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.