Lies, Damned Lies and Formal Education – Part 2

Here’s part one for anyone playing catchup.

I had a fascinating conversation with a mate of mine last week, the point of which was to try and understand the purpose and meaning of formal education. Like myself, he had been told from a young age that turning up at school would enable him to secure employment later in life. Yet, as he astutely observed at the time, this was something that was required of everyone, not an optional extra, a test of parental responsibility that kids could dip in and out of. Where was the competitive advantage in that? Nobody attending school would be just as level a playing field as everyone turning up, pretending to be interested to varying degrees, so why not do this instead?

When I look back, it would be if anything a tad on the generous side to suggest that ten per cent of what I learned in the four walls of the classroom has been of any use whatsoever in later life. Even that figure is inflated slightly by my genuine interest in speaking a foregin language, the breaking of the English arrogance in this area perhaps being one of the few positive things a core curriculum has done. Much of what I did reasonably well was not the development of new skill, but a mental workout of something either self-taught or god-given, while being useless at and/or uniterested in something tends to render it quickly forgotten.

The problem with this critique of formal education is the lack of an obvious alternative. As a general rule, people lack the confidence to find their own solutions, having been conditioned from a young age to ‘respect the ref’ and leave the state to decide what is best for them. As a result, playing truant and opting out of school tends to be the preserve of those with wider problems, rather than an expression of a wish to fulfil educational needs elsewhere. It would be interesting to gauge the reaction to ‘truants’ hanging out in libraries, museums and studying topics of genuine interest rather than the usual ‘dropout pastimes’ of drink, drugs and underage pregnancy.

It’s probably only at degree level that education becomes about something resemblng genuine insight into a subject, rather than the robotic exercise of memorising facts, dates and the names of places sufficiently well to pass what feels like a never-ending series of tests and exams. Hardly surprising then that universities and businesses frequently complain of the rescue job they have to do on those who left formal education at sixteen or eighteen. The reality is that it’s no preparation whatsoever for real life, certainly not fit for purpose in the modern world, its importance over-stated by teachers looking for job security and parents seeing the educational success or failure of their offspring as some sort of reflection on them.

The quality of the debate around education in Britain is pisspoor and has been for some time. The key questions here, about its purpose and meaning both to the young people involved and wider society, are frequently ducked in favour of a populist mantra about ‘standards’ which gave us such strokes of genius as a rigid curriculum and league tables. Once we’ve agreed that everyone should be basically numerate and literate at sixteen, is there scope for considerable flexibility beyond that? Should the value of what young people learn be measured solely by its potential economic value, or is there something about knowledge and personal development that cannot be quantified in pounds and pence?

Are schools and colleges merely a means of keeping young people off the streets, while giving mum and dad the security of knowing where they are while at work? And would it be beneficial for all involved to stop lying about the fundamental importance of formal education, i.e. that success makes the world your oyster and failure equals condemnation to, at best, fifty years of dead-end employment? Real life simply does not work like that and there is a cruelty to this form of manipulation that is frequently applied to young minds, building up senses of hope and fear that turn out to be equally misplaced.

If we see education as an argument in which the ultimate pursuit is the truth, then perhaps we should regard the understanding of its meaning in the modern world as the culmination of a similar journey. Take care, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.



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