Unwillingly to School

By Rankin, Aidan | Contemporary Review, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Unwillingly to School


Rankin, Aidan, Contemporary Review


'Concentrate, boy, or you'll end up working on that building site,' barked my Latin master, a man who despite the best of intentions lacked what are now described as 'people-management-skills'. I was fourteen at the time, bored almost to distraction with a Bowdlerised version of The Satiricon that made Trimalchio's festivities seem like a cocktail party in New Malden. (I had borrowed the unexpurgated Penguin version from my father's shelf years earlier and read it with precocious understanding.) When I replied irritably that at least the building workers outside had fresh air and exercise, I was abruptly shifted to the front of the room. Fresh air and exercise did exist in that school, but they were called 'sport' - a system of ritualised punishment intended to undermine rather than instil a love of the outdoors.

I cite this small incident because it was so typical of my encounter with formal education. When I say this to my friends, they respond with disbelief; an understandable reaction since I managed to pass a few exams and later completed a PhD. Yet with the exception of some enlightened and lively teaching in my sixth-form years, in subjects to which I was naturally attuned, school was for me a counter-educational experience, not fostering interests but killing them off through a mind-numbingly dull process of rote-learning and regurgitation. Anything I learned in those years, with the exception of crib-sheet design, was learned outside school hours.

Last year Britain experienced an equally mind-numbing General Election, in which politicians from both established parties mouthed tedious platitudes about 'our children's future'. Since there is now less than an inch between them on Europe, Law and Order and obeisance to 'market forces', the pro-education rhetoric is stronger than ever. All speak of 'raising standards', of 'competitiveness', of 'extending opportunity'. 'New' Labour, in particular, seem to regard formal education as the linchpin of their dynamic, classless, genderless meritocracy. The idea that there is already too much formal education, and that this poses a threat to creativity, individuality and freedom of thought is dismissed contemptuously as 'progressive'. An interesting feature of the so-called education debate is the way in which this word, like 'fascist' ten years ago, or 'liberal' in the United States today, has become a generalised political insult.

Most of us can recite examples of absurd behaviour by trendy teachers. I have known children in one London borough who have been conditioned to say 'milk-person', 'police-person' and 'post-person', although the incidences of 'political correctness' I have seen at university level are far more destructive and insidious. More seriously, Melanie Phillips has incisively exposed the culture of levelling-down imposed on the children of the poor by left-wing educationalists, in her recent book, All Must Have Prizes, reviewed in the February 1997 issue of Contemporary Review. In the adversarial culture of British politics, it is automatically assumed that the answer is a return to 'traditional methods', with a technocratic cutting edge. Despite the relentless paring down that affects everyone from soldiers to social workers, it is taken as read that there will be more formal education for the foreseeable future. More formal education has so far always meant more exams, more relentless pursuit of 'qualifications' and greater cultural uniformity. The current enthusiasm for 'homework clubs' or a streamlined National Curriculum makes for good slogans, but does little to address regional needs, local peculiarities, individual or cultural differences.

Belief in the formal education panacea is not as fervent as the pundits and 'focus groups' would have us believe. At one level, scepticism about schooling is confused with philistine 'indifference', at another, disruptive behaviour by a minority of pupils is blamed on the permissive society, television, single mothers, anything other than formal schooling itself and its lack of relevance to many children or their environment. …

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