Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, by Frank Furedi

By Michele Ledda

Asked about the persistence of historical determinism in the 20th century in an interview given two years before her death, Hannah Arendt replies that the main reason is the overwhelming attraction of reality. We act into the future, she explains, but cannot predict the result of our actions. Since we are not alone in the world and our actions provoke other people’s reactions, our actions, unlike our behaviour, cannot have predictable consequences. There is an almost infinite number of variables involved. Contingency is the biggest factor in history. And yet, when we look back, we are able to explain events, to tell a coherent story. How is it possible that in retrospect it looks as if events could not have happened any other way? It is the pull reality exerts over us. All the variables have suddenly disappeared and reality has such an overwhelming impact upon us that it looks as if what has happened was bound to happen, as if there were logic to history.

The same is true for the reality of our present. We are so used to the practices that shape our professional lives, day after day, that, although we can fantasise about an infinite number of changes, it is difficult to believe that these could work in practice and that things could be done in an altogether different way. The world of education has been drifting for so many decades in one particular direction that it has become one area where it is difficult to obtain the necessary critical distance. Yet, if you were educated in a completely different system, at a different time, or in a different country, that critical distance is easier to achieve. Of course, critical distance can also be achieved by thinking and reading books (ie, by travelling virtually through space and time) or by visiting other countries. Then one realises that what is considered impossible or inappropriate in Britain today was actually achieved or greatly valued in another country or historical time.

For instance, the Italian curriculum in the 1970s still made it compulsory for all middle school children (aged 12-14) to study Latin grammar. Everyone, no matter their socio-economic background or intellectual ability, was deemed capable of learning Latin. Of course, this is before the curriculum was ‘modernised’ and Latin remained compulsory only in the last five years of a handful of secondary courses, though it is still available to all state pupils who choose those particular schools. Compare this with today’s Britain, where it is exceptionally rare for a state school to offer Latin. We can say that usually no state pupil is allowed to choose Latin as a subject, whereas it is usually compulsory in independent schools, which is a shining example of New Labour’s belief in both equality and education.

To illustrate the point further, when a group of parents led by journalist Toby Young decided to set up a school where Latin is compulsory until the age of 16, they were accused of elitism, not by the Socialist Worker, but by a columnist of that venerable institution, The Times. The author of what is an otherwise sensible article on consumerism and education does not for a moment think that Latin is an essential part of universal culture or that children from a deprived socio-economic background could benefit from it. Such is the contempt in which ‘old-fashioned’ knowledge is held by many in mainstream British society, particularly numerous among the elite. And, as Frank Furedi has recently pointed out, while in the UK the serious study of classical music is considered too difficult for most children, it has flourished in Venezuela among a much poorer population.

It is also interesting that there are quite a few foreigners among the more incisive critics of Anglo-American educational practices. One is certainly Hannah Arendt, whose essay The Crisis in Education, first published in 1954, to this day remains the most insightful analysis of the problems faced by modern western education systems, problems that are more advanced in Britain and the US, but which are similar in the other western countries, which are catching up fast. Another is Austrian-born educationalist, Rudolph Fleisch, the author of Why Johnny Can’t Read, the book that started the reading wars in the US in the 1950s by criticising child-centred reading methods and advocating phonics instead.

Influenced by Arendt’s The Crisis in Education, Hungarian-born British sociologist Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted, certainly displays a lot of critical distance from the current British education system. One myth after another is systematically demolished. Theories that in our schools have the status of unassailable truths are shown to be nothing more than snake oil. Respected professors of education look like the modern equivalent of Mark Twain’s characters The Duke and The King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The politicians and bureaucrats who manage our education system are shown either to be incompetent or to have little interest in knowledge and education.

For instance, Furedi points out that the widely discussed discipline problem includes children so young that the problem must reside with the adults’ difficulty in exercising authority, rather than in our children. In 2007, he points out, 1,540 infants were suspended from nursery schools, many for attacking their teachers. How can so much money, time, and energy be spent on our education system, and no one seems to realise that something is seriously wrong with the adults, including those who devise education policies, when even children under 5 are suspended for violent, sexist, or racist behaviour?

Education as a conservative enterprise

What Furedi takes from Arendt, and which is crucial in enabling him to see through the smokescreen of the ossified left and right positions in the education debate, is the understanding that conservatism is the essence of educational activity, through which the older generation transmits the knowledge accumulated by humanity in thousands of years to the ‘new ones’, as the Greeks used to call the young, or the ‘newcomers to the world’, in Arendt’s words.

Far from having a conservative outcome, in the sense of indoctrinating the young into unquestioning respect for authority, the formal knowledge transmitted through the teaching of the various school subjects is essential for the young to understand the modern world and to be able to question it. The transmission of knowledge helps children to develop as intellectually and morally autonomous individuals who are capable of contributing in their turn to the making of the human world.

Once we understand education as the transmission of knowledge, it is clear that the most elitist and old-fashioned kind of education is positively revolutionary compared with what passes for progressive education today: a series of educational theories, practices, and policies that see the exercise of adult authority and the transmission of knowledge to the next generation as activities fraught with great dangers, not least because of an exaggerated sense of children’s vulnerability.

The suspicion, if not outright rejection, of subject knowledge at the heart of our child-centred system is well expressed by the Plowden Report (1967):

‘at the heart of the educational process lies the child. No advances in policy, no acquisitions of new equipment have their desired effect unless they are in harmony with the nature of the child, unless they are fundamentally acceptable to him. […] Knowledge of the manner in which children develop, therefore, is of prime importance, both in avoiding educationally harmful practices and in introducing effective ones.’

Unfortunately, humanity has accumulated its knowledge, through millennia of struggles and discoveries, with no regard whatsoever for the nature of the child. On the contrary, education is the process whereby the child acquires a culture that is by definition heterogeneous to his nature. There is nothing natural in learning the multiplication tables, the alphabet, musical notation, or the correct movements of tennis. Even if the way in which these are learnt can be more or less humane to children, the acquisition of knowledge is a cultural, as opposed to natural process. On the other hand, learning is part of human nature. Unlike animal nature, human nature is extremely malleable. In the modern world, it would be ‘unnatural’ for a child to acquire no culture. The Plowden Report’s notion that there is a correct, ‘natural’ way in which children should learn is therefore a fashionable myth. Children can learn in many different ways, and what they learn is more important than how they get there.

The ossified positions in the educational debate often leads one to identify child-centred practices with left wing, progressive education and subject-centred ones based on the transmission of knowledge as right-wing and elitist.

This was not always the case. Furedi shows that in the past, both left and right, despite their political differences, saw education as the transmission of knowledge to the next generation. He quotes very similar statements from such different thinkers as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the literary critic Matthew Arnold, Lenin, and conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. All understand education as the new generation’s rightful inheritance of the ‘store of human knowledge’, in Lenin’s words.

In the 1930s, Gramsci understood that what was elitist about liberal education was not its content or its teaching methods, but that it was the preserve of the few. ‘Grammar schools for all’ would have been his slogan.

How is it possible that teaching methods and education policies that represent an attack on the very precondition for progress, the transmission of knowledge to the next generation, can now be called progressive? And how did teaching methods become so central in defining one’s political identity?

The changing meaning of change

For Furedi, this is due to what he calls the ‘fetishisation of change’ by educationalists and policy makers. Having accepted Arendt’s point that conservatism, in the sense of preserving human knowledge, is the essence of education, Furedi is in a position to question ‘progressives’’ claims that a modern education system should reject old-fashioned and academically-oriented curricula and teaching methods in favour of child-centred pedagogies and future-oriented curricula, more in tune with the lives of modern children and with the realities of the world of work in a global economy.

The way Furedi deals with the question of change is crucial to understand both the effectiveness and the limitations of his critique. On the one hand, Furedi convincingly argues that ‘progressive’ pedagogues invert the old meaning of change as a political category, from one associated with human agency, as in ‘humans changing the world’, to one that posits humans as the passive recipients of change, as in a social Darwinist (in my opinion) ‘There Is No Alternative but to adapt to a changing world’. While the modernisers’ rhetoric of change and their corresponding attack on tradition sound progressive, they convey an extremely limited idea of people’s autonomy. So far, so good.

But change is such a fundamental category to Furedi’s own political tradition (revolutionary communism) and above all to his theoretical principles (materialist dialectics) that he cannot bring himself to perform a thorough critique. Instead, his use of the term ‘fetishisation’ of change serves two functions. Firstly, it conveys the reassuring impression that Marxism, at least in its fundamental categories, is still relevant to understand modern developments, and untouched by said fetishisation. Secondly, it implies that modernisers favour a merely rhetorical version of change or that they only favour change in the world of education, while they are conservatives in politics: ‘too often, conservatism becomes the hallmark of public life, while the school is turned into the location for social experimentation’.

In fact, New Labour has actively experimented with wider society just as much as with schools. Extraordinary security measures, ASBOs, smoking bans, the war on obesity, the overregulation of pubs, the vetting of adults who have contact with children and a myriad other initiatives (all criticised by Furedi himself) have greatly contributed to changing British society—an attack on the British way of life compared to which demographic changes and Islamic extremism pale into insignificance. The fact that they might have changed it for the worse is no argument for calling it conservatism, except that the words ‘conservative’ or ‘reactionary’ have lost their significance as political categories and have come to mean pretty much anything that we do not like while ‘progressive’ means little more than ‘good’.

Furedi, like other social critics coming from the left, tends to portray developments he dislikes as conservative or reactionary, and to counterpose them to progress. For many thinkers, modern developments are still to be judged according to two fundamental principles of left and right: conservatives are hostile to change, while progressives embrace change. Despite having realised long ago that we need to go ‘beyond left and right’ in Furedi’s words, even more critical thinkers from a left-wing tradition seem unable to do so comprehensively. They interpret most of the problems faced by modern society, not as a fulfilment of modern trends, but as a deviation from modernity and progress.

New conditions mean that both left and right have been cut off from their past, argues Furedi. But no one has been cut off from their past, and from their utopian future, so thoroughly as the revolutionary left. In the absence of a political vision, Furedi himself seems to depend on the rhetoric of change just as much as, if not more than, social critics from other political traditions.

But if we live in conservative times, prey to an exaggerated fear of change, as Furedi often argues, why do modern politicians of all political persuasions, including the Conservative Party, feel the need to show their embrace of change so conspicuously? Why do not politicians reassure their constituencies by saying that they are against change? Instead, even right-wing modernisers such as French Prime Minister Sarkozy and his cabinet sing about changer le monde.

If we consider how arguments for change are used by politicians bereft of political vision in order to implement the most illiberal legislation and how people’s resistance, when it manifests itself, is easily portrayed as ‘reactionary’ and as favouring an unsustainable status quo, it seems clear to me that in today’s conditions, the category of change is a much more subtle and more effective tool for the exercise of power and the denial of human subjectivity than old-fashioned respect for authority. Today, embracing change means accepting the chains of a powerless status for humanity, and the failure to rethink this category from scratch leads to serious theoretical shortcomings and, ultimately, to the consolidation of a political impotence that affects those in power as much as the population.

‘Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth,’ Archimedes is said to have stated. In order to effect change, you need a fixed point. This is particularly true in our times, when anyone with a vision can be easily accused of dogmatism, essentialism, and conservatism and invited to embrace change instead. It is precisely the absence of a fixed place where to stand that prevents the formation of a potentially world-changing subject. Nothing is more anti-revolutionary today than the call to ‘embrace change’.

The trap of modern instrumentalism

The dominance of change is strictly related to modern instrumentalism, which is the inability to pursue ultimate ends, such as education for its own sake, and is at the heart of the crisis of authority and of political vision. The Oxford English Dictionary provides this definition of instrumentalism:

A pragmatic philosophical approach which regards an activity (such as science, law or education) chiefly as an instrument or tool for some practical purpose, rather than in more absolute or ideal terms, in particular:

The pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey which supposes that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as the problems change.

Although Furedi is a critic of instrumentalism, and of the educational theories of John Dewey, his critique is tempered by the fact that he comes from a tradition that is itself instrumentalist and theoretically dependent on the idea of change. This appears clearly in his inability to see the importance of a common school curriculum and in his willingness to adopt the pragmatism of modernisers with regard to this question.

Ultimately, a critique of modern instrumentalism and the category of change can only be achieved through a critique of modernity, but Furedi and similar thinkers have long understood their work as a defence of modernity, science, and progress against the rejection of modernity by self-hating western elites that have lost confidence in themselves.

Although it is true that there are many contemporary trends towards the rejection of modernity, such as many forms of environmentalism, a critique of modernity need not be a rejection of the huge improvements to our lives that modern science and technological and economic progress have made possible. It only means considering the possibility that the problems of modernity have been created by trends inherent in modernity itself and that perhaps through understanding its impasses, we may start to envisage the possibility of a different, better modernity.

The inability to decide on a school curriculum

In education, the single most important area for debate, and the one where the crisis of authority highlighted by Furedi presents itself most starkly, is the content of the school curriculum. Yet, this is a topic that no one seems willing to tackle, not even Furedi.

The myth that the National Curriculum, introduced in 1989 by the Thatcher government, restored a traditional kind of education and stifled teachers’ autonomy is very widespread, but it is just that—a myth. The Conservative government did increase regulation through the creation of Ofsted and school league tables, but the National Curriculum is a very vague document that is built around skills rather than content.

The Thatcher government had the intention of restoring a traditional education, but it lost the battle against its own educational establishment, because it had underestimated the task at hand, namely the difficulty that a government of modernisers would have in arguing for a traditional curriculum. Brian Cox, the educationalist that the Conservatives had chosen to chair the working group on the English curriculum, because of his reputation as a critic of progressive pedagogies, pointed out that ‘the desire for a national culture is seen as damagingly conservative, often ‘racist’ and almost inevitably unsympathetic to the rights of women … Conservatives desire a common curriculum—any common curriculum—because this would have a unifying effect upon [an excessively pluralist society].’

Therefore, the English Working Group decided that no judgment should be made on which texts children would study, as ‘the number of suitable authors would make any list quite impracticable’. It devolved this responsibility to examination boards and individual schools and teachers, after setting general parameters such as ‘syllabuses must consist of both male and female authors’.

According to educational publisher Philip Walters, exam boards have now a combined turnover of £200 million, Edexcel is owned by a FTSE 100 company, and schools spend on average four times as much on examinations as on teaching material, including electronic equipment. The government has created a phoney market whereby examination boards now compete for customers by suggesting to schools that their examination is likely to enhance the school’s position in the league tables, which means that if a syllabus is considered too demanding, it is unlikely to be successful. This has created an enormous pressure towards the dumbing down of exams, but it is also a way for the government to wash its hands of responsibility for the curriculum.

Yet anyone who runs a school, whether public or private, has the responsibility to provide a good curriculum, made up of the best possible subjects and the best possible content that each discipline has to offer. The government has the duty to provide a good curriculum, by drawing on the knowledge of the best minds in the country for each discipline—a decision that individual teachers cannot make. Teachers should of course be free to use whatever teaching methods they prefer, provided they are effective.

The debate over the curriculum is first and foremost an ideological and not a technical matter. The content of the curriculum depends on what kind of educated citizens we would like to have. Should children receive ‘the store of human knowledge’ and become educated citizens, morally autonomous subjects who contribute to shaping the world, or should they learn workplace skills and transferable skills such as learning to learn, and become lifelong learners, ready to be guided by experts and re-skill themselves in order to adapt to a changing world and to the needs of the global economy?

If we prefer the first option, then we have a duty to decide what children should study in the 21st century. We must answer the question, what is the best knowledge humanity has produced so far that we can enthusiastically pass on to the next generation? If we prefer the second, then we opt for an empty curriculum, where the content must change all the time in order to adapt to a changing world (or the fashions and policies of the moment). Moreover, we opt for a personalised curriculum, where the part of the modern world that is deemed relevant to the socio-economic background and the life prospects of each particular child will be considered important, while the rest will be deemed irrelevant.

The inability to determine the content of the school curriculum, the most important problem in education and one that no party seems willing or able to handle, goes right at the heart of the government’s crisis of authority and lack of vision. Although some timid hints have come from the Conservatives that they might just look into this problem, it remains to be seen if a party of modernisers can find the conviction to argue for a common curriculum as representing the best that has been thought and said—something that the Iron Lady herself was unable to do.

It is therefore disappointing to see that Furedi, having analysed so well some aspects of the crisis of adult authority and other failings of the education system, has nothing to say about the biggest elephant in the room.

On this matter, Furedi’s position is not very different from the Conservatives’ hope that a good curriculum will emerge through the invisible hand of the market or New Labour’s agenda of the personalisation of public services, both representing an outsourcing of responsibility to individual schools, teachers and parents (or public service users). Furedi is similarly confident that education should ‘discover its future direction for itself’. His conclusion that, beyond a very basic common curriculum, we should let schools experiment to decide ‘what works’, seems not that different from conventional thinking in education policy today.

‘One solution, devolution’ seems to be the all-too-familiar slogan. But it should be clear by now that the discourse of devolution and empowerment at a local level on the one hand and increasing regulation of the ‘empowered’ on the other, who, precisely because they have been set free must be guided and regulated through a ‘system of accountability’, are part and parcel of the same process—a process that anyone interested in understanding the contemporary crisis of authority cannot afford to ignore.

Furedi suggests that anyone with a vision for the content of the curriculum can only be someone ‘wedded to a dogma’. But anyone with a vision these days can be easily accused of dogmatism, or essentialism—often by those who are wedded to the dogma of change, which has the advantage of appearing as the quintessentially non-dogmatic position but can be used, just like any other received idea, in a dogmatic way.

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Written under a Creative Commons License, ith edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/

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