What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Impediments 3: Education

Like other aspects of our society, education currently presents a strong obstacle to change.

This is in contrast to the progressive view of education (or ‘left-wing/green brain-washing’ if you’re on the political right) which sees education as nurturing children into an informed and socially-responsible mindset.

My view is that despite 150 years of compulsory education and 50 years of progressive education, we still have a population that is not well-informed and not particularly literate or numerate. The most important index of whether society is educated or not, in my view, is whether the knowledge that global society is in ecological deficit, and has been since the 1980s, is widespread. And it is not. (It would also be useful if the knowledge that all of the commonly-presented solutions to the problem of our global ecological deficit are not going to solve it were equally widespread, but if anything this piece of information is even more esoteric).

In this piece I’m not going to be prescriptive as I was with my posts on PR, because I don’t have firm views on how education can be reformed. All I can do is point out some of the problems with contemporary education and indicate how I think these stand in the way of useful change.

My first observation of education is that under our system children are taken away from their parents and sequestered in schools from the age of 5 to 16 or later, and I can’t for the life of me think what is done to them there and why it takes so long, because the end-result isn’t very impressive. (People who opt for higher education have to spend another 5 or 6 years on top of this, and many children now are in child-care from a very young age).

I remember what I did at school, which was just endure the boredom, and try to grasp opportunities to learn something between lessons, in the school library, for example (but then I was a nerd). (Osbert Sitwell, in his Who’s Who entry wrote ‘Education: At home, during the vacations from Eton’).

This is all in contrast to traditional society, where children spend most of their time with their parents and if extra tuition is required, this is carried out in special classes which do not fill the entire day. Modern education with its 9-3 mentality mirrors the absurdity of contemporary expectations of work (that it should fill the entire time of the modern citizen). In traditional societies children observe their parents and help them, and get a quick start in following their parents’ trade or occupation, or can experiment with others. This has a civilising effect on both children and adults. The liveliness of the children in this system is not suppressed and their manual dexterity (at its height in youth) is not neglected. The idea of locking children up in the classroom setting (or equally restrictive setting of ‘school sports’) for so much of their time is cruel, and progressive education with all its colouring in and self-expression is equally cruel.

The education we have stunts the intelligence and aptitude of children just when it should be encouraged and the academic format of lessons (only suitable for higher education) is absurdly ill-suited to young minds.

In multicultural Australia children whose parents have a language other than English often want their children to be taught in that language too, so children of parents of Chinese descent, for example, are sent to Chinese school a few days a week in the evenings, or on the weekend. If Chinese children can learn 3000-4000 Chinese graphs in evening or weekend classes over a few years and perfect their spoken language, surely ‘literacy and numeracy’ can be taught to children much more efficiently than they currently are?

At this point I would mention what I’d call ideological schooling, such as that under the National Curriculum-type arrangements, where Australian History = The ANZACS, and so forth. However, I don’t need make much of it, because it is so self-evidently absurd. If children are taught at school that Australia is the land of the fair-go, only to observe, when they enter adulthood, that it isn’t, then what was the good of the schooling? On the other hand if they are taught that Australia is the land of the fair-go, and find, when they enter adulthood, that it is, by and large, then why bother to teach them that? Ideology is formed from lived experience, not teaching.

Language-teaching can provide a good example of failings of our education system. In the ACT the Education Department provides an Intensive English Program, mainly for the children of international diplomats. These children enter the program at age 5 and are totally immersed in English. By 8 or 9 they are fluent in English. The ACT Education Department fails to provide this program for anyone else and instead has the model where children begin to a learn a language at aged 12 (where it’s too late), and learn it by the classroom method, not by immersion. Needless to say, few people ever do learn a language this way. Of course to provide such a program would initially be very expensive (until it had been going a generation and bilinguality was common in society), but then why waste any time and money on a system of language education that just doesn’t work?

My final observation is that contemporary teachers don’t seem very good. This in itself isn’t an indictment and isn’t surprising, because they have to cope with a system of education that pits them, against nature, against a bored and resentful school population. It is also not an indictment and not surprising as I believe that a good teacher is almost as rare as a good poet or a good novelist. It is a remarkable gift and one that would not be appreciated or tolerated in contemporary teacher training or education, where NAPLAN Tests and aspirations towards the National Curriculum are the twin gods. Only in a society of the sort I am looking towards, one of increasing ecological sustainability through a declining population, I believe could good teachers emerge and use their talents, because only in this sort of society could we be relaxed enough to countenance changes to a more flexible education system of shorter hours and more effective methods.

At present I believe, as will be apparent from these blogs, that or society is fearful one, desperately clinging to certain myths and patterns of thought because it can’t face the truth of its ecological deficit. If this begins to change then change will cascade through our society. Education will be one of those areas that changes, however at present it is one of those aspects of society that most stand in the way of change. This is because, in taking children away from their families and incarcerating them to such an extent, it makes children lose sight of what people instinctively know is important: their relationship to the biosphere through human society.

I haven’t touched on the public/private distinction in education in Australia at the moment, because I don’t believe that it is particularly important (though I don’t believe so much federal government money should be spent on the private education sector). It seems to me that both the public and private at the moment are pretty much the same systems with pretty much the same methods and goals. One is better resourced than the other. The ‘alternative’ education system (Steiner Schools &c) are also in parallel with the carceral system of education.

I also don’t advocate home schooling, despite my desire to see children spend more time with their parents. The idea of children being formally schooled by their parents, in my view, would even more disturbing for children then being schooled by strangers.]

Next week: Government versus Private Sector

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