Having been involved with education for some years now, I have seen various trends come and go. There have been several types of marking that have gone in and out of vogue, various types of overriding educational philosophies have come and gone, and several approaches to discipline have floated through the general teaching consciousness. Ridiculous ideas like using green ink to comment on children’s work because red has bad connotations have found quite a lot of popularity over recent years, as have notions that squatting whilst holding one’s own ears boosts brain power (seriously!).
Increasingly, the notion that school exists solely for the wellbeing and development of each and every child has become the overriding focus, and strange as it may seem, I cannot entirely agree that this is a good idea. So what is the purpose of education?
Just as it should be, schools are staffed mostly by people who care about the development of children. If the weren’t, schools would fail to engage with their students and be utterly unsuccessful, but the current trend of schools existing only for the furtherment of their individual students is something that we need to examine a little more closely.
Historically speaking, schools existed for the betterment of the societies which fund them. They existed for the sole purpose of developing the next generation of citizens, and as their primary function, this is still very much the case. Schools need to churn out groups of young people with the required skills to enter the workforce, and the necessary values to integrate into society. Any other function is secondary, and it matters not which children are set on a course to greatness, and which ones will spend their lives cleaning up after them.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at what society actually requires.
Clearly, society requires doctors, engineers, authors, web masters, investment bankers, entrepreneurs, managing directors, teachers, accountants and all manner of other professionals, but if that’s all we had, we would all be living in squalor within 6 months because there would be nobody to empty the bins or clean the shit off the street. There would be nobody to deliver our milk, or to clean our windows. You see, it isn’t just the higher paid professionals that we need. We also require a good number of workers who take care of the more practical and mundane tasks.
Walk into an average classroom, and you will see a group of children who are already on course to fill these roles. There will be a couple of really high achievers, who given the right encouragement are set to become doctor or lawyer material, there will be a group a little below them who are set to become the next generation of less glamorous professionals (teachers, managers etc), and the rest of the class will be destined for the more mundane, but equally vital roles mentioned above.
It goes without saying that the vast majority of parents would prefer to think of their offspring becoming astronauts rather than street sweepers, and they should do everything within their power to see that this becomes reality, but really, this isn’t the responsibility of the education system. All it needs to do is to churn out enough youngsters to fill the positions. Anything else is just a waste of resources.
This probably sounds a bit harsh. They are only children after all. So here is a real life example that I hope will draw you into the light.
I once worked at a school (which will remain unnamed for reasons that you will see shortly). As I was employed through an agency, I handled the day to day running of a particular class, but any longer lasting decisions were completely out of my hands. In the class, there was a boy who we shall call Billy (He wasn’t). He was about 8 or 9 at this point, and had problems greater than any parent would want to consider. Due to an illness when he was much smaller, Billy had been left in an almost vegetative state. He had some movement and fine motor skills in his upper body, but he travelled for the most part in a wheelchair. He couldn’t, to my knowledge speak, and was unable to engage in classroom activities on any level at all. He spent the vast majority of his time playing with small toys, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around him.
Billy was a desperately pleasant sole, and the other children took it in turns to lead him to places etc. They took good care of him, but I couldn’t help but feel that as children, not understanding quite what the situation was, they did so more as a class pet than as a human being. I doubt that this was of any concern to Billy, as he appeared to be utterly unaware of what was going on, but he always seemed appreciative of the interaction, so I suppose there was no harm done.
When Billy wasn’t in the classroom, he was taken off to another room (which I never got to see), and a team of teaching assistants and special education folk would spend time trying to get him to write his name. I knew this because they would come back to the classroom to show us what the had achieved. As it turned out, all of the staff could write Billy’s name quite well, but Billy himself was only able to scribble on it with a crayon held in a clenched fist. Whenever his line came into contact with theirs, they would take it as evidence of progress, and mark it, with pride, on a chart that they carried on a clip board. It was clear to all concerned, I’m sure, that no real progress was being made, but as with so much of education these days, the main objective was to get more than one person to agree than there should be another tick on the chart.
Now please don’t get me wrong. Billy, in as far as he could express himself, seemed like a lovely kid, and I can’t even begin to imagine how painful it must have been for his parents to see him so cruelly transformed by illness from a regular, happy little boy, to someone who was going to need care for the rest of his life. The situation is hideous, and my heart goes out to anyone in a similar predicament. I do question though, whether spending all of those man hours trying to get him to write his name were well spent.
Billy was clearly never going to be independent, the effects of his prior illness were too severe, and the school system was, at best, going to result in him being able to form a shaky ‘Billy’ with a pencil. Perhaps even a ‘my name is Billy’ if they really stuck at it. Even in the unlikely event that he managed this, what would be the benefit to him or to society as a whole? He would still be in care, he would still be unemployable, and he would still be absolutely dependent on others. The fact that he could also write his name would made no difference at all.
I haven’t seen Billy for years now, and I genuinely hope that he is OK, and that he has everything that he needs. I hope that he is warm, loved, clean, fed, and comfortable. I honestly couldn’t care less whether or not he can write his name.
This is an extreme example, and that we are touching on other issues, but the principal holds up for many school
situations. If a child shows no aptitude for a something, why is it worth investing in a process of enabling them to do that thing badly? If we cannot get them up to a standard of being able to apply a skill or knowledge usefully, then we should stop pushing it on them, as doing so serves neither the individual or the society into which they are going to be released.
The problem with education, seemingly in most of the world now, is that it focuses too heavily on the classically academic subjects. It is our ability with languages, numbers, formulas and scientific principals which marks our success in the education system. But in the same way that not all children are good at sport, there are an equal if not greater number of children who have no aptitude for these subjects. Yet while few people would suggest that we have extra sports lessons for the children who can’t catch, most would sanction extra classes for children who are not good at science.
I used to know an excellent car mechanic. He was one of those guys who could just fix anything. He just seemed to know where all the bits went and where to poke with what to make things happen. The guy in question was very bitter about his time at school, saying that he wasn’t very clever and couldn’t keep up with the other children. He felt that he had been neglected, and as a result was a failure in life. The fact was though, that he had his own business, was comfortably off, and could happily provide for his family whilst also providing a valuable serve for the community.
The only reason that he felt like a failure was that the school system judged him only on the things that hew wasn’t good at, and probably wasted a lot of resources trying to make him better at them. I have no doubt that if the school system had accepted that he was never going to appreciate literature, and given him some support with his interest in cars and engines, then he would have become an even better mechanic.
There are countless examples of adults like this, how feel that they have failed because they were not academically able at school. They leave school and go into jobs, usually finding one that they are good at, and discover that many of the ill fitting skills that school was trying to force upon them are of no value to them now anyway. Trying to push them into boxes into which they do not fit is a waste of time, money and effort, and we should really try to stop doing it.
Yes, there are other adults who have failed at school, and then go on to fail in life, but harsh as it may sound, that’s how evolution works (well not quite, but we shall come to that another day).
It was Albert Einstein who said that everyone is a genius, but that if we judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, then it will appear stupid. This is a lovely sentiment, which illustrates my point admirably.
He was wrong of course. Not everybody is a genius. I’ve met some proper useless bastards in my time. I also reckon that if that fish did manage to climb a tree, the monkeys would fuck it to death.
Minister of Stuff.