3R+2=0

 

The children learn to cipher and to sing
To study reading books and history
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way--W.B Yeats

Last Saturday, the end of the world was announced. The human race may stumble on for a year or two, but you reading this are the last generation of human beings. By the time you die, the government will have replaced you with a new and more efficient species of Dalek.

Here is the death notice:

Primary schools will be allowed to drop most of their lessons in history, geography, art, music and physical education as part of a radical plan being prepared by ministers to concentrate maximum effort on the basics of literacy and numeracy. David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary is expected to announce next week that schools should focus their energies on delivering a core curriculum of English, maths, science and information technology.'

Report, Guardian, Saturday January 10th

Even in the face of Armageddon, it is necessary to admit that there are two sides to every argument.

The Minister for Education and Employment (nightmare name!) wishes to loosen the ties of the National Curriculum, and let school teachers teach what they want, within reason. Primary education, by definition exists to teach the primary skills which everybody needs: how to read; how to count; how to add up and how to make little woollen bunnies out of pom-poms. The rather superficial grounding in other subjects which most children pick up is of secondary importance. I think that my primary education was based on the assumption that History, Scripture and the laughable thing they had the nerve to call Science were primarily stimuli--subjects to be read about, written about, and added up about, in the overall pursuit of Literacy and Numeracy. It's a bit stark and depressing, but it's probably sensible enough.

Then came the Dark Ages and Mrs. Thatcher and laws (yes, laws) were passed that said that all children must read Shakespeare and be taught religion of a broadly Christian nature and know some of the Kings of England and that homosexuality is evil. And the teachers complained that the syllabus was far to broad and that they knew perfectly well how to teach without anyone telling them, thank you very much. And everybody ignored them.

And then we ran stake through John Patten's fat black heart and Major went back to Hobbitton and the Millennial Blair decided that he would try to remove some of the bigger stupidities of his predecessors provided it didn't cost any money.

Looked at in this light, Blunkett saying 'If you have to drop the Spanish Armada to bring them up to speed on multiplication, go for it' is the most basic kind of common sense. I agree with it. I agree that if you can't read, then you can't read a science book or the sixty sixth sonnet or New Gods #7 and if you can't write you can't write an e-mail telling me how good you think my webpage is. Understand at the outset that I am not criticising Blunkett's decision to let teachers drop history if the class is getting behind on maths.

The English, with the flair for wit and wordplay which once enabled them to rule the world, call these primary subjects 'The Three Rs'. To these three Rs, Blunkett add two more: Science, and Information Technology. That these subjects are core and primary and fundamental he regards as so obvious as to be not worth defending or backing up. On the other hand, what used to be called the Liberal Arts--history, literature, knowledge of religion, knowledge of the physical and political structure of our world, even sport are regarded as secondary; peripheral; or less importance. (Sport is a component of the Liberal Arts. The bad teaching of it which has been universal in English schools is an evil, not only because it made me an emotional cripple but also because it maimed my capacity to enjoy a civilised and humane pursuit like football.) This prioritising of science and computers over any other subject represents an ideological shift which scares the willies out of me.

Science is not a 'basic'. It is simply one field of human endeavour; the systematic study of the empirical world. It is no more and no less 'core' than history (the systematic study of events in the past) or sociology (the systemic study of groups of people). If you are studying one thing, you can't be studying something else, and presumably it is impossible to have studied everything by the age of 11. But the decision of the minister that children must study science (backed up, I repeat, with the force of law) but do not necessarily have to study history tells us something significant about what he believes education is for. Behind the prioritising of 'science' lurks a fearful Hard Times belief that measurable, objective, solid facts are Good; and that knowledge of the past or the study of great thinkers is an airy-fairy self-indulgence. Or, worse, that children need to learn Science and Technology because it will help them get a job.

Information technology is not a basic. It is simply one of a number of currently fashionable and highly useful tools. Because it is a good tool, it is spectacularly easy to use. No-one needs to be taught how to use the Web, or how to look things up in an on-line encyclopaedia. Leave a child along with a Pentium, and he'll have worked it out in a hour. English schools have never felt the need to teach children how to be drivers or car repair men or how to construct and operate a TV set.

I use the Internet every day; I maintain a webpage and contribute to Usenet groups and make my living writing computer games. I am as much a citizen of the electronic newer more compassionate people's superhighway as anyone could be. And guess what? It is precisely because I was not taught information technology at school but instead, encouraged to be interested in history and literature and music and religion that I find the 'Net such an invaluable resource. Because there are thing I want to know and things I want to say, and computers are wonderful tools for saying things and finding things out. If I knew about nothing but computers, what the heck would this article be about?

Now, programming computers and building computers are highly technical and specialist skills; and it is pretty self-evident that if I am going to use the 'Net to discuss C.S Lewis and Arthurian literature, then there need to be a very large number of skilled programmers and electronics experts building hardware and inventing software for me to use. That is to say, lots of people are going to have to be working in computer companies.

And this, of course, is why Blunkett has raised Computers to the level of a fourth R. The world needs lots of computer experts, so we must work from age 5 to turn children into computer experts. The point of education is to get people jobs; there will be lots of jobs in computers; so we must train people for computer jobs. The point of government is to increase national prosperity; the most prosperous nation will be the one with the most computer experts; we must process children into the types of people who will make the country prosperous.

Which ever way round you put it, it isn't very pretty.

It may, incidentally, be false even on its own terms. Flash tells me that, in his professional experience, people who have O levels in computers and A Levels in computers and 'degrees' in computer science often fail at interviews for computer jobs because they are unable to solve even the simplest problems. They've been taught Visual C ++ but they haven't been taught to think.

Now, the fact that Miss Andrews is going to spend less time reading the little dears fairy stories and more time showing them how to write HTML does not, in and of itself, mean that England: The Next Generation is going to suddenly turn into a nation of Geeks with no interest in science or culture. But it does provide a frightening glimpse into the mind of the oligarchy which is certain to have absolute control of our state schools for the next 15 years. What Blunkett believe about primary schools will effect decisions he makes about secondary schools in years to come. I don't mean that students will be reciting their tables and reading Janet and John Go Websurfing until they are 17. I do say that a dangerous ideologue who believes that Science and Computing are as Basic as the Three Rs will not make much effort to give 15 years olds flute lessons, and that creative writing and fine art are not going to be priorities in Blairite schools. Increasingly, knowledge-for-knowledge sake--the liberal arts--will be sidelined or removed in preference for technical and vocational training. The children now being taught Blunket's 5 Rs will be ready to raise their own families by the time Blair leaves office, in or about 2011. Children who have been raised in a system specifically defined to produce technicians and computer programmers will not be campaigning very hard to have their children taught Shakespeare, Classical Music and Pure Science.

The significant moments in my education (the significant good moments; we've heard far too much about the bad ones) were when an English teacher read to us from Saint Joan, and I felt the tingling in my spine when she tears up her confession. They were when a history teacher put some facsimile historical documents in our hands, and told us to try to work out what had really happened, and I realised for the first time what 'history' meant. They were being taught trigonometry by a teacher who fooled us into thinking that we were discovering it for ourselves. My personality consists of a series of discoveries of books and music and ideas. I define myself largely in terms of my cultural life, what I have read, what I know. ('I'm a Wagnerian medievalist who likes comic-books.')

How would a person like me come into being in Blunket's new world of reading and writing and computers and no music and no history? What place would he have in a Blairite People's Britain? I feel that I am gradually and progressively being declared a non-entity.

The world isn't ending, of course. Blunkett isn't destroying English education, because there was never any English education worth preserving in the first place. Ministers for Education have always been philistines. Intellectuals have always been a minority. Governments have always hated them.

The Victorians invented schools, and the schools they invented existed purely to process bad poor people into good factory workers and good soldiers. There were medieval and renaissance schools and colleges where people studied painting and fine art and philosophy as an end in itself, but that was while the other 99% of the population were toiling in the fields. There may have been a period--three weeks in 1967, a couple of days in ILEA in the 70s--when hippie teachers decided to teach children to be happy and commie teacher decided to teach children to be free. But it never really took off. The Comprehensive System I was brought up in was as committed to crushing an interest in learning and destroying an appreciation of culture as the system Blunkett wants to create, although it was less willing to admit its intentions. There were good teachers in a bad system; although I don't recall any Robin Williams figures giving me revelatory experiences. Somehow I just muddled through and became educated despite the system. I guess people will continue to do so whatever stupid rules the idiots in office make.

The Medieval theory of education wasn't based on Three Rs, nor even the Five Rs. It was based on the Seven Liberal Arts, and you were meant to learn them in order. After you had mastered Grammar (how to speak Latin, and thus to communicate with all intellectuals anywhere in the world and read any book of science or literature that had ever been written--it was the Web of it's day) you went on to learn Dialectic. This meant learning how to frame an argument an prove things and follow a chain of reasoning to its end. Logic came further down the line; so interestingly enough, did mathematics.

I doubt if I would have liked Medieval teaching methods very much, but the theory had something to be said for it. If I had to add one 'basic' to Blunket's English and Maths or the old Reading, Writing and 'Rithmetic; it would be Dialectic, or philosophy, or logic, or argument. In short, from their first day in school, I would teach the little buggers How To Think. Do that and they can become writers, programmers, scientists or mathematicians all by themselves.

They'll also be able to see when politicians are talking through their bottoms, which is, of course, one reason why it will never happen.

 

 

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