Re-imagining education

01 February 2014
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Book coverRe-imagining Education: Compulsory Miseducation Fifty Years On

Mike Peters

The struggle to resist the Conservative Government's efforts to transform England's educational system is certainly not easy. Against Gove's rhetoric of academic rigour, high standards and traditional teaching methods, and the accompanying barrage of policies, alternative perspectives often fail to flourish. Where do we find the resources, commitment and radicalism to break through the tightening stranglehold of policies designed to produce a form of mass schooling that combines the worst of the past - a grammar school curriculum - with the worst of the new -  a growing number of semi-privatised  or privatised schools, linked only by their presence in the same market?

Given the direness of the situation and the need for urgent action, suggesting a book published in complete form fifty years ago may seem odd. Yet, in spite of the different context and in spite of likely reservations about key aspects of its analysis and recommendations, Paul Goodman's Compulsory Miseducation,  starting with the directness of its title, articulated such an uncompromising and challenging attack on taken-for-granted assumptions and attitudes to education that it continues to remain relevant, providing a stimulus and tool for anyone interested in education to think outside the box.

Goodman wrote Compuslory Miseducation  at a significant moment. Both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations of the early 1960s were engaged in various projects to reform society and maintain America's influence in the world, with education viewed as a critical institution in this endeavour.  Thus by 1961, a recognition had developed  that intervening in the 'culture of poverty' to improve the aspirations of families and students was an effective means to reduce poverty and increase consumption  - the latter, in particular, necessary for boosting  the US economy. Furthermore, especially after the success of the Soviet Union's Sputnik mission, education was viewed as a key means to prevent the US falling further behind the Soviet Union in the field of Science and technology. As a result, during the early part of the decade, funding for education increased and changes to the curriculum were proposed and applied in an effort to improve standards and better prepare students of diverse abilities to meet modern challenges.  By 1964 then,  with the progressive movement of the 1950s in what seemed like terminal decline, the official view was that improved schooling, through the implementation of government and state policies and initiatives, would have measurable  social, economic and political benefits;  the Head Start programme and the School Curriculum Movement were just two examples of the new agenda.

It is in this context that Goodman did the thinking that would lead to Compulsory Miseducation - thinking that is influenced by both his New York intellectual roots and by his affinities with the 1950s' Beat and 1960s' counter-cultures. The influence of the latter is noticeable in his critical attitude to mass-education and the institutions through which it is delivered - an attitude that is one element of a more general hostility to economic and administrative systems that lead to depersonalisation and regimentation. Schooling and education are not then the same thing for Goodman, for whereas the former's main purpose is to teach 'that life is inevitably routine' so as to prepare students for a bureaucratic world in which routine dominates, the latter is to help people become free. Instead of large schools organised hierarchically to exert maximum control of behaviour, he envisaged a patchwork of different initiatives and institutions, with many 'breaks and return-points'; pupils could learn in a whole variety of ways, including through 'purposeful travel' and through work in independent media organisations. It was  an approach that anticipated such strands of modern educational thinking and policy as the small-school movement, free-schools and life-long learning.

Obviously, in a period when issues of equality of access were important, the Left was correct to emphasise the major advantages of a broadly uniform educational provision for all young people, whatever their background. However, today, fifty or so years since the introduction of the comprehensive model, it is arguably the moment for progressives to recognise that a diversity of educational opportunities and routes to learning may be preferable to a single model. We shouldn't leave it to the Right to preach the virtues of variety but make the case ourselves - a case that doesn't depend on privatisation and the introduction of the profit-motive. Whilst Goodman's view that the key to educational improvement lies with ending compulsion may be a step too far in the current situation, his recognition that the belief in the necessary superiority of formal compulsory schooling over all other forms of education is a kind of 'mass superstition' should cause us to question common-sense pre-conceptions and begin to think about alternative possibilities. The claim that students may learn more from meaningful and organised experiences outside the classroom 'box' should be taken seriously. As the Coalition Government  shakes up schools according to its own ideological imperatives, now is perhaps the time for the Left to speak up for some experimentation of its own - experimentation designed to increase education's personal and social relevance and flexibility. Goodman's approach may seem like a recipe for fragmentation but its intention - to  diminish a tendency towards an unhealthy conformism and 'regimentation', in which abstract knowledge is privileged over learning that has real context and purpose - still has value and relevance.

If the refusal to trust conventional institutions is one expression of Compulsory Miseducation's debt to counter-cultural ideas, so is the book's criticism of conventional assessment techniques that rely on grading. Several aspects of this criticism will be familiar - the sacrifice of potential learning-time to 'batteries of national tests', the pressure on teachers to teach to the test and the pressure on pupils to 'correctly parrot' what is expected and the unnecessary inflation of the qualification system. More radical and innovative is Goodman's proposal to replace the dominant approach to testing, which encourages 'ugly competition',  concealment and 'faking', with a regime in which organisations outside the educational institution - whether a company, profession or university - use their own methods to make decisions about whether a student should be admitted.  Admittedly, Goodman's use of the medieval guild as his reference point may seem odd for a modern society but the notion that students should appreciate that the purpose of assessment is 'not to grade and make invidious comparisons' but to enable them to find 'their own level'  - 'challenged but capable' -  is one worthy of consideration. As elsewhere, where the ambition is to replace extrinsic motivation with intrinsic and replace artificial with real community-based learning,  so here it is to help the young person 'to accept himself as he is'. Open to the charge of idealistic impracticality, Goodman's attempt to fundamentally re-imagine assessment, so that it has a greater value for both individual and society, is arguably preferable to tinkering around the edges of the present regime. 

Goodman also recognises the importance of ensuring that teachers don't compound pupils' frequent sense of alienation due to their time in the classroom, through the methods they adopt. Recognising the importance of emotional expression and development to adolescents' learning and the limitations of behaviourist approaches that erase the student's 'active self', he argues for a progressive approach that enables the child to 'grow towards independence' and 'to find his identity'. Thus, he rejects mechanistic ways of teaching, favouring 'the pedagogy of the Athenians', for whom schooling was a form of 'serious leisure'. Rather than exercising phonetic drills, a child will achieve 'authentic literacy' - 'reading as a means of liberation and cultivation' - only through a focus on their own particular experiences and needs and their varied encounters with the world. Similarly, in the case of Science, Goodman emphasises that the best way of imparting the 'scientific attitude' or scientific literacy is to enable students to 'learn by doing,' whether this be a fun experiment or repairing an electrical appliance. It is through engaging with real world experiences that true learning occurs - learning that has meaning and that lasts.

Whilst Goodman's views on schools as institutions, on testing and on pedagogy owe a good deal to the progressive educational movement and the counter-culture's critique of the anti-human characteristics of the dominant society, his views on the curriculum are connected to the values he shared with his fellow New York intellectuals of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Like Michael Gove, he believed in the importance of teaching traditional academic subjects; however, unlike Gove, he did not argue for such a curriculum by reference to equal opportunities and economic advancement.  He proposed a rationale for teaching the 'Western tradition' which lay in its capacity to 'justify' - in other words, to provide receptive adolescents with a meaningful purpose in their lives. 

If, as he thought, not all pupils will be able to respond to this traditional curriculum, then it should be reserved for a minority who are taught in high schools and liberal arts colleges. Uncomfortably reactionary as this sounds, in comparison with Gove's utilitarian fudge, Goodman's position has greater ideological coherence, recognising as it does, the diversity of the student population. Rather than imposing a single curriculum on all, it encourages educators to think carefully and deeply about the needs, interests and capacities of specific individuals and groups, who may gain more from a tailored learning programme outside the school environment in the wider community. No doubt, some will dismiss certain of Goodman's ideas on the curriculum as elitist and divisive but they do provide an alternative to the Right's claim to be the protector of academic rigour and high standards; acknowledging that Socrates and Shakespeare may not be suitable for everyone may be preferable to allowing those for whom it is perhaps unsuitable to go to the wall.   

The notion that the majority of pupils in Britain are being failed may seem extreme and yet it is true that many thousands do experience school as an alienating and pointless experience. Most will not drop-out but a high number can accurately be described as disaffected or, at least, unaffected by their education, clock-watching their way to the time they can leave. From a one-parent home himself and used to hanging-out as a teenager on the streets of New York, Paul Goodman had an instinctive knowledge of the gap between official education - that which happened in schools - and the unofficial and informal learning that took place elsewhere, in the local library, playground and neighbourhood. And it is to describe and bridge that gap that he wrote Compulsory Miseducation. Provocative in its counter-intuitive claim that the compulsory educational system does more harm than good and vividly imaginative in its attempt to identify an alternative approach, the book has the power to unblock our thinking and suggest new ways to address old and intractable problems. Fifty years after publication, it deserves a revival.   

 

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