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Two Imperatives in Education: change of culture v. transmission of the status quo

by Chris Ormell

By an ‘imperative’ in education I mean an overall thrust or direction someone is trying to impose upon the process. Should education’s main thrust today be to open the eyes of youngsters to what is wrong with society, in order to provoke them to new ideas, new perspectives, new goals, a new ‘culture’ in fact? Or should education be regarded first and foremost as the transmission of what is perennially right, and therefore throw its emphasis heavily behind maintaining the essence of the existing culture?

Both answers are often presented by their protagonists with the kind of heightened feeling and emphasis one would associate with a holy grail. People get very involved in educational goals – probably they link them directly to what they would like their own children to receive. They are apt to paint the remedy they support in glowing colours, while at the same time blackening the alternative answer in every possible way. One result of this tendency is that the educational debate, especially when re-enacted in the media, escalates from a drama into a crisis.

Many good, sincere, thoughtful people are in despair about the state of the world. They see ‘our only hope’ for a ‘better world’ in educating a new generation to think in fundamentally new ways, to break out of the conceptual ruts in which our society seems to have got itself well and truly stuck. This, they feel, is the overriding imperative. They are quite sure that “It is no good raising new cohorts of little conformists!” What we need, they are apt to say, are young people so ‘advanced’ in their thinking, and so ‘angry’ about the world they see around them, that they will take on the enormously daunting task of fundamental change.

But there is another group of equally sincere, thoughtful people who take a totally different view. They, too, are mostly in despair about the state of the world. But they see a world in a state of cultural disintegration, and a slate of changes which are manifestly for the worse, being passedoff as being for the better. It is quite alarming, this group will tell you, that there is a manic desire for ‘change’ abroad, when staying-where-we-are is bound to be much a more satisfactory option.

The two ‘holy grails’ offer determined, diametrically contradictory, imperatives for education. They have been in a state of collision, now, for thirty years: like two giant nebulae in outer space – creating vast amounts of heat and passionately radiated emotion, but I’m afraid, singularly few constructive suggestions to help the children actually sitting in their desks and hoping somehow to get through this disputed, smoking, dialectically bruised, broken-theorylittered battle zone.

For most of the last thirty years the imperativefor- change was dominant or very influential in the corridors of power, in academia, and in fact in most places where people were trying to think about the education ‘our children really need’. But during the last few years the situation has changed dramatically, and now the stalwarts for change are almost nowhere to be seen. They are scattered and demoralised like a defeated army. They have been ousted from the high ground, and while some of them still hold their previous posts, they are mostly taking a pretty low profile. They are keeping their heads down, and hoping that the imperative-for-conservation tendency will reduce itself to absurdity, by endorsing visibly simplistic ‘reforms’ and disastrously unworkable policies.

The stalwarts for change are not ‘doing’ very much. They are just sitting tight, and hoping that what they regard as the the virus of conformityoriented education will burn itself out.

Making Sense of the Battle of the Imperatives

There is a relative dearth of people who are willing to take seriously the issues involved in modern education, but who want to reflect more deeply on the underlying issues before plunging into hasty commitments.

The battle of the imperatives is, in fact, a typical modern practical philosophical-type controversy. The gist of the case on both sides seems to be unarguable. The world is, pretty evidently, in an awful mess, so if we are going to sort it out we need to adopt some sort of fundamental change in our thinking and ideas. The last thing we want to do in this situation, though, is to throw away the legacy of valuable insights and disciplines we inherit from the past. What worked in the past, in fact, is the only basis we have to build on. Bill Clinton made this specific point in relation to the ills of America in his inaugural address.

The widespread realisation that the imperative-for-change does need to be constrained to preserve what worked in the past, is for many people the best thing that has happened in education for years. There was a great danger in the ‘progressivist’ decades that the imperative-for-change would get out of hand. Probably most people would say that it did get out of hand. I think they are right; all kinds of things were done which do not appear, in retrospect, to have been for the better. At this point progressivists are inclined to try to re-write history and to make astonishing claims, such as the claim that only one school in ten ever succumbed to progressivism. This is a good example of the adage that one can appear to prove anything with statistics. The fallacy involved here is that of adopting a precise yardstick to quantify ‘progressivism’. Everyone who lived through that era knows that progressivism was the dominant imperative at the time, that it seeped into every corner of the educational process, and that large numbers of even more disastrous mistakes were only narrowly averted.

A Swing From Nonsense A to Nonsense B?

But let’s be wary about saying that it is now the anti-progressivists’ ‘turn’! It is much healthier in my opinion to have these elemental imperatives locked in mutual opposition than to let one of them dominate the system. I’m afraid that anti-progressivism has recently got so strongly into the ascendant that there is a great danger of it inflicting a new swathe of hitherto unthinkable mistakes onto education. The script which is now uncannily working itself out seems to be based on a manic desire to re-instate a supposed golden age (the 1950s). Anyone who took part in the curriculum debates at the end of the 1950s knows that this is an illusion. By 1959 the mathematics curriculum was visibly in crisis: it was that crisis which ‘let in’ the disastrous mistake of ‘New Mathematics for Schools’, but one cannot close one’s eyes to the fact that the system was in trouble.

Today the circumstances of the debate have changed. The National Curriculum is a constraint that most of us accept in principle because we know that we must convey to the average child that there is a huge, powerful, infinitely complicated world out there, and that it is dangerous not to master the main codes needed to tackle it. There is a risk, however, that the National Curriculum will become a hated straitjacket and will succeed only in subverting its own aims. Anti-progressivists often seem to be operating in a way which implies that they think they can do no harm. But the ‘harm’ they can do is incalculable. They can put children off education in any genuine sense of that much misunderstood term. They can stifle creativity in children and hence reduce our society to a lumpen mass of people without flair, without sensibility, with little genuine respect for civil order, and without the kind of bold invention which led to brilliant coups like Wolfe’s attack on Quebec, Brunel’s iron ships, Barnes Wallis’ R100 and Mike Burrough’s Lotus superbike.

Is There A Way Forward?

In many ways we are like a crew in a spacecraft hoping to arrive home safely by operating the two main controls, A and B, which we find on the control panel. Pressing button A alone will send us off on a trajectory which eventually hits the Sun. Pressing button B (the retrorocket) alone will send us crashing into the ground. We can only hope to negotiate re-entry successfully by using a very skillful mixture of the two buttons, sometimes alternately and sometimes in combination.

The gist of the problem is that too much conformity-testing – which seems simplistically to be what we need – will lead (like the retrorocket) to a crash. The testing is supposed to be necessary to ensure that the National Curriculum has been properly delivered to the children. But adopting the National Curriculum always carried a risk: that of putting children off education. The National Curriculum with excessive testing may begin to take on the oppressiveness of state indoctrination: and we know what happened as a result of state indoctrination in Manila, Teheran, Bucharest, Prague, etc.

Three things are missing from the spacecraft metaphor. First, we need a chart of the path we are trying to fly. Without a chart there is very little chance indeed that we will get the mixture right. The ‘chart’ we need is an adequate philosophy of education. Chesterton said years ago that no one had found a way properly to express the requirements of the modern world in an educational scheme. He was right then, and even more depressingly, he remains right today. There has been far too little philosophical effort directed to education during the present century. It is, in many ways, the no.1 problem of the modern world, but few of the best minds have given it their full attention.

Second, we need sufficient fuels in the tanks. The ‘fuels’ come in two kinds: (a) a sense of hope, positivity and inspiration (and more generally ‘political will’), and (b) the financial resources to carry out the task. Both (a) and (b) are sources of power (motivation) to get things done, always assuming of course that we have discovered what needs to be done.

Third, we need instruments to give us the kind of feedback necessary to keep on track. The ‘instrument’ we chiefly need, in my opinion, is a regular, reliable, usable kind of testing, not for ‘knowledge’ or ‘skills’ as such, but for the liveliness and genuine effectiveness with which the child can use her knowledge and skills in new, previously unseen, problem contexts. Genuine ‘knowledge’ in a microelectronic age is rather elusive. It is certainly not embodied in drilled, rote-learnt or memorised ‘information’. Genuine ‘skill’, on the other hand, is inexorably disappearing, as every area of modern life is being systematical ly de-skilled. What increasingly takes the place of ‘knowledge’ is an awareness of the shape and density of reality in a given area. ‘Skill’ becomes increasingly simply a zest to achieve results of a particular kind. (You don’t need much ‘skill’ to achieve them, but you do need to want to do it, and to be prepared to struggle to get it right.)

© C. Ormell 1994

Together with colleagues I am currently forming a group called PER (for ‘Philosophic and Educational Renewal’). Our first ‘theme’ meeting will be at the University of North London on June 25th 1994. Mary Midgley is the keynote speaker. If you would like to join the group, write to me at the School of Education, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ or ring 0508 480653

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