The Dangers of Processed Education

Both the so-called progressives and the conservative educators regard education instrumentally. That is why they regard the knowledge content of education as far less significant than the teaching of skills.

One of the most striking features of the debate on education is that despite the numerous controversies surrounding the curriculum, when it comes to the fundamentals the rival factions actually converge. Calls by the left to make the curriculum more relevant echo the demand of the right to make schooling more pertinent for the world of work. Both the so-called progressives and the conservative educators regard education instrumentally to the point where they regard its content with indifference. That is why they regard the knowledge content of education as far less significant than the teaching of skills (soft skills in the case of the left and practical vocational one in the case of the right). Insofar as the question of standards is raised what’s at issue is not the academic content of schooling but the skills (particularly literacy and numeracy) possessed by students. The idea that education is important in its own right is mainly expressed as a rhetorical gesture before moving on to the serious business of considering its relevance for dealing with the problems that children will face in the future.

The casual manner with which education is regarded was demonstrated in 2007 when the British Labour Government split what was once the Department of Education into the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. The excising of the word “education” was by no means a Freudian slip. It indicated the lack of cultural affirmation in policy-making circles for education—particularly academic and knowledge based leaning. What it also indicates is that over the decades, education has been transformed into an instrument of public policy for achieving objectives that are entirely external to it. In current times education is expected to put right the failures of adult society. Consequently education is meant to transform apathetic youngsters into responsible citizens. Education is used to promote social mobility, multiculturalism, responsible sex, sound financial behavior, emotional well-being as well as to provide youngsters with a variety of key skills.

The instrumental transformation of education into a means for achieving a policy objective means that it is rarely appreciated as something that ought to be valued in its own right. The most disturbing symptom of this instrumental turn education takes is that its principal function is identified as the provision of skills. The teaching of knowledge is frequently devalued as an old-fashioned and traditional custom that is no longer relevant to the 21st century.

Training Displaces Education

The European Commission consistently pursues the subordination of education to the project of skills training. Its report, Rethinking Education Strategy, published in November 2012, sought to make education more “relevant” by producing flexible people who can be easily absorbed into the labor market. To realize this objective the EU Commission called “for a fundamental shift in education, with more focus on ‘learning outcomes’—the knowledge, skills and competences that students acquire.” It warned that “merely having spent time in education is no longer sufficient.” Since merely spending time in education has never been “sufficient,” what the EU’s rhetoric actually meant was that education as such has little intrinsic significance. What really matters is that graduates possess the skills deemed relevant to employers

The EU’s Rethinking Education Strategy is wholly committed to the glorification of skill outputs. It also demonstrates a casual indifference to inputs made through knowledge acquisition and scholarship. Similar sentiments have been advocated by a variety of international institutions such as the OECD, UNESCO and the World Bank.

It is important to note that for policymakers devoted to the skills agenda, learning outcomes are not only standalone and distinct objectives, but also far more significant than education. As Andreas Schleicher, an advisor to the OECD secretary general explained, “in the past the focus was on delivering education; now it is on learning outcomes.” Schleicher added that now “accumulating knowledge matters a lot less.” Apparently, what also matters a lot less is discipline-based academic knowledge.

Knowledge and Skills

In any discussion about the relationship between analytical skills and knowledge, it is tempting to become one sided. The very distinction between knowledge and its application can easily harden into polar opposite contrast, which is not particularly helpful. However, one can distinguish between knowledge (accomplished through learning principles, concepts and facts) and skills (which refers to the capacity to use that knowledge and apply it in specific contexts). In reality the two are inextricably tied up, since the gaining of knowledge—particularly of deep knowledge—requires such skills as the capacity to conceptualize, compare and to engage critically.

Education unleashes a dynamic process whereby greater depth of knowledge is achieved through application—using the power of abstraction or experiment. At the same time the act of application is contingent on the kind of knowledge to be tested. And it is through the acquisition of knowledge that sensitivity is gained into the context of its application. Contrary to the priority that the EU attaches to skills acquisition, it is knowledge that provides children with the capacity to conceptualize, compare and abstract. Knowledge is logically prior to analytical skills and such skills require a context in a specific domain of knowledge. The logical priority of knowledge does not mean that skills are unimportant or even less important. It simply means that disciplinary knowledge provides the intellectual and cultural foundation for the exercise of what Aristotle called phronesis—the virtue of practical thought.

The criticism of the “knowledge model” of education is often communicated through statements that explicitly question the authority of knowledge. This pedagogic devaluation of a knowledge based curriculum is fuelled by a powerful anti-intellectual ethos that self-consciously refuses to take ideas seriously. From this perspective knowledge is simply reducible to facts and information. Accordingly, the acquisition of knowledge is presented as akin to memorizing facts. Hence the misleading representation of knowledge acquisition as a form of “rote learning.”

One recurring argument used to contest the knowledge-led curriculum is that it is quickly outdated in an ever-changing world. Typically, “truth” is represented as a momentary epiphenomenon and knowledge acquisition is caricatured as the “rote learning of facts.”

The representation of truth and knowledge as an unstable and transitory phenomenon has become an unstated core assumption of opponents of an academically-based school curriculum. Skills focused pedagogy argues that a twenty-first century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core for the simple reason that the selection of what is required has become problematic in the era of Big Data. The claim that transmitting knowledge to children loses its relevance in an information-rich age fails to comprehend the distinction between knowledge and information. A society’s knowledge gives meaning to new information, by allowing people interpret new facts and helping society to understand what significance to attach to them.

Through appropriating new experience, knowledge itself develops. However, the latest knowledge is organically linked to that which preceded it. Skepticism towards the authority of knowledge implicitly calls into question the meaning of education itself. Once the knowledge of the past is rendered obsolescent, what can education mean? If “what is known to be true changes by the hour,” what is there left to teach?

Policy makers frequently adopt the rhetoric of breaks and ruptures and maintain that nothing is as it was and that the present has been decoupled from the past. Their outlook is shaped by an imagination which is so overwhelmed by the displacement of the old by the new that it often overlooks important dimensions of historical experience that may continue to be relevant to our lives. The discussion of the relationship between education and change is frequently overwhelmed by the fad of the moment and with the relatively superficial symptoms of new developments. It is often distracted from acknowledging the fact that the fundamental educational needs of students do not alter every time a new technology impacts on people’s lives. And certainly the questions raised by Greek philosophy, Renaissance poetry, Enlightenment science, or the novels of George Eliot continue to be relevant for students in our time and not just to the period that preceded the Digital Age.

Knowledge is not simply the sum total of a body of facts. Disciplinary knowledge is based not merely on facts but upon concepts, theories and specific structure of thought. So while the content of knowledge changes in line with new developments, its structure and concepts can retain their significance for a considerable period of time. Geometric theorems may be contested over a period of time but nevertheless they express a body of knowledge that transcends centuries.

Change Rendered Banal

The fetishization of change is symptomatic of a mood of intellectual malaise where notions of truth, knowledge, and meaning have acquired a provisional and arbitrary character. Perversely, the transformation of change into a metaphysical force haunting humanity actually desensitizes society from distinguishing between a passing novelty and qualitative change. That is why lessons learnt through the experience of the past, and the knowledge developed through it, are so important for helping society face the future. When change is objectified, it turns into a spectacle that distracts society from valuing the important truths and insights that it has acquired throughout the best moments of human history. Yet these are truths that have emerged through attempts to find answers to many of the deepest and most durable questions facing the human species, and the more the world changes the more we need to draw on our cultural and intellectual inheritance from the past.

If the legacy of past achievements has ceased to have relevance for the schooling of young people, what can education mean? Historically, serious thinkers from across the left-right divide have always recognized that education represents a transaction between the generations. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker, wrote that “in reality each generation educates the new generation.” Writing from a conservative perspective, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott concluded that “education in its most general significance may be recognized as a specific transaction which may go on between the generations of human beings in which newcomers to the scene are initiated into the world they inhabit.” The liberal political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that education provides an opportunity for society both to preserve and to renew its intellectual inheritance through an inter-generational conversation.

One of the principal tasks of education is to teach children about the world as it is. Although society is continually subject to the forces of change, education needs to acquaint young people with the legacy of its past. The term “learning from the past” is often used as a platitude. Yet it is impossible to engage with the future unless people draw on the insights and knowledge gained through centuries of human experience. Individuals gain an understanding of themselves through familiarity with the unfolding of the human world.

The transition from one generation to another requires education to transmit an understanding of the lessons learnt by humanity throughout the ages. Consequently the main mission of education is to preserve the past so that young people have the cultural and intellectual resources to deal with the challenges they face. This understanding of the constitution of education as renewal stands in direct contrast to the current predilection to focus the curriculum one-sidedly on the future. In Anglo-American societies curriculum planning is devoted to cultivating an ethos of flexibility towards the future. Of course the capacity to adapt is a valuable asset to an individual. But the exercise of this capacity requires a sense of intellectual and moral grounding in an understanding of the world in which we live.

The impulse to free education from the past is influenced by a prejudice that regards ideas which are not of the moment as, by definition, old-fashioned and irrelevant. Yet the project of preserving the past through education does not mean an uncritical acceptance of the world as it is; it means the assumption of adult responsibility for the world into which the young are integrated. The aim of this act is to acquaint the young with the world as it is so that they have the intellectual resources necessary for renewing it. Through the education of the new generation, all the important old questions are re-raised with the young, leading to a dialogue that moves humanity’s conversation forward.

A liberal humanist education is underpinned by the assumption that children are the rightful heirs to the achievement and legacy of the past. It takes responsibility for ensuring that this inheritance is handed over to the young. It is precisely because education gives meaning to the human experience that it needs to be valued in its own right. One of the principal characteristics of education is its lack of interest in an ulterior purpose. That does not mean that it is uninterested in developments affecting children and society: it means that it regards the transmission of cultural and intellectual achievements of humanity to children as its defining mission. Once society is able to affirm an education system that values itself and the acquisition of knowledge, policymakers and the public can begin to envisage the practical steps required to deal with the practical challenges facing the classroom. A genuinely educated cohort of young people will have no problems in gaining the skills required for their future.

Frank Furedi

Author of Authority: A Sociological Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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