In my last post, I looked at some of the reasons why Govian traditionalism appears to have taken the upper hand in education debates. In this blog I shall suggest some ways forward for the progressive left.
What should the progressives do about the apparent current success of the Conservative education policy/philosophy?
The first thing would be to not play into the Govian’s hands: stop attacking ideas and people that are actually pretty sensible. Let’s just accept that poor behaviour is a big concern for teachers and students. Let’s just accept that teachers telling students stuff isn’t always a bad idea. Let’s also accept that most teachers are fed up with governments messing around with stuff, and they’d just like to be able to get on with their jobs – so don’t suggest that the best thing to do would be to overhaul the system again. And don’t attempt to fix everything by throwing technology at it. I like technology, some of my best friends are technologies, but it’s pretty hard to do well.
Let’s find the real weaknesses in the Govian philosophy and build from there:
Govian traditionalism is a modern twist on the mechanistic visions of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes viewed people as glorified mechanical clocks. To be a rational human being was basically to be a working clock. And being rational, people would, for their own benefit, submit to the rule of a King. The traditionalists have updated this view of people, and replaced clocks with computers, and a King with Nick Gibb.
This Neo-Hobbesian approach has three obvious consequences. Firstly, education is reduced to information transfer. A good curriculum is one that transfers the most information – or, to use the traditionalist’s jargon, is ‘knowledge-rich’. And we can study the effectiveness of the methods of information transference by applying cognitive science.
Secondly, the system is judged entirely on inputs and outputs. It is a functional conception of human beings. If the information transfer doesn’t work as predicted, then we remove the malfunctioning device from the system in order that it causes no wider disruption.
Thirdly, Gove, Gibb or the other policy wonks scuttling about the corridors of power, appear to perceive themselves to stand outside this system, and like super-intelligent Laplacian demons, are able to predict and control its movements. Hence the strong resemblance to Marxist materialism. Govian traditionalism is fundamentally paternalistic: since only they, as the almighty architects, are in a position to judge the outputs, they are the arbiters of values, of good and bad, and we should all be grateful that they impose their authority on us for our benefit.
We can see this philosophy borne out in the top-down managerialism of the Multi-Academy Trust system so beloved of the Tories. Teachers are losing their autonomy and are being treated as mere conduits of information.
The left and centre need a coherent and contrasting position – a message as simple and clear as that of the Tories that appeals to the real concerns of teachers.
If I were in charge of the political messaging for the left and centre, I would focus on pulling the rug from under the Tories by using their own arguments against them: The Govian account of education professes to improve opportunity and ‘level-up’ society, when in fact, with its central planning by a tyrannical minority, it has set us on the road to serfdom. It is an abject rejection of the value of autonomy that the Conservative party holds dear.
And if the Govians think they’re all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips for harking back to the olden days, then let’s go oldener. Let’s replace Gove’s Hobbesian vision of an educational Leviathan with Rennaisance Humanism. I’m not talking about the more recent godless movement, I’m talking about the Umanisti, the primarily Italian scholars who pursued a rebirth of a cultural ideal of life. A vision that would inform, not only scholarly contemplation of texts, but also technical education.
(Just so we don’t upset religious groups, I’d suggest calling it Educational Umanism – it also appeals to my cockney roots.)
The left and centre should be forcefully making the case for the autonomy of the education system, and education itself as a humanistic study that cannot be absorbed into a naïve and Hobbesian unified science.
A truly progressive government would hand control of education over to a cross-party group, and protect it from endless meddling. Teachers should be enjoying freedom from the constant interventions by arrogant government and quasi-non-government wonks.
I’m not suggesting that schools shouldn’t be subject to scrutiny, of course they should. That is what education is – the scrutiny of ideas and actions. Education should be scrutinised by education; knowledge by knowledge; thinking by thinking. The cross-party group would be like a Supreme court, adjudicating on only the most contentious of cases.
What is it that we want to know about schools? Of course, we want to know how to make schools better. But better is not defined according to one single metric, or even a massive complex of relationships. As I’ve argued before, the meaning of better is its use within the various contexts, the myriad language games which make up discussions regarding school improvement. It is utterly foolish and nonsensical to attempt to force a word to mean the same thing in every application of it.
Yet this is the dominant political approach: to scrutinise education by creating targets and league tables and by having bizarre Ofsted inspections that no one really understands. This is the equivalent of measuring the length of a table by licking it. You find the length of a table by measuring its length – you find out whether a school is behaving in a justified manner by seeing whether it can be justified.
Education is a humanistic discipline, as such it deals with people, not as machines, but as rational actors. Being rational doesn’t mean behaving like computers, it means having reasons, having justifications, whether they be cultural, historical, or social. To treat education as autonomous means to be attentive to individuals, their wants, motives, and reasons. We don’t learn about these from randomised controlled trials and discussions of the limitations of working memory, we learn about them through the study of history, of novels. The axis on which education turns must be moved from data, from information, to meaning and understanding.
To believe in the autonomy of education requires the opposite to the Govian top-down approach, it requires the principle of subsidiarity – issues must be dealt with at the most local level that is consistent with their resolution. A MAT CEO can harp on about how they do it for the kids, but when they’re overseeing 30,000 students, it’s just guff.