Michael Gove has deblobbed in Austria. Now, with evangelical zeal, and the rhetoric of social justice, he wants to irrigate the flabby educational colon of its sticky blob. This blob values Marxism, fights excellence and tries to prevent the poorest children from getting the education they need. In the same way as the Athenian State, which came to see Socrates as a danger to its traditional values and institutions and accused him of being a “corruptor of the young”, Gove is offering the blob a cup of hemlock so that they might imbibe and die. Just as Gove’s health farm drink of ‘Epsom salts and magnesium citrate’ reduced his blob, so the ‘Enemies of Promise’ too will disappear. For their part some of the accused ‘blobbers’ wrote to the Times firing their vitriol towards Gove saying, that because of his policies ‘there will be devastating consequences for children’s mental health‘. They seem to forget that the same utilitarian tanks were parked on education’s lawns under the last ‘progressive’ Government. Centralised diktats about curriculum, assessment and accountability did not result in a letter to the Times from the concerned 200 about children’s mental health over the previous thirteen years. Gove, the blobbers argue, is taking the curriculum backwards, with his emphasis on facts, uniforms and discipline, whilst they want education to focus on: creativity, character, critical thinking and collaboration. Gove, though describing his mission as progressive, is certain that traditional, knowledge-centred education is right and the blob is equally certain that progressive, child-centred education is right. If both sides are so certain, can we be certain that one side is entirely wrong?
In his article in the Daily Telegraph James O’Shaughnessy writes that the: “education system has been riven by an acrimonious debate about what children are supposed to get out of their time in school.” He goes on to argue that we should overcome the false dichotomy between progressives and traditionalists: “by persuading schools to deliver rigorous academic study while also equipping pupils with traits they need to flourish as humans”. The reason this sounds so easy is because his analysis sounds right, and his solution is simple, but he’s wrong, the dichotomy is not false, it is real! It is an age old battle that goes beyond the confines of our schools and is rooted in how both sides understand the world. It is the expression of the complexity behind what it means to be human. This will not be solved by traditional lessons rubbing along in harmony with teachers paying attention to pupils’ well-being. A ‘liberal arts’ education holds the traditional and the progressive sides of the education debate together through a contradictory state of creative tension and not by teaching a bit of happiness alongside history.
In my book Trivium 21c I write about the awkward relationship between knowledge and critical thinking, cultural literacy and creativity. I use the trial of Socrates and the hemlock cup as a metaphor for the age old battle between culture and anarchy, truth and doubt, and beauty and nihilism. The book concludes that as educators we need to embrace the very real dichotomy between tradition and progress and in order to do this we need to be less certain of being right about things and entertain the difficult question: what do I know?
Roger Scruton in a piece entitled: ‘The Questions That Have No Answers‘ writes: “If we look around ourselves today, we see a mass of ready-made answers and very few attempts to define the questions that would justify them.” This is certainly true of education yet both sides of the dichotomy say they know the answers: one side knows what skills our kids need for the 21st Century, and the other knows what it is they need to know. But we don’t know either, we can only guess. Scruton goes on to write: “What makes us human is that we ask questions.” Can traditionalists and progressives ask themselves this question: Is it possible that they might not have all the answers?
Our lives are fascinating ventures into the unknown and this needs to be reflected in our schools. As Scruton puts it: “In art it is always as though the question is what the work of art is really about.” The same is true of the liberal arts, an important part of education is our continuing to question what education is really about. Our need is not to fashion an easy answer but to hold the competing ideologies together in an awkward contradictory balance, as we do in liberal democracies. Education is intrinsically human and therefore it belongs to all; whether conservative or radical, and it is frail, flawed and fantastic because of it. I may be wrong but I think it would be healthier if, rather than forever trying to win the battle of the blob, both sides started to question what education is for at a very deep, human level, be open to doubt and to not seek easy answers. In every school and classroom we should clash along together, uncovering some answers and certainly more questions to be asked.