Here is my post for the TES from earlier this week:
In a piece for the Guardian the esteemed educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse writes:
“Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberalism underpinned Baker’s 1988 reform bill, which meant a prescribed national curriculum and tougher accountability, along with diversity in school provision and autonomy.”
This seems to uncover a contradiction at the heart of neoliberalism – on the one hand it is controlling and centralising and on the other it is diverse and autonomous…
Is neoliberalism this conflicted?
In a book called: A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism, the writer Kean Birch explores why the term seems to be a catch all term for anything someone doesn’t like.
The first time the term was used was in 1884 in an article for the Modern Review, in which it was used to describe policies associated with the use of state intervention in the economy. By 1898, in the Economic Journal, it was referred to as the future, a coming: “hedonistic world … in which free competition will reign absolutely”. So it seems that Brighouse has used both interpretations – the interventionist and the free market ones to define neo-liberalism. This conflation of the two meanings has precedence, German Ordoliberalism was a school of thought that thought that free markets needed a strong state to make them work. Birch suggests this is the roots of what was to become the vision for the EU.
In 1951 the free market economist and guru for Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman referred to himself as a neoliberal, though he notably stopped using the term later on.
It was in the 1980’s that ‘neoliberalism’ became most associated with it’s contemporary meaning, which, according to the OED, is: ‘a modified form of liberalism tending to favour free-market capitalism.’
The contemporary understanding of the term means that the role of choice is crucial, with the consumer at the centre, and internationally with trade barriers down and global movement of capital, products and ideas, the customer feels they have freedom to choose what to think, buy, say and do. The epitome of this is the silicon valley dream as extolled by the mega-companies Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Twitter et al…
Birch points out that this leads to other contradictions, foremost being what to do about the monopolistic power of these types of companies who seem to be able to act more freely than the individuals they claim to benefit? The recent Facebook scandal seems to be a case in point.
Entrepreneurial thinking has a large input on how we live our lives. Our transactions and decision making are seemingly guided more and more by economic imperatives and utilitarian thinking.
Birch suggests the idea Guy Standing extols is relevant – that though our markets seem free, they are instead less so: “income is channelled to the owners of property – financial, physical and intellectual – at the expense of society.” The contradiction is between the practice of free markets on the ground and the reality of the market freedoms being hoovered up by large monopolistic concerns. Whether it is through global companies like Amazon or Facebook or bureaucracies like the EU, neoliberalism is now operating at the expense of the individual and their communities and in favour of distorted markets. Whilst the consumer seems to have more choice on the ground it is becoming more clear that this ‘choice’ is manipulated by global companies who ‘nudge’ us towards certain choices rather than others. Seemingly, these choices are based on our consumer habits as picked up by a variety of algorithms. We are tempted to buy more of what we ‘like’, rather than tempted out of our comfort zones and consequently our worldview narrows. When this moves beyond products and into ‘ideas’ people become very concerned- hence the scandal around Cambridge Analytica. This is why ‘neoliberal schooling’ is viewed with suspicion.
There are a number of critics who suggest that Multi-Academy Trusts are a sign of a monopolising agenda. The original idea of Free Schools was a romantic hope for teacher or parent run schools that put freedom into the hands of teachers to teach. This laissez-faire hope for a legion of little platoons to shake up schooling has some notable successes – Michaela and School 21 to mention two. There are, of course, problems with some small schools and, the argument goes, that economies of scale are important in order for schools to be run efficiently, and where they don’t succeed some free schools and stand-alone academies have therefore become subsumed into larger trusts. Centralising around a brand rather than launching out on a dream.
It is an inevitable feature of capitalism to monopolise, that’s why we have the monopolies commission… for a good market to operate it needs diversity and it needs different models, products and companies to join the fray. So, paradoxically, a free market needs overseers to intervene in order for the market to remain healthy. The problems we are seeing with Facebook and legislation to control it is an example of when markets monopolise and become all too powerful.
The romantic agenda of free schools and the increasing number of academy chains could be made to work, if new free schools are still encouraged – especially if they have some sort of innovative educational ethos to make their contribution to the national and international debate around education – this could bring about a healthy model that resists monopolisation and stagnation. MATS can do a good job but not if they become too monopolistic and gargantuan. If they do it might be their offer ends up being as bad or worse than the worst LAs in times past. If we ensure a number of MATs can run alongside one another then we might be able to ensure they don’t become all too powerful. This also suggests a model of competition that needs to sustain over-capacity in the system, something that in this day and age of teacher shortages might seem a far cry away.
The most pernicious effects of global neoliberalism is to be seen, rather than at school organisational level, in the classroom itself. The ‘financial, physical and intellectual’ property that most involves itself in every day teaching and learning is the pernicious influence of tech brands. As much as I love my Apple products I do not wish to see them being the fulcrum around which teaching and learning takes place. Rather a teacher and pupils sharpening their own quills than being told the future means that they have to avail themselves of tablets and other screens. Apple, Google, Microsoft, ‘Educators’ are the representatives of ‘neoliberal’ education ready to ‘disrupt’ a model that has worked for thousands of years. Not in the name of education or on behalf of society but in the interests of the global businesses they are set to serve.
Gates and now Zuckerburg are at the forefront of disruption. And what is the most neoliberal thing they could do? Individualise and monopolise at the same time. Global companies controlling and centralising an education product that seemingly has the needs of the individual at heart. Where choice of what to learn, how to learn it and at what pace is put into the hands of the consumer and delivered by a global silicon valley corporation. They even have a name for it, ‘personalised learning’. For Zuckerberg this model just: “intuitively makes sense”. And, of course, if your model for humanity is facebook then of course it makes sense. Everyone following their own prejudices and tastes without having to be challenged by any particularly weighty content from an early age and, easily, finding themselves sucked into rabbit holes of misinformation and susceptible to global players who benefit from sowing the seeds of discontent. And the data that could be accrued by following the personalised learner’s choices in the day to day would certainly be something to interest the global tech giants. It happens to us all. School should be a place to challenge this model.
Even if students do choose to learn challenging content, if they’re all learning something different they’ll lose much of the essence of the school experience: the opportunity for group discussion, the excitement of bouncing ideas off of fellow students, and the guidance that a teacher ideally provides.
If you want to know what a neoliberal education is then go no further than ‘personalised learning’ – it is the zenith of this ideology.
The opposite approach is one that instead of leaving the individual all alone, save for powerful algorithms delivering ‘choices’ whilst farming their data, brings people together to share, discuss and argue with narratives that have been thought about by people with a degree of knowledge about a range of domains. Curriculum should not be left in the hands of novices to find their own way especially when that own way is being controlled behind the scenes by a few billionaires with a penchant for thinking their world view ‘intuitively makes sense’ and should be the model for us all.
This then is the contradicted neoliberal education model – ‘controlling and centralising’ tech companies delivering a product in which ‘diverse and autonomous’ customers/students feel they have ultimate control.
If you fear ‘neoliberal’ education then resist the moves towards personalisation in the classroom and, paradoxically, support the opening of more free schools and an overseer to reduce the power of MATs to over-monopolise.
The Guardian gushes: At a time when arts are squeezed in some schools, teachers are embracing them as a tool to teach the environment without realising it is this insidious belief that the arts are merely a pedagogical tool that is leading to a paucity of engagement with great art.
The tragic figure of the starving artist in the garret eking out an existence is such a romantic image that it has informed great works of art like Henry Wallis’s ‘The Death of Chatterton’ and Puccini’s sublime La Boheme yet in the future our art will be a dreaded commercial enterprise trying to turn people into environmental warriors.
‘At primary school children are ‘learning songs about climate change and the environment… It’s a fun way to learn… we learn the ‘compost and growing’ song and produce artwork in relation to it, too. The arts and other curriculum areas are continually connected. Teaching the children to be sustainable has nice science, humanities and responsible citizenship links.’
Instead of singing the ‘Ode to Joy’ these children are singing odes to compost.
Instead of making pots inspired by Grayson Perry or Bernard Leach children are making:
‘footballs out of recycled paper, carrier bags and elastic bands, and they discuss global issues around poverty, fairness and fair trade…’
Instead of wrestling with Sophocles, Shakespeare and Sarah Kane pupils are engaged in:
“farmer drama” sessions have been encouraging students to put themselves in the position of those working within the supply chain.
Now of course Sarah Kane isn’t suitable for primary children, nor for adults if the Daily Mail review that called her first play a ‘disgusting feast of filth’ is to be believed. But primary schools are essential breeding grounds for artists and audiences, future amateurs and professionals and also the foundations for what Chesterton called the ‘soul of a society’. By embedding the arts in the service of farmer drama and compost songs, and by hiding real art in project based learning, children will not know the deep truths that making difficult art can uncover. This starts young, with specialised art teachers teaching art, to children, as subjects in their own right.
In primary schools pupils should have art, music, drama and dance lessons and not only in the service of the rest of the curriculum. If teachers want to teach ‘the whole child’ then do this through the depth of study not merely by ticking some breadth boxes in the name of arts coverage as ‘a useful tool in explaining subjects that may otherwise be considered complex or inaccessible’
Today’s identity politics has another interesting feature: it teaches students to think in a way antithetical to what a liberal arts education should do. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation. But nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.
A good education doesn’t offer one lens through which to see ourselves and the world, rather it offers a great variety of lenses. Whatever reductive pressures are exerted onto a curriculum or onto the teaching of a subject, those of us who have an interest in what we term, broadly, ‘the liberal arts’, need to ensure we teach and design courses which offer up arguments rather than just presenting narrow answers or a ‘world view’. The pursuit of wisdom is never served by insisting one way of seeing the world has dominion over all others.
This is not to say that all things are relative. Far from it. It is only by engaging in debate, by testing out ideas and hypotheses, with the underlying belief that some things are better than other things can we free up individuals to think for themselves and enable them to add to the great conversation in a way that opens and engages minds rather than closes and disengages them. A relativist can leave all others numb by saying ‘well, it’s my opinion,’ and refuse to engage any further. In other words: ‘truth is an individual construct – so leave me alone…’ relativism is also antithetical to a liberal arts education.
An educational institution should not be a place which suggests it ‘knows’ the truth. The age old adage that the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know should underpin the academy. This gives us great hope in that it has a vested interest in the importance of the voices of those who teach, the voices of those whom they teach about and also the voices of those who are taught and those whose voices will follow. This social contract between the dead, the living and the yet to be born insists on no group having more insight than any other but that by coming together we might find ourselves closer to wisdom than by keeping resolutely apart.
The academy should be notable by its variety of subjects from across the spectrum of knowing and students at school and university should be educated through as many substantial and different lenses we can muster to enable a more thoughtful engagement between themselves and the world. The more perspectives that we can offer the more likely we are to educate successfully. These perspectives need to offer breadth and they also need to be experienced in depth in order to unveil their truths. This means some inevitable compromises are made, but young people should experience learning from as many broad lenses as we can muster.
There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a matter, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our “concept” of this matter, our “objectivity” be. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. trans. Maudemarie Clarke and Alan J. Swenswen. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1998)
If we narrow or reduce perspectives we are more likely to falter in error than we are to glimpse the truth. Students need to access a full and varied curriculum from an early age and for as long as is possible in such a way so that their thinking and experiencing will not atrophy over time. Subjects should be taught with dialogue, argument and debate at their heart, to ensure that perspectives can clash along nicely throughout the heart of the school’s offer. Pupils should also get a good grounding in philosophy, thought, ethics and aesthetics.
In order to ensure an education that offers a good range of perspectives there needs to be a range of subjects on offer. This means starting specialist subject teaching sometime during primary education, expanding the offer during key stage three and ensuring pupils are able to access a good number of subjects at key stage four. The arts and humanities, languages and social sciences, technology and physical/health education options ought to be kept up as long as is possible alongside English, Maths and Sciences. This means either not worrying about the Ebacc or ensuring other options are available alongside it. It is essential to offer a good extra curricular programme as well, including the traditional, school productions, orchestras, galleries, sports teams, quiz and debating teams etc. At key stage five either the IB or A levels with EPQ, voluntary work and a recognition of involvement in extra curricular activities. A house system helps develop pupil leadership and widens participation in such team events beyond elite inter-school level competition.
For those who study or intend to study more vocational options I would hope an academic/cultural stream of opportunities both for study and extra curricular work is also accessed. All work and no play/reading/writing/thinking about ‘the big questions’ makes Jack and Jill dull…
This is what an expansive curriculum can offer, not dullness, but vibrancy, and the opportunity for young people to flourish.
Apparently there are now 1,700 fewer drama teachers teaching in UK schools than there were in 2010. I don’t have any information as to how accurate this figure is and what the figures are in the constituent nations of the United Kingdom nor how it compares to other subjects, suffice to say it adds to a general impression that the arts are in decline in schools.
Many of the various voices who decry the decline use utilitarian arguments to make their points. I think this is a mistake.
If the arts were to be removed from the curriculum, would it be a bad thing? If we take a strictly utilitarian point of view then the bare bones of the curriculum would suffice. Literacy, Maths and Science are the subjects that seem to rise above all others in our hierarchical view of subject worth. Arguments for drama’s inclusion in the examined curriculum that suggest it is important because the entertainment industry generates a lot of wealth for the country are ridiculous. For a start you don’t need a GCSE in drama in order to become an actor; and though I’m sure studying ballet, piano etc. has a more obvious utility I expect most who study these arts don’t end up adding directly to our GDP through their work in the entertainment world. Some drama teachers don’t even teach drama in schools with the idea of developing actors. Which is where another utilitarian argument comes in, that drama develops the skills that employers want: collaboration, creativity and communication skills. Even if we put aside the notion that skills are not easily transferable, there is a leap of faith to be made that children who have, say, delivered the lines:
All the dead voices.
They make a noise like wings.
They all speak at once.
Each one to itself.
Rather they whisper.
What do they say?
They talk about their lives.
To have lived is not enough for them.
They have to talk about it.
To be dead is not enough for them.
It is not sufficient.
They make a noise like feathers.
Like leaves. (2.98-118)
will be better at working for HSBC, McDonalds or at bricklaying than those who haven’t… The very idea is a bit far fetched.
Another argument goes like this – STEM subjects are important (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) so let’s stick an A in there too because arts are important too. This utilitarian approach falls apart very quickly. In the first place engineering hardly features as part of the curriculum in most schools. Technology is also in a parlous state. In fact STEM is all about S&M, but that makes a rather unfortunate acronym. To chuck in an A, seems to add to an already unsteady mix. Call it what you will but STEAM is not about giving the arts a privileged position in the school curriculum, it is about subsuming some shallow arts practices into an ‘integrated approach to learning’. STEAM is a cop out, entirely devoid of art, it is a corporate middle-manager’s idea of art, and is no way to ensure real arts practice remains part of the school experience.
Another utilitarian argument goes that the arts are important to mental health, they might well be, though there are clearly some people involved in the arts who have mental health problems so whether art makes them better than they would have been or adds to their problems I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.
The arts are important on their own terms. Studying drama might help you become a great director, actor, and/or informed member of the audience. Beyond that the arts are a study on what it is to be human, they tap into our subjective experience of the world and help us to make sense of our lives. This enrichment of the subjective realm is difficult to quantify and by trying we reduce the very art we wish to protect. A school that shrinks the arts provision that its pupils are able to access is making a decision about what they think their priorities should be. If they are guided by utilitarian choices then it is easy for them to cut back on arts programmes because it is far less easy to justify the arts on these terms than, say, Maths. But if they are guided by the desire to educate their pupils as to what is important to them as human beings to make sense of the world and their place within it, then they will do their very best to ensure the arts have a proper and sustainable place in their curriculum.
When I was growing up a significant number of people on the left were intent on destroying capitalism. They loathed its focus on the individual and extolled the virtue of the collective. They were suspicious of new technology, worried that it would take away jobs. They were protective of their own and were intent on battling the bosses. Some looked to Russia for inspiration.
It has fascinated me for sometime how a significant number of contemporary leftists far from wanting to destroy capitalism seem to want to reshape society in its image. Instead of capitalism making the proletariat who are ready to bring down the bourgeoisie the ‘nouveau leftist’ seems content to throw in their lot with global capitalism; they love the tech companies many of which originated in ‘silicon valley’. Instead of finding common collective ground to resist the Californian dream they want to alter our world to fit in with the silicon vision. For many this seems to begin in our schools, where the technophile leftist believes in individualisation, choice, preparing children for a world of uncertainty and having to follow an uberfication of the workforce, neatly summed up as jobs that haven’t been invented yet and twenty first century skills. The only thing that some of our nouveau technophile leftists have in common with their more luddite comrades from the past is that they still look fondly upon Russia.
How can this be?
The leftist technophile leader in a school who introduces iPads to every classroom or insists on a ‘google has changed everything approach’ might not know it but she has connections to Ayn Rand, Lenin, Julian Assange, Trump, Putin, Steve Bannon and others. Arguably she is the unwitting agent of unfettered capitalism and companies which sometimes seem to belong in the pages of 1984 and Brave New World. Far from wanting to bring down these ‘neo-liberal’ global conglomerates, she has been kite marked as an apple and pears educator, a micro-hard missionary or a googley grandee.
Our technophile seems full of contradictions yet if we go back a few years into pre-Russian revolution times we find the roots of this contradiction and how some leftists of today can extol the virtues of global capitalist brands and insist our entire education system should be disrupted to serve a techno capitalist future. Just like some of the old leftists our nouveau leftist is drawn to the works of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin but also, more surprisingly, it is the thinking of the controversial capitalist thinker Ayn Rand who has influenced many of those who argue for new ways of teaching and learning in our classrooms.
Inspired by the book: What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Lenin intended to destroy things as they were and to replace them with a Soviet ‘scientific utopia’ which was to be run by rational ‘technical experts’.
That Leninism was inspired by Chernyshevsky’s book is one thing, for it also to inspire Ayn Rand is another… the arch communist and arch selfish capitalist make, at first sight, a bizarre couple, but what united both, apart from their motherland, is Chernyshevsky’s main character, Rakhmetov a revolutionary who believed in ‘rational egoism’. According to Adam Weiner:
Rational egoism, though actually built on an immovable foundation of determinism, indulged its followers with the idea of endless personal freedom, depicting again and again an almost miraculous process of transformation by which socially inept people became like aristocrats, prostitutes became honest workers, hack writers became literary giants.
Dostoevsky wrote ‘Notes from the Underground’ as an attack on rational egoism:
“who was it who first proclaimed that man does nasty things only because he does not know his true interests, and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his true, normal interests, then man would immediately stop doing nasty things, would immediately become good and noble, because being enlightened and understanding where his true interest lies, he would see that his own interest lies in goodness, and it’s well known that there is not one man who can act knowingly against his own personal gain, ergo, so to speak, he would be compelled to do good deeds? O, the babe! O, the pure, innocent child!”
Lenin also named his first major publication “What is to be Done?” And Rand seemed to borrow from the same source, her heroes in the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged share many traits with Rakhmetov and rational egoism had many features in common with her philosophy of ‘objectivism.’
In 1967 Herman Kahn, a foremost nuclear thinker from the Rand corporation, predicted a world in which ‘pocket phones’ and home computers were commonplace in which each user would have a private file space in a central computer and, according to Thomas Rid in his fascinating book the Rise of the Machines: ‘Computer access would be used to reduce crime, as police can check immediately the record of any person stopped for questioning’. He predicted a rise of bionic machines with creative capacities and ‘as the distinction between man and lesser creatures and machines begins to shade off, the uniqueness of man and the rights that are attributed to this uniqueness may begin to attenuate.’
The writer Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian about how Rand influenced the Silicon valley entrepreneurs:
Rand… might just be “the most influential figure in the industry”. When the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, had to choose an avatar for his Twitter account in 2015, he opted for the cover of The Fountainhead. Peter Thiel, Facebook’s first major investor and a rare example of a man who straddles both Silicon Valley and Trumpworld, is a Randian. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs is said by his Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, to have regarded Atlas Shrugged as one of his “guides in life”
Among these new masters of the universe, the Rand influence is manifest less in party political libertarianism than in a single-minded determination to follow a personal vision, regardless of the impact. No wonder the tech companies don’t mind destroying, say, the taxi business or the traditional news media. Such concerns are beneath the young, powerful men at the top: even to listen to such concerns would be to betray the singularity of their own pure vision. It would be to break Rand’s golden rule, by which the visionary must never sacrifice himself to others.
Seemingly, we find the west coast libertarian children of Rand as the fellow travellers of those who seek to disrupt traditional education with a rational, technical utopia where children are educated by brand new machines.
According to Andrew G Kirk in his extremely interesting book ‘CounterCulture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism’, ‘Cyber-libertarianism’ as a philosophy is a hybrid fusion of left and right, it blends:
the individualism and liberal social values of the counterculture with a traditionally western distrust of big government and centralised authority… [it embraces the] technology unique to their generation while rejecting the national orientation and emphasised on collective achievement that characterised the Right and Left… [They value] individual agency over communal action and [champion] the free flow of information and access to tools as the best means of empowerment and change.
The great American technical companies: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and others have managed to unite libertarian philosophy, green ideology, hippy idealism, into a utopian message of uniting the youth into a sub ‘brave new world’ utopianism where we all choose to indulge our egos in social media bubbles. That they are doing their best to shape schooling around this ego driven individualism should come as no surprise. Technology and schools is a huge market. This market intends to disrupt schools in the same way as UBER disrupt taxi firms.
Perhaps the best example of rational egoism we have today is Julian Assange, described by Hilary Clinton as a ‘kind of nihilistic opportunist’ he is, according to David Aaronovitch:
someone for whom the destruction of existing beliefs and institutions is more important than the question of what replaces them… one man’s disruptor is another man’s innovator…
Aaronovitch goes on to compare this tendency with that of Lenin who represents:
tearing the place up and putting something else there instead…
He adds that Steve Bannon described himself as a Leninist quoting him as having said that:
“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all today’s establishment.”
Of course Assange, it transpires, tried to angle a job allied with the Trump administration. Yet he is also a hero of many leftists – Chomsky, Ken Loach, Michael Moore, Pilger and others have all supported him. Despite Assange’s rational egoism seemingly to know of no boundaries – he maintains support from the left because he is seen as a disruptor of the tradition.
That Russia is accused of being in cahoots with the spreading of misinformation, alternative facts, and various methods of disruption on social media, the leaking of emails, and having connections to Assange and Trump might come as no surprise to students of how modern politics, beyond left and right, is conducted.
But for others ‘progressive cyber libertarianism’ seems to confuse. In a world where dichotomies between left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional, no longer seemed to sum up our politics this ‘new’ politics is difficult to come to terms with.
It disrupts us.
Yet if we go back to ‘What is to be Done?’ we can see how some on the left and the right, have come together through a philosophy imbued with a ‘rational’ use of technology, rampant individualism and a Leninist disruption of much that many held dear. Trumpism and Brexit have been mentioned as symptoms of this desire to disrupt, as have new technologies and the global capitalists who make it all possible.
And it is this reach into the political world that has made some people edgy, yet, at the same time, it is this philosophy that reaches into our classrooms.
In today’s education landscape there are many echoes with the idea of rational egoism and disruption in the work of libertarian individualists and technophile lefties who seem to want to achieve many of the aims articulated in the book ‘What is to be Done?’
The rational argument is steeped in language of the workplace and twenty-first century skills. Personalisation of the curriculum is the lead in for the individual focused ‘egoism’ around which all else must be built. These two pursuits seem to require that the school as currently realised is disrupted. Instead of classrooms looking like they do (the (wrong) argument suggests they are based on a 19th century factory model) these classrooms should be replaced by children roaming in a much freer way – though harnessed to the ‘objective’ machine – wired for google… so rational, so technical… so egocentric… And, with it’s connections to the Californian ideology conversant with Randian objectivism and the countercultural thesis born from publications like the Whole Earth Catalog it is the thinking of technophile ex hippies that has become so mainstream for many who extol the uses of technology and regularly use it shape their world view.
At first sight it seemed bizarre that Alison Peacock the CEO of the College of Teaching found herself talking to a leftist disruptor with an interest in technology, Graham Brown Martin, who works for technology company Pi Top, about the need to disrupt traditional western education models on a programme called ‘Are the Kids Alright?’ ,made by ‘Renegade Inc’. and broadcast on Russia Today, the programme asked:
‘Western education curriculums are still preparing pupils for a standardised world as rising inequality, an ageing population, exploding levels of individual and government debt begin to bite, how does a stagnating education system reinvent itself to equip students to solve these problems and prepare them for a workplace that doesn’t yet exist?’
Our ‘stagnating education system’ needs to be disrupted in the name of future oriented workplaces that don’t yet exist.
Renegade Inc describe themselves as:
…an independent knowledge platform for people who think differently. We find thinkers, writers, leaders and creators in search of the best new ideas, businesses and policies. Many more people are now questioning the conventional wisdom of modern life and asking a simple question: How do I live well during the age of uncertainty? Renegade Inc. was founded to answer some of those questions.
Renegade Inc was co-founded by Megan and Ross Ashcroft, award-winning film producers and co-founders of the advisory and investment business Motherlode.
Megan – was previously the Associate Director of UBS Investment Bank and consultant at Lloyds TSB.
Ross is a strategic advisor to businesses in different sectors and currently advises Asymmetric Return Capital.
Renegade Inc broadcast their programmes on Russia Today.
This is the new politics, in which, in Marx’s well worn phrase: ‘All that is solid melts into air” takes centre stage. With the need to question the conventional wisdom of modern life disruption is the order of the day, technical expertise is needed for the soon to come scientific, pragmatic, free individuals who will be connected to ‘the singular cloud’ in some sort of blissful utopia in which all will have their eyes opened to their true interests and man will ‘immediately stop doing nasty things, would immediately become good and noble, because being enlightened and understanding where his true interest lies, he would see that his own interest lies in goodness’ . That many try to propagate this technological individualism in our schools should come as no surprise, imbued with the ‘neutral’ ‘pragmatic’ language of ‘what our businesses need’ and ‘creativity’ allied to ‘whose knowledge?’ ‘who says what is truth?’ the attempt to disrupt the western education, tradition, is clearly within their remit.
Whether you approve of this political turn or not it is interesting to trace its roots back to Rational Egoism and a Russian book which enabled West to meet East and the ‘Leninist’ Left to find itself in cahoots with the Libertarian, ‘Randian’ Right.
An article in Schools Week reports:
A free school in Newcastle that does not teach humanities, arts or foreign languages has been branded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in its first inspection.
The education watchdog singled out the “unacceptable” absence of subjects at Discovery School, which also omits physical education, in its report from an inspection conducted in May.
“The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” it said.
The school focuses on: ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics.’
STEM, an acronym that implies narrowing of the curriculum, is meant to be all about preparing for life in the modern world, a life of robots, 21st century skills and a global market, it is good to see that OfSted believes there is more to life than just these narrow goals. Some would argue this narrow focus is a result of utilitarian thinking.
Jeremy Bentham, the great utilitarian, devised a curriculum for secondary schooling that emphasised science and technology rather than the subjects of Greek and Latin, a curriculum that would be clearly lacking in breadth. John Stuart Mill, a great admirer of his mentor Bentham, described him as being a great thinker but one who lacked the natural feelings that belong in a human being.
As a child Mill was home educated and kept away from other children by his domineering father. He learnt Greek at the age of three and read a lot of Plato, in the original, by the age of twelve. He was never allowed a holiday as the potential of ‘idleness’ worried his father.
His father encouraged John Stuart to think for himself: “Anything which could be found out by thinking I was never told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself.” But this education, he thought, turned him into: “…a mere reasoning machine.”
Mill later suffered a mental breakdown and became very depressed. He said that he recovered from this crisis by reading the poems of Wordsworth:
They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under the influence.
Mill moved on to Coleridge and was to describe him and Bentham as ‘the two great seminal minds of England in their age’.
Science and technology should be a central part of the curriculum AND so should poetry, the arts, humanities, languages and physical pursuits. This is the right sort of education for the human being. As Charles Darwin put it:
If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry & listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, & may possibly be injurious to the intellect, & more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Where Ofsted says: “The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” they are referring to life beyond the narrow confines of utility and this is to be applauded.
And don’t think that by turning STEM into STEAM you solve this problem. STEAM is a bastardised acronym in which the arts are subsumed into some sort of cross curricular service of commerce, science and/or tech, this is not art, it is subterfuge.
Here are the slides in PDF format from my talk at ResearchEd Rugby on July 1st 2017:
Don’t say goodbye to Mr Chips!!!
Maybe its because I’ve read Lord of the Flies but I’m not sure putting children in charge of education is the best thing for them, our schools, or, indeed, all of our futures. In her ‘Utopian Thinking’ piece in the Guardian, Rachel Roberts argues:
There are a few things we are teaching our children that will be redundant. First, memorising and regurgitating a lot of information – they have information at their fingertips, quite possibly beamed directly into their brains by the time they become active participants in adult society. Second, being told what to do – if they are going to have to resolve problems that have never been faced before they need to know how to think creatively, not follow. And, finally, they do not need to be subordinates on the bottom rung of an authority structure that prepares them simply to obey regardless of the orders – they need to be regarded as the experts that they are.
I don’t know whether Rachel has children or not. Imagine, however, if children were brought up by their parents following this fashionable approach. No learning to read, it might be beamed into your head in the future. No telling you what to do, no toilet training, shit when and where you feel like it: Reductio Ad Abturdum… No following any adult orders at all, just cross that road, I don’t want you to obey me, be the expert that you are, under the wheels of that car.
I have an inkling this is not what she means. I expect her views are not shaped by the home experience, I expect she has a fondness for a degree of adult authority in the home. Though I don’t know. But it is the school that is the target of most of her ire. Roberts is an education consultant.
So what does an education system that isn’t entrenched in top-down authority structures look like? What does it take to get to the point where children are entering our adult world with the wisdom and intuition required to navigate the abundance of information and ride the waves of unexpected new realities?
Democratic education is needed
The answer: put children in charge of schools. Allow them to decide when, where, what, how and with whom they learn; have them resolving real problems day in, day out…
Such a system would be supported by two pillars. The first is collective decision-making, with children fully participating in governing the school community. This should go far beyond a school council. There should be a school meeting where one person has one vote – regardless of age – and where school rules, behaviour management and legislation are the matters at stake.
The second is “self-directed discovery”, with children following their inherently inquisitive nature. Young people are curious, they want to make sense of the world, that’s why they ask questions: “why, why, why … ” A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn. It puts the trust in the child, thus increasing their motivation and allowing them to learn what they need to.
This means rights and responsibilities. A child of any age. Now, with anything like this, it all sounds lovely if children vote the way you want them to. Roberts asks:
Wish some of our “grown up” political decisions were made like this? I’d say children are equipped to be involved, I’d trust them to take me through the challenging times ahead. Wouldn’t you?
But in a true democracy they might vote in ways that you don’t want them to. Just as well meaning ‘liberal’ types have taken part in recent democratic processes and have found that sometimes people with opposing views to them can win and have found it to be a bit of a shock, I wonder what shock awaits the well meaning ‘give the kids power’ education consultant when they find that the children choose to exercise power in ways that they wouldn’t choose. Especially when you consider these are intended to be children who have received little to no authority in their young lives. As William Golding asks
“What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?”
Who will intervene to ensure the behaviour management strategy is not ‘beating up the younger children because they are annoying?’ Where the school rules include sexual favours for certain children or where the right to indoctrinate younger children with terrorist propaganda is flavour of the month with the bigger kids? What if they vote to take away the vote from younger kids?
And why not intervene when a child is exploring online? The self centred discovery of a child lacking control as they are let free in a, so called, ‘adult world’ of depraved images and depictions, arguments and falsities. Roberts is entirely wrong when she states that:
A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn
Because a good education system DOES intervene, it is there to help children navigate a world of complexity and danger, beauty and joy, immorality and judgement, carefree and careful, an education in these things and more needs authority.
And just like the authority of the parent who teaches her child to read, his child to eat well, her child to go to sleep at a sensible hour, this authority is about love.
Exercising authority is about care. Care for our children is part protective and part empowering. This is not a process of throwing babies into a fully adult world. It is one of nurture. Children need to learn that the human condition is not perfect, they must learn how to cope with that realisation. The most caring way of preparing them for this is to educate them properly by teaching them in a structured and thoughtful way rather than neglecting them.
Roberts’ utopian view is a frightening dystopia in which adults lose any semblance of control they have and give it to those who have no experience about what to do with it. Our world is flawed not because we are adults but because we are human. It won’t be made better by putting children in charge, they are human too and, probably, even more flawed than us. Especially if no one has thought about how to best educate them.
In her first major speech as the new HMCI Amanda Spielman said:
And that is why I’m announcing today that I have chosen the curriculum to be the focus of the first big thematic Ofsted review of my tenure. From early years, through to primary, secondary, sixth form and FE colleges, this will explore the real substance of education.
We will look at how schools are interpreting the national curriculum or using their academy freedoms to build new curricula of their own and what this means for children’s school experience. We will look at what makes a really good curriculum. And we will also look at the problems, such as curriculum narrowing, and what we can do to tackle them…
But I do want this review to provide key insights into some of the most important policy debates of the day. How do we best promote social mobility? How do we make sure that every child has the best possible start in life? And can the accountability system play a part in encouraging the development of a rich curriculum, rather than incentivising gaming?
This should be warmly welcomed. If Ofsted can see its role as ensuring that all our children receive a rich curriculum, one that isn’t narrow, and one that celebrates the innovative curricula work that is being done over and above just delivering the national curriculum, then much good can come from it.
What makes a really good curriculum? A good curriculum is a narrative, it has progress at its heart, though its not a linear journey, more of an adventure through which a student learns necessary knowledge and skills, practices and applies the knowledge and skills and begins to understand the logic of the subjects she is studying. She is introduced to great debates, she learns to argue and question, she understands that the great conversations and controversies in the field of study are exciting, fascinating, indeed, invigorating. She learns to develop her voice in that conversation, and whether it be in an essay or exam, performing or making something, she learns how to contribute to that conversation. This is, of course, the trivium model of great curriculum design. But whatever models your school chooses, ones that follow the needs of the subjects you are teaching are essential. An approach to curriculum design that ignores individual subjects and their differences will not help ensuring a rich or valuable experience for the pupils.
The real substance of education – what you teach and how you communicate the adventure and involve students in the conversation – is exactly what schools should be focusing on. As I argued here, a joined up curriculum is essential and, as I argued here, a coherent curriculum is more important, in the first instance, than the quality of teacher. Schools went down a cul de sac with an obsession about ‘outstanding’ teachers when, all along, they should have been looking at the quality of the curriculum being studied. From four years old to nineteen: what and who is being studied, when, why and how, and in what order? Assessment is there to aid the process of learning and rather than schools obsessing about one size fits all data collection, they would do better to have curriculum conversations throughout their institution.
Let’s hope, for schools that hitherto haven’t focused closely on curriculum, Spielman’s focus on curriculum brings about some healthy change.