4 OCTOBER 1969, Page 10


Pooled ignorance


This week the Advisory Centre for Educa- tion issued its counterblast to the 'Black Paper' on education. It claims that despite certain defects, our educational system is the best in the world, and adds—`taken by and large, it has moved from the conven- tional achievement that characterises most European countries, to a position where, by the 1950s, it had no equal'.

With this I would agree; but the sting is in the date. By 1950, the disastrous com- prehensive policies were in their infancy, and our grammar and public schools were advancing to new achievements. The prob- lem is that in the late 1950s, and still more in the 1960s, there has been a change in direction, which has already reversed and in some cases destroyed the earlier gains.

A new philosophy of education has emerged, the 'progressive' philosophy, and this is radically hostile to the tradition of the early century.

When the great experiment in universal education started, very shortly after the 1867 Reform Act, it was clear that the process would be beset with many kinds of difficulty. There were pragmatic matters such as society's willingness to pay for it, and the willingness of countless separate individuals to profit. There was the obstacle posed by nature's unequal distribution of intelligence, talent and good fortune, and by the obstinate refusal of 'we needs must love the highest when we see it' to become a compensating law. There was also the danger of a two-tiered system being created by privilege, in which the lower orders would be made literate but kept in their place. Forster's Education Act of 1870 must have seemed a frail enough vessel to its idealistic supporters; yet if they could have witnessed our financial commitment to education one hundred years later, our system of school buildings and professional staffs, our quest for equality of opportunity, would it not have seemed to them a dream come true?

What, then, has gone wrong? The grow- ing pains were indeed readily foreseeable.

It could have been (and was) realised by late Victorians that the spread of elementary literacy would give rise to an inferior culture for the half-educated, and that this would in time compete with and perhaps threaten the really good. Robert Lowe had seen demo- cracy as an inevitable levelling-down pro- cess, and asked, when opposing the 1867 Reform Act. is England . . . in spite of all experience, to adopt a lower form of civilisation?' De Tocqueville grasped a principle which still eludes our present day comprehensivisers and progressivists when he said 'You can have equality or equality of opportunity. You can't have both'.

Certain crises might, then, have seemed inevitable; but most Victorians would surely have trusted to 'progress', and assumed that the pressure of politicians and educationalists. artists and scientists would co-operate decisively, if not wholly un- • unbiguously, with 'the best'. How could they have foreseen the full subsequent growth of the mass media, and a time when Iciety's general moral and religious expec- tations, its tone and manners, would be we influenced by television than by any- thing taught in the schools, or even the home? How could they have known that when the phenomenon we know as 'pop- culture' emerged, it would be baptised by the supposed defenders of excellence, and transformed into a favourite son? And with- out such insights, there might have seemed no sound reason, despite the Lowes and the de Tocquevilles, for fearing that democracy would become an enemy of excellence and good sense. The notion that everyone is equal in the sight of God and equal in the claim upon social freedom, protection, justice and opportunity, would not have seemed necessarily to imply that everyone's opinion must be treated with equal reverence, whether or not it is intelligent, virtuous, pondered, or even informed.

And indeed it is not democracy, but a monstrous mutation of democracy, which becomes in this manner the enemy of edu- cation, by making the very notion of educated opinion an offence. Today, we are blessed with hindsight instead of fore- sight, and the monstrous mutation seems in fact to have occurred. The universities are being transformed from the home of learning, research and scholarship into a supposed democratic right for everyman— as though we, were all entitled to an equal spell in prison, barracks, maternity ward, monastery, university or any other institu- tion, simply because it is there. And instead of order and experience we are to have 'participation', with all the fluidity atten- dant on such an idea. The time has already arrived when students who feel that a university should be a centre for advanced revolutionary studies may be heard respect- fully, while dons who doubt the wisdom of this can be identified as senile old creatures with sinister aims.

But above all, it is unlikely that the original pioneers of universal education would have supposed that the long tradition of humane and scientific learning might be forsaken by the state at the moment of its near triumph, and replaced by wildly visionary child-centred doctrines calculated to mock the idea of education itself.

Education begins with facts, knowledge, speculation, all that man has discovered, made and achieved through the ages, and passes this on. It does so, of course, with the needs and aptitudes of individual child- ren in mind, and it presupposes the superiority of the critical to the merely passive mind. It allows that the past presents awful warnings as well as fruitful models, and it assumes that the new generation will create and modify as well as receive. Against this, the 'progressives' propose to make a child's own ego the centre of his learning, and to tailor-make the syllabus, even, to what the child may be supposed to want. Anything considered 'irrelevant' is to be jettisoned; and the 'irreleVant' includes the notion that children should be tested and examined against standards originating out- side themselves. In some primary schools, the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic are yielding to this notion, while universities are receiving that vociferous minority of students which neither knows nor cares what a university is.

The dottiness of 'progressivism' should be too apparent to need attacking; how can a child want to learn something until he knows what it is? How can a child be intro- duced to the rewards of learning without first being introduced to the effort? How can he learn to read unless he is taught to read? How can he know when he is ready to read St Paul? But the absurdities are by- products of a crisis in reason, a deliberate turning away from tradition, experience. and even common sense. This can be pin- pointed in the extraordinary uses of words like 'reactionary', 'fascist', 'authoritarian' and so on to describe educational realities of the most basic kind. It is not really reactionary to believe that the teacher knows. or should know, far more than his pupils, and that he is called a teacher be- cause he must teach. It is not really authoritarian to acknowledge that our own learning was derived in the first place chiefly from instruction, and that unless we instruct others, it will wither and die. It is not really fascist to recognise that most children enjoy intellectual discipline, hard work, competition when once they are launched into them, and that it would be a poor lookout for Britain if this ceased to be so. It is not even particularly wicked to suspect that colourful and independent people are more likely to continue to come from schools that teach real subjects and enforce. real standards than from schools where enslavement to the uninformed _ego--`pooled ignorance', as Jacques Barzun called it—is the rule.

In this light, we might hope that the preservation of quality in a democratic society is not impossible, as long as obvious absurdities are pinpointed and the political realities of 'democracy' are kept in mind.