I think it is vital to discuss the purpose and quality of education, so you might think that I welcome the Commons Education Select Committee’s Inquiry as to what it might be… but I don’t. The worry is that they might reach a conclusion and it is here that the danger lies, for a committee deciding that either education is a utilitarian or utopian pursuit and that therefore targets should be set and some great five year plan set in motion is likely to cause untold harm to many. A Great Leap Forward is never what it seems, measures will be imposed, targets will be ticked and after the damage is done people will look back on the scene and point fingers. Mao looked back on the chaos caused by his Great Leap Forward declaring:
Comrades, you must all analyse your responsibility. If you have to shit, shit. If you have to fart, fart. You will feel much better for it.
That somewhere between twenty and forty-five million people were thought to have died as a result of the ‘Leap’ should remind everyone who has great visions that sometimes there are great costs. So too any grand scheme devised in a committee room, a bureaucratic compromise from which untold damage might be done to the education of millions of children. Imagine that the committee demand education be for the world of work and deem that everything should be pursued to this end and measured as to its success, or that everything should be to satisfy the nation’s international standing as measured by PISA, or some utopian vision as to making a better world. All these ideas might seem reasonable but are, actually, mad. Thirteen years of utilitarian education so that one might work in Tesco seems a drudgery that no true soul should bear. That a nation wants to compete with other nations and therefore demands sacrifices of its youth in order to rise up a dubious league table so that it can be top nation is a nation that is Maoist and anyone who freely serves this ideal will be asked one day to shit and fart at their leisure. As for making the world a better place, wouldn’t we all wish that this was what education was for? At first sight this seems ultimately reasonable but, like a parent who wants their child to become something they always wanted to become but never fulfilled their dream, things might fall apart when we deem a cultural revolution might be needed:
Both students and intellectuals should study hard. In addition to the study of their specialized subjects, they must make progress both ideologically and politically, which means that they should study Marxism, current events and politics. Not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul.
On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People: Mao
The period of schooling should be shortened, education should be revolutionized, and the domination of our schools by bourgeois intellectuals should by no means be allowed to continue. – “The Whole Country Should Become a Great School of Mao Tse-tung’s Thought”
Editorial, Renmin Ribao 1966
Politically ‘correct’ thought, getting rid of contradictions in the thoughts of the people and kicking out the bourgeois intellectuals from our schools in order to revolutionise education are ideas that might find a resonance in some of our contemporary discussions around utopian ideas for education. The dangers should be clear, the only way to have ideologically pure education is to purge schools of those who are not ideologically pure. Ousted by Ofsted, the ideologically impure bourgeois will have to be sent to thought camps to be rewired in the service of the ‘futurely’ correct.
The discussion set in place by the Ed Select Committee is welcome and an outcome is to be feared. Unless they can come up with something that, instead of shaping children in an image that we decide for them, allows children to shape the future for themselves. In that pursuit we can help by helping them learn what we think has been good and bad about our past and give them the wherewithal to join in with and continue that conversation, should they so wish. We should enthuse our children that the pursuit of wisdom is a welcome adventure and that the arrival at knowing it all is a deceit.