Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, addressed the Education Reform Summit earlier this month on the purposes of education. He said there are three. “Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life”.
The first is self-explanatory. The second is about “introducing (the next generation) to the best that has been thought and said, and instilling in them a love of knowledge and culture for their own sake”. The third has to do with “key character traits, including persistence, grit, optimism and curiosity”.
There’s not even a nod in these aims towards equipping young people as democratic citizens. Nothing on understanding the society or the wider world in which they will be growing up. Nothing on the values underlying democracy – on the prime duty of the state to protect and promote the well-being of every citizen, on extending opportunities for participation, on fraternal concern for others, on freedom of thought, on equality of respect.
The civic dimension is not an add-on to the other aims. It is only in its light that the elements of Gibb’s trinity find their rationale. No democrat would advocate economic growth unless it helped everyone and not just a section of the population to lead a fuller life. Gove, unlike Gibb, at least justified his predilection for a high culture curriculum on the democratic ground that everyone should be an autonomous pursuer of a fulfilling life, or, in former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s own words, ‘the author of their own life-story’.
As for character education, it all depends on what personal qualities are highlighted. ‘Persistence, grit and optimism’ were favoured for the children of the poor in the nineteenth century, enabling them to live through the vale of tears that was their lot before the promise of a better life elsewhere. No doubt they have their place in a modern democracy, but only if harnessed to its values. So do traits that Gibb does not mention, like a sense of fairness, or the desire to alleviate the burdens of the badly off.
Gibb’s evident passion for spreading high culture across the population seems at odds with his boss, Nicky Morgan’s interest in steering young people away from the arts and humanities and towards STEM subjects, a move that Gibb’s hero, Matthew Arnold, would have labelled ‘Hebraism’ in contrast to the sweetness and light of the Hellenists. In his speech he said that schools must teach pupils the “fundamental principles” of core subjects in a way that will enable them to read around the subject for leisure as adults. “That’s the purpose of education in my judgement, in every subject. Can you read a geography book after you leave school, can you read further history books by famous historians after you leave school? The purpose of school is to provide that grounding to indulge and read around those subjects as you go through adult life.”
I really applaud the idea of people pursuing learning and artistic activities in their leisure time, if this is what they want. Curling up with a geography book would not be my own choice (I would prefer a handbook on algebra), but the notion of everyone having the leisure to pursue intrinsically valuable activities of all sorts is immensely appealing. (See Exploring well-being in schools: a guide to making children’s lives more fulfilling.)
This shows, once again, that Gibb’s cultural purpose of education has to fit under wider, civic aims. We live in an increasingly time-poor society. This is true of many a middle-class victim of a long hours culture, and not least of those nearer the bottom of the occupational ladder. If we wanted to, we could change our priorities, from producing and consuming dispensable goods and services, towards reducing working hours. As part of their civic education, students could well discuss Keynes’s conviction, expressed in 1930, that a century later people would be working no more than a 12 or 15 hour week.