Education is not about ‘preparation for life’. Nor is testing about ‘preparation for the tests of life’. Education is not ‘about’ anything except education. Debates, lectures and discussions with the title ‘What is education for?’ are popular, but they embody an instrumental mistake about the nature of education: education is not for anything. It is an end in itself. If all the problems of economic and social life were solved and people did not even have to work, we would still seek knowledge. This is encapsulated in Socrates’ vision of eternal life as an endless series of conversations and debates with the greatest thinkers.
There is another side to these debates about the purpose of education that expresses a unique crisis. Of course crises in education, about what to teach and to whom, are nothing new. But the contemporary crisis of education is different. Rather than being a crisis about the content of education, it is a crisis of meaning. We no longer know what ‘education’ means. ‘What is education for?’ used to be a request to analyse the concept of education, now is almost a cry of semantic despair. We no longer know what we are sending children to school for.
The annual debate about GCSE results was well summed up by a colleague who said "Here we go! Some dinosaurs will say that any improvement shows how “standards have fallen” ignoring all the hard work of pupils and teachers.’ Despite the slight fall in A grades this year, after 24 years of increases, and the ongoing furore over the marking-boundary changes in the English exam, the ‘standards have fallen’ versus ‘pupils and teachers are working harder than ever’ slanging match is about all there is to the annual contretemps.
It is easy to say that the evidence shows that exams do not measure knowledge and understanding in the way they did, and that pupils and teachers - although undoubtedly working hard - are not working hard on the knowledge and understanding that once characterised education. But both sides in the tedious annual debate are avoiding the real question about the crisis of meaning as far as education is concerned.
It simply does not matter what the form or the content of examinations are if education has no meaning. As I have argued elsewhere, that meaning cannot be regained by reliance on memories of what education once meant, or how rigorous O Levels were. They were rigorous because there was a consensus about what education meant, even though there was discussion about what particular forms of knowledge and understanding there were. Only debate about what education means can begin to give education meaning. And that has to be a debate the nature of knowledge.
It won't do to dismiss an examination-led education as not being a "preparation for the tests of life" as Guy Claxton did in a recent blog. But Claxton expresses exactly what the problem is. If we think of education in an instrumental way as a ‘preparation’, this opens the gates to filling it with any project from therapy to behavioural engineering in the interests of ‘society’. Claxton argues that the "understanding of the mind and of learning" gained over the last 30 years means we have to approach leaning differently.
However you dress this up it means we have to put process before content; how we learn before what we learn. Otherwise, we will bring up children who are unable to cope with twenty-first century life.
This constant anxiety and lack of confidence about learning is consequence of the crisis of meaning. There is also a more troubling worry that turns many educationalists away from what they decry as a ‘traditional’ or ‘elite’ education. They have an inkling that education, in the sense of knowledge and understanding of subjects, is not a preparation for social life, in fact, it may well lead to critical anti-social activities.
The content of a traditional subject-based education is not determined by the guardians of social or emotional well-being but by the nature of subjects. The knowledge and understanding of subjects has no moral purpose. It may lead to discontent. It may also leave people personally - not just professionally or politically - unhappy. Education can be a troublesome activity for the self and for society.
In this, as in many things, Socrates stood as an example of the true educator. He was executed for doing what all educationalists should do, corrupting youth and denying the gods of the city. The education he offered made young people too critical for those who had what we would today call ‘social cohesion’ as a goal.
Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby and national convenor of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum, who will be debating Are exams a cheat? on Sunday 21 October
Independent Voices is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest articles from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
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