Sunday, August 28, 2005

The great liberal education disaster

The late, great Isaiah Berlin, in his famous essay Two Concepts of Liberty argued that liberty had become a concept that had become so porous, there was virtually no meaning that it could not bear. He insisted on what he described as "negative liberty" as the only true definition of the term, which he understood to mean the extent to which the state left the subject to his or her own devices.

Politically, I still cleave to this view; it is not for the state to see what should be made of us, to seek to improve us or attempt to make us stand to moral attention. But it is entirely inappropriate to have applied this conception of liberty, properly understood as a political life only suitable for adult members of civil society, to the school system. To the extent to which it has been applied - and it has been done extensively throughout the United Kingdom - it has been an unmitigated educational catastrophe.

There are really not enough words to describe the absurdity of so-called "liberal" educational theories that this blogger came across during his teacher training: false dichotomies between different forms of learning that I would expect one of my brighter senior pupils to spot within about four minutes; the ludicrous notion that telling a pupil they're wrong represents an "authoritarian theory of knowledge" - are just a couple of the symptoms of the other-worldly disconnection with reality that so disfigures our educational system.

For the best take on a true liberal education, more people should turn to the liberal, but self described conservative, Michael Oakeshott. He argued that a truly liberal education had nothing to do with allowing pupils to "do their own thing" or being "contemporary". Rather, the liberty of the pupil is ensured by two things: a) the narrowness of the focus - the teacher is concerned with the delivery of a subject, not some aimless character-building exercise (most teachers, including myself, are not competent to do the latter) b) that what is really liberating about education is that it delivers the pupil from the "tyranny from the here and now". It does this by teaching subjects that represent great investments in human thought, not ones that are fashionable or entertaining.

This version of a liberal education is surely preferable to the present situation where at least twenty years of the culture of compulsory euphemism has produced an enormous number of bureaucrat-educationalist whose sole professional function appears to be to receive inflated salaries for their skill in rationalizing failure?

There is less social mobility in the UK than there was thirty tears ago. A large part of the problem is our school system that is run by people who think the school can't help being a repository for the prevailing culture, rather than being what it is: an institution capable of setting and maintaining its own norms and values.

And yet the effective educational writing-off of at least twenty percent of the population is so often excused in the name of equal opportunities, or of combatting "social inclusion", or in the name of sensitivity for the plight of the masses. It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that the hard-pressed working class they secretly despise would be absolutely horrified to learn the way in which their hard-earned tax dollars were being used by idiots to make excuses for their failure (they do this with Powerpoint presentations these days).

Liberal, middle-class, horrible, patronising and really quite shameful and disgraceful is what this is.

1 comment:

George S said...

Well, you're the one at the chalkface but I find my head automatically nodding in agreement, as if you were confirming all my instinctive guesses and memories of school teaching.

How many new initiatives, curriculum changes and changes in procedure have you had to face? And how long have any of the changes had to settle into a working routine? And, most importantly, how many of them were for the good?

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