Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Schools, knowledge, values

On the radio some headteacher was going on in New Labour Speak about being there to give the kids skills and ‘appropriate’ values.

Nothing wrong with either or course, but isn’t it sad if that’s what education is reduced to? What values? and what about knowledge -- physics, maths, Chinese, Russian, essays and poems? where have the inspirational ideals of education gone?

As at, for instance, New College, Hackney, a ‘dissenting academy’ for Unitarians aged 16 and over. Dr Richard Price taught there: his sermon praising the French Revolution was the occasion for Burke’s Reflections on the same; and so did the scientist Joseph Priestley. (William Hazlitt was a student there in the early 1790s.)

As reported by A.C. Grayling, ‘In his prospectus for the college [besides listing the range of demanding subjects] Dr Price wrote that “the best education” is one which “impresses the heart with the love of virtue, and communicates the most expanded and ardent benevolence; which gives the deepest consciousness of the fallibility of the human understanding, and preserves from that vile dogmatism so prevalent in the world; which makes men diffident and modest, attentive to evidence, capable of proportioning their assent to the degree of it, quick in discerning it, and determined to follow it; which, in short, instead of producing acute casuits, conceited pedants, or furious polemics, produces fair enquirers.”’ [Grayling, A. C. (2000) The quarrel of the age: the life and times of William Hazlitt. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p.32.]

(I’ve said before that though we don’t go on about ‘virtue’ these days we can’t avoid dealing with the concept.)

The political philosopher G.A. Cohen just died. There have been items about him in the papers and there’s an extract in the current New Statesman from the book he was preparing, Why not socialism? He points out that on camping trips we behave on socialist, not market principles. I share the fish I've caught rather than selling it to you, let alone charging a higher price than Fred because of my superior fishing skill; we all muck in with the cooking and all the cooking gear we’ve brought is pooled. Out hiking, the one who knows how to read a compass doesn’t put a price on her service and if someone sprains an ankle we take turns to support him back to the road.

On camping trips and ‘in many other non-massive contexts... people co-operate within a common concern so that, so far as is possible, everybody has a roughly similar opportunity to flourish, and also to relax, on condition that they contribute, appropriately to their capacity, to the flourishing and relaxing of others. In these contexts most people, even most anti-egalitarians, accept -- indeed, take for granted - -norms of equality and reciprocity.... Most people are drawn to the socialist ideal, at least in certain restricted settings.’

You can’t infer from that sort of informal co-operative context, Cohen goes on, ‘that society-wide socialism is equally feasible and equally desirable.’ But we need seriously to ask, if it isn’t, why exactly not? and is there anything we can do about it, since we all so obviously thrive on the camping sort of social arrangement?

So what’s the connection with schools? First -- the lesser point -- how about setting 'flourishing' as what schools seek to bring about? Second, let schools challenge the unquestioned acceptance of market values as the default criterion for social decisions. If camping trips embody a set of procedural principles we might think more consciously about the value of, so do disinterested study, individual and collective inquiry and creative activity.

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