Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Resistant Materials

The current GCSE Design and Technology courses contain a module, which goes by the name above. When I was teaching I couldn’t help wryly reflecting that this title could as easily be applied to some of the students who were studying this and other subjects. This sometimes led me to reflect on the meaning of the word ‘education’. I knew for many years that the root of the word was the latin ‘ex ducare’ but did not really understand the connection between this and the reality of modern education. I knew that ‘ducare’ meant to lead as in Mussolini’s title ‘Il Duce’ or the leader, the equivalent of Herr Hitler’s Der Führer. It all felt rather Roman, rather martial not to say fascist. I also knew that Ex meant ‘out’, so education is, in some sense a leading out. This made me think of youths with willow switches tapping the flanks of cows as they led them down country lanes from field to field. What did all of this have to do with what I did in my classroom? After many years I began to formulate an answer to this question.

The thing about childhood is that the child, by its nature and through no fault of its own, cannot even begin to guess at the riches available to humankind and what resides in the adult world. A child who grows up imprisoned in one room as, in some ghastly reported cases they have been, for whatever reason, is unable to even imagine what is beyond the walls that confine it. If you asked that child where it wished to live it would probably say that it was happy to stay exactly where it was. Humans are, perhaps, naturally neurotic. As adults, experienced in the real world we would understand what a tragic loss allowing that choice would be. And this, I realised, was where education comes in. Children are, by definition, in confined and restricted mental spaces. Why wouldn’t they be? We know of wide-open expanses where their spirits might run freer and happier in ways that they cannot even imagine. This fact authorises us to lead them out from small fields with limited horizons into open plains with wide horizons. This fact is also what gives teachers the right to assume they have something to teach their charges and permits them to proceed with confidence. Or, at least, it used to be.

Unfortunately, perhaps through a fear of the weight of responsibility involved, many adults and much of society has sought to evade this duty. It has done so by putting something apparently more virtuous in its place. This thing is the child-centred approach, which appears, in an admirably democratic manner, to accord new and extraordinary rights of self-determination to children. Children are no longer told – “put your coat on, you’re going somewhere new and exciting.” Instead they are consulted on the matter and, if they prefer to stay exactly where they are because they can’t even envisage what that new and exciting thing might be, stay where they are is what they do.

Let me give you an example from the education of the palate. Some of my friends brought their children up eating more or less what the adults providing for them ate. The children were not even consulted, indeed, the idea of choice was not even on the table, if you’ll excuse the pun. Olives and mussels were placed on the plates of five year olds who greedily and hungrily devoured them, the question of rejecting them not even entering their heads. Other friends consulted their offspring tremblingly, according enormous respect to them as though they were the children of emperors. The result? These children diet on four items amongst which number Jamie Oliver’s bugbear turkey twizzlers and Heinz tomato soup and, as they grow older they assert their right to stick to this limited fare as if they are Emmeline Pankhurst casting her vote for the first time. They are standing on their right to self-determine encouraged by their applauding parents. Had they been asked why they allowed this the adults in question would have spouted some mantra about their reverence for their child and the wonder of its being. Now, I’m not doubting the reverence we should accord to human children and the wonder of their being. However, as their parent, a creature deserving similar reverence, who has traversed the tunnel of childhood, I feel uniquely qualified to decide what is best for my little wunderkind. What has happened with the latter group of parents described above is, in truth, that they have colluded and conspired with their child in ensuring that that child’s palate remains primitive and unsophisticated. They have taken their lead from the person worst qualified to decide what is best – the child. As a result, when that child reaches its majority it will have a hard time having to relearn how to eat in normal company without being considered rather jejune. In other, words, it will need to go through the education process it avoided at an earlier stage.

Turning back to school education we can see a similar picture. Children are offered fare, which will not challenge or disturb them. The learning of what is difficult or demanding is avoided even though it pays off the biggest dividends in the long term and they are encouraged to participate in trite and infantile activities that ape television programmes like ‘The Apprentice’. All of this because it is felt likely to appeal to them. The same applies to the use of technology in schools. The story goes that, because children are glued to screens in most of their free time, the school must ape this dynamic in classrooms if education is to be achieved. A Foreign Language teacher who suggests that foreign vocabulary and grammar can be taught to charges who are naturally hard-wired to the acquisition of language using a blackboard and chalk or that it is imperative that such language be taught will be told by a snappy tech-guy who can’t speak any language other than estuary English and Python, that if you use an app on their phones with bright cute pictures of baguettes and cross-channel ferries that will do the trick far better. Because that’s what children demand and the lead must be taken from children. It all sounds very plausible but, really, it’s just giving the appearance of success rather than the real thing.

Thus, a strange inversion has occurred in the educational world and perhaps beyond in the family and in society. The whole idea of authority has been usurped. Adults have sheepishly abdicated their positions and have colluded in the enthroning of little Jimmy and draping him in ermine (sorry if this is all beginning to sound rather Shakespearean!). The whole idea of ‘leading out’ has been abandoned and replaced with a kind of picnic held exactly where the children want it to be held which is usually exactly where they happen to find themselves, it being the case that children can be rather conservative by nature and dislike moving out of comfort zones into the unknown.

This has all been endorsed and given credence, leaving teachers quaking unconfidently lest their attempts to convey difficult disciplines (which is what they thought they were paid to do) offend against the sensibilities of their pupils. The result is, of course, the dumbing down of society (except perhaps at Eton and its equivalents who are less constrained to swallow such ridiculous contemporary orthodoxies) and the tide of student illiteracy that laps at the doors of our Universities.

The Resistant Materials have been supported, by schools and parents, and are successful in their heroic resistance against the unmannerly imposition on them of being educated. And its all styled as though it’s a case of ‘Liberty leading the People’.

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