By the time the second Wilson government was elected in 1974, progressive education had gone a fair way to obtaining the stranglehold it has today and to developing from an educational theory into a political doctrine.
Progressive or child-centred educational theories have a long history. The idea that the child should not be actively, (and to the progressive mind oppressively) educated by adults but be provided with the opportunity to learn as its nature drives it to learn, is not in itself an ignoble idea and people throughout history have expressed concern about the stultifying of children through too strict a regime. However, all ideas, once they harden into an ideology have a nasty habit of being driven to extremes, becoming both fundamentally unreasonable and impracticable. Rousseau made what we now called child-centred education unreasonable in the 18th century by taking it to the extremes of believing that children would “naturally” find their true nature and intellectual level if placed in the right circumstances, that it was European society that corrupted the individual – from this mentality the Romantic fantasy of the noble savage emerged. It is as good an example of an intellectual construction unrelated to reality as one could find. That the vast majority of children do not respond positively to undirected education and a general lack of adult authority is clear to anyone who has had anything to do with children, let alone having been responsible for their formal education, a process, incidentally, which is primarily concerned with teaching children things they would not naturally learn or even come into contact with if left to their own devices.
Rousseau’s intellectual descendents followed consciously or unconsciously in his mistaken wake. Those in England in the nineteen sixties and seventies were both extreme in their progressive beliefs and politically motivated. They not only believed that children should not be actively instructed, but also that the power relationship between teachers and pupils should become one of equality. (This idea has just reached its reductio ad absurdum with Ofsted introducing various questionnaires to be completed by pupils at primary schools, secondary schools and sixth form colleges. The pupils will assess their schools’ performance through these questionnaires, which will only be seen by Ofsted – Daily Telegraph 19 2 2005)
Whole class teaching with the teacher at the front of the class gradually gave way to groups of children clustered around tables and enjoying only sporadic contact with their teacher. Children hearing their teachers spouting progressive mantras about non-oppressive teaching and the evil of exams, responded in an absolutely predictable way: they became ill-disciplined and utterly disinclined to learn. These traits were reinforced by the growing failure of the comprehensive system to even equip many of them with the basic tools to learn: literacy and numeracy and the general lack of intellectual challenge with which they were faced. A child who has spent his or her years before the age of 14 (when the 16-year-old school exam courses begin) being asked to do nothing demanding is inevitably going to be daunted if they are suddenly faced with a Shakespeare text or Newton’s laws of motion.
This lack of intellectual challenge arose because educational progressives saw it as their duty to socially engineer class differences out of society. Academically, this desire translated itself into a tendency towards ensuring a general mediocrity of performance throughout the comprehensive schools rather than an attempt to raise the academic horizons of children from poor homes. Not only were exams frowned upon but competition of any sort was deemed to be harmful. Children were, the progressives said, damaged by failure and consequently opportunities for demonstrable failure must be removed.
When it came to the content of the academic curricula, the progressives attacked on two fronts. One was what might be broadly called the “I hate everything about England” policy, which overtly despised and denigrated everything that England had ever done or was. The other was to promote social egalitarianism. Nowhere was this seen more perniciously than in the teaching of history. Complaints about an over concentration on “Kings and Queens” history had long existed, but no one in the mainstream academic world seriously suggested that such history was unimportant. Now it was to be considered worthless because it was not “relevant” to the lives of the pupils. Facts and chronology were replaced by “historical empathy” and investigative skills. Where once pupils would have learnt of Henry V, Wellington and the Great Reform Bill, they now were asked to imagine that they were a peasant in 14th Century England or an African slave on a slave ship, going to market in the New World. The results of such “empathy” were not judged in relation to the historical record, but as exercises in their own right. Whatever this is, it is not historical understanding.
Other disciplines were contaminated by the same mentality. A subject was judged by its “relevance” to the pupil or the difficulty theaverage pupil had in mastering it. Shakespeare was deemed too difficult and remote for workingclass children and traditional maths was largely replaced by modern maths”, which instead of teaching children how to complete a calculation or demonstrate a theorem, attempted, with precious little success, to teach esoterica such as Set theory and the theory of numbers.
When teaching is largely removed from facts, the assessment of the work of those taught becomes nothing more than the opinion of the teacher. This inevitably resulted in the prejudices of the teacher being reflected in their pupils work and the teacher’s marking. In 2005 this means political correctness wins the day. History teaching, and the teaching of other subjects such as geography which can be given a PC colouring, has become little better than propaganda. This would be unfortunate if the propaganda promoted English history and culture uncritically. But to have anti-English propaganda in English schools and universities is positively suicidal. That it is state policy is barely credible.
The extent to which the state has embraced the politically correct, anti-British line is illustrated by this letter to the Daily Telegraph from Chris McGovern the director of the History Curriculum Association, which campaigns against the failure to teach British history fairly or comprehensively:
SIR–The landmarks of British history have become optional parts of the national curriculum (report Sept. 10). They appear only as italicised examples of what is permissible to teach.
However, this permission is offered in guarded terms. A guidance letter already sent to every school in the country states: “… we would also like to emphasise that it is very much up to individual schools to determine whether or not to use the italicised examples”. However, there is no such equivocation about teaching history through a host of politically correct social themes. Failure to filter history through such perspectives as gender, race, agent and cultural diversity will be in breach of the law. (Daily Telegraph 13 9 1999).
Skills more important than facts
Alongside this process of de-factualisation grew the pernicious idea that the learning of “skills” was more important than knowledge. This resulted in the absurdity of children being taught how to “research” a topic rather than being taught a subject. The idea that one can have any understanding of a subject without a proper grasp of its content is best described as bonkers. Anyone who has ever been asked to do anything of any complexity with which they are unfamiliar will know from painful experience how difficult it is to suddenly master the knowledge needed to perform the task – attempting to assemble flat-pack furniture from the instructions is a good way of learning this sad fact.
There is also the growing obsession with technology as a teaching medium. There is the Daily Telegraph education editor, John Clare writing on 26 1 2005 under the title “Is learning a thing of the past?
Something very odd is happening in secondary schools. The focus of teaching is switching from imparting knowledge to preparing pupils for employment – in, ironically, the “knowledge economy”. The change, unannounced and undiscussed, is being brought about through the wholesale introduction of computer technology….
According to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority] Thirteen-year-olds, instead of learning about Henry VIII, should search the internet for images of the king – “old, young, fat, thin” – and use these to “produce leaflets presenting different views of him”. Fourteen-year-olds, instead of learning about the First World War, should “produce presentations to sell a history trip to the battlefields in northern France, tailoring the content and form to the perceived needs of their audience”.
Teaching history, in other words, is secondary. The point is to get pupils searching the internet, selecting websites, learning about word-processing, data collection, desktop publishing and making PowerPoint presentations of their conclusions. The effect of this, intended or otherwise, is to rob English children of any meaningful knowledge of their history.