Education: a radical tradition


Education: a radical tradition

Nicholas Tate’s conservative case for education is, today, also the most revolutionary.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Long-reads Politics

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Education has declared war on the past. At universities, students demand the removal of statues and argue for courses to be ‘decolonised’ and cleansed of the influence of dead white men. Academics look to internationalise the curriculum and promote global citizenship rather than national heritage. Lectures on the canon have been replaced by workshops in employability skills. In schools, classic works of literature are rejected for being too challenging for digital natives. The pressure for education to be relevant, inclusive and diverse results in a tick-box approach to the curriculum that privileges the equal representation of different identity groups over both tradition and intellectual merit.

This is not because members of traditionally underrepresented groups are less talented than white men. As Simone de Beauvoir put it, ‘One is not born a genius: one becomes a genius’. But, she added, the need for time and space to ‘become’ means ‘personal accomplishment is almost impossible in the human categories that are maintained collectively in an inferior situation’.

Since de Beauvoir’s time, society has changed considerably and more opportunities are available for members of historically underrepresented groups to excel in science, the arts and academia. But teaching to represent diversity means privileging the current moment now that women and black people are more readily able to make their mark on the world. As a result, the past is reduced to decontextualised snippets, erased entirely or read selectively to meet the more prosaic goals of today’s schools. Young people come to inhabit a permanent present, a year zero with few historical reference points on which they can anchor their own experiences of the world. The past might be a foreign country, but today’s young people are likely to have little sense of how they do things differently there.

Education has not always been driven by disdain for the past. Knowledge of and from the past was central to an educational project conceived as a conversation between the generations and the means by which children were granted access to their intellectual birthright. This notion first began to be challenged by radical educators in the 1960s who focused on schools’ role in reproducing and legitimising social inequality. Instead of arguing that working-class children deserved better teaching and more access to knowledge, these radical educators attacked the content of the curriculum itself. According to this way of thinking, Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture as ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ was no more than a cover for promoting the knowledge and values of a social elite. It was assumed that middle-class children performed well because their knowledge was recognised in the classroom, while working-class children failed because their particular knowledge was not credentialised.

Teaching the established canon, transmitting a body of subject knowledge and inducting children into their national cultural and literary heritage came to be rejected as elitist practices. It led to the decentring of knowledge, particularly knowledge of or from the past, and the installation, in its place, of a cultural relativism that positioned children themselves at the heart of education. Nicholas Tate, former chief curriculum and qualifications adviser to the UK secretary of state for education, draws out the consequences of this move in his new book, The Conservative Case for Education. ‘If one stops giving priority to aspects of a society’s past that have been culturally more determining than others’, Tate writes, ‘one abandons altogether the very idea that education is about induction into, and transmission of, something already existing’.

The challenge to traditional approaches to education was presented as an attack on a politically conservative agenda. Yet there is little radical about replacing knowledge of the world, the best which has been thought and said, with knowledge of the self. The tyranny of relevance assumes working-class children should be taught the skills they need to get a job and black children should be limited to black knowledge, perhaps taught through ‘hip-hop pedagogy’, and activities such as ‘graffiti walls’. Student-centred teaching, or a pedagogy of the oppressed, starts from where learners are – and risks leaving them there. As Tate explains, this can lead to ‘a self-congratulatory imprisonment within one’s cultural identity’.

Instead, what is radical is to consider the transformative potential of education, its power to begin from where learners are and, through opening up a whole world of knowledge, take them somewhere else entirely. In Willy Russell’s play, Educating Rita, the working-class Rita insists she wants to know ‘everything’. If we don’t allow students the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants, they will never be able to see further. If students are denied knowledge of the past, they will never be able to make an impact on the future. The demand that all young people, irrespective of social class, gender or skin colour should have access to the best which has been thought and said in the world challenges convention. Today, then, the people best able to defend the transformative potential of education are conservative in the sense that they see knowledge of or from the past as worth preserving and transmitting to a new generation. In this sense, The Conservative Case for Education is truly radical.

From the outset it is clear that Tate is not propounding Conservative Party education policies. Although he points to former Tory ministers Michael Gove and Kenneth Baker as education secretaries he admires, he is scathing of the Conservative Party’s current direction and is not persuaded by prime minister Theresa May’s call for a return to grammar schools. Tate grounds his work in a conservative tradition that runs far deeper than the current government’s linking of universities to the national economic interest and schools to every passing political whim. He takes us through the work of four key thinkers on education; TS Eliot, Hannah Arendt, Michael Oakeshott and ED Hirsch, not all of whom would eagerly align themselves with the politics of the Conservatives.

It’s fair to say that T S Eliot is not best known for his thinking on education, yet half of The Conservative Case for Education is given over to a discussion of his work in this area. Perhaps the most sympathetic approach to Eliot’s dislike of mass society and negative view of democracy is to consider those views of their time. Eliot advocated the cultivation of a ‘modern mind’ that was ‘classical, reactionary and revolutionary’. For Tate, the significance of Eliot’s work lies in his view that ‘we should look to education … to preserve us from the error of pure contemporaneity (and) … to maintain a knowledge and understanding of the past’. Roger Scruton likewise notes Eliot’s lesson that we should ‘embrace (modernity) critically’, while ‘listen(ing) to the voices of the dead’.

The transmission of high culture was central to Eliot’s thinking. This transmission happened, Eliot felt, primarily through families, social class and the church and was likely to fade when it relied chiefly on schools. What’s controversial about Eliot’s work is the emphasis he places on class, in particular the role of the upper class in cultural transmission. Eliot argues that the historical stability of a social elite makes it ideally suited to the transmission of high culture, and its independent wealth permits members of this class to express unpopular views and to pursue studies ‘the value of which is not immediately apparent to anyone other than themselves’.

Eliot is right to point out that the upper class played this role and it is the elite’s abandonment of high culture that paved the way for anti-universalist and anti-Enlightenment academics during the 1960s to introduce relativism and relevance to education. However, rather than mourning the demise of the aristocracy or the elite stranglehold on high culture, it would be better to consider how cultural transmission can be continued apart from class hierarchies. Eliot himself had ‘no time for those who defended the classics out of nostalgia for a decaying order’, or from ‘sentimental Toryism’. Likewise, in what serves as a useful riposte to today’s progressive educators, Eliot argues cultural transmission is the best prompt for creativity because it is through a sense of tradition that people become most conscious of their own contemporaneity and are therefore able to create work that is original and has value.

For all his unabashed elitism, Eliot also makes the case for compulsion and commonality in education. Today most school pupils in England finish with the national curriculum by the age of 16. In the US, more liberal arts colleges are coming under pressure to scrap compulsory courses to be taken by all students. The recent protests at Reed College highlighted the fact that core humanities courses are considered by today’s students to be irredeemably Eurocentric. As Tate points out, for most students now, the only criteria as to whether something is necessary to study is whether students happen to be interested in it at a particular moment in time. ‘One benefit of a national curriculum’, Tate argues, is that this common experience of schooling, ‘provides future generations with memories and reference points’. In addition, he suggests, it ‘creates an opportunity to think about what children growing up in England might be expected to know about key elements of their country’s history, culture and identity’.

From Eliot, Tate moves on to consider thinkers far less traditionally associated with conservatism. Tate’s key point is that Oakeshott, Arendt and Hirsch all share with Eliot not political conservatism but a propensity to challenge a ‘pensée unique’ or groupthink in education. Tate outlines what he considers to be today’s ‘pensée unique’: a view that education should be primarily relevant and enjoyable; that it should produce global citizens in a culture in which difference is celebrated; that it should develop non-judgemental attitudes in pupils and promote a particular kind of society, one without hierarchy of cultures or objective values. In sum, Tate argues, today’s school system ‘has abandoned its prime duty to instruct in favour of social engineering.’

Tate takes from Oakeshott his view that education should ensure children acquire ‘intellectual virtues’ such as honesty, exactness, disinterested curiosity, doubt, sensibility to small differences, the disposition to submit to refutation and a love of truth. The failure of education today to cultivate the separation of self from subject knowledge and the acceptance of criticism drives campus hysteria where intellectual critiques are interpreted as personal attacks and teaching work by dead white men is perceived as an existential threat to students’ sense of themselves.

Oakeshott argues for the cultivation of intellect not as ‘brain training’ but as an induction into the civilisation which was an individual’s ‘inheritance’. Education was, for Oakeshott, properly considered as a transaction between the generations. Unlike Eliot, Oakeshott stressed the important role of the school in cultural transmission; school was ‘a place apart,’ detached from ‘the immediate, local world of the learner, its current concerns and the directions it gives to his attention’. As such, education that takes place in schools provides young people with an emancipation from the mere ‘fact of living.’

From Arendt, Tate takes the notion that ‘the function of the school is to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living’. Arendt locates the desire to instruct children in the art of living within the pursuit of egalitarianism through education. She argues schools need to refrain ‘from imposing on education social-engineering objectives derived from the preoccupations of current adults’. Arendt is clear that the crisis in education is reflective of a broader crisis in tradition and in particular a crisis in our attitude to the realm of the past. Tate further takes from Arendt her notion that world citizenship is ‘nonsense’ and that ‘the focus must be on national citizenship, given that, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, we remain in a world of nation states and it is only through nation states that the rights and duties of citizenship are conferred’.

Using Hirsch’s 1987 work Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Tate draws out the importance of schools providing children with cultural background knowledge in the form of ‘a national vocabulary’. Hirsch does not look to social class as a source of cultural transmission, but shares with Eliot a recognition of the benefits to society of ‘a body of firmly embedded knowledge that a large group of different people have in common’.

Through exploring the work of Eliot, Oakeshott, Arendt and Hirsch alongside each other, Tate makes a compelling case for the significance of knowledge of and from the past to the project of education. This view is conservative because it looks to preserve culturally elite knowledge through its intergenerational transmission. However, it is also, at best, a radical challenge to today’s educational groupthink that denies children access to the knowledge of the past and leaves them, floundering, with nothing beyond their own narrow horizons.

It is through making the conservative case for education that Tate provides us with a devastating critique of many of the ideas that have become central to schooling today, such as the pervasive therapeutic ethos that privileges a pupils’ emotional wellbeing above intellectual risk taking. Most significantly, Tate is critical of the way education’s rejection of the past means a generation of young people have been left without any concept of national culture to identify with. ‘In many states’, Tate writes, ‘the problem is not now nationalism but a lack of identification with the national community and a disengagement from national and local politics’. The emphasis schools and universities place on global consciousness can undermine ‘the emotional basis on which any real interest in the future has to rest’.

Although schools must teach ‘British values’ (Tate is critical of the eliding of tolerance and respect), the rejection of cultural transmission means such attempts are futile. ‘Our contemporary emphasis on unlimited “respect”‘, Tate argues, ‘in the name of multiculturalism or as an outcome of the West’s self-flagellation and prevailing relativism, can easily be extended to things unworthy of respect’. The promotion of multiculturalism, Tate suggests, means that schools ‘have generally been half-hearted about their efforts to assimilate or integrate [the UK’s] Muslim minority’. Demands for the promotion of a common culture and a sense of national identity in schools are met with a charge of being extremist, un-British and even racist. The price of this, Tate argues, is the ‘radical rejection of many of the aspects of life of the majority’ by a Muslim minority.

Tate is not arguing for the end of religion or for cultural homogeneity. This is a far more radical argument that makes education central to democracy. ‘The world is still one of nation states; it is in nation states, not supranational groupings, that effective democracy is possible; nation states need borders; frontiers, boundaries, limits and national traditions can be a positive thing and the basis of distinctive identities; and children, as Durkheim insisted, need an education that inducts them into the kind of common culture necessary if these nation states are not to fall apart.’ Tate’s case for education, which I find compelling, is that conservative thinkers ‘value links between the generations and have a strong sense of the importance in people’s lives of deeply embedded and well-established communities such as family, locality, religious groups and the nation’. In this regard, Tate’s views on education mark him out not just as a radical but as a revolutionary.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. Her new book, Women vs Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars, is published by Emerald Publishing. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Conservative Case for Education: Against the Current, by Nicholas Tate, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Vazovsky, published under a creative commons license.

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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