Engaging With a Humane Education

Here is the text of a talk I delivered at the ‘NTEN-ResearchED-York Conference’ on Saturday 4th May 2014.

The beginning of the talk draws heavily on the wonderful Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.


The Arts are subjective and difficult to measure accurately; do they belong in our data age? If you can’t measure it is it valuable? If you can’t agree about something’s value, is it worth teaching? Beyond data we have the world of half-truths, uncertainty and wonder, the things that are valued in a humane education and are not reducible to a meaningful number. Should our quest be for the ever unanswered ‘why’?

“We want you to tell us… the answer!”

DT: The answer to what?’

“Life, the universe and education!”


DT “Tricky” he said finally…

‘But you can do it?’


DT “Yes,” said Deep Thought, “I can do it.”

‘There is an answer?’ ‘A simple answer?’

DT “Yes, life, the universe and education. There is an answer. But, I’ll have to think about it.”

‘How long?’

DT “Seven and a half million years…”

And here we are nearing the end of our seven and a half million year wait… ‘The time of waiting is over! For today is the day of the answer!’

‘Never again,’ cried the teacher ‘ never again will we wake up in the morning and think ‘what is it all for?’ ‘never again will we worry about how will we get ‘the buggers’ to learn? Or how to get our nation a higher PISA ranking… For today we will finally learn once and for all the answer to those nagging problems of life, the universe and education!’

There was a moments expectant pause…

‘do you have…’

DT “An answer for you?… Yes I have…”

‘There really is one?’

DT “Yes”

‘And you’re going to give it to us?’


DT “Yes, now… though I don’t think you’re going to like it…”

The tension was unbearable…

DT ”All right… the answer to the great question of life, the universe and education is…


Forty Two!”


It was a long time before anyone spoke…

DT: “I think the problem is, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is…”

‘Can you tell us?’

DT “The ultimate question?”


DT “Tricky”

‘But can you do it?’


DT “No”

DT: “But I’ll tell you who can…”

DT “The computer who shall come after me, and it shall be called: ‘The Earth’!

And here we are on Earth, and all we need to ask is ‘ what was the question to which 42 is the answer’?


Outstanding Ofsted is an answer, what was the question?

High score in PISA, what was the question?

89% 5 A stars to C including English & Maths… but what was the question?

What damn fool questions are they answering?

As Bryan Appleyard puts it in my book Trivium 21c:

“Whenever I see the scientific claim that everything is reducible to a single measurement, I know that it is wrong. Anything complex is not reducible to a single measurement… “ And education is complex…

So what?

Well, because, David Weston asked me to speak about teacher engagement with research/evidence I wanted to add this cautionary note. Some teachers might have a problem with the idea of ‘hermetically sealed evidence, many teachers are rightly skeptical and that is a strength of the profession. Is education a natural bedfellow of research and Science?

As Daniel T Willingham put it, also in Trivium:

[Most working scientists would say] “Anything we know can’t be regarded as absolute truth…

…scientists seek to describe the natural world, and it needs something that you can measure in some way. You can’t just execute scientific method in the absence of measurement, as that’s not going to tell you whether your model is correctly predicting the world. So, in terms of education, lots of things fall outside the view of science.

For a start, education is not a suitable matter for science…

in science you seek to describe the world as it is; in education and other applied fields you want to change the world… (architecture, engineering)… you’re trying to change children and you’ve got a goal of what you want them to be like. The definition of that goal is completely outside the purview of science. It’s a matter of values… once you’ve defined these goals science might be able to help you achieve the goal”

So let us take this all on board. We need to know what we are doing it for… we need to agree on our goals. This should be the first port of call for research in education, research what the question is before you decide to tell us what the answers are. And I don’t mean the little questions… I mean THE BIG QUESTIONS: Bronowski wrote in the ‘Common Sense of Science’ that …”it is not possible to get the right answers until we have the right notion of what it is we are doing” So what are we doing? And by deciding our goals can we just go all out and achieve them?

No because education works with humanity not in spite of it. As Roger Scruton says in his piece called ‘On Humane Education’: The scientific why looks for a cause, the humane why looks for a reason. The first is objective the second is subjective. Whether you call it humanity, beauty, empathy, sympathy it is real to the human understanding of ourselves and education that deals with this must be valued whether or not it can be accurately measured. There are ‘objective studies’ like Maths and Science trying to see the world as it is and then there is the world of how things seem and feel. It is this world that Scruton says is the ‘human world that “comes to us imbued with our way of knowing it’. He illustrates this in the following way: ‘architecture has a knowledge of engineering, materials, building skills but also is part of a tradition which is in the context of history and how it resonates with the human spirit.

Let us explore this analogy, in the sixties, seventies and eighties town planners and architects ensured old ‘slums’ (about which were huge issues) were replaced by high-rise, often poorly built, estates based on the idea of Le Corbusier’s ‘Machines for Living. This was the brave new world; here was the ‘precision’ of the ‘total environment’ where people would be enlarged by the planned and the precise. And what happened?

Well now all around me the machines for living are being torn down, but new housing stock is being built, more humane, less brutal, but also ‘felt’ to be better. Old slum houses now are desirable, with original features. It is when we move away from the humanity and go into the world of ‘objectivity’ when we break from the humanity we end up with inhuman ‘machines for living’. In living with buildings, with art, with each other, we reach some understanding of ourselves. This is not a scientific understanding, but a very real understanding all the same. This is the role of art. To give us constraints through which to understand ourselves and create and recreate our world and if you try to understand art objectively it is no longer the same, it is no longer art.

Isodore of Seville understood this difference through the differences of meaning behind the words discipline or art “When something is expounded with true arguments, it will be a discipline; when something merely resembling truth and based upon opinion is treated, it will have the name of an art.” “An art consists of matters that can turn out in different ways, while a discipline is concerned with things that have only one possible outcome.” (Etymologies, 615-630s)

We must hold onto the subjective side of education, the human side, the side that can turn out a variety of different results. For this engages with us and we engage with it because it is this doubt, these different results that makes us human. An experiment might measure the human reaction to a piece of music, might work out what sort of music we react to and a computer might then compose music that will ‘hit all the right notes, and unlike Eric Morecambe, play them all in the right order’, but there’s the fault because Eric knew something the computer wouldn’t, he knew what it is to be human and the warmth that there is in getting it wrong. The computer composed music I would say will always be lesser than a less perfect piece composed by a human being. Humans produce pieces of art that will be flawed and it is this that is most important. The measure will fail and the measured perfection will fail. Humanity is the understanding of the beauty inherent in imperfection. It is this understanding that is subjective; this is where we see beauty… As the Beautiful South put it:

Now you’re older and I look at your face,
 Every wrinkle is so easy to place,
 And I only write them down just in case, 
You should die

Let’s take a look at these crows feet, just look, 
Sitting on the prettiest eyes,
 Sixty twenty fifth of Decembers
 Fifty-nine fourth of Julys


The cracks on our faces, yes the grey hairs, these cracks in fine leather, tell stories and are warmer, more beautiful than the bizarre botox beauty of perfection imposed…

This is why I distrust the term ‘research led’ for education should never be research led… Always human led. I prefer the term research informed, for I am sure the parts of education where clear outcomes can be usefully measured there is a role for research but do not hope for a time when it is all encompassing, please hold out hope for the flawed, the subjective, and the uncertain.

So what is the question that we can ask, the question that inevitably brings humanity to the discussion and can our asking of it embrace the uncertainty that the future inevitably brings and do we have to wait a further 7 & a half million years to find it?

No, for we already know the question and it was asked in York by a teacher, a headteacher no less, 1,200 years ago… In fact Alcuin of York (for it was he) was the inventor of the question mark the: punctus interrogativus, as it was known…

Alcuin knew that teaching and learning is an important journey. In ‘On Grammar’, Alcuin wrote: It is easy indeed to point out to you the path to wisdom, if only ye love it for the sake of God, for knowledge, for purity of heart, for understanding the truth, yea, and for itself. Seek it not to gain the praise of men or the honours of this world, nor yet for the deceitful pleasures of riches, for the more these are loved, so much farther do they cause those that seek them to depart from the light of truth and knowledge.’ It is no accident that when Charlemagne wanted the wisest man in Europe to become ‘head of his schools’ he called on Alcuin, and when Alcuin went to France the Carolingian renaissance was not far behind and what was the core of Alcuin’s curriculum? The trivium.

Our goals of ever higher, attainment, social mobility, performance related pay, Our need to have bigger and better effect sizes all this takes us further away from the central questions… The Three central ways of Alcuin’s curriculum are the Arts of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, and these are but questions… in themselves, interrogations of the world in which we live.

The answer to these questions will never be known.

Now we might quibble with ideas of truth, of God, and of ‘which knowledge’ but essentially it is the path to wisdom that should be our goal not the goal of wisdom. It is our essential reason for what we do, to point children on the path to wisdom, the path to, not wisdom itself. Where that path lies is the humane, our world and it is with this that we engage.

I do not want my daughter to be prepared in the skills for jobs that don’t yet exist. I do not want her to tick the good team worker box, I do not want her to have a target in writing for a whole year that says she should: ‘extend ideas logically and choose words for variety and interest’. I want something far more simple I want her to be educated in the pursuit of wisdom I want her to flourish in this pursuit, because it is the pursuit that is life… The answer lies not in the attainment but in the pursuit.

As GE Lessing in the 18th Century observed “If God held enclosed in his right hand all truth, and in his left hand the ever living, striving for truth, although with the qualification that I must forever err, and said to me “choose”, I should humbly choose the left hand and say “Father give! Pure truth is for thee alone…”

And this is what education is for…, the ever living and striving

Let us embrace this uncertainty. We should not be in the game of predicting outcomes to their nth degree. We should be modest enough to realize the possibility that we are erring. Certainty is the enemy of education.

In his book review of Michael Oakeshott’s Notebooks, in the New Statesman the Conservative MP Jesse Norman wrote: (To Oakeshott), “education is not a technocratic process of creating future workers, or even a simple transfer of knowledge. It is an adventure, an initiation into what he called “the conversation of mankind”. It is how we learn to be human.” And this is the essence of our real engagement. We are not engaged in a process that is intrinsically possible to measure. It is a messy engagement with the stuff of life. It is a humane project in that it is to give all of us a grounding in the idea and project of the human becoming.

Education is an engagement with humanity. That is it. A humane education is one that is engaged with our rich and varied culture horizontally and vertically and rooted in our experience of time. Horizontal in that it engages with others on the same plane with us in the here and now and vertical in that it looks along the vertical plane from the shit on the bottom of the shoe, through the introspective self to the engagement with the spiritual realm with Logos, with God. This is an ideology not of outcome but an ideology of process. And very often our schools now are places that are a triumph of the bureaucracy of outcomes over the common sense, the sense we make in common. This is not engagement, it is disengagement, and it is the cheapening of the role of teacher into that of a functionary for outcome that has caused so much harm.

A humane education cannot be achieved through an education for jobs that don’t yet exist nor even for jobs that do. It can’t be the result of the dubious lie that is behind social mobility, It can’t be through the tick box approach of cultural literacy by numbers or some bizarre troop through a curriculum based on the idea that all must study this piece of knowledge in order that this leads to this and this leads to knowing and this leads to the world of the successful citizen. Education is far more dirty and difficult than that. The idea that if everyone in a certain society learns certain knowledge in a certain hierarchical order then we all will be civilized is nonsense. I wish it wasn’t, but the Goethe reading, Beethoven listening, Concentration Camp Commanders et al should give us a certain pause for thought when we decide what people should learn in order to be to be civilized citizens.

Education should consist of engagement with the best that has been thought and said: engaging through questioning and arguing with and about the best that has been thought and said, and then as a free thinking human being able to decide, reject or accept and add to the best that has been thought and said. A true liberal arts education has no particular, measurable, end in mind. You do not teach people to limit their thinking; you teach to expand their thinking.

Education is a social contract with the dead, the living and the unborn; it brings together the past, the present and the future and should not represent the interests of one over the other. In my book Trivium 21c I write about this contract in terms of a Hegellian dialectic in which the past is the thesis, the present is the questioning of the thesis, the anti-thesis, and the future is a synthesis built by the strengthening of the community through the arts of making sense and and non-sense by communicating new doubts and new possibilities. This contract is reflected in the triadic formulation of the trivium where the art of grammar becomes the foundational knowledge of all things we value, the art of dialectic tests the ideas out in the present, and the art of rhetoric gives this a forward momentum and builds the future. It is beautifully summed up in the motto of St Saviour’s and St. Olave’s school in the London Borough of Southwark: ‘Heirs of the past, Children of the Present, Makers of the Future.’ I believe that any school worth its salt needs to have this contract at its heart. If you take one or two of the parts of the contract away you are left with an unsatisfactory education for our children. Take away the present and the future, then we just have the voices of the past with no reason, take away the past and the future and then we only have destructive critical voices shouting into the abyss, take away the past and the present and we are left with the guesswork of jobs that don’t yet exist and creativity with no foundation.

Here at the centre is the dichotomy: The past vs the present and the future…

The dichotomy that education has to deal with is:

The need to conserve the best and destroy the best to make things anew and it is this battle that engages us in education, or should….

For without it there is no engagement, because without it we are divorced from our common humanity and the difficulty at its heart, the handing of the baton of the care of the earth to the next generation. As old teachers die the children take over.

Education is the quest for the never answered why…? It is a question not an answer, an art not a science. Once we understand this, science can help us achieve it.

(The talk might have not stuck ‘exactly’ to the script + there is a Q&A afterwards that is available below):

Here is the video of me delivering the talk at the conference (and some other talks from the event):



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