Why pedagogy is in peril

Frank Furedi, author of the new book Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, talks to Jennie Bristow about the politicisation of education and the crisis of adult authority.

Jennie Bristow

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Everyone has a view on the crisis of education.

Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

Politicians point the finger at outdated attitudes, mess about with the curriculum, prescribe new teaching methods and seek to involve parents in the project of schooling. Teachers blame interfering politicians alongside parents who don’t discipline their children or help them with their homework; parents blame teachers for being too hard or too soft on children, too modern or too traditional. Classically trained university professors bemoan the annual intake of students who can barely read a book, write a sentence or formulate an equation, while employers castigate schools for turning out young people who lack the basic life skills necessary for the world of work.

Even for somebody like me, born into a family of educators and with two young children embarking on their all-important schooldays, all this educational angst can get a bit tedious. Do we really need another book on the subject? What could Frank Furedi say about education that has not already been thought and said?

‘All the big debates about pedagogy – how children learn to read, whether English literature is superior to media studies, whether history teachers should focus on the Napoleonic wars or the Holocaust – all these are really secondary issues’, says Furedi. ‘Yes, these questions are important, but how well any teaching method works depends on the recognition that education is an intergenerational dynamic, which relies on the assumption of adult authority. Today, we have an inability to give meaning to education because we struggle to give meaning to adulthood. My book Wasted is an attempt to understand that fundamental problem.’

The struggle to give meaning to adulthood is expressed in a number of familiar ways. From parents struggling to know how to tell a two-year-old to behave to teachers feeling threatened by ‘violent’ four-year-olds and politicians threatening parents of truanting teenagers with jail, discipline is one area of life that used to be taken for granted but has now become an endless source of conflict and anxiety. The fact that it is now questioned whether adults have the moral right to discipline children in the way they see fit, and that their attempts to do so are met with scrutiny and contestation, is a stark example of the way that the very assumption of adult authority has been thrown into question both at school and at home.

A related trend is that which Furedi terms ‘socialisation in reverse’. Socialisation, he notes, ‘is the process through which children are prepared for the world ahead of them’. This is a responsibility that ‘is carried out by adults at home and their communities, and in the formal setting of the school’. Today, however, this intergenerational responsibility is being usurped by a new breed of professionals, so-called experts ‘who transmit values by directly targeting children’. Parents will be only too aware of the way that children now come home armed with advice for their parents about how to eat healthily and recycle their rubbish correctly, while teachers find their own authority on this front trumped by specialist interlopers who parachute into schools to teach pupils about sex, drugs and ‘life skills’.

Furedi’s seminal 2001 book Paranoid Parenting highlighted the grave consequences of the devaluation of adult authority for the role played by parents and the extent to which they are accorded autonomy in their private family lives. In Wasted, he explores the meaning of this infantilising trend for teachers, and for the project of education as a whole. Teachers will identify with the everyday frustration and humiliation that arise from such practices as having their discipline techniques closely monitored and questioned, or finding themselves interviewed by pupils on the grounds that the children should be ‘given a voice’ in deciding which staff the school recruits. But such practices are only symptoms of the process by which the core idea of education as a transaction carried out between generations has been called into question.

Formal education is the process by which society transmits its values and its intellectual legacy to the younger generation. Drawing on the work of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, Furedi argues that ‘it is through education that society both preserves and renews itself’. It is for this reason that a traditional, liberal education has been an essentially conservative project, designed to teach children what is known, thought and agreed upon, rather than attempting to challenge the received wisdom. ‘The conserving function of education is not an attempt to indoctrinate children into conservatism – it is about giving them the resources to create a new world’, explains Furedi. Only when children are taught about the world as it is, by an authoritative source, can they develop the knowledge and critical faculties necessary to shape their world as adults. In this sense, a conservative education should be understood as the necessary foundation for a generation that is capable both of transforming society and holding it together.

One result of the devaluation of adult authority is that ‘the proper relationship between education and society has been turned upside down’, and ‘education is used as the site where the unresolved issues of public life can be pursued’. As adults are infantilised and children are treated as mini-grown-ups whose voice must be expressed and heard on every matter from the content of the curriculum to the attributes of their teachers, education becomes viewed as a place where political debates can and should take place. As Furedi argues:

‘In public life, politicians and policymakers play it safe and tend to avoid substantive issues and serious debate. But often problems that are avoided in the domain of politics appear as a subject for the school curriculum. So the problem of political apathy and disengagement is accepted as a fact of life in public life only to reappear in the form of citizenship education in schools. Solving problems and changing attitudes is assigned to the institutions of education.’

In this respect, the politicisation of education has gathered pace in recent years as politics and public life have become exhausted. Modern society’s retreat from politics, from the notion that we have choices about how to organise our existence, was examined in Furedi’s 2005 book Politics of Fear. One key consequence of the discrediting of political authority is that those who seek to manage society increasingly do so by attempting to manipulate pre-political relations of authority: those that exist within education, and the family.

This is a dangerous process, argues Furedi, because all forms of authority in society draw upon the basic relationship between adults and children. The authority of parents has historically been considered paramount, not because politicians of the past had a particularly elevated view of parents or respect for their autonomy, but because childrearing was understood as the one area of life where natural necessity forces adults to protect children. So while established relations of authority have historically been contested in the name of democracy, freedom or science, and these have had largely progressive consequences, pre-political forms of authority were generally perceived as areas in which reformers meddled at their peril. But as Furedi explains, over the past 50 years or so this assumption has come unstuck: what has increasingly been contested is not one or another particular form of authority, but ‘the authority of authority itself’.

This is sharply revealed by the extent to which the authority of adults – parents and teachers – over children in everyday life is blithely challenged by parenting experts peddling tips on toddler-taming, or educational consultants training teachers in the use of ‘motivational techniques’ that rely upon flattery rather than authority to encourage the child to pay attention. Today, says Furedi, ‘society has become as uncomfortable with the authority of parents and teachers as it was with the absolute monarch of the eighteenth century’. But unlike rebellion against inherited privilege, there is no positive or democratising outcome to our present-day discomfort with the authority of adults: its consequence will be further confusion, where ‘the lines between generations become very arbitrary, and the process of socialising generations is incomplete’.

Furedi is currently focusing his work around the historical evolution of authority relations, as part of an attempt to understand the way that society responds to problems when it lacks clarity and meaning about its own purpose. With Wasted, Furedi considers that he has finished the first phase in this programme of work – and in this respect the book could be read as one that is not really about education at all. But the coherence of the book’s focus on the intergenerational dynamic of education provides the basis for demystifying some of the specific debates and initiatives about education that worry and perplex many parents and teachers.

For example, once the importance of society renewing itself through the education of its young is appreciated, some of the problems with the contemporary mantra of ‘lifelong learning’ become easier to understand. While it is true, and right, that people learn things informally in the course of their lives and that intellectual development does not stop at the age of 18, the politicised promotion of ‘lifelong learning’ as an educational endeavour that exists on a par with schooling implicitly devalues both the role of adult teachers and the importance of formal education. If learning is seen to be something that people just do at any point in their lives, what is so special about the job that teachers do – and why should we insist that children leave school with qualifications at all? As with the vogue to redefine headteachers as ‘lead learners’, and to talk about the importance of ‘teaching and learning’ in one breath, the educator is robbed of his or her status and equated with the pupil who has ‘learning skills’. No wonder good, authoritative teachers are finding themselves insulted and turned off by their erstwhile profession.

The therapeutic turn that education has taken in recent years, where managing children’s feelings and behaviour has come to be seen as being of paramount importance, has caused some consternation – but little direct objection. Partly, this is because it is difficult to oppose such initiatives as ‘happiness education’ without becoming caricatured in a ridiculous counter-position: that it is fine for children to be unhappy, for example, or that teachers should stick to dry facts about maths and leave the emotional side of life for the home. But as Furedi explains, the distinction is not between taking children’s emotions seriously or not: it is between a proper appreciation of academic education and a de-intellectualised form of therapeutic education.

‘A good school will make every effort to attend to the moral, spiritual and emotional needs of a child, and good teachers recognise that the cultivation of the intellect is linked inextricably to the education of a child’s disposition and behaviour’, he says. The way in which schools have traditionally ‘educated the emotions’ is through the arts, introducing children to a world in which the human condition is explored and certain norms of feelings and behaviour promoted. By contrast, the anti-academic approach taken by therapeutic education takes emotions out of their human, historical context and promotes narrow, dogmatic rules about acceptable and unacceptable feelings and behaviour.

When education is understood as a process by which the values and intellectual legacy of society are transmitted to its young, the significance of the subject-based curriculum becomes more profound. If the teaching of literature is superseded by literacy skills, or the teaching of science becomes a vehicle for ethical debates rather than practical experiments or the acquisition of the scientific method, children are not merely being taught the same thing by other means. The fragmentation and politicisation of the curriculum represents a defensiveness about the cultural achievements of the past, and a reluctance to transmit even the awareness of society’s intellectual heritage to its children.

Every time politicians fiddle with the school curriculum, or insist on schools following the latest ‘new idea’, they demonstrate their willingness to dump centuries of knowledge, creativity and thought for the sake of political expediency. What is ‘wasted’ as a consequence of the philistine policy churn of educational reform is not just the potential of young children to appreciate the gains of the past in order to transcend them, but human history itself.

Jennie Bristow is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, published by Societas in 2009) (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) She edits the website Parents With Attitude and is speaking in the session Standing up to Supernanny: why we need a Parents’ Liberation Movement at the Battle of Ideas festival, 1 November 2009.

Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, by Frank Furedi, is published by Continuum on 29 October 2009. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) To see the media discussion provoked by the book, go to Frank Furedi’s website here.

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