Howard Jacobson: Pupil power has left us with uneducated children and humiliated teachers

Teaching has been turned upside down. Ignorance is the arbiter of knowledge
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The Independent Online

'Earlier this week, NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates told delegates..." It doesn't trip off the tongue, does it? "Delegates" is one of those words you can't hear without immediately seeing the face of Arthur Scargill, and the name Chris Keates suffers from an intrinsic bathos, like Kevin Coleridge or Sydney Shakespeare, but it's the acronym that's the real problem. NASUWT – it doesn't look or sound like anything you want to belong to.

I wish they'd give themselves their full title – National Association of Schoolmasters Forward Slash Union of Women Teachers. The pedantry is appropriate, and the word "schoolmaster" in particular is rich in associations if you're old enough to remember when that was what a teacher was – a forbidding personage who assumed responsibility for your education, a master in that he'd mastered his subject, and a master in that he mastered you. Schoolmistress the same, though there are other associations to contend with once you invoke "mistress".

The business of mastering came up at last week's NASUWT conference. Just who is mastering whom these days? The teacher who'd been interviewed for a job by pupils and rejected because she reminded one of them of Humpty Dumpty made the headlines, of course. One's first response was to take it for an April Fool joke. "Schoolkids given say in the one thing they know bugger all about: their education – April Fool!" And certainly many of the other horror stories have an apocryphal feel to them. Pupils on an interviewing panel asking a teacher to sing Michael Jackson's "Bad"; another hopeful being asked what he would do impress the judges of Britain's Got Talent; pupils marking teachers for the way they dress, their friendliness, their willingness to exchange emails. Impossible, surely? But then again not.

Whatever the accuracy of specific complaints, there is no reason to dispute the general point that teaching has been turned upside down, that those who are there to learn are deciding the futures of those they are there to learn from, that youth is sitting in judgement on age, that ignorance has become the arbiter of knowledge. The Christian world used to permit this topsy-turvydom once a year at Carnival, when the beggar would be king and restraint would bend the knee to licence. Then we'd return the next day to the way the society functions best. We have forgotten the back to normality part; when it comes to education, at least, we want it to be Carnival all the time.

Blame the 20th century. It was then that learning lost its crown. There is nothing to know, libertarian philosophers of education insisted. Knowledge did not exist. Knowledge was illusory at worst, relative at best, and either way the tool of those who would colonise the minds of the young and the subservient. It was the friend of hierarchy, the ally of hegemony, the tool of patriarchy, and therefore to be resisted as we resist all other tyrannies, never mind that belief in the relativity of knowledge is the greatest tyranny of them all.

Though it appears stringent in its scepticism, relativism is sentimental at heart, favouring the simple over the complex, the savage over the man of social accomplishment, and the child over the adult. But like all sentimentalities, it ends up depriving those it pretends to serve. Was any savage yet made happy by the patronage of the sophisticated? Was any child empowered by being indulged for all it didn't know?

NASUWT is right to be enraged, though it could, it seems to me, be angrier still. Quite simply it should refuse as a union to allow any of its members to be subjected under any circumstances to the uninformed judgement of a child. The baby does not interview prospective mothers. It does not get to select the breast that suits it. Let me give NASUWT a new motto and a new acronym to remember it by. SASU – Suck and Shut Up.

That any other ordering must humiliate the teacher hardly needs to be argued. Teaching is already a demeaned profession. Why it matters to us to denigrate teachers is a question for the social psychologist, but it is without doubt a further expression of our superstitious fear of knowledge. Once upon a time we called those possessed of knowledge necromancers and witches, and burned them at the stake; now we employ our children to bring them low.

But it is our children we are punishing. Insist that learning must be fun and the child loses out on the invaluable experience of learning not being fun. Indulge them in their desire to have teachers who remind them of Cheryl Cole and call them "pet" and they might skip home with smiles on their little faces, but they won't have begun to scale that high and arduous hill on which wisdom resides.

Are we afraid they will encounter teachers they don't like? We should pray for teachers they don't like. An alien presence at the blackboard helps break down the hateful fallacy that you read and think primarily to find out who you are and wave hello to your own reflection. As though an education is nothing but the primrose path to you. In fact the opposite is the truth – we learn in order to be liberated from ourselves.

The classroom is neither a collective nor a focus group. We fail entirely of our educational responsibility to children every time we pretend we are partners in the learning business. There is no such equality when it comes to knowledge. If this means that the child is sometimes bored and sometimes afraid, no matter. Boredom and fear are mulch to the imagination. And a child's perception of its own experience changes anyway. The teacher who seemed inaccessible suddenly makes sense; the teacher who wanted to be your friend now looks a clown.

And then, years later, it will all look different again – those teachers from whom you said you got nothing resurface in your thoughts, you recall something they said, maybe no more than a scrap of information, maybe a whole way of thinking. They are not just characters in the drama of your life, changing and unfolding long after your last physical contact with them, they are the shifting determinants of your intelligence. This is the privilege of an education over which, in your best interests, you were not permitted any say.

What is it we fear? Brainwashing? Indoctrination? Reader, no one was ever brainwashed by exposure to a good teacher so long as there are other good teachers down the corridor. Where children are subjected to unremitting mediocrity, the last thing they need are teachers chosen in mediocrity's image.