Education is valuable. Just because...

9 reasons to value academic education...

It was the debate on education between Debra Kidd here, Michael Fordham here and Disillusioned Idealist here that got me thinking.

Education is valuable...

1. Because education for its own sake is valuable

There is much disagreement currently on education’s purpose.  Debra Kidd asks, “What is the point of education? To pass tests? To get work? To be creative? To be happy? To be wise? To change the world?

David Didau outlines some of the debate here.

Perhaps education is just valuable?  As Michael Fordham writes: “the opportunity to learn knowledge for its own sake.” 

In Knowledge and the Future School, Michael Young suggests that the main purpose of education is “to enable all students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their experience,” while in Trivium 21C Martin Robinson writes, “In schools, the journey should be towards wisdom and the need for knowledge via wonder and curiosity.”  R H Tawney wrote in 1922 that education’s main aim is “to develop the faculties which, because they are the attribute of man, are not peculiar to any particular class or profession of men.”

This view is not uncontested.  Bernstein here criticised ‘autonomous’ pedagogy: “its arrogance lies in its claim to moral high ground and to superiority of its culture, its indifference to its own stratification consequences, its conceit in its lack of relation to anything other than itself, its self-referential abstracted autonomy.”  However, as Michael Fordham points out here it is, “the best means of making sense of the world beyond our immediate experience.”   

2. Because learning is interesting

Seriously, why are we educationalists if we don’t believe this?  Does Ken Robinson’s criticism of academic “boring stuff ” not show a failure of imagination?

There is inherent enjoyment in the pursuit of knowledge.  Willingham writes in Why Students Don’t Like School that, “people actually enjoy mental activity.”  In 2009 there were an estimated 22,445 pub quizzes a week, and in America in 2010 History was the biggest selling non-fiction book genre with 31% of the market.   

The stereotype of academic learning as ‘boring’ does immense damage, excluding the uninitiated from the joys of knowledge.

3. Because education is more than training

Education is becoming increasingly instrumentalised as a preparation for exams or the workplace.

Vocational schooling is not new, neither is it the preserve of the working class.  Into the C20th, women received vocational lessons based around domestic skills or polite ‘accomplishments.’  Males from the dominant social classes also received vocational education at institutions such as Sandhurst and Haileybury.  Vocational schooling of this kind had the effect of reinforcing stereotypes.  Many of us receive vocational training (such as a PGCE) before starting our careers.  Therefore does it not create a false and damaging dichotomy to suggest that some children are ‘vocational’ whilst others are ‘academic?’   

Demos argue here that education should be “more focused on equipping [students] with the capabilities to progress through the labour market.”  Although in Coming of Age, Woodin et al. suggest that, “contemporary impulses have aimed to reconnect education with the experience of work,” this can be set in a historical context.   In 1963 the Newsom Report recommended that, “fuller use should be made of the natural interests of older boys and girls in the work they will eventually undertake,” and in 1922 fear was expressed that expanding secondary education would create ‘a large class of persons whose education is unsuitable for the employment they eventually enter.’

Michael Fordham writes here, “it is not that I think vocational subjects are bad or damaging... but rather that I think secondary school is not the right time for these... I see it as the primary responsibility of employers to be training people in how to do jobs.”

Bernstein here criticises “sinister” ‘market orientated’ pedagogies “allegedly” promoting relevant skills, attitudes and technology which, “allow for an almost perfect reproduction of the hierarchy of the economy within the school... the explicit commitment to greater choice by parents and pupils is not a celebration of a participatory democracy but a thin cover for the old stratification of schools and curricula... Vocationalism appears to offer the lower working class a legitimation of their own pedagogic interests in a manual-based curriculum, and in so doing appears to include them as significant pedagogic subjects, yet at the same time closes off their own personal and occupational possibilities. ”

Michael Fordham suggests here that, “Those who advocate bringing ‘vocational’ education earlier and earlier into the school curriculum are robbing children of their childhood, taking away those few precious years when children have the opportunity to learn knowledge for its own sake;” however, academic subjects have themselves become instrumentalised – a ‘flight path’ to examinations.  Young believes that our emphasis on testing means that “getting a higher grade can take over any intrinsic interest [students] might have in the subject they are studying.”   

4. Because education is more than ‘success’

I jog every morning.  I don’t know (or care) whether I’m ‘successful’ at it.  I haven’t assessed my progress against that of others.  I do it because it’s good for me to exercise and, because I value it, I’ve learned to enjoy it.  What if training our minds intellectually (and our bodies physically) is not about being ‘successful’, but just about ‘being’?  Michael Fordham points out here that, “the vast majority of children are capable of learning the academic disciplines.”   All learning is successful by merit of the fact that it has occurred.  Perhaps we need to celebrate the ‘doing’ rather than imposing criteria of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ on students.

5. Because knowledge is not middle class

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose, reviewed here studies “the impact of a working-class desire to consume a culture normally associated with those who were traditionally highly educated... the dictum ‘knowledge is power’ really meant something to the pre-twentieth-century worker.”  Rose argues that, “If the dominant class defines high culture, then how do we explain the passionate pursuit of knowledge by proletarian autodidacts?”

Michael Fordham points out that over the C20th, “possibilities available only to the elites [have] been brought within the reach of all.”  Young argues that access to this ‘powerful’ knowledge is “the ‘right’ of all pupils as future citizens.”

However, Debra Kidd rightly reminds us that, “we cannot underestimate the pull of belonging and of community.”  Bernstein here suggests that “the meaning structure of the school is... imposed upon rather than integrated within, the form and content of [the working class] world.” 

Research here found that “negative attitudes [to education] were not based on children feeling that education does not matter, but rather on lack of confidence in their own ability to thrive within the system.” 

How do we construct academic curricula that authentically detangle ‘powerful knowledge’ from the stereotype that it is solely ‘knowledge for the powerful’?

6. Because knowledge is an entitlement

Disillusioned Idealist criticises, “a heroic narrative of ‘saving’ children from themselves.”

However, Michael Fordham points out that, “those children who have the opportunity to study academic subjects taken away from them at increasingly younger ages are those from less wealthy or lower social class backgrounds.”  Young sees the curriculum as “a guarantor of equality – at least equality of opportunity...[that] must be stipulated independently of the social composition of pupils.”

Ken Baker’s criticism of the EBacc reported here by Andrew Old is that it, “is very similar to the exam I sat...[that] wasn’t broad enough for most children... I was part of the privileged elite.”  Andrew Old describes this as, “utter contempt for the academic aspirations of anyone outside [Baker’s] own social class.” 

7. Because 14 is young

In the Middle Ages it was normal to be apprenticed around the age of 14.  This was also the school leaving age (1921-47).

Chris Woodhead argued here that the leaving age should be reduced to 14 to help ‘non-academic’ students learn a trade, while Michael Wilshaw argues here that students should be streamed at 14 based on their “aptitude for” academic or vocational education.  These concerns fit in a historical context; the raising of the school leaving age to 16 came about despite, “intransigent opposition among those who were extremely doubtful about the educability of all young people” [Woodin et al.]

What price choice?  Young asks: “by taking the different interests, motivations and abilities of students into account, and modifying the criteria from those of ‘powerful knowledge’, do such curricular decisions still represent the principles of treating all students equally? ...If we are serious about educational equality we have to be serious about curriculum justice.”  Martin Roberts points out here that “we are no nearer to creating vocational qualifications...‘with parity of esteem’ than we were in 1980,” while Carolyn Roberts writes here of the ‘shadow’ side of personalised curriculums “about which some children [are] given no choice at all [and which are] useful for the school’s performance but not the child’s future.” 

The 2011 Wolf Report states that, “We have no business, as a society, placing 16 year olds, let alone 14 year olds, in tracks which they cannot leave. “

8. Because ignorance is dangerous

Is there something intrinsically valuable in academic subjects?  Disappointed Idealist asks, “Are we really suggesting that if a student chooses to drop history as a subject then they’ll be intellectually, socially and professionally crippled for the rest of their life?”

Basil Bernstein criticised the exclusion of students from academic disciplines that are the “public forms of understanding through which a society has conversations about itself and its future.”  Martin Robinson writes that, “Schools should ensure that the curriculum they provide reflects the greatest that culture has to offer.” 

It is another question as to whether academic subjects currently deliver this: Note the transformation of History into Hitler-y in recent years.

‘Ignorance’ is not a fashionable word; nevertheless it exists and is dangerous to, “understanding the human condition” [Martin Robinson] as demonstrated by this ignorant reportage by Fox News.

9. Because I can value education from where I am

Do I want to, in Debra Kidd’s words, “make every one like us”?  Disappointed Idealist is scathing of ‘traditional subject evangelists’ who believe that, “you should like what I like, and you’ll be clever and successful too.

The second charge is easier to refute than the first.  I’m not sure I’d recommend teaching as the best route to being ‘clever and successful.’  However, I do find a deep joy in using my brain and acquiring knowledge that deepens my understanding of the world, which I wish to share with young people.

Care, support, understanding and belonging are important qualities of schools but is it enough to say, “the rest can follow?”  Carolyn Roberts writes that, “it is a privileged child indeed who can guarantee that home will be a sufficient foundation for his knowledge of the world.”  Given the heartbreaking home circumstances outlined in Debra Kidd’s blog, is a good academic education not all the more valuable?  Having said this, can we genuinely describe the current highly instrumentalised examination flight path that passes for learning as a good academic education?


Posted on January 16, 2015 .