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

Share
Related Topics

'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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping child abuse taking place right now

Mary Dejevsky
A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday  

Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Isabel Hardman
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower