Saturday, January 10, 2009

When School's Out Forever

These people have recently been asking readers to imagine what things commonly accepted today might be viewed with jaw-dropping or at least head-scratching incredulity in a hundred years time. (I can’t link to the actual post, as my IP address is on a list banned by their server, according to the 403 message I keep getting. I don’t know what I’ve done to them; I assume it’s an error which will resolve itself in the fullness of time).

Anyhow, one of my first thoughts was abortion, generally accepted unquestioningly in the West, but I am convinced that it will go the way of slavery in the next 50 or so years. It resembles slavery in a number of ways, particularly in the arguments used to justify and normalize it. It is likely this view will change substantially, because they do, and also because the West is only a small part of the world, and as it changes internally, and its interactions with the rest of the world change, there will be changes in the, mostly irreflective, social consensus on this and many matters. Comments on the thread in fact discuss the possibility, even the likelihood, that in a hundred years sex and procreation will have been completely separated by scientific advance, and the debate will become otiose. This is an interesting idea, but it isn’t what I wanted to talk about.

Another thing that should disappear is schools. All the implicit bases of the state education system in Britain, Spain, (and other countries as far as my knowledge goes, which isn’t very far) are wrong. Education is treated as something that can be given, whereas in fact it can only be received. By which I mean that if you do not value education and do not want to be educated, you won’t be, whatever anyone tries to do. It is a privilege that only hard work can make the most of, but is presented as a right that can be passively acquired by anyone. There is an assumption that education must be done socially, in large groups. This has often been done for convenience, but is not in any way an essential characteristic. It is common to hear it said by people who should know better that only schools socialize children and allow them to mix with and get to know a wide variety of people (understand types of people). Even if this were any part of the purpose of education, which it isn’t, it isn’t true anyway. Schools are highly artificial social environments, unnaturally homogenous in most respects.

Education policy, and again I refer particularly to Britain and Spain, is largely based on benighted sociological or pseudo-psychological theories constructed by people who are far removed from any practical knowledge of how children learn, and why they need to learn things. The results, and the recent Spanish education law is a prime example of this, are an immensely long and turgid list of aspirations, supported by blather and dogma, which are utterly impracticable and which, even if put into practice as stated, would achieve very little indeed. It is a ghastly mess, written for purely political reasons by people who neither know nor care about the education of children. Its details will be largely ignored; indeed, I teach teachers, and few of them have any idea of the law beyond what I tell them. This would be a good thing, but institutionally the organisation of schools must appear to reflect the law. Also, most teachers lose sight of what education should be, and develop a civil servant mentality. This leads to the next false assumption.

Education policy directs most of its attention, and requires that most of the resources, in attention, time and money, be directed, to those who don’t want education or are clearly incapable of benefitting from it, to the virtual exclusion of those who would get most out of it. The assumption is that intelligent, diligent, responsible, ambitious children and their parents will learn anyway, by some undefined process which works regardless of what the school does for them. There is sometimes a further assumption that hard-working, ambitious, responsible children do not deserve to have anything done for them. Government is hopeless at most things. It is especially hopeless at providing a framework within which children can receive a proper education, one which will be useful to them.

It is not in fact very difficult, but anyone who has the power to decide what people should and, perhaps more importantly, should not be told, quickly sees indoctrination rather than learning as the point of the process. And they become convinced that the purpose of state education is to prepare children to be good servants of the state. This is best achieved in large institutions, and carried out by servants of the state who have little authority of their own, in accordance with a closed set of rules which are determined from above and may not be questioned.

This is quite apart from the treatment of schools as childminders, somewhere to dump the children several hours a day while their parents are doing other things (it may be convenient but it has nothing to do with education.) The result is that children spend many years of their lives doing nothing but sit in classes, do homework and go to bed early, and the knowledge they acquire at the end of this process rarely, if ever, justifies this huge waste of their childhood.

I said it is easy, and so it is, though it requires the willingness to address other problems that such a great change would bring. It will not be governments that change these things. Government education policy comes from meaningless theory designed by committee and political consensus, and is designed not to address the future needs of children but to perpetuate its near monopoly on the indoctrination of the young. It will not give up that monopoly easily. It is small private initiatives that will transform the way children learn, imaginatively using the possibilities that new technologies and other results of our great wealth and comfort offer us. State education will eventually be forced to follow. I sincerely hope that my great-grandchildren will need me to explain to them what a school was, and I believe it might happen.

1 comment:

CountingCats said...

You weren't banned, the site was dead for a few days.

If you keep getting this problem led me know and I will get it sorted out.