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Tom Hodgkinson: We need to take education slowly


There is a very excellent housemaster at Eton College called Mike Grenier, who has invited me to give talks on the benefits of idleness to the boys there on three occasions. I've always enjoyed these evenings, but confess to finding the boys there "slightly sinister", in the words of Aldous Huxley, who was both a pupil and a teacher at the school. They all seemed to be unfeasibly tall, with unfeasibly big hair, and while charming, gazed benignly on me as I might gaze benignly on a street urchin in São Paolo – to be pitied, but beyond saving. What I mean to say is, they ooze self-assurance.

Now I am not like my friend Ian Bone of Class War, who would ban all such bastions of privilege. For every law lord and defender of the establishment that Eton has produced, it has also produced a radical or troublemaker: George Orwell went to Eton, as did Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the late hippie intellectual John Michell. And as a libertarian, I would defend our individual freedom to send our children to any school we choose. I may not be able to afford private school and all our three kids are at Devon state schools, but if I had the money, I would consider it, as I would like to free myself from the grip of the latest state-sponsored experiment in social engineering.

The reason I mention Mike is because he is one of the founders of a new think-tank called Slow Education. The other driving forces behind this movement are Carl Honoré, who wrote a famous book called In Praise of Slow, and Maurice Holt, an English academic.

Clearly the idea of the "slow" life has something in common with the "idle" life. In both, the aim is to question the "fast" or "hard-working" life beloved of politicians and admen. Surely we are over-obsessed with grades and targets, and must reconnect with deep learning?

Mike has a horror of the pushy, competitive parent, who sees education as a route to mere worldly success and money-making. Mike wants to promote what they call "learning in depth" as opposed to quick cramming for exams. And in this I would heartily concur.

Let's point out now that "slow" does not mean "progressive". My own children are in the progressive state system and I have seen how ineffective it is at instilling the basic rules, for example, of grammar and handwriting. The prevailing ethos seems to be "whatever works for you". There is no right or wrong way of holding a pen, just whatever feels right. Which is absolute nonsense. I still believe the old-fashioned idea that a teacher has some knowledge and skills which he or she can pass on to the child.

You sometimes hear earnest hippies tell you that "education" means "to lead out", so the teacher should bring out what is already there in the child, rather than fill its head with facts and figures.

This is poppycock: the times tables and the periodic table do not lie in the child's brain. They have to be put there. The progressive-education philosophy leads to absurd results: I recently attended a performance by my daughter's drama group. They have rejected fuddy-duddy concepts such as "plays" in favour of child-led workshop productions. The drama teacher opened the evening by boasting that he had not taught the children anything at all. "I didn't interfere with their work," he said. The sketches that followed were written, performed and directed by the children. Needless to say, they were absolutely dreadful: unwatchable, embarrassing, silly, indulgent. Why couldn't they have done the traditional thing and chosen a play, handed out parts, and learnt them, with a director? No, they thought they could improve on a system that has been tried and trusted since the days of Ancient Athens.

Well, slow education has something in common with the Ancient Greek attitude to learning: that it is a lifelong process and is intimately bound up with self-development. The Greek word schole, which turned into our word for school, originally meant "leisure".

Slow Education, says Mike Grenier, is avowedly not anti-academic. In fact, it could be seen as highly academic, since it values learning for its own sake rather than for where it could lead. "We're not progressive," says Mike. "The academic is fundamental. We also believe in teaching people how to do stuff. It is about producing self-reliant children and adults. The problem with the progressive and therapeutic system is that it can lead to the creation of victims." Or, as William Cobbett put it, "Competence is at the foundation of happiness."

So let us all hail Slow Education, which perhaps above all means simply taking the time to enjoy the learning process throughout our lifetimes. Our own motto at the Idler Academy is "Libertas per cultum" – freedom through cultivation. And that is a slow and leisurely process. Read more at sloweducation.co.uk.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'