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November 09th 2013 print

Kevin Donnelly

Chalk and cheese

Any debate about how kids should be taught and what they should be taught sees a clash of philosophies. The conservative view stresses wisdom as much as learning

schoolkidWhat is the future of school education?

One approach argues that education must be forward looking and focused on preparing students for the 21st century and scenarios that are impossible to predict.  Associated is a utilitarian view that argues learning must be practical and directed at teaching work related skills.

Equally as valuable is a conservative view of education; one that defines education, to use Matthew Arnold’s expression, as dealing with the best that has been thought and said.  Such a view of education, while acknowledging the need to be contemporary and to be forward looking, stresses the need to respect the past. As noted by T.S.Eliot in an essay titled ‘The Aims of Education’, “More than ever, we look to education today to preserve us from the error of pure contemporaneity.  We look to institutions of education to maintain a knowledge and understanding of the past”.

New technologies, the changing nature of work and the evolving character of society are all combining to undermine old certainties and to create a situation where education must focus on generic competencies, where students are defined as knowledge navigators and digital natives and teachers become guides by the side. Coupled with this futures orientation is the belief that learning is about strengthening the economy, making Australia more globally competitive, Asia centric and developing a more productive and adaptable workforce.

This utilitarian approach exists alongside a student-centred view of learning that restricts education to the world of the student, a world where learning is immediately local, contemporary and relevant. As a result, the authority and expertise of the teacher are undervalued and the traditional academic curriculum becomes secondary to an inquiry-based model of learning, one that privileges process over content. Instead of a broad, balanced and enriching education students leave school with significant gaps in the knowledge and understanding needed to live a fulfilling and productive life and to be effective citizens.

Take the example of cultural literacy – every day in conversations, reading newspapers and journals, listening to the news, watching TV and accessing the internet and other forms of electronic communication, we come across historical references to people, events, movements, sayings and ideas. Failing to understand or identify what is being referred to denies one the opportunity to be fully informed and to be in a position to contribute to the public debate.

Recognising sayings like ‘he met his Waterloo’, ‘it’s her Achilles’ heel’, ‘they opened a Pandora’s box’, ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘be a good Samaritan’ and ‘to err is human; to forgive, divine’ do not happen intuitively of by accident, they have to be taught. Those championing the internet and sites like Wikepedia also fail to understand that information is not knowledge and understanding should not be confused with wisdom.

A utilitarian view confuses education with training and ignores the fact that what is most worthwhile in education might not be immediately useful or practical. While training is concerned with mastering particular skills and competencies required to achieve practical ends, education in its broadest sense also deals with attributes like wisdom that cannot be so easily quantified or measured.

As previously noted, a conservative view of education is steeped in the past.

Over hundreds of years, stretching back to ancient Greece and Rome, the various disciplines of knowledge have established themselves and constitute the principal way we relate to and understand the world in which we live. Such disciplines, while drawing on a range of diverse cultures and histories, are also closely associated with the rise of Western civilisation and epochal movements and events like the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution and the impact of modernity.

The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott defines education as being initiated into this heritage and, as a result, “beginning to learn our way about a material, emotional, moral and intellectual inheritance, and as a learning to recognise the varieties of human utterance and to participate in the conversation they compose”.

A conservative view of education, drawing on Judeo-Christian values and beliefs is also inherently moral and transcendent in nature.  A central aspect of education is to instil values and dispositions like civility, reciprocity, humility, truth telling and a commitment to the common good.

A conservative view of education also accepts that human understanding is fallible, that there are limits to what we can master and that there are essential truths that are absolute and unchanging.

Best illustrated by Plato’s parable of the cave, where the bound prisoners confuse the shadows projected on a wall in front of them with reality and only realise their mistake when freed to walk outside and are blinded by the sun, much of what we know about the world is transitory, ephemeral and misguided.

It’s also the case that certain laws of physics and those that apply to particular mathematical algorithms have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.  Those familiar with Greek tragedies like Media, the Bacchae and Antigone or the plays of Shakespeare will also appreciate that human nature has changed very little; notwithstanding the impact of new technologies and significant social and cultural change. Emotions like greed, anger, jealousy, hubris and self-sacrifice, honour, bravery, love and the desire for happiness define what it is to be human and constitute a central aspect of subjects like literature and history.

As previously mentioned, a conservative view of education should not be confused with training.  Much of what currently is defined as education is directed towards practical, utilitarian ends such as gaining a qualification for a profession, a particular trade or acquiring the skills and competencies for future employment. In contrast, the more traditional view argues that education might not be inherently worthwhile or be of any immediate practical application or use.  Any benefits might take years to reveal themselves and, often, in unexpected ways.

Dr Kevin Donnelly, Director of Education Standards Institute.  The above is an extract from “What is the future of school education?” published in Turning Left or Right: Values in modern politics from  Connor Court