this does more harm than good. Those exposed to supposedly ‘privileged’ educations (whether in selective schools or the private sector) are given a wider diet than this. That is not to say that such things are always specifically taught – but a large part of that educational experience might be deemed to be ‘cultural’ rather than economic – whether in the sense of access to high level arts opportunities, the personal development upon which independent schools place such emphasis, the rarefied intellectual climate that tends to be generated in places where intelligence is generally high, the received ‘standards’ that are set – or the social networking opportunities that such institutions tend to construct for later life.

While one might well object to the privilege thus bestowed, it is incorrect to suggest that these things do not amount to a store of cultural capital, whose effect is often to enhance the lives of those who have access to it. The important effect is not just the ability or inclination of the individual to avail themselves of the external opportunities, so much as what it does to the expectations of the individual, of what they might reasonably expect from life – and at least as importantly, of themself. I will talk more about expectations in the following post  – but for those who believe (as I do) in equality of opportunity, reducing the state educational offering to a simple matter of work-readiness is a mistaken way of tackling such inequalities, for all that it might appear to possess more ‘relevance’ than the broader, less focussed approach.

One can easily be a supporter of social egalitarianism without accepting that this means depriving those who already have good opportunities of them in the name of those who have fewer; the aim should be to deliver the best possible opportunity to everyone. There is no reason why state education should be a narrow, low-grade, solely functional experience. We can be pretty certain that those schools that do deliver the wider educations are not about to stop doing so any time soon – and by insisting on a narrower remit for the state sector, proponents of such may be unwittingly perpetuating the very divisions they so wish to remove. By failing to develop that wider breadth of perspective and focusing so strongly on economic attributes, schools may be closing doors on all sorts of dimensions of life that could otherwise enrich the later lives of their pupils.

Certainly, those claims from employers that so many young people lack the necessary ‘attitude’ seem less-often levelled at the independent sector. Since we cannot easily anticipate the specific skills that will be required in the workplace (let alone anywhere else), it would seem a better bet to spend our time developing fully-rounded individuals whose general approach to life is constructive enough that they will bring good attitudes, skills and determination to whatever they do – employment included. And equally important, expect the same considerate treatment in return.

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.