You Can Handle the Truth

For quite a few years, I taught Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level to pupils at KS4 and KS5 (i.e. 14-18 year olds). I observed the great impact of the subject on those who studied it – and I include myself in that. Being trained to teach this subject had a significant effect on my own thinking skills, and has proved to be one of the driving forces behind this blog.

Unfortunately, in my school,the subject was considered a minority interest, and its effect was never taken seriously, despite strong testament from many pupils. The fact that some pupils did not engage with what is a demanding subject sometimes pulled the results down (though others were spectacular), and eventually the school abolished the subject.

I always argued that instead, it should have been made part of the core curriculum.

This programme, recently broadcast on the BBC World Service is one of the most uplifting and relevant things I have heard about education in a very long time. (Sign-up required). It concerns successful efforts to teach even young children critical skills in relation to health care and online matters in Uganda, Norway and the U.S.

I will largely leave it to speak for itself – but if we ever needed a reason to carry on against the odds, this is it.

I also particularly admired the school that places statues of its teachers around the school grounds…

I’m unsure how long this is available for, but it is well worth a listen.

Title: You Can Handle the Truth from the series The Documentary.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csxgn3

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Reckless Educationalists

Insight sometimes comes from unexpected places. After working through John Bargh’s book on the unconscious (full review still to follow) I thought I’d have a break and read about something else, related to an entirely different project I’m working on.

Aeron Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths, London. His recent book Reckless Opportunists is about the cynical vacuum behind the power-elites in current British society. The reviews on the rear cover accurately describe his findings as ‘terrifying’. Davis has had over thirty years’ access to top people in the worlds of finance, business, politics and the media. What he describes is the utterly cynical way in which everything from hedge funds to government now functions, the purpose of delivering meaningful services and support to wider society long ago having been subordinated to merely achieving and remaining in power for its own sake.

Davis is clearly not without his own political stance, but I think it is visible enough to allow for it, and still find his accounts and conclusions deeply concerning. Besides, I am more inclined to trust a senior academic than the spin doctors in the press or professional establishments.

But as I read, I could not help yet again seeing through educational eyes – for many of the trends and attitudes he recounts seem increasingly relevant to the education world too. Once again, sense is to be found well beyond the confines of the usual publications. I wish I had read this book several years ago (rather difficult as it has only just been published) because it suggests that much of what I have rather naively believed to be the unintended consequences of a somewhat malfunctioning system are in probably anything but unintended. That explains a lot.

Davies describes the complete lack of substance or policy behind many of those he interviewed: they appeared to have little command or understanding of the enterprises they headed. Their main objective was to do whatever immediate circumstance dictated in order to preserve their power and authority. He describes the skill-sets of those involved as being not expertise in their supposed fields, but simply in getting to the top for its own sake. In fact, Davis also describes the way in which ‘experts’ are seen as an encumbrance because they tend to have too in-depth knowledge, which makes the necessary fleetness of foot rather difficult. People who have insight and principles have no place in this world, and tend never to make it beyond the lower rungs. I will take that as a kind of back-handed compliment…

I cannot help but see what happened in the last decade to the formerly relatively civilised school where I used to work in this light. Some ten years ago, the management changed. Its first move, within weeks, was to turn the school into an academy, wrong-footing people before they had had the chance to determine trust (or otherwise). The claim that it would lead to financial advantage for the school was later shown to be false, as it was the constraints on academies that was used to excuse much later blood-letting – even while the remuneration at the top continued to rise. (I know this, having been on good terms with certain concerned governors).

Shortly after, senior posts were created and their occupants blatantly imported, thus reuniting a former team in a new location. Around the same time a number of supposedly weak teachers were sacked, a few of whom probably needed to go, but many of whom greater acquaintance would have shown did not. Morale started to fall; alarm to rise, all in a school near the top of its game.

It was ordained that students were supposedly not meeting externally-defined targets; attempts by those (including myself as union rep) to contextualise the situation fell on deaf ears – at least for several years until it became apparent that the catchment area’s culture did present certain attitudinal problems that data did not reflect.

In the following years, other schools were added to the chain portfolio, and measures were gradually introduced that had the effect of turning a reasonably ‘human’ school into a soulless production machine. There was an uncanny sense that, unlike previous incarnations, this management kept its distance, that it was pulling levers remotely, rather than integrating into its host establishment. At the same time, staff wellbeing was neglected; harsh attitudes leached down the management chain, treatment expressly justified on the basis that “it’s thee or me” – and any wider concern for the esprit de corps was lost. Those staff who raised concerns were told that “things would be a lot harsher if we worked in The City” – an absurd comparator, given the difference in operations and rewards involved. But it betrayed a certain mindset.

The Head’s door was now firmly closed, physical access only being available by appointment, past a ‘gate-keeper’ P.A. Attempts at email contact were rarely even acknowledged, let alone responded to. The ‘executive’ of this now-corporate identity became increasingly remote; classrooms were turned into management suites, and direct contact with the children was reduced to the point that some of them did not even know who the Head was.

Let me be clear: this is not a personal attack (the school and individuals remain firmly anonymous) but the impact on the school concerned was very much as outlined in Davis’ book about other sectors of national life. More people were made redundant; wellbeing issues such as staff stress were routinely denied, even as they were ratcheted up; utter loyalty was demanded but not reciprocated.

It became clear that there was no strategic vision any more – even calls from concerned governors failed to elicit more than vague mutterings about being a ‘good school’. This had longer-term effects: with no vision, the place felt increasingly directionless, nothing was valued any more; initiatives that staff took were not always blocked, but they were clearly not appreciated either – and scepticism gradually increased about the value of the strangely emotionless thank-you letters: it became perceived that they were just another form of tokenism.

The school became increasingly caught in a quasi-feudal arm-lock, the main purpose of which seemed to be to shore up the power of those at the top – and it seemed that nothing was inconceivable if it was necessary to do that, even to the detriment of the organisation. As morale deteriorated, staff turnover increased, encouraged by a view that if you didn’t like it you could always leave; yet leaving gifts ceased. Even senior managers spoke of being routinely side-lined by the cabal in control.

A number of questionable statistical practices were introduced as it became clear that a further genuine ramping-up of the school’s production figures was not in prospect. This presented classroom teachers with the dilemma of lying or potentially facing unpleasant consequences. This badly distorted the perception of pupil ability and progress. One of Davis’ key observations – as seen so many times in the financial sector – is that power-hungry individuals at the top will often not stop at destroying the very organisations they head in pursuit of personal glory.

By the time I left, the place was a hollow, impersonal, demoralised shell of its former self. And the older pupils picked it up too.

I find it profoundly depressing that even a supposedly-principled sector such as education is increasingly succumbing to this phenomenon – for much that I see and hear elsewhere suggests that this is by far from being a single isolated example. How can we possibly claim even to have an education sector when its main purpose is no longer the intellectual or cultural development of our young, but the egotistical reward of a few ruthless, greedy, power-obsessed individuals? And it has infected the universities too.

I once described the failings of such ‘management’ as a cancer; I am beginning to think that was inaccurate, for even the most aggressive cancer is unintended  – whereas the perpetrators of this outrage know precisely what they are doing.

How on earth, in the name of real education, to fight back against this?

Footnote: I emphasise that despite the fact that I eventually became a victim of the same culture, this is not a personal attack; it is simply an account of what I witnessed, which in my opinion virtually hollowed out a previously good school – as corroborated by numerous others, some of whom could see more than I could. And it is possibly happening all over the country; the hue and cry about research, professional bodies, acceptable practice and more is nothing more than the support infrastructure of an embedded, self-interested educational elite for whom pupil interest is nothing more than a necessary, abstract smoke-screen.

The only hope is that greater awareness of the issue is a start.

Why lesson observations reveal little

Maybe there are teachers somewhere who love them, who are such confident extroverts that they seize any opportunity to show off. I never knew any. I did know a few who were quite prepared to keep a few proven, supposedly-outstanding lessons in reserve, to be wheeled out every time an observation was scheduled. But I knew many more for whom lesson observations were a matter of great stress and uncertainty, whose effect was a major factor in destroying professional self-confidence.

I suppose we should be grateful for the fact that OFSTED has lowered the heat somewhat on individual observations, but in my experience that did not stop school managers from perpetuating high-stakes observations as one of the crudest implements with which they controlled their staff.

I remember wondering how on earth I was supposed to hold in my head every criterion on the multi-page tick-list that was used where I formerly taught – let alone doing it on a daily basis, or planning for every consideration for every lesson. It was a bully’s charter for gratuitously tripping people up.

That is not to say that I oppose lesson observations per se. It is necessary to check that all is broadly well, and in the right hands they can be a useful mirror and improvement tool. But in my experience they were rarely used in that way: for a start, doing so would imply that a two-way dialogue occurred following the observation, rather than the pronouncement from On High which was the norm.

But the main point for writing this is my growing view that the crude judgements that often result from such practices are just the thin end of a much larger wedge: for all the techno-talk which seems increasingly to be surrounding (smothering?) its practice, the teaching profession actually has a very crude, simplistic and partial appreciation of the functioning of the human mind. What’s more, it doesn’t seem hugely keen on rectifying that fact.

I’ve been reading John Bargh’s book Before You Know It: the unconscious reasons why we do what we do.  I will discuss the book more widely in a following post – but I was struck by a section on the role of the unconscious in high-expertise creativity. Bargh suggests that the essence of expertise is the ability to channel the unconscious processes of the mind into useable conscious form highly effectively. He relates a number of examples to illustrate – but I was struck by the sympathy of this idea with the notion that skilled practitioners are unconsciously competent. In other words, they are so accustomed to doing what they do that they no longer need to think about it – a bit like a seasoned driver compared to a novice.

However, I had always carelessly considered this to be a form of regression from conscious competence – or at least an unexplained development of it. Bargh suggests that unconscious competence is a way of highly efficient functioning which solves complex problems while making minimal use of our limited conscious short-term thinking/memory capacity. It is also the source of Eureka moments, and the way in which issues sometimes resolve themselves after ‘sleeping on them’.

This certainly resonates with the way I was functioning in the classroom before the end of my career – most of what happened did so in ‘the zone’ just below conscious thought: teaching had become an utterly natural process for me. I knew many other experienced teachers for whom the same seemed to be true: they functioned highly efficiently as teachers almost without having to give it any conscious thought at all. It was just ‘what they did’. This is not to suggest complacency – in fact quite the opposite. Such functioning is the mark of a master practitioner – but the educational establishment seems not to realise as much.

I always used to dread lesson observations, for the simple reason that I felt that they were a very poor representation of what happened normally in my lessons. Being towards the introvert end of the spectrum, I instantly became excruciatingly aware of being observed in a way that utterly destroyed the unconscious effectiveness which was what made my lessons work. And if the pupils didn’t detect it themselves, then I am sure the suddenly up-tight teacher in front of them probably transmitted it.

What lesson observations do is move unconscious good practice right back into the realm of conscious, self-aware thought – and the consequent self-consciousness is more than enough to destroy what makes a teacher ‘tick’. Undoubtedly it is worse for some than others, but it still seems to be a commonly reported experience than observation utterly destroys the normal flow of things.

There are many works on the nature of such problems; Bargh’s is good because it comes at it in a slightly unexpected direction, linking a number of my interest areas in a way I hadn’t considered before. This was also the basis of many of my CPD sessions while I was still teaching – and yet the mainstream educational establishment seems peculiarly resistant to those aspects of psychology that don’t reinforce its existing agenda. I wonder why…

The fact is, human behaviour is a lot more complex and oblique than the educational techno-establishment is currently prepared to admit. Doing so would destroy the clear-cut but arbitrary decisions that it likes to make (about most things). But accepting facts such as the one that says an observed lesson is unlikely to be a true reflection of a teacher’s normal practice – and then permitting if nothing else a meaningful two-way dialogue about what had taken place would be both a more sophisticated and fairer way of using this practice.

Yet on that many-paged tick-list, the feedback section lacked even the smallest space for the observed teacher to make their own comment.

To appreciate teaching, try learning.

Image result for nicola benedetti

The violinist Nicola Benedetti wrote an interesting piece for the ATL magazine (‘Final Word’, March 2018) on the educational-developmental value of learning a musical instrument. She is entirely correct, that pursuing such a discipline (and never was a word more appropriate) from an early age is an excellent catalyst to wider learning. It is also a lot harder than many classroom subjects.

For me, learning to play an instrument embodies all the essential qualities of good education:

  • The challenge to learn a complex practical/technical skill.
  • The need to acquire (and often commit to memory) a large body of detailed knowledge.
  • The need to understand (and apply) complex theoretic underpinnings.
  • Small scale technical and intellectual challenges to master in the service of…
  • …a much larger ‘whole’ whose effect depends on those niceties , but also the ability to appreciate a higher level over-view.
  • A combination of hands-on practical learning and received wisdom from an accomplished exponent.
  • The complete fusing of those technical elements with the objective of an expressive, aesthetically-rich end-product.
  • The possibility of experiencing ‘flow‘ in the process.
  • The ability to deploy the skills acquired in original, creative ways.
  • An immediate and very informative (audible) feedback by which to judge one’s efforts and make considered improvements.
  • An objective that is (almost) entirely intrinsic – making music is principally its own, deeply satisfying reward.
  • In addition, one might add significant personal development in the challenge of performing to (and thereby communicating with) other people.

After a long break, I have resumed playing my own instruments (at last, the inner ‘spark’ has recovered enough to make this needed…) and all over again I am being reminded of the inherent truths in the above. I have ‘gone back to school’ in another way too: I am now about a third of the way through an online diploma in interior design, which has always been an interest and ambition of mine. Again, the experience of being a learner (complete with tutor, student number and deadlines to meet) is proving informative.

In a rather different way, this subject is also a combination of the technical and the creative, and it is also very satisfying. But while the usual scaffolding of learning objectives, assessment criteria and more are present, it is the sheer affective reward that is making it worth doing. Personally, I need nothing more to re-convince me of the value of the kind of intrinsic-worth education I have always advocated – and on which I thought I would be drawing when I entered the teaching profession.

I would go further: in order to appreciate this, one needs to be back in the position of learner oneself. I am toying (purely theoretically) with the idea that all trainee teachers – if not others too – should be encouraged, or even required, to learn something new for themselves as part of their professional development. (Shock-horror! We might need to grant teachers sabbaticals to allow them to do this….)

There really is no better way of appreciating what education is ‘for’. Doing this reveals the innate truths of the matter, and in so-doing also exposes the endless techno-babble that now surrounds formal education for the needless froth that it is.

One can only appreciate these things by doing them – but once done, no further justification is often needed for either the process or the purpose.

Trying to describe this to those who have never felt it for themselves is like trying to describe colour to the blind – which is probably why  it is precisely the subjects that offer the most intense experiences of this kind that are under constant threat from the philistines who now largely seem to run state education in Britain. (The independent sector has always known rather differently of course, and the arts seem to remain valued in those schools and with those parents). I’m inclined to suspect that those who regularly reduce education to bean-counting and conveyor-belt monotony either have never felt these things, or did so such a long time ago that they have forgotten: the richness before their very eyes suffocated beneath the weight of targets and techno-rubbish that they typically seem to live and breathe.

It would be satisfying to end by saying that is only their loss – but unfortunately, it is not true.

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.