The point of education

I remember, many years ago, soon after leaving my job as a secondary school teacher, separately bumping into two of my former students. One, a particularly bright lad who seemed to have responded well to my teaching, effectively blanked me. The other, not so bright and definitely not interested in what I was trying to teach and instead more intent on causing mischief, greeted me warmly and wanted to have a chat. While we cannot read too much into the two encounters, it did get me thinking about what was the purpose of education and the merits and otherwise of the school system, and I have been thinking about these questions ever since.

Even though this is a subject I have wanted to talk about for a long time and I have made a start in my writings, this is a particularly difficult posting for several reasons. Firstly, the question comes into the “how long is a piece of string category” as it touches on the fundamental questions of “life, the universe and everything”. Secondly, I cannot answer the question with entire honesty without relating the answer to my Christian beliefs and thus alienating some readers. Thirdly, there are many approaches one might take and many perspectives one might wish and ought to accommodate, and the challenge as always is finding the right balance.

While I have had a life-long passion for education and, if bits of paper are anything to go by, I am better educated than most, holding three degrees and having attended courses on a variety of subjects, many also with those often coveted bits of paper at the end. While my school teaching was short lived and long ago, three years teaching secondary school science to the entire age, ability and motivation range must count for something. I have also been involved in delivering training in the work place as well as teaching in the church context. I am also a parent of one who has just completed his schooling. Even so, what I am about to say will reflect my limited experience and strong views built up over many years.

What education is or rather should be all about and what schools are or rather should be all about is not the same thing, even if one might wish it were. As a parent, and no doubt the same will apply to teachers who have to go along with a system they may not agree with, I have long come to a view that my approach has to be a mixture of pragmatism and ideology. The thought of home schooling did cross my mind because that is the only way to ensure one’s child is taught the things one feels should be taught when it is clear those that control the school system don’t share one’s values, it wasn’t a path I chose to follow, even though two million US Americans have. Neither is private education, simply because I couldn’t afford it and, in any case, I doubt there are schools around that meet my ideal.

I feel particularly fortunate that, unlike many parents, as far as my son’s education went he attended two good, although far from perfect, schools. He was at least taught well and had access to a good education and a chance to learn and even to excel. We chose to send him to a faith based primary school as we considered faith matters to be important, even though our local non-faith primary school does remarkably well in educating its pupils. He then went onto our local grammar school with its exceedingly high standards and expectations, and has done well. Many parents are less fortunate and the discrepancy in standards must surely give cause for concern.

I have long resigned myself that what is taught in schools and the ethos of those schools is mostly outside my control. The fact that the schools my son did attend did teach reasonably well the three “Rs” (reading, writing and arithmetic) and a wide range of other subjects to a good standard and helped instill good manners in a fairly safe and disciplined setting are all things to be welcomed. The over emphasis on exam success, an ethos that is secular rather than Christian based and a narrowness in the curriculum were less welcome but ones I came to terms with. While not always carrying out an idea that only a minority will accept, as well as I might have, I believe education is and should be the responsibility of parents, which may be delegated to schools. Sometimes, that requires unlearning what schools teach, especially when promoting values I don’t share, and understanding other perspectives, especially God’s.

Before addressing an aspect that might well be divisive, that of religion, I would to deal with two areas that from experience some that have no faith at all may agree with me on. Firstly, it is the link between politics and government and what is taught in schools. Going back to the aftermath of the 1944 Education Act, which effectively made secondary education compulsory, universal and free, there were two main types of state schools: grammar schools aimed at preparing future “professionals” and secondary modern aimed at preparing future “tradesmen”. Education had a clear utilitarian focus – preparing children to be useful in their future spheres of work or in the community. That government interest has continued ever since. In the sixties and seventies, there was an attempt to create just one type of school: comprehensive, with a particular aim at social engineering. Later, we saw government dictate what schools taught and how they taught it with a view to address social ills e.g. teenage pregnancy (as championed by the political left) and overtly linking the curriculum and exams in the interest of raising standards (as championed by the political right).

The other area in which successive governments have taken a controlling interest is the curriculum and the exam system at the end. Thinking of my charming, unruly student mentioned earlier, it seems that he like many others had little or no interest in what schools had to offer. While it could be argued that for many of these drop-outs this would be the case whatever was taught, it does seem to me that the education focus is all about examinable subjects, starting with the three “R”s and then the traditional academic subjects: science, history, geography, foreign languages etc. For some more academic students, this may be fine provided it is less narrow, more rigorous and includes Latin.

For some, maybe many students, there are other quite valid educational activities that could and should be pursued, but aren’t. Areas where more emphasis could be given include: sport, arts and crafts, music, drama and dance, horticulture, various practical subjects, such as needlework and cooking, woodwork and metalwork, and seriously trying to address individual students interests and abilities. It also means society recognizing the value of education and encouraging good teachers to teach well, rather than spending inordinate amounts of time on administrative activities and finding ways to keep unruly children in order.

Religion is important because no education institution, however excellent, is value neutral, so it matters to want the right values and as far as I am concerned these are Christian ones. While this might not sit well with secularists, many advances in education have been led by those who motivated to do so because of their religion. I am all for children being exposed to different ideas, even if at odds with my own beliefs, providing not harmful, and to be told of all what is happening in the world. My only concern is when they are taught the wrong way and the right way is withheld from them. As a community activist, I have introduced my son to friends who are atheist, Muslim, gay, homeless, depressed and alcoholic, ranging from those pillars of society to those right at the other end. I have encouraged him to read widely, ranging from Richard Dawkins: “The God Delusion” to C.S.Lewis: “Mere Christianity”.

I have supported him being exposed to ideas around evolution as well as creation, to learn about safe sex but also relationship building and abstinence, to be taught about gay marriage but alongside the importance of traditional marriage, to be told about protecting the environment but also to critically examine the evidence, to be told about society’s values but also God’s and, importantly, be able to exercise freedom to exercise conscience, to follow one’s dreams but also to be good citizens, to respect all people and to show compassion on the poor, to obey the law but also to remember there is a higher law, sometimes even more demanding. I am generally ok with these things being taught in State schools but there is a time and place for everything and teaching needs to be such that those taught might find the right balance, as this is crucial.

In my son’s case, I don’t regret the things I have done, because my philosophy of education is to critically examine all of these things. My regrets are not always making the most of the opportunities that have arisen, sometimes being too pushy, not bring a good enough role model and failing by not being entirely successful. I have told him that having a menial job and peace with God is better than having a prestigious job and no such peace. I have said he should look to prosper financially but only so he can best serve others. I have urged on him the importance of good manners, good character, kindness, balance and curiosity. I have stressed the importance of excellence and doing one’s best, to excel in what he does well, yet to take an interest in all subjects, and to read widely – far beyond the boundaries of the school curriculum.

I have also encouraged him to fear God, to study God’s word, the Bible, in order to know God’s will (the most important knowledge he can have) and to desire above everything a wisdom that many an “educated” person doesn’t have. I pray and read the Bible with him daily. I would like schools to follow suit but it would be rather too much to expect them to subscribe to the notion that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding“,  Proverbs 9:10. That schools don’t subscribe to these things is part of the culture war I am engaged in even though it would be too much and maybe unfair even to expect to do so entirely. Yet to reiterate – the most important educator of my child is me and I will not relinquish this responsibility without a fight.